How to explain a long career break? Are we truthful about Date of Birth? Does every role we’ve ever had need to be included? The CV Queen talks us through what it takes to get in the ‘interview’ pile.

In my job, I work with everyone from graduates to top global CEOs to help them secure the job of their dreams.

But frequently, women in their 40s and 50s come to me because they’re struggling to find anything at all. They want to return to work after years raising a family or looking after elderly relatives, they’re high-flyers who’ve been made redundant, or they’ve decided the time is right to change careers.

Often, CVs which worked for them years ago just don’t cut it anymore – they’re not getting replies, let alone interviews. They’re demoralised and it’s a massive blow to their self-confidence.

There are numerous reasons that could be to blame – sexism and ageism for starters. Consider the furore the Bank of England’s deputy governor caused in May 2018 when he described the UK’s underperforming economy as “menopausal”.

He was rightly slammed, with the Women’s Equality Party summing up most women’s thoughts when it tweeted: “Very telling that older women are seen by economists as unproductive and ‘past their peak’.”

It’s symptomatic of how women in their 40s and 50s are often viewed in the workplace and it’s something we’re still battling against, despite the fact it’s illegal to discriminate against someone based on gender or age.

But until attitudes in society change, your main weapon in this battle is to rewrite your CV. CVs have changed dramatically over the past few years and besides, you need to rewrite it for every job you go for. Plus, once women reach our 40s and 50s, we have vast amounts of transferable skills that are hard to dismiss so you need to stuff your CV full of them.

Here are my top tips for a killer CV to get you back in the game.

Beat the ATS
If you haven’t done your CV for a while, you need to know about the Applicant Tracking System (ATS). Most organisations, 99.9% of recruiters and 80% of jobs advertised online use ATS software so it has a huge impact.

It means before your CV gets seen by a human, it has to get past a computer sniff test where the ATS gives your CV a % score against the advert based on certain keywords. A high score gets to a human, a low score gets rejected.

This means your CV must include specific keywords relevant to the role and the hard skills needed, so echo the exact phrasing in the job advert. Say for example, the advert states ‘nonprofit’ and you write ‘non-profit’ – you won’t get past the ATS.

Plus, an ATS can’t normally read data in tables, text boxes or PDFs, so if this applies to your CV, change it.

Give yourself a title
Under your name and contact details, give yourself a professional title, even if you haven’t held the position for a long time – Marketing Manager, HR Director, Business Analyst, etc.

If you’ve never had the job title before that you’re applying for, then go for ‘Seeking: Project Manager’ or ‘Returnship Programme Candidate’ etc. This immediately aligns you with your target role in the mind of the recruiter. There is no need for you to put your age or date of birth.

Tackle gaps with a Victoria Sponge Cake
We often speak to people who are worried about gaps in their career history. If you are returning post career break or redundancy describe any gaps as intentional if you can. Using my Victoria Sponge Cake model, the career break is neatly sandwiched between two delicious pieces of yummy sponge cake (your professional experience).

So, the first time you allude to it will be in your profile section – the jam, followed by a quick mention (chronologically) in your professional experience – the cream.

Don’t focus on the gap – focus on your professional experience – this doesn’t undervalue what you have done in periods away from professional employment but your CV is not the format to dwell on it.

Achievements NOT Responsibilities
Don’t include long lists of responsibilities. It’s all about you and the value you’re going to bring, not the job you did. So demonstrate that you can and have delivered.

Stick with what’s relevant – think about challenges, initiatives, clients, projects, efficiencies, revenues, awards and impacts. What did YOU do? What was the outcome? Every point must say something specifically about you – remember FAB (fact, action and benefit). If it isn’t FAB, change it.

Also, don’t include a long chronological list of every job you’ve ever had going back to the 1980s – the last few relevant ones or those featuring transferable skills are all that’s needed. Another option is summarise your earlier roles under the heading ‘earlier career’ but don’t put the exact dates. The years when you did your post grad/degree/apprenticeship/A-levels etc aren’t needed either – and it’s no longer common practice to put your date of birth on a CV, so just leave it off.

Highlight your transferable skills
Don’t worry if the job you’re going for is one you’ve not done before or one you feel you are ‘over-qualified’ for. You’ll have amassed huge amounts of skills which will be valuable in other jobs so in my opinion, there’s no such thing as being over-qualified.

Try and drill down into the roles you’ve done and what you’ve learnt from them or what you achieved – say, you worked in retail, you will have attention to detail, business awareness, communication and customer service skills, numeracy, etc. Identify exactly which transferable skills you have and how they could relate beneficially to the job you’re after.

Then pull together a few examples of where you have added value in your current or previous roles, such as any projects, etc. Make sure you include any physical evidence such as reports or stats relevant to your achievements. Facts and figures give a real boost to your CV, so quantify these achievements if possible to show how you benefited your team or even how you reduced costs or boosted the business’s bottom line.

Sell yourself
It’s essential to give a flavour of the kind of person you are in the ‘Additional Information’ section.

The icing on your Victoria Sponge Cake is pursuits which keep you commercially aware or developing useful skills. This shows you have the competencies employers are looking for. Marathon running or mountain climbing show stamina and commitment, voluntary work may show integrity and leadership and so on. Helping friends with start-ups, or doing some consultancy show that you have been keeping your head in the commercial space. Write about all of this in terms of achievements, not responsibilities.

If you’ve had a career break, obviously managing a family takes some skill and I know personally how much we can grow throughout it. But avoid listing passive interests or anything mumsy – this section is all about demonstrating the competencies required by the target role, not your home making multi-tasking skills.

Let’s get you cooking up a new job instead.

Words: Victoria McLean aka the CV Queen, founder & CEO of City CV (https://citycv.co.uk/). Twitter @TheCVQueen

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