Does your CV say anything negative? Here’s how to avoid it

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Say positive things on your CV, not negative ones. Because the purpose of your CV is to get you chosen. Surprising then that so much negative language turns up on CVs that I review. Some of it is very

obvious, but some are language that the candidate does not even consider to be negative.

In this post, I will discuss how to avoid the tendency to say negative things about oneself.

I believe there are a number of reasons for this tendency. Let’s take them each in turn:

1. Self-criticism

One reason for negative language is that candidates believe they are being helpfully honest with their future employer about the true extent of their skills. Of course, honesty is to be expected. And if a skill is essential to the job then you need to either have it or acquire it. But make sure you are not being overly self-critical and that you are making your evaluation in light of the real job requirements. If writing the odd line of HTML code is required and you will be working with a supportive team, then you don’t need to be an award winning developer. If you will be using Excel to keep fairly simple lists then you don’t need to be a formula wizard. If presenting at weekly management meetings is the requirement then you don’t need to be a keynote speaker. It’s the context around how and to what extent you’ve used your skills that are most important to employers.  If the employer wishes to measure this then that comes later.

So, if being overly self-critical is a trait of yours then do ensure that you are not losing out to those who are given to more self-confidence but may be no more skilled and no more self-aware than you. Neither you nor the employer benefits from this.

2. Clichés (or ‘I am a hard working reliable individual’)

Another reason for negativity is that people use clichés that they believe should be on a CV. It’s a habit formed from always seeing CVs that begin in a particular way or contain very similar phrases. Of course, it’s easier to write such things because they require no thought. But you need to be more imaginative. A sign that you really want the job is writing a specific profile section and letter that are unique.

3. Over sharing

The third reason for CV negativity is the offering up of information that you just don’t need to give. Now, this comes down to considerations of relevance.  If you can’t or shouldn’t do a particular job then, of course, you should rule yourself out. But not if you don’t have to.

Common examples include ‘reason for leaving’. Never put this on a CV unless the recruiter insists on it. Other, relatively harmless but pointless information includes the date of birth, nationality (they will need to check eligibility to work, but can do so later), marital status and other family details.

The solution to this is to change your beliefs about the purpose of a CV. Of course, your CV needs to be 100% accurate, but you do not have to offer up information unless it relates to the person specification and you do not have to measure yourself against irrelevant or impossibly high standards. What matters is whether or not you have the skills necessary for that job and these skills are at an appropriate level for that job.

You have a couple of pages (maximum three) to tell the employer how you meet their needs. So choose wisely the type of information and the level of detail you provide.

4. Poor wording

Here are some negative words and phrases that you should avoid:

‘Basic understanding of’

 Let’s go back to the purpose of your CV. It’s to get you selected. Will a ‘basic understanding’ of anything excite an employer to choose you over someone else? Even if the person specification or the advert says that they are looking for a ‘basic understanding’. Because you don’t just have to meet the criteria – you have to be better than the other candidates.

When you are considering skills to put on your CV, your options are: State your level of competence in relation to the likely tasks required. Or don’t state them at all. For example, let’s say your coding skills are good enough to change the formatting of existing web pages but you couldn’t write an entire website from scratch. Clearly, you should not be applying for any Web Developer roles. What you can do is state your ability to ‘format and edit web pages and styling using HTML and CSS’.

‘Unemployed’

There is no need to ever say this on a CV or a social media profile. On social media e.g. the profile heading on LinkedIn, you should state your usual or ideal next job (assuming you have a relevant background in this). On your CV you usually don’t need to explain any gaps. Just put in all of the positive information that you have.

Gaps for any significant time (more than a few months) may need to be explained, but most can be done positively.

‘Traveling’

Even those absences that are for very positive reasons can come across as at best uninspiring if care is not taken in how they are presented. ‘Travelling’ on its own adds nothing to your CV compared with ‘Took the opportunity to develop myself through experiencing …’ or writing briefly about what you learned and where you chose to spend your time.

‘Reason for leaving’ 

This is never necessary on a CV. It’s accepted that people change jobs from time to time.

Even if the reason given is a positive one, the word ‘leaving’ is not positive and neither is the common assumption made by the reader that you are actually glossing over something else.

The progression from job to job should be enough to show your reason. If you are specifically asked about the reason for leaving then this focus on the ‘pull’ factors rather than the ‘push’ factors is a useful solution.

 

What else to do if you find your language is negative

You need a level of self-awareness in order to present yourself in the best light. If you don’t fully understand your own strengths, consider having an assessment of your working style such as the various personality profiles that are available. These are a starting point for consideration and you could even put some of the results on your CV.

At the very least, this will show an employer that you have bothered to engage in self-reflection and that you are committed to your own development.

The other obvious thing you can do is train in the things that you need to develop in order to get better at them and then be chosen for your ideal job. In other words, remove the source of your negativity, inject some confidence and update your skills so that you are cutting edge and ahead of the game.

Ultimately, we all need to engage in continual development.

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