How software engineers can pass the 2-minute CV check
By Kylee McIntyre09-Oct-2017Views 4491


The life of a hirer is a busy one, so getting your foot in the door is often not just about having the skills and experience but also piquing enough interest to get noticed. Hiring managers have developed systems for maximum efficiency, including sifting through a pile of CVs on their computers. Depending on who you ask, you get anywhere from 45 seconds to three minutes to get a foot in the door for your next job, so how do you pass that test?

1. Know what you want

Ask yourself this question throughout your CV-writing or editing process. Because you have so little room and the person reading your CV has so little time, cut to the chase and use the most relevant information, stated as briefly and as relevantly as possible.

A hint at what that information should be can be found in the description of the job for which you're applying. Your CV should match up with the description - not to say that it should look like you copied and pasted the description onto your CV to some extent but that you have the skills required. If the job asks for fullstack experience and you have it, definitely put frontend and backend experience on the CV. If the role describes someone who knows how to work in a flexible work environment, maybe work your experience working at startups into your CV - or mention that you spent time working in a nontraditional office environment.

You shouldn't use the same CV to apply for every position. However, if you're applying to a broad range of positions through a recruiter or through another job search apparatus, make sure to highlight your strengths and the kind of work you like to do.

2. Layout

When your job can involve reading hundreds of CVs per day, you learn to look for keywords that can tell a good candidate in seconds. To help out the CV reader, you, the job candidate, can format your document to highlight these so they stand out.

The specific layout and design of your CV is not as important as the categories included and their order.

  • Start off with an objective to set the tone for the person reading the document
  • Follow that up with sections detailing your technical skills
  • Work experience
  • Education
  • (Optional, if there's room) Interests/Hobbies (just to liven up the CV a little)

Keep things short - one or two pages is best. If you have over two years' experience, you can keep it to one and a half pages max. You should never have over two pages (readers won't read that much - they have too many things to do), so if your work experience is spilling over to page three, you're better off picking the best positions - likely your most recent - and getting rid of everything else.

3. Objective

The objective is a short summary of your CV that goes near the top, right under your name and contact information. “Summary," in this case, doesn't mean that you need to rehash everything on your resume. Rather, use two or three sentences (no more) to highlight what's most important about yourself and your work. And avoid generic-sounding phrases like “innovator looking for new opportunities and growth." Get more specific.

So what does that leave? You can talk about your strengths, what you've done best, and your professional goals. For example: I'm an experienced software engineer with a proven track record in _________, skilled in ______________. I have proven ability in _______________, good knowledge of ______________, and am comfortable working with ______________. I'm looking to ________________ in my next position.

4. Technical Skills

Right after the objective, readers' eyes are going to fall here. They're going to be looking for keywords, so feel free to just list out what you can do. Here's an example:

Skills: Java, C++, Tensorflow, Hadoop, Spark, cloud tech, SaaS, MongoDB

While it's good to show that you're proficient in a number of programming skills or tools, it's more realistic that you are most comfortable with a couple of tools. In general, hirers will assume that you spent about 80 percent of your time working with the first two things you put down - everything else is the last 20 percent, so order your skills wisely.

If you know you're going to be working with a job intermediary who will be helping you apply to jobs, you can also notate the skills by your comfort level. For example, noting Java (8/10) will show that, on a scale of 1 to 10, you assess yourself at about an 8 in proficiency.

5. Work Experience and Education

List your work experience before your education, because your work experience likely has taken up most of your time (if you're new to the field, keep reading - we'll get to you in a moment). List it backwards chronologically so that the most recent work position comes up first.

The way that you list your previous positions will depend on the kind of positions you're looking for and how much experience you have. Likely, you'll want to include your most recent work because that'll probably be the position in which you held the most seniority and responsibilities.

Under each position and the time you spent in that role, list bullet points that will help explain your responsibilities there. Each point should answer three queries: your role, your actions (the general gist of what you did at work every day), and the impact your actions had. For example:

Led a team of 5 software engineers; architected, designed, and coded the product from scratch; built an app that attained 10k downloads in the first week.

Doing this for every role you list will provide snappy and helpful information to the pair of eyes skimming your CV. Don't worry about being superfluous with prose here, as you're aiming to hit the reader's keywords. And use numbers and figures when possible. If you reduced load time for a product, talk about by how much. Give measurements, not broad concepts. That helps the reader get to know your skillset better


Did your last position involve mentoring your peers? Mention that in your CV!

If you've just graduated from university, list your internships, then your education. Don't worry too much about padding your resume to look like you did more than you did. Everyone starts somewhere, and there's not too much variation you can have on internships in software engineering. But because you have less experience, you can also include extracurricular activities you did that are relevant to the job you want. Were you in an engineering club at school? Did you participate in programming competitions and win? Include that, then.

In the education section, list the school, the year you graduated, and the type of degree received. Because you're looking to be relevant, include bachelor's degrees and above - no need to talk about high school.

If you're in doubt about what to include in this section or how to phrase it, a good benchmarker question to ask yourself is “So what?" What's important about what you're typing? How is it relevant to the person seeking a fit for a company role? If you find that the information doesn't answer that question or is overstating, then either rephrase or cut the statement entirely.

6. Get personal online

There's a difference between phrasing your skills in a way that benefits you and outright lying. Know that everything you put on your CV is going to be up for questioning in an interview. Better to put down things you know you can talk about well than things you have little experience with, then having to wing the question when it comes.

Software engineers - particularly those with several years of experience under their belts - probably won't have room to go into depth with every project they've worked on within their CVs. Like artists have online portfolios, you probably have a Github or another external site where you post code and go into detail about projects you've worked on. That's great. Make sure that link is visible on your CV as well as on your LinkedIn, as it can help fill in gaps for those looking for their next employee. That'll also serve as evidence to back up your claims of skill on your CV.

7. Proofread

As always with any piece of writing, check for spelling and grammar. Read it a couple times before submitting it (reading out loud will catch things that you don't catch by reading silently), and also send it to someone else for a lookover. A fresh pair of eyes will catch errors you don't, and it's worth the extra read. You don't want a misplaced comma to hurt you in the long run.

For those of you who worry about style technicalities - like whether you should use the Oxford comma within the body of your CV - don't worry too much about that. Just pick a style and stay with it.

That also goes for the overall design of your resume. Stretching the margins or playing around with the font a little bit for room and look is fine. But at the end of the day, you want it to be readable and clear. Pick a professional font available in most word processors (like Arial, Times New Roman, or Calibri), and make sure your margins look decent and even.

Unless you're applying for a design job, you don't need to play around too much with the design of your CV, as long as it comes across as neat and well-organized (and if you have questions about this, you can send it to that second pair of eyes you've got checking your spelling and grammar to make sure).


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Kylee McIntyre
American tech, science, health, and environmental writer. Lover of scifi, fantasy, travel, and coffee. Find her on Twitter @ejkyleem.
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