Are you a solution-focussed, dynamic problem solver with excellent team-working skills and an inspirational leadership style? Oh dear. That’s another rejection you can look forward to. If there’s one thing guaranteed to set employers on edge it’s the CV cliché. Well, I say CV but it applies equally well to cover letters, applications and interviews. Avoid clichéd phrasing at ALL costs. At best it sounds like meaningless waffle and at worst, it comes dangerously close to megalomania. A lose-lose approach.
It’s easy to see why this tendency has taken hold: management speak, reality shows, self-help guides – everyone and everything is telling us to be bigger, better, faster. You’ve only got to tune into The Apprentice once in a while to observe some pretty shameless self-promotion on display. That’s not to say you shouldn’t promote yourself: if you don’t no-one else will. But strive for content, not cliché.
Now those of us who have the privilege to work in the careers and/or recruitment field will have many examples to share – far more than I could reasonably include in this post, so I’ve tried to select ten of the most common:
1. “I’m very enthusiastic“ – great, but the same could be said of my neighbour’s dog! Overstating your enthusiasm can make you sound desperate: a bit like those X-Factor contestants who stake their claim to future fame on desire, not talent – “Oh but I reallllly want it“. Enthusiasm alone doesn’t qualify you for much. What, precisely, are you enthusiastic about?
2. “I’m passionate about…“ – this often rides pillion with enthusiasm (see above). Unfortunately it can make you sound like a 1970s ‘Miss World’ winner, unless the content that follows is really thoughtful and considered. I shudder a little when I read the first line of a cover letter which starts “I’ve been passionate about banking since I was 10”. Interested…possibly. Passionate? I’m not so sure!
3. “I’m an excellent team-player and can work independently” – this one really sets my teeth on edge, and if I see this in an application form or CV the candidate has to work twice as hard to persuade me. It’s just lazy drivel. Employers do want to see evidence that you can work collaboratively and autonomously, but they won’t be convinced by hollow phrases alone.
4. “I’m dynamic” – are you? I really think this is for others to judge: let the evidence do the talking. If you’ve established a start-up, while working for your degree there’s no doubt you’ll impress employers. There’s no need to pad your CV out with pointless waffle to prove a point. Generally, claims to dynamism are misplaced – individuals who are truly dynamic don’t feel the need to proclaim it.
5. “Solution focussed” – arguably this is less common amongst students and graduates (although “excellent problem-solver” is a very close relation!) so just consider it a warning for later on. Whenever I read (or hear) this I am tempted to ask: as opposed to what exactly? No-one intentionally courts failure. I also worry that it sounds a little arrogant; there’s a subtle implication that where others see problems, you find solutions.
6. “Creative” – often found in tandem with “problem-solver” or “visionary”. I’ve even seen “creative thinker” appear on one or two CV profiles. I think you’re inviting ridicule with this one; you’re a graduate, not a professor at Harvard Business School. Beware of using the creative tag too liberally. If you really are a creative individual the evidence will shine through.
7. “Extensive experience in…” – (just about) acceptable when summarising substantive professional experience, less so when describing part-time summer jobs or a single internship. There’s really no need to inflate your experience: stand on your own merits. Graduate recruiters aren’t looking to appoint executives; they’re looking to appoint you. Yes, you’ll need some experience but there’s a limit to what you can do by 21.
8. “Highly motivated” – another one to add to the “so what” pile. Again, what’s the alternative? You’re hardly going to announce your chronic lateness and tendency to pull all-nighters! Employers will generally assume you’re motivated by virtue of your application. By all means use the ‘m’ word, but think noun not verb: “I’ve proven my motivation for a career in consultancy, through participation in a Spring Insight programme, a Summer Internship and acting as Brand Ambassador for x consultancy“. Spot the difference?
9. “Reading and socialising” – just no. If you include an interests section (and as aside, please avoid the rather outdated “hobbies”), make sure it adds value. Reading and socialising are things we all do, a bit like walking and eating. I don’t think they warrant a special mention at the end of your CV. Personal interests can add depth to your CV, but if the content seems contrived or just weird (“I can solve a Rubik’s Cube in 30 seconds”) it won’t do you any favours.
10. “Curriculum Vitae” – this is probably the most common CV cliché of all. Unless you’ve decided to encrypt the content, I would say it’s pretty obvious that your CV…is a CV. It would be odd to see ‘newspaper’ above the masthead in newspapers, so why feel the need with your CV? Make your name the title. Own it!