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What do employers look for in a CV?

What is the purpose of a CV? When I ask this question, people usually look at me a bit perplexed. To showcase my skills and qualifications or to prove I can do the job is the typical response. We need to flip these assumptions and rethink our approach. On average only 11% of CVs sent for applications receive a call-back. The purpose of a CV is actually to get you to the next stage in the process, which is typically the first interview. It doesn’t matter if you are qualified, have the right skills or desire for the job; if you can’t get past the CV screening phase then unfortunately, none of that matters.

The Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are software used by companies to assist with human resources, recruitment and hiring processes. According to Jobscan, 99% of Fortune 500 companies use ATS and a growing number of small and medium sized businesses are adopting the software too. In 2021, Accenture and Harvard Business School published the report, Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent. The report shared that 90% of companies use technology to rank and filter candidates. This does not mean 90% of CVs are rejected by ATS, a point often misused in the media. ATS screen out qualified applications in 88% of companies because they don’t match the search terms the ATS has been asked to track from the job advertisement. Rather than an ATS problem, we can think of this as a lack of tailoring your CV to the job role issue.

Impact of Gaps on CVs

The Accenture and Harvard Business School report also concluded that ATS screening is not only about matching key words between the job advert and your CV. More than 50% of companies screened out applicants because they had a gap of six months or more on their CV.

Work gaps typically fall under these five main categories:

  1. Caring for sick family members
  2. Attending to personal health issues
  3. Receiving additional training/education
  4. Raising a family
  5. Other reasons

There has always been a stigma associated with employment gaps. When I was a pregnant postdoc, I was told to make it look like maternity leave never happened on my CV. Inferring that I should use maternity leave like a work sabbatical writing papers and grants. The charity Pregnant Then Screwed even took the UK government to court over the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) which likened maternity leave to a work sabbatical. The Treasury made payments to the self-employed based on average profits made between 2016 and 2019, meaning an estimated 75,000 women who took maternity leave during that period would lose out on a proportion of the money. For clarity, when on maternity, paternity or sick leave if you are also employed you do not necessarily have to disclose the leave on your CV, it can be included within your dates of employment. However, disclosing your employment gap provides an opportunity to describe in what ways, your career or productivity may have been impacted.

This is important because applicants with work gaps have a 45% lower chance of receiving job interviews. In 2019, researchers sent CVs to 36,000+ job openings showing various work gaps. Interview chances significantly decreased for applicants with gaps of three or more years. Applicants who provided a reason for their work gap received close to 60% more interviews. Also worth noting is that among applicants who provided a reason for their work gap, those who said they received additional training or education ended up with the highest interview rate.

Resume Formatting Matters

I have seen the full range of CV lengths from a one-page CV to a 43-page document with a contents section. Single page CVs are seen as the latest trend, particularly when applying for a role within a start-up. On the other hand, having a longer CV provides more space to detail work experiences and accomplishments. Rather than basing my conclusions on personal preference, I prefer empirical evidence. Research by ResumeGo found that recruiters are 2.3 times more likely to prefer two-page CVs. They scored two-page CVs 21% higher and spent twice as much time reading them.

Furthermore, in 2021 a study by ResumeLab showed that 83% of hiring managers said cover letters were important in their hiring decision. They gave a preference to candidates who submitted them even if it wasn’t required. 63% of hiring managers said that they read the cover letter, with more than half of those saying they read it after reviewing the CV and seeing if they were qualified.

With ever-growing applicant numbers, CV formatting has real impact. The human brain is hard-wired to look for shortcuts and make information easier to digest. You can make this process easier by providing clear headings, easy to read fonts such as Arial or Calibri in size 11 or 12 pt.

Resume Content Matters More

As you have discovered, your CV must be tailored to each and every job application. The place to get started is to analyse the job description. Make a note of the top five skills and three specific keywords that need to feature in your CV to fly effortlessly through the ATS tracking system. For example, if the job advert says experience with clinical trials is essential, make sure you use the word clinical trials in your CV. With those key words in mind, here are the must-have sections for your CV.

Name, professional title and contact details

The title of your CV is not Curriculum Vitae, it is your name including your professional title if you have one. If you use Dr for example as your title, it is not necessary to add the letters PhD after your name, just pick one. Add your email address and feature your LinkedIn profile underneath. Think carefully about the email address you use because 89% of HR professionals and recruitment consultants are deterred from shortlisting a candidate with an unprofessional email address. Recruiters do check out your online professional presence so make sure that you regularly update your LinkedIn profile details.


Title Forename Surname, Qualification Letters
Email address
LinkedIn URL


It is preferable to include why you want the job, demonstrating you have the skills and aptitude for the role and how you align to the organisations vision and values in the cover letter. The highlights section should actually feature three key highlights of your career that are relevant to the role as bullet points.


  • Host of the 5* rated, top 10 UK podcast, Women in STEM Career & Confidence which has received over 25,000 downloads.

Relevant Experience

This is the section where you can make some of the biggest gains that set you apart from all the other candidates. Most CVs provide the dates of employment, company name and role title followed by a summary of the role. When describing the role, people often focus is on what they did rather than the impact created. This is where you align your key skills and attributes to the key words you found in the role specification. Take a key skill, add the context you have used that skill and a quantifiable outcome.

Impact statement = key skill aligned to role profile + context + quantifiable outcome


Start date-end date        Role Title, Organisation

Summary: What the organisation/project is.

Highlight: Impact Statement


Jan 2019-present             Managing Director, Breakthrough Talent & Skills Limited

Summary: Head coach and trainer, supporting Women in STEM to fulfil their ambition and potential by implementing purposeful career pivots with confidence. Coaching |Training |Speaking
Highlight: I have the ability to think on my feet, which I demonstrated by facilitating live coaching demonstrations on nine online lunch and learn webinar-workshops for GSK’sglobal Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) to 300+ women.

Professional Licences

Include this section only if you hold professional licences that are relevant to the role.


Name of licence, date awarded


It is not necessary to include qualifications you obtained prior to your degree. Include qualification from degree onwards in the following format.


MChem (Hons) in Chemistry 1st class (2022-2004) |PhD in Chemistry (2008-2011)

Volunteer Experience

Adding relevant volunteer experience is a fantastic way to demonstrate your skills and values. For example, you may have developed leadership or team management skills in the volunteer context before you have had the opportunity in the professional sphere. You can outline the roles in a similar way to the work experience section.


June 2019-Sept 2021       UK & Ireland 500 Women Scientists Regional Pod Coordinator

500 Women Scientists serve society by making science open, inclusive and accessible https://500womenscientists.org/ I lead the UK & Ireland pod region and support pod leaders to maintain and grow active communities. I gift 10% of my company profits annually.


Include two references you are happy to be contacted. Leave this section off completely if you do not wish references to be contacted before you have been selected.


  1. Forename Surname | email address
  2. Forename Surname | email address

The Unconscious Bias

To give yourself the maximum chance of selection for the next stage, minimise unconscious bias by not including: a headshot, marital status, your age or date of birth.

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