Key CV writing tips and CV template for contractors
Producing a compelling CV is crucial to winning work and securing contracts at the best rates, but strangely, it is often neglected. It’s fair to say that many contractors underestimate the importance of a CV, so here we aim to provide specific guidance that will help you beat your competition and secure the contracts that you, given your qualifications, knowledge and experience, deserve.
The information, advice and methodologies described in this guide have been developed and provided by Matt Craven, Founder of The CV & Interview Advisors. Matt is a respected Personal Branding and Winning Work Expert at The CV & Interview Advisors.
How to build a contractor CV?
Choosing a career as a contractor is a lot less stressful when you have plenty of work at the right rates. As with most businesses, winning work comes down to having good marketing collateral, and for an independent professional, that revolves around a CV, LinkedIn profile and perhaps a website (if you are operating outside IR35).
There are a number of different CVs that an independent professional may have, including a chronological CV, an outside-IR35 CV, a case study style CV, and a one-page executive biography. This guide will focus on a chronological CV, which can be used in most scenarios.
The CV is broken up into a number of sections as follows:
- Profile / Summary
- Key Skills
- Key Projects / Highlights
- Earlier Career
- Personal Details
Note: you may have other sections specific to your career such as Articles & Publications, NED Roles, Voluntary Work or Languages. IT Skills might also be a useful section. This guide will focus on the key sections that most contractors should have but use your judgement if there is something else that is worthy of adding.
Before we explain how to create each key section, here are a few tips:
- A CV is only as good as the person it represents and the information and evidence that it contains
- A CV is not just a list of contracts! It is a sales document designed to provide evidence that you have the track record and skills to perform the contract role you are targeting
- For the most part, behavioural competencies should be avoided in place of functional and technical skills
- Too little information will fail to communicate the context of your examples
The Profile / Summary
The Profile / Summary should be the first thing that a recruiter / client reads. It is designed to give a brief description about you and highlight the key areas that your clients are looking for. After perusing this section, the reader should find your services relevant and feel motivated to read the rest of your CV.
The Profile / Summary of a contractor has three key components:
- What are you (your go-to-market description)?
- What is your value proposition / unique selling point?
- What are your key strengths i.e., your most important abilities?
You should avoid clichéd behavioural competencies such as “excellent communication skills”, “working well in a team” and “working under pressure”.
Here’s what to do! Let’s see an example:
An Interim Finance Director with extensive Board-level experience and a track record of embedding robust financial governance across organisations to protect cashflow and profitability. Key strengths include: assembling and managing finance teams of 20+ people across disparate international locations; leading major capital appraisals and performing commercial feasibility analysis for M&A activity, NPD initiatives and diversification strategies; embedding financial ownership across management teams to drive superior budgetary performance; and leading major cost rationalisation programmes to remove costs from businesses and drive profitability.
Let’s now break this up into its component parts.
What Are You?
The idea is to start with a simple description of your professional background e.g. ‘An Interim Finance Director’.
Note: This would also appear after your name right at the start of the CV.
Getting the reader’s attention is all about explaining that you are an appropriate person for the role - if you do this successfully, they will be motivated to read on.
The Value Proposition
The next part of the Profile / Summary is the value proposition. This is a little bit harder to get right, but think of it as your over-arching offering, the one thing that you consistently walk into an organisation and do, the purpose of your professional existence, or the key value that you are proposing to offer.
For example, the value proposition of a Career Coach might be: “coaching contractors to create compelling CVs that enhance their ability to win work”.
The Finance Director example above uses the following: “….a track record of embedding robust financial governance across organisations to protect cashflow and profitability”.
The next part of the Profile / Summary is to communicate what you are particularly good at. This should be the key strengths that you feel you have that feed into the over-arching value proposition that we mentioned earlier.
Key strengths include: assembling and managing Finance teams of 20+ people across disparate international locations; leading major capital appraisals and performing commercial feasibility analysis for M&A activity, NPD initiatives and diversification strategies; embedding financial ownership across management teams to drive superior budgetary performance; and leading major cost rationalisation programmes to remove costs from businesses and drive profitability.
Notice how the last two entries under key strengths are written in a features and benefits style, describing the ‘ability’ then explaining how this ‘ability’ will benefit the client organisation. This gives the statements more meaning and should be adopted where possible.
The key is to push the abilities that you think your future clients will be most interested in, aligned with the challenges that the organisation might be facing in the current climate.
You need to position yourself as the answer to their problems rather than being overly introspective.
Key Skills & ATS Optimisation
In internet marketing circles, optimising a website for keywords / search terms is critical and most web-based businesses focus heavily on optimising their website so that they appear higher up on the search engine rankings.
There are many companies who offer Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) services, who spend their life assisting companies in making sure they have the correct keywords in their website text as well as having the right keyword density, so their site is optimised for the algorithms that exist within Google and Safari et al.
Well, the same can be said about CVs! At some stage in the selection process, someone may be doing keyword searches, looking for skills that you hopefully have. If these skills are listed on your CV then you will appear in their searches, but if they’re not, you won’t!
The digital landscape
We live in a changing world where technology drives everything. The same applies to recruitment (both permanent and contract) and most processes are now automated to speed up and streamline the recruitment process.
Companies use Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS); agencies search for talent on job boards as well as their own databases; and both search for people through a plethora of candidate databases including social media channels such as LinkedIn.
The point being, there is no escaping the ‘non-human’ side of recruitment and just the same as a consumer will search for services on the internet, recruiters / clients will search for potential hires on a range of platforms. If your CV isn’t optimised for searches in these platforms, you are unlikely to be found.
What to do
So, how do we get these keywords into the CV? Should we use white text in size one font tucked away on page 4 (some people have used this technique) or should we attempt to provide something that will work for both machine and human?
Obviously, the latter is favourable, so add a section after your Profile / Summary that incorporates all the key words that you think someone might be searching on. This might look something like this:
A list of 18 would be a maximum, but anything between 10 and 18 bullet points works great. The trick is to present a menu of skills that will be picked up by database searches, but also provides a list of skills that hopefully matches with the skills listed on the contract brief.
Present these skills in a logical order with the most important positioned top left and the least important positioned bottom right. Change them for each contract role you are applying for and remember that sometimes less is more i.e. a big long list can sometimes dilute the key points and make them less obvious.
What skills to push?
I would recommend functional or technical skills opposed to behavioural traits, which we covered in depth during the Profile / Summary chapter. Behavioural traits such as ‘working in a team’, ‘attention to detail’ and ‘communication skills’ should be a given, rather than something special.
Talk more about the skills you would use within a contract, for example - developing financial strategy, overseeing risk management, or enhancing reporting capability.
You might consider key qualifications, a key language skill or a major piece of technology that you are familiar with in addition to the functional skills mentioned earlier.
Key Projects / Highlights
Here we will walk you through one of the most important aspects of writing a CV – achievements! It will provide detailed and specific instructions on how to write achievements, including the use of case studies, that will transform your CV into an effective sales document.
The key to a successful CV is to make it as evidence-based as possible, to pack it full of achievements, to shout from the rooftops how great you / your business is, and to transform your CV from a boring one-dimensional list of bullet points into a business case that persuades a client to engage you and your services.
In short, contractors can be paid a lot of money and the client needs to see that you will deliver ROI.
We recommend having several achievements for each Position in the Experience section as well as some ‘mini-case studies’ on page one.
We call this section ‘Key Projects / Highlights’ or something similar, and these are what will set you apart from your competition. It is your opportunity to provide hard evidence that you are good at your job and turn your CV into a sales document.
A Highlight could be an entire client assignment, project, or part of one, where your actions created a tangible and positive outcome.
You should use specific examples and ensure that the examples that you choose provide relevant evidence in line with the contract role that you are targeting.
In order to construct these examples and give them enough context to stand-alone on page one, we use a formula called S-T-A-R, which is an acronym for Situation, Task, Actions and Result.
Situation gives background to the example i.e. who were you working for and what situation did they find themselves in; Task describes your job title and the extent of your involvement i.e. how you were involved; Actions are the specifics to what you did; and Result is the outcome, ideally in measurable terms.
- ABC Ltd acquired a financially distressed cleaning services business (Situation). As Interim CFO, led major transformation of the business (Task). Performed detailed business audit; rapidly improved credit management to reduce debtor days and improve working capital; analysed and re-priced services; exited unprofitable contracts; restructured / recruited new management team; introduced new processes and systems; and professionalised financial management capability (Actions). Succeeded in turning a £200k p/a loss into £54k profit in 12 months with £250k profit in year 2 (Result).
Word of caution: STAR case studies are not the easiest to write effectively. If you are struggling to adopt this framework, you are better off leaving your achievements in the Experience section and writing them in a less detailed manner.
We recommend having 3 Highlights and keeping them to no more than 6 lines each.
Let’s break STAR down into its component parts:
Situation: This part of the case study should start with the name of the client and go on to explain what the SITUATION was. Another way of looking at it is “what was the problem and what was going wrong”. For example: ‘In 2001, ERAC acquired an unprofitable competitor in the South of England that required transformation’ or ‘XYZ Ltd had weak financial processes, leading to significant inefficiencies across financial management activities’.
Task: This is the simplest part of the case study and should mention your professional title and how you were involved in solving the problem. All we are trying to do here is to explain the capacity that you were involved. For example: ‘As Interim CFO, led major transformation of the business’.
Actions: Here we focus on the 5 or 6 key ACTIONS that you took to solve the problem and drive a positive outcome. It can be looked at as the sequence of events that you followed. Keep the individual points brief, write them in active voice using tight writing and separate them by semi-colons. For example: Performed detailed business audit; rapidly improved credit management to reduce debtor days and improve working capital; analysed and re-priced services; exited unprofitable contracts; restructured / recruited new management team; introduced new processes and systems; and professionalised financial management capability.
Result: This is the most important component of the STAR case studies. Without the RESULT, the case study will just be a list of tasks rather than something that you achieved. The Result should ideally be statistical, using some kind of tangible evidence that proves that you succeeded. For example: Succeeded in turning a £200k p/a loss into £54k profit in 12 months with £250k profit in year 2.
Notice how we start the Result with ‘Succeeded in…’ to separate it from the Actions? This ensures that the case study is easy to read and gives the Result more impact.
This is one of the key tactics to transform your CV into a business case opposed to a less effective ‘task-based’ CV.
Experience & Positions
This chapter will explain the information that you should add for each position that you present on your CV and what order of information will work best. We describe this as ‘optimising the information architecture’, which is critical to the effectiveness of your CV. Too many CVs have a somewhat random list of information, which are in no particular order, rendering the CV less impactful.
It’s well accepted that for independent professionals, you should focus on the last five to six years, but this can vary depending on how your career has developed.
The Experience section must have an information architecture that delivers the right information in the right order. You could describe this as aligning the information architecture with the psychology of your target audience (the recruiter and client) as they read the CV. Random bullet points just won’t do and being too brief is also a mistake (bullet points that are two lines long are optimum and provide just enough information without being too wordy).
The general rule is that one line is skinny, two lines are great and three lines OK if you really have to.
Now back to information architecture. Start with a series of context building bullet points - context is essential when writing a CV as it helps the reader to build a picture of your role. If you start with a random task, it will have no context and be ineffective, therefore adding good context building information before the tasks helps the reader to understand the ‘context’ in which you performed those tasks.
Here are the recommended key ‘context’ building bullet points:
- Information about the client organisation that you worked for
- The purpose of your role i.e., a role summary (aligned with the contract brief)
- If you managed a team, a description of your team
- How your performance was measured
When describing your client, explain what industry they are in and how big they are e.g. Salesforce.com Inc. is a global software / CRM company headquartered in California. The company has revenues of $3billion and 9,800 employees.
The purpose / summary of your role should capture an overview of your position and the scope of your remit. Aim to provide a detailed bullet point that if no other bullet points existed, would adequately describe your role.
- On an interim basis, oversee all finance activities for the UK, US and EMEA across key sites in London, New York, Munich, Madrid and Dubai (1000 staff). Hired with a remit to transform, design and develop financial management, planning and analysis capability to support aggressive expansion plans.
If you managed a team, understanding who these people were can build context. It allows the reader to picture an organigram of your team in their minds.
- Managed a project team of 50 people across 3 workstreams with 4 direct reports including 3 Finance Project Managers and a PMO Manager.
Describing how your performance was measured also builds context, so try to add that information as well.
Once you have written these ‘context’ building bullet points, you can then describe the specifics of the contract role and any initiatives that you implemented or projects that you delivered (more outcomes).
Recent research found that over 90% of recruiters would expect this section to be made up of bullet points rather than paragraphs. See below for the level of detail required.
- Work with key stakeholders to develop effective performance management frameworks across the business to drive organisational, departmental, team and individual performance
- Led transformation of underperforming business unit in xyz region including changes to business model and cost rationalisation to increase profits from -£700k to + £250k within 12 months.
Note: where possible, use statistics to ‘prove’ that you did a great job.
The rest of your CV will largely come down to the specifics of your career, but most independent professionals will have a section for their earlier career (just add anything further back than 6 years as one liners in an Earlier Career section).
It’s also standard to have sections for qualifications and contact details.
If you are in the IT sector, you will usually have a Technical Proficiency section that lists the main technologies that you are familiar with.
More senior professionals who are executing a thought leadership strategy may need a section for public speaking or published work.
Independent professionals should steer clear of the good old-fashioned line that says “References are available on request”. That just positions you as a job seeker and any bona fide contractor should avoid this, especially if you are operating outside IR35.
What is much better is having some testimonials from previous clients or what LinkedIn refers to as Recommendations.
Simply pick a couple of really good ones that have been written by someone credible and pop them at the very end of your CV.
If you operate outside IR35, there are a few additional tactics you might consider implementing to ensure your CV promotes an outside IR35 status.
- Add your Limited company name alongside your name, email and telephone number
- Mention your independent professional status in your Profile/ Summary
- Use a proper business email address (not Gmail, Yahoo, iCloud Hotmail or Outlook etc)
- Don’t have an Employment History section; use Experience, Positions or Contracts instead (it’s good to have the word Experience in the heading somewhere for ATS optimisation
- Always write your CV in ‘implied first person’ without pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘my’
- Talk about being ‘engaged to …’ rather than ‘hired to …’
ContractorUK has partnered with the UK's leading authority on contractor CVs to provide a FREE review of your CV and LinkedIn profile. Contact The CV & Interview Advisors and one of their team will get back to you to discuss if your CV and LinkedIn profile matches up with industry best practice.