CV mistakes: how to lose a job in development before you press send

One advertised job in development or human rights can get hundreds of applications and everyone wants to stand out. But you don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons. We asked a panel of recruiters in the sector to share their advice on what not to include on your application.

The panel

  • Graham Salisbury, head of human resources, Action Aid
  • Michael Wright, director of membership and communications, Bond
  • Louise Court, head of human resources, Amnesty International

“The worst cover letter I ever received was one where the applicant included a picture of their entire family tree just to point out they were related to some great social campaigner,” recalls Graham Salisbury. “But I wanted to interview him, not his great grandfather.”

Michael Wright says that, from a recruiter’s perspective: “You’re always looking for means to cut the pile of job applications rapidly, so if there’s a spelling mistake or if the text is too dense, I’m going to put their CV to one side – they’re making me work too hard.”

But how else can you avoid ending up in the rejects pile?

Don’t think you’re God’s gift to development

“I’ve definitely seen young people come through who are over-confident about their value to us,” says Wright. “Just assuming because you’ve got a degree in politics from a good university that you’re an amazing commodity is stupid when you’re competing against applicants from the whole of the EU who also have vocational experience.”

Don’t say you want to ‘save the world’

Be clever about your skill set, what you’ve achieved, what your value to us is. Don’t go over the top – we’ve had applications that while well meaning border on cringey, says Court. “People talking about wanting to work at Amnesty ‘all their life’ or start their application with ‘I would be deeply honoured and indebted to work for you’.”

Don’t talk about ‘wanting to give back’

“The charity sector does attract people coming towards the end of their career and these people often make it sound like a huge sacrifice that they’re giving up their six-figure salary to come work for us,” says Salisbury. “I once had a bloke who didn’t want to be a dentist anymore so sent me a CV to apply to be a campaigns officer.” If you’re a career changer, focus on the unique skill set you can bring instead – and apply for a role you’re qualified for.

Don’t rely on a CV you wrote in 1998

For older applicants who’ve held the same role for a long time, Wright says, talk to your colleagues who’ve applied for jobs more recently about how the process has changed.

Don’t be a cyber candidate only

If you’re interested in an organisation, get face-to-face time as soon as possible. Track down someone from the specific department you want to work for, advises Wright.

Don’t cut and paste cover letters to different organisations

“One candidate once wrote to me saying his life long ambition was to work for Oxfam,” says Salisbury. “He was applying for a job with Action Aid.” Sending out lots of applications at one time may give you a big buzz but it also hits harder when all the rejections come back. Tailor applications to a few places where you realistically have a chance.

Don’t lie on yes/no questions

If you answer no to a killer question on an online application form, don’t go back and change your answers to say you speak Portuguese, have the right to work in the UK and have five years’ project management experience. This has been a big issue with international applicants, according to Salisbury.

Don’t use pointless jargon

“Stuff like ‘I’m a high-achieving, task-focused, self-starter’ is a lot of meaningless rubbish,” says Wright. “I’m left just thinking ‘who is this?’ Applicants need to relax and be more confident in being themselves.”

Don’t waffle

This applies to job applications and interviews, according to Court. You need to get quickly to the competencies.

Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one role

“On the flip side, I’ve found applicants are often too restrictive on their cover letters about their goals and how they can fit into the sector,” says Wright. “There’s a huge diversity of jobs in development but people tend to ignore IT roles, marketing, even fundraising. There’s lots of evidence you can move departments once you’ve got that first role, but right now one-third of all jobs are in fundraising.”

Don’t be the person with the 15-page CV

“I’ve had so many bad CVs, ones with no punctuation and whole words missing, but I’ve also had 15-page CVs with affidavits, testimonials and their PhD thesis attached,” says Wright.

Don’t go to an interview unprepared to talk about what the organisation does

“The trait that annoys me most in job applicants is the alarming lack of research some do,” says Wright. “One of the first interview questions I’ll ask applicants is ‘Can you tell me a little bit about what Bond does?’ It’s an easy question but it’s often one people fail and it’s really off putting to an interviewer when people don’t even have a good understanding of what we do.”

Don’t say ‘we’ when you mean ‘I’

“When asked to talk about a project you’ve worked on, replying with ‘Well, we did…’ suggests to us that you didn’t make a significant contribution,” says Court.

Don’t ask questions to demonstrate what you already know

“I’ve interviewed people for entry-level roles and they’ve started questions with: ‘I see in your annual report you mentioned XYZ… what’s the organisation’s five-year strategy for this?’”, recalls Salisbury. Ask questions that show you’re genuinely looking for information.

But… do put yourself in your recruiter’s shoes

“People we’ve rejected sometimes try to open up a dialogue but it’s really frustrating when people ask for feedback repeatedly,” says Wright. “We recently recruited for a junior administrative and research role, for which we got 270 applications. How long do applicants think we spend on them?” Don’t let things as basic as not following instructions on the application knock you out of the race.


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