First impressions matter, and while countless hours are often invested into producing strong and marketable CVs, they will only have seconds to sell a candidate to a potential recruiter. In a field as competitive as international affairs, it is crucial to invest time and effort into producing a CV that attracts and captivates, especially when starting out in the field.
A common challenge that candidates face when applying for positions in international affairs is the high levels of competition and the need to stand out. Standing out is very much focused on the profile and narrative of the candidate, but neither of these aspects is worth much if the CV does not get a chance to express either of these facets.
Quite simply, a CV only has, on average, between 6-12 seconds to captivate a recruiter when the first sorting happens; this puts a lot of pressure on the CV to relay critical information in a minimal amount of time. To accomplish this, it’s essential to serve the information in a manner that is reliable and expected, minimising guesswork and focusing on making the CV as intuitive as possible.
For non-Europeans, the terminology CV vs résumé is interchangeable, so please do not mistake this guide for a full-fledged academic curriculum vitae.
This 'How to' article is based on survey responses on what topics would be most relevant for students, graduates and young professionals when it comes to entering the field of international affairs and will be part of a more extended series of LinkedIn Pulse articles seeking to help bridge the many challenges for entering the field, and expands on my earlier series of career primers and supportive guides for the entry-level domain.
When it comes to looks, everything is highly subjective and very contextual, so it is always hard to give defining answers. You have two big choices to make, one for design and one for content.
Designs can be boiled down into two overall approaches; contemporary and traditional. An excellent modern CV is likely to be designed with a certain level of UX design in mind, making it more of a product for the end user than for the candidate. This often involves double column designs, guiding lines, negative space and much fiddling with infographics to keep things neat and concise. In a more traditional CV, the effort is more focused on letting the candidate shoot all his/her shots, focusing more on raw text and maximising the available space on the paper. Naturally, there is also a golden middle way that navigates between the two.
Traditional, Hybrid and Modern CV styles.
Any design paths are viable, but in terms of preference, I lean towards the hybrid/contemporary CV designs, as they are built to relay information more clearly and fit better with the fact that we have platforms like LinkedIn where we can compile all the details. I prefer adjusting my templates to address my personal needs; I like a more minimalist approach where I remove infographics, counters and bars unless I see a concrete point in using them. I strongly recommend customising whatever product you end up with, built from scratch or free templates such from ResumeKraft or pilfering through the vast markets on Etsy, Fiverr or Google for commercial templates.
On the content side, you are faced with another option: a traditional chronological CV or a more contemporary skills-based CV. The key difference is how you relay information to the recipients. A chronological CV gives a step-by-step overview of your career progression with individual achievements and expertise listed under each entry. In contrast, a skills-based CV is entirely focused on explaining your skills and, only then, where you have gained them.
While there are many guidelines, there are very few rules regarding CVs, but a single direction is to adhere to the 1-2 page maximum length of your CV. The only exception is if you are forced to follow a specific CV regime, such as the EUROPASS format. There are studies, primarily focused on the private sector, that do indicate a sweet spot around the 500-word mark for CV length. While the public sector often differs, I see value in balancing content against wordiness, so this might be a valuable guideline to keep in mind.
As a young professional, you should be able to fit everything you need on a single page. While this can be a challenge, it is almost universally welcome, especially if you link your #ALLSTAR LinkedIn profile in your CV, where you can and should have everything added. For CVs, less is quite often more!
A particular order of information is expected when you present yourself on a CV, including headings and how you portray entries. There is very little point in messing with the advised order in an attempt to stand out. In terms of headings, the order should always be:
- Personal Information
- Personal Statement
We aim to make the CV intuitive for anyone picking it up for a closer read. As such, the beginning of the CV is prime real estate, and once someone picks up your CV for more than a few seconds, the crucial information needs to be available. Usually, by this stage, you will have already undergone the first sorting, and it will be time for closer scrutiny of your profile.
The critical information, your experience and education come as the bulk of the document, this is the most essential part of your CV, and this is what you have to offer. Skills and languages can be crucial, but often it is more a matter of value-adding desirable skills. You may also add extra content depending on your preference; at the end of the day, your CV has to represent you, and the only way it can do so is if you have ownership of the content and make it your own.
Should you include a portrait on your CV? the answer is a resounding maybe! Honestly, there is no right or wrong answer to this as it is a very subjective and cultural topic, so there will never be a clear universal answer.
In my case, I did start with a professional portrait on my CV, but I have since decided that the real estate could better be used for showing off more skills and that I expect that my LinkedIn profile will be consulted anyways, so those wanting to get a first-hand impression of me are welcome to do so there.
The only firm rule regarding portraits is that you should only use proper professional portraits or photos if you want to include your picture on your CV or LinkedIn profile. It is OK to let some personality shine, but it will almost always be best to stick with something comfortably formal and inviting.
To a certain extent, your basic information is a necessary formality that has to be there, but a couple of aspects can be value-adding. In general, you expect to see just the essential information:
- Phone Number
- Email Address
Your name needs to stand out very clearly in your CV, this is your brand, and it is what recruiters need to remember, so make sure it stands out. If you have multiple names or middle names, you can use your short form name as a title and your full name under the information. If you are seeking international opportunities, you should always use the [Name] [Lastname] format.
For your address, this is more of a legacy entry, but as many working in IR shift across borders, it is relevant to add for possible relocation implications for the organisations and, as is a challenge for many, it might be quite relevant for visa sponsorships.
You need to be reachable, so your phone number must naturally be listed with a corresponding country code. The same goes for your email address; most communication will go by email, so ensure that you have a professional-sounding email that you consistently check.
A final but crucial point is to link to your LinkedIn profile; not only does this give you a statistical advantage, but it also enables you to show off every single detail of your professional profile. So please make sure you have a comprehensive and well-executed profile on LinkedIn to maximise your chances; more on this in a later article!
There is naturally also information that you should not mention here such as marital status, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or political affiliation, typically I will also only list my date of birth if there is a concrete age limit to a position.
Your personal statement, professional or career profile is an excellent opportunity to build a solid narrative around your professional profile. It should be concise, well written and to the point when it paints a picture of who you are as a professional.
In your statement, you should briefly explain your past experiences, key qualifications and expertise areas, outline specialisations and note what sets you apart from other candidates. You should use strong action language, such as framing yourself as the ideal candidate for the role and talking about your concrete experiences, proven track record and certifiable skills. This can be pretty tough as you only have a single paragraph with 3-5 sentences to work with, but it is a great way to link your profile better to what is asked for in a concrete job listing.
Your experiences are your bread and butter, and it is the most critical aspect of your professional profile, as it is proof of what you can and cannot do. Pointing toward concrete experiences when you explain your skills and capabilities is a crucial way of justifying your fit for a given role, so investing time and effort into optimally wording your experiences is vital.
There are certainly best practices and borderline musts when you enter your experiences, and it's an area where you might need to adjust templates to make them ideally suited for the job:
- Make sure that your experiences are listed in an intuitive manner
- Describe, concisely, your experience
- Include keywords
- Use bullets to emphasise key points and achievements
I think it's best to adopt a consistent approach to sharing information in your CV and balance your use of text and bullet points. A short paragraph qualitatively explaining what you have done can be very helpful, especially with some concrete bullets to emphasise specifics or your achievements, as I have included below.
An example of a balance between descriptive text and bullets in a CV entry.
For someone starting out in the field, it might not be apparent what you should be putting on your CV and what actually counts as experience. It would be best to enter whatever is remotely relevant; paid positions, volunteering, and internships all count as valuable experiences as you go into the international affairs domain, so make sure you showcase it. Suppose you have worked in entirely unrelated fields where you cannot draw a connection from your work experience to a specific position being applied for. In that case, you can cut it from your CV if you have other experiences that better show how you are a good fit for a position. Your experiences are less about what you have done in the past; it is more an indicator of your suitability for fulfilling the tasks expected of you in a new position.
When you order your experiences, please make sure that you follow a strict chronological order, with the most recent positions at the top. There is no need to split paid and unpaid positions when starting a career in international affairs, as many are sadly forced to scrape by to build relevant experiences. Also, if at all possible, try to avoid leaving gaps in your CV of any longer than a couple of months; taking a break after graduation is fine, but its a competitive field, and you will want to invest in standing out through work, volunteering, certifications and whatever else profile-building opportunities present themselves! If you do have longer gaps, you will have to address it in your CV (job hunting, sabbatical, or a period of training and certifications, etc.). Gaps are not great, but they are also not the end of the world, so don't worry too much about this!
With an eye to the content, two guiding principles apply; do not overdo it and do not lie. When writing your CV entries, it's essential to look at the concrete job listings, pick up on the main keywords in the job description and use the same terminology when describing your relevant experiences. However, it's easy to overdo it and stuff your CV with keywords to an extent where a recruiter or a panel feels drowning in obnoxious buzzwords, so be smart about it under your experiences and when listing your skills. Keywords help a lot when there are Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) in place to do the initial raw sorting of CVs, but at the end of the day, humans make the selection, so striking a balance is essential. Finally, it's crucial to balance honesty and dishonesty in portraying your profile and experiences in your CV. Overall, it is vital that you remain honest when entering a contractual relationship with an organisation. However, while I don't recommend that you embellish the truth, I remain open to taking a few creative liberties. While you should never lie about cold hard facts such as dates, degrees and concrete skills, you can reframe specific experiences to fit your purposes while still being honest. The best way to go about this is to emphasise certain aspects of your experiences so they better align with your application; if your internship covered four key projects, you are perfectly free to highlight the most relevant project. Tailoring your CV to the respective postings is worthwhile, but be aware that stretching the truth too far seldom pays off in the long run.
With a challenging degree just undertaken, there is some temptation to prioritise your education over work experience when putting together a CV. While it is perfectly understandable to have a yearning to show off academic achievements, it is crucial not to fall victim to flipping the order; truth be told, education is not significant enough in this context to warrant it.
While education and academic endeavours are essential, they are often little more than critical checkmarks in a recruitment context; so if you can show for anything beyond studies on your CV, you are best off keeping your focus on your experiences and not your studies.
Your studies, beyond dressing you well for your future in international affairs, only need to answer two questions on your CV from a recruitment perspective:
- Do you have the correct educational level?
- Is your degree relevant?
Beyond this information and the technical formalia of dates started/concluded, you can add more details; GPA, location, joint partnerships or unique aspects, and even information on your thesis if you find it relevant or need to minimise the negative space on your CV.
What you should have in mind is that 90% of your competition is likely to have completed a graduate degree also, so if you want to stick out, education is maybe not the best way to do it; extracurriculars, jobs, volunteering, and publications does a much better job.
Skills, languages and beyond
While your experiences and education are at the core of your CV, it is essential to support these aspects so you can portray your professional profile effectively. The best way to do so is to stand out from the crowd, and while concrete work experiences are outstanding for this, it is only sometimes an option for those entering the field.
Both soft and hard skills are in relatively high demand, and it's straightforward to justify why fresh graduates from international programmes might have strong communication, intercultural, time-management, and analytical thinking skills right from the get-go. Very often, you will see soft skills such as these alongside hard skills such as project management, quantitative software, data visualisation or maybe negotiations clearly requested or desired on the job listing. I have found that you are often inclined to search for 2-3 types of positions, where the overlap in skills tend to be very similar. This means that you can essentially develop your CV templates to be better tailored for their tasks.
Language skills can be worth their weight in gold, and it is perhaps the single best universal investment to make for yourself if you want to gain a comparative advantage. English and French are key diplomatic languages, but Chinese, Arabic, Russian and, to a lesser extent, German and Spanish have traditionally been great investments in the West. Make sure to do your homework in your national contexts to determine what the best language investments are, especially if you wish to pursue a career in foreign affairs with your home country.
Finally, international affairs is a professional domain where you can shine a light on your areas of expertise by listing publications on your CV. You can, with comfort, list your dissertations on your CV under your education, and you can further bulk this up by publishing articles in academic journals or writing op-eds for more conventional media. Beyond being clear expressions of your passion and interest in the field, you also build a reputation and improve the search results for anyone looking you up during a screening process.
When starting out the grand effort to kick off a career in international affairs, there will be a disproportionate workload at the very beginning of the process. With the workload in mind, it's actually a great investment to really chug down and put down the effort from the get-go; do your research, find your own approach and adopt a system that you can develop and improve upon over time. Quite likely, your job hunt will take some time, and you will have to critically revise your approach over time, but by doing your homework, you can really improve your starting position.
A piece of good general advice is to maintain one or more master files for your CV, if you are able to do a bit of research to find your career direction, you might be able to uncover a few different work-related archetypes. This could be a researcher, diplomat, programme manager, advisor, development worker, humanitarian officer or any specialised role in the field. Quite likely, you can determine what qualifications are required and desired in these domains and develop a distinct CV master file specifically for these roles, this cuts downs your need to repeatedly adjust your CV as long as they fit within your archetype.
Even with master files, you will eventually run short and need to customise your CV, so please make a mental note of this and develop a habit of critically evaluating your CV against the positions you apply for; could you adjust your wording to make your experiences fit better to what is required? do you have concrete experiences that you should bring out in your CV, specifically for a role? is there some way for you to tweak your profile, so it fits better with the profile sought? all relevant questions to consider and all a worthwhile part of the process.
Top image provided by Van Tay Media on Unsplash