How to write a killer contractor CV

How to write a killer contractor CV

So, you’ve decided that it’s time to move on from the monotony of traditional employment, complete with those performance appraisals, staff meetings, and sub-inflationary pay rises.

You’re ready to embark upon a fresh, rewarding career as a contractor, but how do you sell yourself to potential clients?

I have been both a contractor and a recruiter in my time.

I was a team leader at two of my contracting positions, and on several occasions I was tasked with screening potential candidates.

This involved liaising with a recruitment agency, and going through stacks of CVs to weed down the list to a couple of contractors who would then go through the interview process.

Being a recruiter rather than a contractor was a real eye-opener for me; I was surprised at how many CVs simply didn’t hit the mark – not because many applicants weren’t up to the job, but in terms of presentation. It could be as many as half the CVs I saw were sub-standard!

Using my experience of working on both sides of the fence, I’m going to share with you both my top tips on how to write the perfect CV, and also the pitfalls you should avoid.

Permanent vs. Contractor CVs

The first thing you need to take on board is that potential clients are looking to buy your skills and industry knowledge, on a short-term basis. You’re main job will be to fix problems, or build something new – right away.

As a result, unlike a permanent CV, your main priority is to highlight the skills you possess early on in the document, and minimise the ‘filler’.

For example, a classic, boring line I’d expect to see on a permie CV might be; ‘I established cross-departmental procedures for third party vendor interaction. Developed inter-personal skills, and became team brainstorming liaison officer with key stakeholders in the project.’

All very ‘PC’, but this type of management-speak simply isn’t going to help your cause if you’re trying to secure a new contract job.

Unfortunately, I saw a lot of ‘corporate jargon’ when wading through CVs; if you’re new to contracting, it can take a while to think as a contractor, rather than someone who has to impress their manager on every occasion, as a permanent IT pro.

Sure, if you’re a project manager, or a less technical candidate, you may need to be more descriptive about what you’ve worked on in the past, but the key is to get right to the point, and make the reader know exactly what your core skills are, at the very start of the CV.

How long should my CV be?

As a time-pressed team leader, there was nothing worse than having to read through a CV the length of a short story. It may have been unfair on the candidates perhaps, but my eyes glazed over when confronted with essay-length CVs, especially if they were also littered with corporate buzzwords like ‘blue sky thinking’, or ‘corporate governance’

Aside from the numerous potential CV errors people make (which I look at later in this piece), creating an overlong CV is the ultimate crime from a recruitment point of view.

I’ve dealt with agencies in various roles over the past 15 years, and almost universally, the majority told me that 2 to 3 pages is the ideal length for a CV.

If you’re a veteran contractor, with 20 years of contracts behind you, this may be harder to achieve, so my advice would be just focus on the most recent roles, and summarise the older ones.

How not to present your CV

First impressions really do count - I’ve seen CVs submitted by some really talented contractors, who have really let themselves down on the presentation front.

Here are some of my top tips to help you avoid some classic CV mistakes:

Spelling

It’s not that hard to use a spell checker is it? That’s what I thought before I started reading other contractors’ CVs!

Grammar

A pet hate of mine. Some of the most common examples include mixing up ‘their’ and ‘there’. A spellchecker might not pick these errors up, so ask someone you trust to proof read your CV before using it.

Fonts

Use a common font (Arial, Verdana, Times, etc) when creating your CV. One programmer’s CV I came across used the same header font made famous by Pink Floyd and others in the late 60s. Ironically, this unusual ‘presentation’ style made his CV stand out, and he was actually very gifted, but I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend trying to be ‘different’, as your CV may find its way into the bin.

Layout

Use a common presentation style throughout. Don’t leave blank spaces between sections, and use one single font throughout. I’ve seen all kinds of ‘quirky’ layouts, including one contractor who used ‘Pac Man’ icons next to each section of his CV. 

Photos

I’ve never been a fan of submitting your photo on a CV. The ones I’ve seen were typically of webcam quality, so I simply wouldn’t recommend it.

How to write a killer contractor CVSo, what should I include on my CV?

As I mentioned earlier, your CV is a sales document for your contracting business, so your main aim should be to make your key skills stand out on the page.

What I realised early on is that there are no clear-cut rules regarding the section titles you should include in your CV, however some of the contractor CVs I would recommend including are the following:

About You 

You’re not a permie anymore, so you don’t need to include your age, marital status, number of children you have, etc. In fact, just your name and contact details are fine. Even if you provide all your personal details to an agency, they will be removed before your CV is sent to prospective clients.

Skills Summary

The most important section, which provides bullet point highlights of your key skills and experience, e.g. Java (5 Years). I always found that short, concise bullet points stand out so much better than one long paragraph.

Past Jobs

List your most recent contract or permanent roles in reverse-chronological order. You don’t need to go back to the very start of your working life though - there’s really no need to include your summer ’98 stint working at Blockbuster!

Again, bullet points can be very effective to show the reader – in a concise way – what you achieved at each of your past jobs.

Further Information

If there are any things you feel would enhance your chances of securing that next contract role, list them here.

Unlike a permie CV, contractors typically list their academic achievements at the end, rather than the beginning, as their current skills are more important.

List your degree, A-Levels, and any technical qualifications and certifications, but anything else really isn’t necessary.

I found that a lot of contractors listed a lot of unnecessary and irrelevant information on their CVs – typically hobbies which you might include on a permie CV, hoping to prompt further discussion at interview.

The most boring of all were things like ‘I enjoy playing golf, going for walks, watching TV’ and suchlike.

On the other hand, on rare occasions, I did find out things about contractors which were impressive.

On one project, I was tasked with finding a contract developer for a Scottish utilities firm where I was a permanent IT ‘consultant’.

One guy, who applied for the job was Mike, who also happened to be a skilled skydiving instructor outside Glasgow – something he mentioned on his CV.

I ended up hiring Mike, and became good friends with him; he even persuaded me (against my better judgement) to make a solo parachute jump from 3000 feet!

Better still, Mike also encouraged me to leave the project I’d recruited him for, and try IT contracting myself. This is exactly what I did a few months later.

So, if you have something exceptional to share, there’s no harm including it – as Mike did, but don’t include anything else which isn’t directly relevant to your application.

Covering Letter?

A lot of contractors I’ve worked with are very cynical and say; “agents don’t even read covering letters, so don’t bother.”

However, professional CV writing providers, and many recruiters will tell you that a good covering letter can only benefit your chances of getting an interview.

A fair number of agents may not even read additional information, it’s true, but if you find an ad for your dream role, chances are the agent looking after the job will be someone who may be influenced by covering letters.

When I was applying for contract work myself, I always included covering letters (usually tailored to the job in question). I also called up the recruitment agent after submitting my CV. My main focus was always on standing apart from the competition. 

LinkedIn

Over the past few years, a new phenomenon has completely changed the way IT professionals communicate – LinkedIn.

If you don’t already use it, you really should. The site allows you to upload a live ‘CV’, and lets you network with past and present colleagues.

It may not yet replace the traditional CV, but it does allow potential clients and agents to find prospective candidates within seconds.

I’m not a massive fan of ‘social media’ as a whole, but LinkedIn is the exception. I’ve built up a network of a few hundred past colleagues over the past couple of years, including many people I simply lost touch with.

I’ve been offered several contract roles as a direct result of putting in a few minutes to keep my profile updated. I haven’t received emails saying “I’ve got a great contract role which would be perfect for you”, but by getting back in touch with people, fresh opportunities have come may way.

Does everything add up?

One thing many contractors may not be aware of is the rising number of recruiters that use screening software to scan the web (and other places) for additional background information about candidates.

Contractors applying for security cleared roles, and some financial services contracts have undergone pre-screening for some time, but the practice has spread to all types of industries over the past few years.

So, make sure you don’t ‘elaborate’ your employment and education history, however tempting it may be to do so.        

Make sure any online versions of your CV and contract details all match up, and if you post / contribute to online forums and other types of sites, it may be an idea not to use your real name, as anything ‘unprofessional’ could come back to haunt you in the future!

Final words of wisdom

Even though I’m not currently a recruiter of contractors, I still receive speculative CVs each week from old contacts and people interested in working for my online publishing business.

I’m still astonished at how little care many people take with their CVs, especially considering they’re meant to be ‘professionals’. It really doesn’t take that much effort to create a really powerful CV.

To summarise, here are my 3 main tips to help you build a killer CV:

  1. Above all – make your CV eye-catching and presentable, so that anyone reading it can see an instant summary of what you can do.
  2. Highlight your skills and experience at the top of the CV, and don’t include any ‘filler’ such as irrelevant hobbies.
  3. Tailor your CV submission to each role, to show that you have taken care, and have a genuine interest in the job.

We hope you enjoyed this article.

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