Making your CV stand out by adding a key skills section

Putting together a CV which will do its best for you is a science as much as an art. You need a document which is searchable by automated systems, but it also needs to look presentable and professional when it is seen as a whole by a recruiter. It’s easy to get things wrong and when that happens, your CV might miss the cut and opportunities could slip away.

So how do you maximise your chances of being spotted?

Why you need a Key Skills section in your CV

When they have a vacancy, recruiters begin by searching CVs for the skills required for that role. They will enter their list of desired key skills into the Applicant Tracking Software (ATS). When you submit your CV, the ATS will scan it for those key skills. Only once the ATS has identified that your CV meets the key skills requirements will the recruiter dive deeper into your experience and achievements.

If your key skills aren’t there, or if they’re tucked away in your career history, or if they’re not scannable, then you won’t make the cut. This means that all the relevant experience and achievements in the world won’t make a difference – because you won’t be seen.

But when the software can identify your key skills and they’re a match to the vacancy, the system will forward your CV to the recruiter and you’ll have passed the first hurdle.

Where to position a Key Skills section

Ideally, your ‘Key Skills’ section should be directly beneath your personal profile.

The recruiter needs to see your most essential details straight away – that’s your personal information and your strongest skills. If your key skills reflect those outlined in the vacancy advertisement, the recruiter will easily be able to see that could be a good fit for the role.

Very few recruiters will read through every word written on a CV. Instead they do a quick initial scan to see if it’s worth considering or not. They will have uppermost in their minds the most important skills for the role in question. When you prioritise your key skills and they are clearly visible at the top of your CV, you increase the chance that a recruiter will shortlist your CV and invite you for interview.

Which key skills to include

The key skills you need to include depends on the role you’re applying for. You may have many skills, but not all of them will be relevant to every job. Read the job advertisements thoroughly and be prepared to adapt your CV to highlight the most appropriate key skills for each individual role.

Above is an example of the key skills which might be appropriate to a Programme Manager role, and below, the typical skills required for a PA or Executive Assistant role.

No tables please!

The layout of your CV is just as important in making a good impression as the written content. To ensure everything lines up and is easy to read inserting a table could seem a good solution. In some cases you may have considered formatting the entire CV in a table so the content lines up perfectly.

Although tables are a neat and effective way of laying out documents, applicant tracking software cannot read them and therefore formatting your CV in a table can actively work against you. You still want to make a great impression as once your CV has made it through the screening process it will be viewed by the recruiter or hiring manager. A good solution for displaying your key skills is to use columns. Unlike tables, software can easily read information displayed in columns so this method works well for both software and recruiters.

A step-by-step guide to creating a Key Skills section using columns

Type your first key skill and then hit the ‘return’ button on your keyboard. Then type your second key skill and hit return. Keep on doing this until all your key skills appear as a list on the page.

Highlight the list with your mouse (by clicking in front of the first word with the left-hand side of your mouse and then dragging your mouse down to highlight the entire list).

Select the bullet points icon from your menu bar at the top of your screen, to add bullet points in front of each key skill.

Hit ‘return’ twice.  (A strange instruction but there is an odd glitch in MS Word that means the columns function doesn’t work if you haven’t moved on from the bullet pointed list before trying to change the list into columns.)

Select ‘Layout’ from the menu bar. An icon titled ‘Columns’ will then appear underneath it. Click on ‘columns’ and select the word, ‘three’. This instructs MS Word to put your list into three columns.

The formatting may not be quite right at this stage. You may find that the columns aren’t as close together as you would like them to be. To fix this, highlight the first column (by clicking in front of the first word with the left-hand side of your mouse and then dragging your mouse down to highlight it).

The ruler above the page will change. Grey blocks and white tabs will appear on it. Drag the white tabs to the left, to move the column further along the left-hand side of the page. Drag the grey blocks so that they become narrower, to decrease the amount of space between each of the three columns.

Repeat these steps (highlight the column and move the white tabs and grey block) for each column.

It may take a little bit of playing around but you will be able to get the columns to line up exactly how you want them.

Final thoughts

You may be a natural with MS Word but if the thought of creating columns yourself feels daunting, feel free to get in touch to learn how I can help with your CV.