In this post I’m going to discuss a guidance framework that I use when helping students with CVs. I first came across this framework in The Career Coaching Handbook by Julia Yates, which is a book I’ve found very useful when thinking about how best to support the students I work with.
Helping students with CVs
Students often bring their CVs to appointments. Sometimes it almost seems like a bit of a security blanket, masking what they really need help with. Whether this is the case or not, it’s rare for a student to bring a CV that doesn’t need some work. While it’s quite common for careers advisers to help clients improve their CVs, deciding how best to do so is far from simple.
A non-directive approach
Giving students guidance on their CVs is just one part of what we do, and the way we choose to approach the task reflects the philosophy underpinning our wider guidance work. In general, most careers advisers would probably try and take a non-directive approach when working with their clients. In other words, as part of a client-centred and impartial practice they might strive to empower and enlighten their client rather than tell them what to do.
When it comes to CVs, even those of us who do take a largely non-directive approach might be tempted to tell students what they need to change and how they should go about it. However, even with our expertise we don’t and can’t know for certain ‘what works’ across all industries and for all employers. What’s more, there has been relatively little research into things like what structure and formats are the most effective, so opinions in this space can never be free from subjectivity.
Opinions matter, and it therefore makes sense for the person who should know both themselves and the role they’re applying for best (in case you’re wondering, it’s the student!) to produce a CV that matches who they are and what they have to offer. When working with students I want them to take ownership of their CV and come to their own conclusions on what they need to do in order to sell themselves effectively. To help them do this takes careful consideration and practice, and this is where using a framework can be so helpful.
Julia Yates’ EPIC framework for CV interactions
I first became aware of Julia when she gave a presentation on career coaching during my QCG course at Coventry University, and I always find her insights on career guidance to be thoughtful and well-argued. In her book, The Career Coaching Handbook, Julia Yates outlines a four-stage EPIC framework for CV coaching. Now, I’m not capitalising EPIC just because I find it amazingly useful for structuring CV interactions. EPIC is actually an acronym for the four framework stages of Employer, Perspectives, Impact and Changes. In order to give you a better idea of how I use EPIC, I’ll now discuss each stage as it relates to advising students on their CV.
Before delving into the structure and content of the CV, it’s important to find out who the student’s intended audience is. Asking questions such as: ‘What kind of job are you hoping to get with this CV?’ or ‘What will you be using your CV to apply for?’ allow you to gauge how focused the student is. Other questions Julia recommends at this early stage include: ‘What sort of job are you applying for?’, ‘Who will you be sending this CV to?’ and ‘Who are you hoping will read this?’.
If the student has no particular employer in mind, or plans to approach a range of companies speculatively, ask them to have a specific employer or role in mind for the purpose of the appointment. I like to get the student to be as specific as possible because it helps them to understand the need to tailor their CV to that particular opportunity.
For this stage in the interaction, Julia recommends considering two different perspectives: the employer and the client (or student in this case).
The first part of this stage is getting the student to consider what the employer will be looking for. The obvious way of doing this is to use the job description and/or person specification of the role they want to apply for, but if it isn’t available I recommend using one of the Prospects job profiles. This can be useful for speculative applications, as the profiles include a section on key skills, which allows students to understand what sorts of things they might need to highlight.
Julia recommends asking questions like: ‘What do you think the employer would be looking for from this CV?’, ‘What kinds of qualifications would most impress?’, ‘What do you want your CV to say about you?’ or ‘Imagine that you’ve got a huge pile of CVs. You’re half-way through. What’s going to make the next CV stand out?’
It’s during this stage that you can ask follow-up questions on what they think is most important about certain experiences they may have had. You can do this by asking ‘What is it about this experience that you think they’ll find most interesting?’ After asking these questions I like to summarise what the student has said, so I can check my perceptions are correct and allow them to focus on the key points they’ve highlighted.
Client (student) perspective
You then want the student to focus on what they think is worth highlighting in the CV. Julia suggests asking questions like ‘Of all the things you’ve done up until now, what do you think are the most relevant for the job?’ and ‘What do you think you have to offer that might make you stand out from the other candidates?’
This can be tricky for some students to do – articulating what they feel they have to sell to an employer might be one of the reasons why they booked the appointment in the first place! It may be that this part of the interaction requires more time, in order to encourage the student to think about their experiences and what they can pull out of them. If I reach this stage and the student is challenged by these questions, I like to refocus attention towards reflecting on their experiences rather than the CV. I explain to the student that this may be more useful at this stage, and that we can look at the CV at a later date. Julia believes that if done well, this process has the ability to enhance confidence and self-efficacy, ultimately boosting their ability to get the role they are applying for.
The next stage involves the student imagining that they’re in the employer’s shoes, which allows them to critically reflect on their CV’s impact. Questions such as ‘Looking at your CV, does the experience/knowledge/skills we spoke about earlier jump out at you when you read it?’ can be used at this stage.
Other questions I find useful include: ‘How have you matched your skills and experience to the employer’s requirements?’ and ‘What do you think your CV conveys to an employer?’
In the book, Julia suggests asking: ‘You said earlier that your most relevant experience was your time at the Post Office. How clearly does that come across here?’ and ‘When you look at your CV, what do you first notice?’
You can also ask more specific questions about structure, layout, content and order. For example, by asking ‘What about the way it’s structured. Do you feel this is selling you in the best way possible?’ you can encourage the student to use stronger or more convincing language. Similarly, asking their opinion on the visual impression of their CV as a document – does it ‘look’ like it should? – can also be a useful exercise.
This part of the EPIC framework is equivalent to the action-planning stage of a guidance model, and means getting the student to outline what ‘changes’ they’ll make to their CV after the appointment. I like to ask ‘What would you need to do to your CV to make your key selling points stand out?’ At this point you can invite them to talk about how they plan to improve their CV, which helps you check that they’ve understood the key points that have been discussed: ‘Talk me through the changes you’re going to make to your CV following this appointment’. Julia recommends getting students to be as specific as possible as they’re then more likely to implement the improvements.
Another point Julia makes is that it can be useful to show your client examples of different types of CVs to help them see that there are various layouts, fonts and language available to them. Many people (not just students) get stuck in a rut, with some relying on the same old CV templates, so it’s good to get them to explore different ways of presenting themselves. Equally, the tone of their CV can be varied by adopting different writing styles. I’ve seen students whose CVs read like an essay, and others where it was more like a social media timeline! As long as the tone of the CV matches the norms of the industry or role then, as Julia says, we should ‘encourage them to inject more of their personality into these otherwise dry documents’.
This video features Julia putting the EPIC framework into action:
Responding to student queries
The EPIC framework outlined above is one I find really useful, but as we all know students can often ask us questions, expecting a yes or no answer. To remain as non-directive as possible, here are some suggestions on how to respond to a few common queries:
Student: What skills do I need to write down under my profile?
Careers Adviser: It might help to think about the key skills of a Marketing Officer. What do you think these are? What is your understanding of the role of a Marketing Officer?
Student: I’m not sure if I should keep my skills profile here…
Careers Adviser: That’s an interesting observation, what makes you say that? / What impact do you think your skills profile has here?
Student: Is a one or two-page CV best?
Careers Adviser: It depends on what works best for the role and whether you feel you need two pages. Which do you think is the right choice here?
I don’t think of the EPIC framework as being completely non-directive, but I like how it encourages the student to think critically about their CV and find the answers to their own questions. By moving between the four stages you enable the student to review their CV and come up with improvements they could make. An old proverb comes to mind for this process:
‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.
Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.’
Isn’t this what we should be striving for in our practice? Giving students the tools to use beyond their time at university is surely better than a one-off ‘fix’ to help them get an internship or graduate job. However, students come to us as careers advisers with certain expectations and it can be difficult trying to balance what they want from you there and then with what might be the most helpful for them in the long run.
Do you believe that a non-directive approach is achievable when helping students with CVs? What are your opinions on the EPIC framework?