Expert Guide on Freelancer CV formats
Writing a CV for the Freelance market has a number of challenges such as knowing how to capture multiple areas of specialism in one document, the last piece of work sitting at the top regardless of its relevance and keeping the CV to a manageable length. To navigate these challenges, there are three frameworks that can be used by Independent Professionals, says Matt Craven, Founder of The CV & Interview Advisors.
The first of these is the traditional chronological CV which is appropriate for freelancers, contractors and interim managers, particularly those new to freelancing.
The second is the case study portfolio CV which works well for more experienced freelancers who have more than 5 years of unbroken freelance experience, who seek a reasonable proportion of their work through their own network and who have fairly large/longer assignments to present.
The third option is the freelancer CV which is used by independent professionals who perform many shorter-term assignments. This applies to independents such as copywriters and graphic designers where assignments are more fluid, shorter and may overlap.
This guide will walk through all three of these frameworks however some of the sections appear on all three styles of CV and will be covered first. These three sections are the summary, key skills and the use of case studies. Obvious sections such as personal details, education, certifications, training and technical skills will not be covered in detail.
The professional summary
There has been some conjecture amongst recruiters regarding the merits of a personal profile on a CV. This conjecture stems from the fact that many people fill their personal profiles with irrelevant and mostly clichéd information.
We see hundreds of CVs each week and I recently reviewed 5 CVs back-to-back and was interested to find that all 5 people considered themselves to be dynamic and innovative with excellent communication skills. Having spoken to all the individuals, it confused me as to why 5 people, who didn’t know each other, could include almost word for word, the exact same phrases in their CV.
I would guess that they all had found these skills on job adverts/briefs and felt the need to include these words on their CV.
Perhaps the confusion stems from the phrase ‘personal profile’ which alludes to information about one’s personality, however we recommend that you have more of a ‘professional’ summary which outlines the profession in which you work, followed by 4 or 5 key strengths (things that you are particularly good at), which are aligned with the roles that you are applying for.
The professional summary should be the first thing that a hiring manager reads. It is designed to give a brief description of you and highlight the key areas that your clients are looking for. After reading this section, the decision maker should find your application relevant and feel motivated to read the rest of your CV.
The summary has three key components:
- What work do you do?
- What is your value proposition?
- What are your top four key strengths?
As mentioned, you should avoid clichéd behavioural competencies such as “working well in a team”, “working under pressure” and having “good communication skills”.
What work do you do?
The idea is to start with a simple description of your professional background e.g. ‘An experienced marketing manager/consultant ’.
Getting the reader's attention is all about explaining that you are an appropriate professional for their role. If they are looking for an experienced digital marketing specialist with experience of marketing automation then you need to tell them that this is what you are – if you do this successfully, they will be motivated to read on.
The next part of the summary is the value proposition. This is a little trickier to get right but think of it as your over-arching offering; the key ‘thing’ that you consistently walk into an organisation and do; or put another way, the purpose of your professional existence. It’s a sentence that encapsulates the essence of your service offering to your clients.
For example, my value proposition is creating powerful CVs and LinkedIn profiles that enhance my client’s ability to secure freelance roles. Our marketing manager’s value proposition is developing low-cost marketing strategies that deliver superior return on investment from marketing budgets.
Defining your value proposition is critical yet one of the most challenging aspects of developing your personal brand and marketing collateral.
The next part of the summary is to communicate what you are particularly good at – this should be your key strengths that feed into the over-arching value proposition that we mentioned earlier.
Example: developing low cost and ‘recession busting’ marketing initiatives that deliver superior ROI from marketing spend; specialist experience of PR, raising client’s profiles to ‘industry authority’ status as well as turning negative publicity into positive PR; and creating robust reporting capability to measure marketing performance and drive improved campaign ROI.
Notice how these key strengths are written in a ‘features and benefits’ style where we describe the skill then explain how this skill will benefit your clients. In other words, describe what the skill does for the business.
Notice also how these are higher level skills, or in other words, things that you are really good at. The key here is to push the skills that you think your clients will be most interested in, aligned with the challenges that companies and organisations might be facing in the current climate.
You need to position yourself as the answer to problems rather than being overly introspective. The idea is to provide a statement which is powerful yet authentic.
The key skills
In internet marketing circles, optimising a website for keywords/search terms is critical and most web-based businesses focus heavily on optimising their website so that they appear higher up on the search engine rankings.
The same can be said about CVs; at some stage in the decision-making process, someone will be doing keyword searches, looking for skills that you may have. If these skills are listed on your CV, then you will appear in their searches, but if they're not, then you won’t.
There is no escaping the non-human side of winning work and if your CV isn’t optimised for these searches, then you are destined to fail.
Now how do we get these keywords into the CV?
Should we use white text in size one font tucked away on page 4 (some people have used this technique) or should we attempt to provide something that will work for both machine and human? I’m in favour of the latter so suggest adding a section after your professional summary that incorporates all the keywords that you think someone might be searching on.
This might look something like this:
- Marketing strategy definition
- Corporate branding
- Collateral development
- E-Marketing / Web design
- Digital marketing (including SEO & PPC)
- Event management/trade shows
- Social media marketing
- CRM marketing
- Fluent in English, German & French
- HTML email campaigns
- Supplier management
- Project management
A list of 18 would be a maximum but anything between 10 and 18 bullet points works well. The trick is to present a menu of skills that are picked up by the database searches but also provides a list of skills that hopefully matches with the skills listed on the advert/brief.
Present these skills in a logical order with the most important top left and the least important bottom right. Change them for each position you are applying for and remember that sometimes less is more i.e. a big long list can sometimes dilute the key points and make them less obvious.
Case studies (projects)
This section will walk you through one of the most important aspects of writing a CV – achievements! It will provide detailed and specific instructions on how to write achievements including the use of case studies that will transform your CV into a highly effective sales document.
We recommend having case studies on all three formats of CV: The chronological CV would have three case studies in a career highlights section; the case study Portfolio CV would have eight case studies instead of a career history, and the freelance style CV would also have three case studies in a career highlights section. These case studies focus on achievements, projects and your most impressive pieces of work.
Let’s focus this section on how these would look on a chronological and freelance style CVs, and we’ll cover the case study CV scenario later in the guide. In both these cases, you would have a section with three case studies. We call this section ‘career highlights’ and these are what will set you apart from your competition. It is your opportunity to provide hard evidence that you are good at what you do and turn your CV into a sales document rather than a list of jobs with a raft of unsubstantiated statements.
A career highlight is something that you have been involved in (e.g. a project) where your actions created a tangible and positive outcome.
You should use specific examples and ensure that the examples that you choose, provide relevant evidence in line with the role that you are applying for. In order to construct these examples and give them enough context to stand-alone on page one, we use a formula called STAR, which is an acronym for Situation, Task, Actions and Result.
Situation gives background to the example i.e. who were you working for and what situation did they find themselves in; Task describes the extent to your involvement i.e. how you were involved; Actions are the specifics to what you did; and Result is the outcome, ideally in measurable terms.
- Magpie Boots Solutions had an out-of-date website which was failing to deliver ROI and suffered high ‘bounce’ rates. As a freelance marketing consultant, I led a major web re-development project. I analysed web analytics & user behaviours; carried out user feedback survey & competitor analysis; defined profitable keywords; selected 2 web partners; created design brief; and signed-off all imagery & content. I succeeded in creating a new website with full CMS functionality that increased enquiries by 15%, reduced bounce rate by 29% & attracted major contract with XYZ Plc.
Note: keep the case studies to no more than 6 lines each.
Let’s break STAR down into its component parts:
The career history
This section relates to the chronological CV only and will explain what information to always add for each position that you present on your CV and what order will work best. We describe this as ‘optimising the information architecture of your CV’ which is critical to the effectiveness of your CV. Too many CVs have a somewhat random list of duties and responsibilities which are in no particular order, which renders the CV less impactful.
The career history is all about adequately explaining what the scope of your responsibilities were across your relevant career history.
The career history must have an information architecture that delivers the right information in the right order. Random bullet points just won’t do and being too brief is also a mistake; bullet points that are two lines long are optimum and provide just enough information without being too wordy. Our general rule is that one line is skinny, 2 lines is great and 3 lines OK if you really have to.
Now back to information architecture! I recommend starting with a series of context building bullet points; context is essential when writing a CV as it helps the reader to conceptualise your role. If you start with a random duty/responsibility, it will have no context and render it ineffective, but if we have good context building information before the duties and responsibilities, it helps the reader to understand the ‘context’ in which you performed those tasks.
Here are the recommended key ‘context’ building bullet points:
- Information about the organisation that you worked for
- The purpose of your role i.e. a role summary
- If you managed a team, a description of your direct reports
- Potentially, how was your role measured (not always appropriate)
When describing the company, explain what industry they are in and how big they are.
The purpose/summary of your role should capture ‘in a nutshell’ what the scope of your role was. Aim to provide a detailed bullet point that, if no other bullet points existed, would adequately describe what your role was.
If you managed a team, understanding who these people were can build context. It allows the reader to picture an organogram of your team in their minds.
Once you have written these ‘context’ building bullet points, you can then describe the specifics of your role e.g. daily, weekly, monthly tasks and any key projects that you delivered (more achievements). Where possible, use statistics to ‘prove’ that you did a jolly good job.
The case study portfolio CV
I have worked closely with the freelance community for many years and two challenges keep rearing their ugly head. Firstly, how does a freelancer write a CV that isn’t six pages long; and secondly, what happens if you want to apply for a role that draws upon skills gained in a role that isn’t the most recent piece of work that you have done?
Decision makers tend to focus on the last position that you did (because it’s at the top), regardless of its relevance - I like to call this ‘last job syndrome’. I anticipate lots of nodding heads at this stage and you’ll be glad to know that there is a solution which allows freelancers to present their careers in a much more concise and effective way.
The premise of this methodology is to move away from the traditional chronological CV and to break your career down into individual pieces of work (rather than blocks of employment). Think more about individual projects rather than periods of working for a particular company.
You may identify 30 pieces of work that you have done throughout your career and decide that 15 of them are up to date, large enough and relevant. Once you have identified these key pieces of work, write them as short case studies (no more than 6 lines long), ideally using the STAR methodology (that we discussed earlier in the guide), and add 8-10 of them into the CV at any one point in time.
The CV then becomes a portfolio of case studies and you are able to change the order of them depending on the position that you are applying for (put the most relevant at the top on page one).
Of course, decision-makers will still want to see the dates of your roles, so put a career chronology section after the case studies with the date, company name and your job title. This framework will provide you with much more flexibility and allow you to tailor the CV to the roles you are applying for in a much more effective way.
This style of CV is broken up into a number of sections which are as follows:
- Professional summary
- Key skills/expertise
- Current role
- Assignment (case study) portfolio
- Career chronology
- Certifications & qualifications
- Education (if not included in qualifications)
- Personal details
- Technical appendix
There are two sections that are specific to the case study portfolio CV. These are current role and the career chronology. We’ll discuss them now.
This is critical to explain to the reader that you are a) a freelancer or independent professional, and b) that you are presenting your CV in a different format. This will educate the reader and help them to understand the way in which you are presenting the information to them. I would recommend using this exact wording:
January 2006 to date: Freelancer / Marketing consultant (123 Consulting Ltd)
- Since 2006, have operated as a freelance marketing consultant (through own Ltd company vehicle), delivering assignments for high profile organisations such as Barclays, Lloyds and Tesco. Below is a list of example assignments completed over this period (which are NOT necessarily in chronological order and not all are listed).
This section simply highlights the chronology of your career. Simply list the names of your clients or employers, the dates that you worked there (including months), your job title and your status (freelance or permanent). If you’ve had lots of short term assignments, this approach might not work, and you might have to just reference your own company as the organisation you were working for. Keep these to one line and detail your entire career.
The freelance CV
As previously mentioned, freelancers who deliver shorter pieces of work which may overlap would find it impossible to construct their CV in the chronological format and the case study format may also fall down. The best option, therefore, is to ‘lump together’ the freelance part of your career in one section and use the individual bullet points to communicate what type of work you do and the key assignments that you have delivered. You would still have the professional summary, key skills and career highlights sections and the career history for your permanent career would remain as we recommended earlier in the guide.
The freelance part of your career might look something like this:
Company: Career Transformation Ltd (Various Clients)
Position: Freelance career consultant
Dates: November 2016 to present
- During this period, operated as a freelancer, delivering career services to a variety of clients including xxx, xxx and xxx. These roles focused on outplacement and career coaching as well as writing CVs and LinkedIn profiles for senior job seekers, freelancers and contractors.
- Personally act as lead consultant on a range of outplacement and career management assignments as well as writing articles for various organisations, contributing to books and film productions, and delivering seminars on behalf of CVIA and other bodies.
- Engaged by an expanding digital media and IT consultancy firm to create a portfolio of CVs for use in contract tenders and LinkedIn profiles to sell the company and its senior management team. As a result, sales have increased by 15%.
- Engaged by a leading high-tech business to create an executive profile for their newly appointed MD which would appear on their corporate website.
- Engaged by an international consulting network to provide advice to their team on how to write effective profiles, case studies and CVs which has uplifted lead generation by 25%.
- Appointed by a leading service management consultancy to harmonise their consulting team’s CV portfolio which are used as a key tool in winning contract tenders. This has increased their bid to contract award ratio by 10% resulting in £xxxk of additional revenue.
- Engaged by the management team involved in an MBO to write a portfolio of executive biographies to present to VC investors. Spent 2 days on site, performing in-depth interviews prior to writing each biography using The CVIA Group’s unique marketing framework.
Note: if you can use client names, do so! This will build context around your examples and make them more powerful.
If you need more assistance with your freelance CV, The CV & Interview Advisors provide a FREE CV review service. They will conduct a thorough analysis of your CV and LinkedIn profile, comparing them against current best practice and providing detailed 1-2-1 feedback.
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This guide and its contents are the intellectual property of the author, Matt Craven and The CV & Interview Advisors Ltd. Copying, distributing or making commercial gain from its content is strictly prohibited.