“Can you talk me through your CV?”
Possibly the most straightforward, predictable question any new graduate might face in an interview. But that really does not make it an easy one to answer!
Figuring out how to pitch an answer can an awkward. It's not an early autobiography. You don't have to tell your entire life story. You're not on a date, and it's not a therapy session. Hitting the balance between covering the facts and captivating your audience can be daunting.
Naturally you need to showcase your skills. The focus is on the relevant professional, academic and leadership experience that you can bring to the role - but don't underestimate how your answer can be used to form a more personal connection with your interviewer. Let your personality shine through as you tell your unique narrative, and it makes it much easier for the recruiter to picture you fitting into their team and contributing positively to the business culture.
Don't stumble over your very own story. Spend some time preparing and practising your response to this most fundamental of questions, and you'll make sure that your interview starts well.
The expectation is likely to be that you talk through your CV chronologically - but choose your starting point carefully. As your career progresses, and you have more professional posts to talk through, you'll find that starting out describing your teenage paper round will not add anything. However, as a new graduate, you must be prepared to squeeze every last drop of value from the roles, internships and experiences you have had, including the transferrable skills and life lessons learned. Even that paper round taught you self discipline and the value of great customer service.
As you talk through your roles and experiences, you are building a narrative - telling a story. You might be asked to start off talking through your academic experiences before touching on the professional work experience you have gathered. Try to keep your focus on talking through items one by one in order, rather than dotting about through different jobs, internships or academic experiences at random.
If you have gaps in employment history, or roles which you held for only a short while, consider the best way to tell the story of this time. Don't be defensive. If you took a job and it did not work out for you, then describe what you learned - if you elaborate, or manufacture a narrative you risk being caught out. Be honest but own the way you position your experience. Even when things go wrong, we learn. Think about building a story of a unique mix of exposure and experiences which have led you to the present point.
Do your homework!
Before your interview, identify the key skills and responsibilities you need to illustrate from your experience to be successful. This might be as simple as reviewing the job advert - but if there is no specific list of required experience there, then look for the keywords used and repeated in the ad which show the most important aspects for the employer. If you are able to, do some research on the role and business to make sure you understand the culture and key concerns of the interviewer. Reference these points, reflecting back the language of the company, and demonstrate your relevant experience in talking through your CV.
A great example would be finding the company values or mission statement, which are often available on the corporate website. If a company value is ‘curiosity’ then you can reflect that in your description of what you have done, and what your driving forces are. You might say, for example, “I've always been really curious about the way that the retail industry works, so I chose an internship in this sector to explore and learn more”.
Talk about solid transferrable skills
It’s likely that you will be asked to talk through your academic record, but do be sure to show how it relates to the job you’re interviewing for. If you were awarded great grades or won honours, for example, this is something to share. But don't stop there - explain the way that this experience influenced you. Academic grades are backward looking, but the lessons learned about focusing on a task, planning, scheduling your time, and so on, tell the recruiter that you were not just lucky. You are not trying to rely on past glories, but rather learned valuable transferable skills that can be put to good use in the workplace. This is a great measure of potential.
When describing each internship or job role, make sure you use business relevant descriptions, in appropriate language, such as the scope of the role, your reporting lines and an outline of the responsibilities of the position. The same goes for positions such as leading a university sports club or society. Describe the way that this experience will translate over to a business world by choosing the language you use.
A great interviewer will prompt you to give such detail, but even if the questions are completely open-ended you should be thinking about which details are relevant to the role and business you're applying to.
Let your personality shine through
Show personality in your answer - it is not a shopping list! You are aiming to show your breadth, so don't be constrained but the question - recruiters value cultural fit, enthusiasm, drive and influence as much as they do academic and professional qualifications. Give a rounded picture.
This is a great point in your interview to really lift the words off the page and make your CV come to life. By sharing things you're passionate about (for example, the interests that led you to choose particular jobs, internships, or academic subjects), you build rapport with the recruiter. If you find you have a shared interest this can be a great way to connect with your interviewer.
Practise your wording in advance to make sure that you give more detail than the interviewer could already reasonably be expected to know from a cursory glance at your CV. Talk about the greatest challenges, learnings and successes of each experience you have, to elaborate on your story so far, and help you lead towards why you are interested in this new role.
Remember - it’s your story
The final consideration when talking through your CV is that you are essentially telling your career story. That means that you should aim to show a beginning, a middle and an end - or at least, a natural progression in which you have learned, broadened your experience, and developed personally and professionally from the experiences you have gathered along the way.
You're in control of the pace, so don't feel you have to rush or skim over important detail. Give a thought out account of the experiences you have, and show why you are proud of each one of them. By building your CV story you will be able to flow naturally into the reasons that you feel the new position will fit your career path perfectly, as well as detailing the ways you can add value to the business through the variety of skills and experience that you have already accumulated.
Succeeding in an interview is a learned skill, which for most of us requires practise and preparation. Luckily, being asked to talk through your CV is a predictable question which you can thoroughly prep in advance. The fact that the question is so open-ended can be quite off putting. Look at it as an opportunity to show and tell your personal story, of how your unique mix of experience will benefit the business, and help you progress your own career path at the same time.
Invest some practise time, and nail this question early in the interview - it will give you confidence to push on and really get the best from the experience. Good luck!