Past and present tense on a CV

Past and present 2We all remember the horrible English classes that we had to endure when we were at school, particularly those that involved grammar and punctuation. The classes where you’re teacher would write a statement on the old black board and then ask you whether the statement was in the past or present tense. Gosh! I hated those classes and for the benefit of anyone reading this, I’m not going to replicate it. My intention is not to dwell on those wonderful school memories but to simply remind you that you can enhance and strengthen the impact of your CV by making correct use of the tenses. I’ve come across hundreds of CV’s where candidates have used the tenses incorrectly. It’s a small oversight but can potentially have serious consequences on the impact of your application.

It’s not rocket science and there are two simple rules you should follow when writing about what you did in your previous role or what you are doing in your current role. When you talk about previous roles or positions, always refer to them in the PAST tense (80% of what you say about previous roles and positions should be in the past tense). On the other hand, when you’re talking about your current role or the responsibilities you have, always use the present tense.

Many people, including myself have used verbs (e.g. ‘work’) in the present tense to describe previous roles (e.g. ending with –ing: ‘working’) rather than in the past tense (e.g. ending with –ed: ‘worked’) in your CV. I know this sounds confusing but when you think about it logically, it makes sense. Look at the examples below:

  • “Duties included managing a team of 25 advisors in collections and sales”
  • “Was responsible for producing structured development plans for advisors”
  • “Have experience in coaching and developing staff to achieve set targets”

Yes, the examples above sound good but would they have the desired impact on an employer? The answer is a resounding, ‘NO’. If you really want to impress someone reading your CV that you are the perfect person for the role, rephrase the verbs into the past tense and see what happens.

  • Managed a team of up to 25 advisors in collections and sales”
  • Produced structured development plans for advisors”
  • Coached and developed staff to achieve set targets”

The way you use the past and present tense on a CV could be the difference between you getting an interview or not. The past tense is extremely powerful because it actually gives the impression – in a very short sentence – that you have really achieved something. It gives the employer the impression that you have done it, it’s finished. It’s completed. It’s time to move on.

On the contrary, there’s nothing wrong with using verbs such as ‘liaising’, ‘completing’, and ‘investigating’, as long as you use them in the right context. But if you’re using these verbs to describe duties that you carried out in a previous role then it will raise a number of questions and doubts in the minds of the reader. ‘Have they actually achieved it? Or ‘Where they struggling with it?’ etc. Don’t give the reader inkling to question your ability. Avoid using weak verbs and phrases when describing your past duties. I’m not implying that you make wholesale changes, simply replace each verb with the past tense; ‘liaised’ as opposed to ‘liaise’, ‘completed’ as opposed to ‘completing’, and ‘investigated’ as opposed to ‘investigate’. This will give your CV that authoritative impact it needs and ultimately give you opportunity to secure that all important interview.