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The 6-second CV: Recruitment’s biggest myth

Have you ever been told, “Recruiters spend just 6 seconds looking at your CV”?

Although this motto encourages jobseekers to utilise CV writing tips and best practices, the statistic may not be wholly truthful. Recently, new studies have shown that recruiters spend far more time reading CVs than many have been led to believe.

So, where did this myth begin?

The Ladders’ original studies

The statistic was published in a 2018 study by The Ladders. Tracking the eye movement of recruiters when reviewing a selection of CVs over a 10-week period, they found their average read time to be 7.4 seconds.

This was a 1.4-second increase on the result of their previous 2012 study – the originator of the initial 6-second figure.

In general, these formatting tips were aimed at candidates and focused on using clear headers, simple fonts and not overcrowding the page. All of which are useful tips when writing a CV.

However, from a recruitment perspective, there are several factors within the study which are worth questioning.

The missing context

Recruitment in the USA (where The Ladders is based) compared to the UK varies drastically in approach and method, but this detail is often glossed over when the study is cited.

Only 30 recruiters took part in the original study – and the updated 2018 version doesn’t provide a number. For perspective on how small this test subject pool was; around the same time, approximately 39,000 staffing and recruiting offices were operating in the USA.

Alongside this:

  • It’s unclear whether the recruiters were from the same agency or different locations
  • We aren’t told how many resumes were given to the recruiters
  • How they were timed isn’t explained, only that they “were not aware”
  • The eye-tracking technology isn’t named.

The job specification and CVs are not included in the report, which means key context is missing:

  • The seniority and industry of the role being recruited
  • Whether the role had requirements such as certain experience/qualifications
  • How relevant and how long the submitted CVs were.

Valuable insight or marketing tactic?

As observed by Susan Gygax for ERE;

“Essentially, this measurement was used as clickbait and many of the articles that I saw referenced “studies have shown” without a link or other details about those studies. (…) The majority of these articles 1) were not written by recruiters or 2) were selling something.”

– 2020

Despite being outdated by its successor, the 6-second figure from the 2012 study is still cited by articles as recently as 2023.

This could be because ‘6’ is catchier than ‘7.4’ – however, the statistic has generated its own subgenre of content, which suggests that its ability to attract readers and increase virality is the likeliest motivator.

In articles and YouTube videos, content creators share tips to ‘beat the 6-second CV challenge’ or play rapid-fire interactive tests; using this as an example of why their services or ‘ATS-optimised’ templates should be purchased in order for job-seekers to succeed.

In these instances, it’s likely that the content is biased towards perpetuating this myth.

How long do recruiters actually look at a CV?

In April of this year, Jan Tegze – a member of LinkedIn’s exclusive ‘Top Voices’ group, ran a study wherein 114 recruiters were presented with 3 different CVs. These results were much closer to the reality of the day-to-day recruitment process.

The CVs varied in length and the time taken to analyse them varied accordingly;

  • The shortest CV was analysed in an average of 17 seconds, with the fastest being 12 seconds – still double the 6-second figure commonly touted online.
  • The mid-length CV was analysed in 27 seconds on average
  • The longest CV was analysed in an average of 46 seconds. This CV also had the highest read time of 2 minutes and 27 seconds. To break it down further, this converts to 136.2 seconds – which is 22.7 times higher than the popular 6-second figure.

The CVs used in Jan Tegze's updated study, which explored how long a CV should be
Jan Tegze, LinkedIn, 2023 [cropped]

Direct from the Recruiters: our best CV writing tips

As leading East Midlands recruitment experts, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to CVs. Our specialists are armed with up to 25 years of experience, meaning we’ve become pretty good at spotting what makes a great CV. Below are some of our recommendations.

How long should a CV be?

There’s a long-standing debate on how many pages a CV should be. Although the lengthiest CV in the 2023 study had the most reading time on average, Tegze’s heat-mapped images show that the group’s attention was mainly concentrated towards the first page (green), while the latter pages were skim-read (blue). This suggests that the top section of the first page is the biggest motivator for the recruiter to continue reading.

  • For junior to mid-level roles, aim for 2 pages.
  • For senior-level or more experienced roles, expand to a third page if there’s critical and relevant information that you need to include. Allow yourself this extra space rather than cutting out key parts of your career history, shrinking the font or squashing the text.

Our best CV writing tips

  • Aim to highlight your key relevant experience, including the highlights and achievements of each role. Apply the most detail to your 2 – 3 most recent jobs or the last 5-10 years of your career.
  • Place the most important and relevant information at the top of the page. Likewise, list your roles in chronological order, with the most recent first.
  • Keep time and simplicity in mind. A recruiter or employer will expect to read your CV and easily see that you’re a suitable fit for the role. Bullet points can be a useful tool for key information.
  • Always have a skills section to list anything relevant to the job description; Example: in Marketing, your experience in SEO, PPC or digital PR
  • Include a software section to highlight your technical knowledge; Examples: Microsoft Office, Python, Excel, Adobe Creative Cloud
  • Before submitting, always check your spelling and grammar.

Double-check that everything included on your CV is relevant; filler copy can sound impressive, but it can also occupy too much space. Show your positive impact through short statements, figures and information. The rest can be saved to discuss during the interview and truly impress the hirer.

Finally, the design of the CV makes all the difference, you don’t want something overly elaborate but equally it needs to be easy to read whilst housing all relevant information in a digestible format.

Distinct Recruitment

When you work with us as a candidate, we’ll provide free, tailored advice and coaching – helping to strengthen your CV and put your best foot forward during the interview. From your initial call through to a check-in once you’re settled in your new role; we’ll be there every step of the way.

If you’re currently hiring and in need of assistance, visit our Talent Portal to browse a wide pool of fantastic candidates we’re now supporting.

Reach out to our Nottingham office today to get started.

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