Insight: What do hiring managers look at in CVs?

What does really matter in your CV in Germany? (and probably the whole EU)

Your usual “how to do a CV” recipes are crap. There, I wrote it.

If you google “what should be included in a German CV,” you will get around 190 million results. But we actually know it, no? Include personal info, work experience, education and skills. Maybe add a photo and hobbies and interests.

So far, so good, but the devil is in the details (cover letter, number of pages, photo, CV modification to fit the position, what to write in experience and so on). If you ask (or pay!) ten experts to edit the same CV, you will get twelve opinions because “well, it depends.” And the bad news is that it really depends. It depends on what the hiring manager likes.

So, forget about HR and CV experts and ask yourself: Did my hiring manager go online and inform themselves what a good CV should look like or even what the rules of CVs are in Germany or Europe? No. Did you do it when you participated in an interview on the hiring side? I didn’t.

Okay, that was a lot of cynical destruction, and it’s

time to build back up!

And what did I do? I made a list of people I mostly worked with or would work for and asked them, “What do you look at in CVs?” Some were too busy to reply, but I got 22 responses from hiring managers (CEOs, CFOs, VPs, Team Leads and similar) or employees involved in the decision-making. But most importantly, you’d probably like to work for or with them—they’re all great! And that’s not all:

I also asked Handpicked readers about some CV-related topics (full results at the bottom). A typical Handpicked reader:
– is less likely to include a photo when applying in Germany (55% vs. 41%),
– leans towards keeping their CV concise, mostly limited to 1-2 pages (85%),
applies to less than 50 jobs on average before landing an offer (59%).

Most are selective when customizing their CV, doing so often or always for roles they deem special (45%). Opinions on the necessity of a cover letter vary: a significant 30% see it as crucial when they’re particularly interested in a role.

I also asked about the cover letter on LinkedIn, and a significant majority think that cover letters don’t really matter (60+%). And I think this is great news!

Because this is what your, hmmm, competitors on the market are doing. But what should YOU do?

If you read through the quotes (and you should!), you will see that opinions sometimes differ, especially on things like a cover letter, but sometimes even typos. This proves it: CVs and what decision-makers like and look at are subjective. But this does not mean we should give up and say egal. We can still optimize, and here is how…

The main takeaways!

Based on all the inputs and with the help of the Code Interpreter, you cannot go wrong with the following:

  1. Make sure you have no typos and formatting issues; they can only hurt you. (this : is a typo too , and this too)
  2. Always save it as a PDF.
  3. Keep it short and to the point: one or a maximum of two pages.
  4. Use your cover letter to provide context your CV can’t. Specify why you want to work with them. Show effort, do some research, and show your personality. Hard skills matter, but so do personal attributes.
  5. Never submit a ChatGPT cover letter with a weak prompt. It can only hurt your chances. It’s better to go without.
  6. Match your experience with the keywords in the role description at least up to 60% or more. It will be easier to pass the HR stage.
  7. Highlight the impact you had! Don’t just list the responsibilities.
  8. Provide context for your skills: Where did you use them, and what impact did they have?
  9. Don’t be a robot: If you have interesting hobbies, skills or volunteer work, add them. They won’t hurt!
  10. Apply as early as possible and contact the HR/hiring manager if possible (via LinkedIn or email).

The most significant chance for you to stand out besides a solid CV is actually a great cover letter. Some hiring managers don’t read it, but many do. Since many people don’t even bother to write one (see survey results), this is an excellent opportunity for you to stand out. Sure, it’s an investment of your time, but how much are increased chances to stand out in front of the hiring manager worth?

To nail the CV down even more, here is a good template. It’s slightly adapted and transcribed from this picture I found on Reddit (but I have no idea where the original source is, sorry).

For Operations specialist at Snapchat (sorry for the colours!):

  • Researched user trends to implement Go-To-Market strategies for a new update called Cheetah, improving user experience and gathering data from queues while increasing customer operations satisfaction rating by 11%
  • Developed training materials and operational workflows for macro language processing, creating 10+ infographics and webinars for sign-up issues, password resets, and account conflict queues.
  • Created and improved operations processes for use inquiries, solving 300+ customer inquiries weekly through CRM platforms, including Zendesk, Confluence and Jira.

You get the picture: strong action verbs, measurable impact, tools/strategies/processes and areas or skill domains. I like it. If I did my CV again, I would go with this format but put education after experience.

Good luck, and if you need help, contact me on social media (links in the footer). You can also subscribe to my FREE newsletter:

or get equipped for your interview with 40+ questions to ask at your interview. But actually, I think you should read through the quotes to form your own opinion:

Quotes from hiring managers

Alphabetically sorted; the companies mentioned are as of September ’23 and won’t be updated:

I look for applicants with CVs that have been well structured and concise yet clearly demonstrate career progression and the value added to the organization, e.g. what was achieved and not just a list of responsibilities. It’s encouraging to see career progression every 2-4 years, and it creates an even stronger impression if it’s within the same company. Changing companies can raise concerns if the CV shows change too often. A cover letter also shows the applicant has taken more time to think about the specifics of the role and the skills and experience you offer.

Adam Maples, OSeven, Athens & London

An engineering candidate’s CV and LinkedIn profile should answer these questions for me: “Does the candidate have the relevant experience and skills to be considered a good fit for the role?” and “Should I set up an interview with them to know more?” I will first scan the CV to see which projects the candidate has worked on and the technologies they are proficient in. Keeping the CV concise, short, and to the point is much better than using a lot of generic and meaningless phrases. The intro and the cover letter are also very helpful, as they provide insight into why a person could be a good match for the position. It’s a pity when people don’t invest in either of these because it leaves me, as a hiring manager, with much less information about whether it’s worth pursuing any next steps. For more senior candidates, it is always a big plus to learn about their work’s impact and how it helped the product, the company, and the team.

Andrew Garkavyi, Engineering Manager at Grammarly, Berlin

Candidates should be able to highlight real examples of their previous results so that I can see their impact on the company’s overall success. It’s helpful if they are crisp & clear. A cover letter is equally important because it’s something personal and helps me see why a person would like to work for a specific company and why in this specific role.

Aljaž Godec, Databox, Slovenia

I initially scan CVs for format, clarity, focus and theme of the candidates for max 5 minutes. Typos are no-gos for CVs. If still interested, I look more intensely at the projects and deliverables of the candidates to filter out their experiences and try to understand their interests and drive. Accordingly, I note down 2-3 questions related to their contributions to previous jobs and try to learn about the candidates’ character. Robots will be replaced by machines, so I rather look out for characters, not robots.

Andreas Engels, Turck, Cologne

Working in the Talent Acquisition / Recruiting field for some time now, I need to point out that recruiters spend really short time going through an applicant’s CV/LinkedIn profile. We are used to certain formatting and always have a specific job description in the back of our minds. I always focus on the work experience section; I am looking for the name of the company, title, and length that the person stayed in companies over time (have they been promoted?), but I pay the most attention to how they describe their work – hard skills, responsibilities, team setup. I try to match what I read with what I know about the role and what the hiring manager is looking for. How detailed I am depends on whether I have already received a lot of applicants (if yes – I am more selective because I have options to choose from); if no, I am trying to be more forgiving on what I didn’t find in a CV.

Barbara Kryslak, Wefox, Berlin

A CV is like self-marketing and therefore I love CVs where I can see that someone invested time in it. Not only completeness and correctness but also design matters. I look at CVs from an overall perspective as a first contact or a door opener; it shouldn’t be underestimated.

Ben Mühleisen, Mercedes-Benz Mobility, Stuttgart

I look at the candidate’s last 2-3 positions and try to grasp what they’ve been working on and their overall experience. For creative roles (designers), I would expect to see a link to a personal portfolio. For Product roles, I look at the achievements (outcomes or outputs) rather than at used frameworks and methods. I usually don’t find other information (languages, listed skills, hobbies, etc.) relevant. I skip visualised progress bars of hard skills. I would also expect a CV to be one page because it forces you to be concise and relevant; if I want more, I can just look at the LinkedIn profile. I check the cover letter only if I find the candidate’s CV interesting.

Dejan Ulcej, Klarna, Berlin

I barely pay attention to the cover letter, to be honest, as I think there is not much value added. I fully concentrate on the CV, and I want to see jobs and specific achievements there. I also look for formatting. What I hate is if I get a Word document (it needs to be PDF, and that’s a must!) and if there are different fonts used and it’s not formatted correctly. Additionally, I look at where people worked (internships or student jobs), and I’m also interested if they studied abroad and if they did or do voluntary work.

Dominic Schaffner, Mercedes-Beny Mobility, Stuttgart

First things first: don’t be fooled by the idea that managers won’t notice a universal cover letter and CV that you sent out to various companies. There’s not enough space in this article to list all of the obvious signs of universal CVs. Especially in the cover letter, I prefer to see a connection between your past experience according to your CV and the position and company you’re applying for. An application without a cover letter is still a no-go for me. 

Generally, a good structure of CVs is a must. I also prefer to read from “current to past” meaning that you should start with your current experience.

Helena Ala-Dueck, Stuttgart

First of all, I try to understand the overall story: Why has this person chosen this way and where are they coming from? I do that to get an idea of whether the applicant is a “streamlined” person doing what was expected/sensible or if they found their own way and maybe also learned to fight for their goals. The latter usually makes applicants more interesting to me, I would like to get to know them and hear their story of why they now want to work for the company I am with.

Irene Krings, Witzenmann Group, Stuttgart

For me, a CV is an impression of the person who wrote it, a mirror.
The first thing that attracts my attention is accuracy (with the hope of no typos) and style. With style, I don’t mean colours or different font styles but rather flow: how easy is it to paint a picture of a candidate?
The second thing is a list of jobs and roles they had. This provides not only insight into a candidate‘s prior experience, which of course, remains a focal part in the selection of a candidate, but also demonstrates agility and openness to learn new and different things. If they change jobs frequently, it can come with a risk that they’re not reliable in the long run; this is something I would try to understand better and go more in-depth during the interview. But it also provides an opportunity to hire an open-minded person, open to change and ongoing learning. Agility and diversity are key elements of high-performing teams.
A cover letter is also an important part of a CV. It shows the candidate’s effort to stand out in a crowd and adds the final touch to the candidate‘s profile.

Iris Cifer, Mercedes-Benz Mobility, Stuttgart

No typos, clear and „efficient“ wording, not too much bullshit bingo, soft skills, values and an eye-catcher. The motivation letter is over thanks to AI.

Isabel Casada, Credit Suisse, Zürich

Reading through a CV is so important to me! I love seeing that the applicant took the time to make their CV relevant and connectable to the job they are applying for. Of course, a first impression is supported by a nice layout (enhancv is a super tool) and would be diminished by typos and errors. A cover letter, especially in the times of ChatGPT, is not really relevant and doesn’t add any value.

Katharina Baum, Salesforce, Munich

We look for an entrepreneurial mindset (variety of projects in and out of work, extraordinary topics in the CV beyond the job description), making things happen regardless (mobility, speed of study, any side hustles like blogs), technical knowledge or interests.

Katrin Puettmann, FMIT, Malaga

In general, the main purpose of the CV is to get you to the interview phase and present your skills and experience in a clean and approachable manner. The first thing I look at is the clarity of the information presented, including proper grammar and mistakes-free text. If the CV is sloppy, that would indicate messy deliverables in the future, whereas a good CV promises that all future work done might be of similar quality.

Second, easy to easy-to-read list of skills, ideally with an indication of the level for each skill. Being able to screen the CV and quickly understand if there is a skill-set match or not greatly supports the chance of getting to the interview phase. Not all the skills need to be high level—I wouldn’t be shy of mentioning that you’re learning one or the other language or tool—this shows interest and passion to develop yourself in the given field.

The experience should contain factual impact—I very much prefer the statement that someone developed a data model or produced ten dashboards on sales KPIs, which required ETL and stakeholder management, rather than blunt and general comments like: “I’ve helped increase the company revenue by 1B USD with my insights.” Some people favour showing business impact over deliverables in your CV—but I’m not one of them in the case of data-related positions.

Lastly, I do believe it’s a good practice to have a good read through potential positions and apply to those where the skills and experience really match (even if it’s only 70-80% match) rather than blindly click apply to dozens of offers, regardless if the position is really a fit or not. Being selective gives you more time for preparation and boosts your chances of actually getting the job.

Krzysztof Krasnodębski, Delivery Hero, Berlin

I check a CV for basic competencies to fit the job role. If there is a fit, I would additionally want to get an understanding of the authentic version of that person. Do they have something to make them a rounded individual? If someone writes “travel” under interests, I feel it’s extremely generic. To make a truly high-performing team, diversity is essential, and so I want to try and get an impression of who the person is.

Louisa Peéry, London

To invite a candidate to an interview, I don’t care so much about grades and educational path but who the person is and what kind of professional experience they gained. This should match the vacant position and the culture in the company.

Maren Kappler, Star Cooperation, Stuttgart

My three tips for when you apply:
1) Try to apply as soon as a job is posted. That way, your application sets the standard, and the people reading your CV don’t have a lot of other examples for comparison.
2) Cover letters are not fun – reach out via LinkedIn to people in your target company or visit them at a career fair. That makes the whole writing about why you are applying a lot easier (ask them to tell you about the culture, their initiatives, their USPs as an employer, etc. and reference these points and the person you talked to in your cover letter). 
3) Find someone to proofread your CV or give you feedback before you send it to a company that is important to you. Try to find a friend who works in HR, as HR is the first “gatekeeper” your CV needs to convince.

Marten Graebner, Liechtensteinische Landesbank, Vaduz

Before an interview, I would read the CV and identify relevant skills or notable peculiarities which make the candidate special. During the interview, I would cross-check these points with questions. I perceive long CVs with long sentences as negative. Focus on what matters about you and the specific position. Overall, aesthetics count and half-full pages look weird to me. Either you have so much experience for three full pages, or be concise and cut down to two.

Martin Brehm, AWS, Singapore

When I screen a CV – first and foremost – I am searching for the relevant experience the candidate has to match the role I am recruiting for. Usually, in all of my roles, I tend to focus on 3-4 major pillars of background I consider essential, for example:

1. Operative/strategic experience in the functional domain of the role, 

2. Experience using software/tools related to the domain of the role and typical for the industry; 

3. Experience related to working in teams and complex and international organizations. 

Once I see a match of the functional/technical background, I look for any indicators or hints about the person behind the CV, their mindset, motivation and aspirations. There are always “hidden” indications, which I later try to understand better in the interviews. While I am (only to an extent) sensitive to the length of the CV, the moment I find a match of the functional/technical background, I take my time to read it through. What I am most sensitive about is how concrete the experience and the roles are reflected in the text of the CV. 

I get plenty of short or long CVs that aren’t concrete enough about past jobs and roles—this is the point when I usually move to the next CVs.

A combination of a well-formatted CV, without typos and well-summarized and very concrete job experience in which I find the keywords of the industry and job domain makes me pick up the phone immediately as a hiring manager and call the candidate.

You barely find the 100% fit and perfect candidate in the labour market today, so as a rule of thumb, my 3-4 major pillars should account for finding at least a 60% match (the rest is a bonus).

Radoslav Jambasov, Exyte, Stuttgart

Typos and grammatical errors are a turnoff but not a deal breaker. It leaves a bad impression because most jobs I hire for need attention to detail. The biggest annoyance is a resume longer than three pages. Aim for a 2-page resume that’s clean, simple, and focused, and you have a higher chance.

Robin Jose, Synrgy24, Berlin

A CV works as the candidate’s advert. In just a few seconds, you should be able to catch the relevant experience and how the person has been evolving. Hence, it must be short and concise, ideally one page only and include some personal information to help identify the soft skills. This can be a current hobby or something back in the past.

Sérgio Sebastião, Mercedes-Benz Thailand, Bangkok

Last but not least, how do I see it:

I always read the CV throughout to prepare myself with at least 2-3 questions related to the CV. I am not really sensitive to length, and I like to see that there is an effort behind it, so I get irritated if I see a lot of typos or formatting issues. These make me think: ‘Come on, you had one job!’ I also always read the cover letter because it gives me an impression of the effort that went into it.

Handpicked surveys: Results

Do you include your photo in the CV when you are applying in Germany? (Issue #34, n=178)

41% – Yes
55% – No
4% – Never applied in Germany

Do you limit your CV length? If so, how much: (Issue #35, n=253)

45% – limit to 1 page
40% – limit to 2 pages
3% – limit to 3 pages
2% – no limits, it is as it is
9% – just show me the results

Do you think a cover letter matters? (Issue #37, n=159)

18% – Yes, it should always be there
30% – Only if I really care about the job
19% – Not sure
6% – Copy-paste is good enough
28% – No, absolutely not important

How many job applications do you typically submit before receiving an offer? (Issue #48, n=142)

27% – less than 10
32% – less than 50
11% – less than 100
15% – more than 100
15% – I don’t really know

How often do you customize your CV for a specific role when applying? (Issue #64, n=172):

20% – Always: For every job.
25% – Often: For special roles.
23% – Sometimes: Minor tweaks.
20% – Rarely: for unique roles.
12% – Never: No modifications.