CV/Résumé Writing: Overview

Find here resources and advice on applying for jobs in the international non-profit sector. Material to download and links to other sites are listed right. 

UPDATE: August 2019: New documents for download added (right) on searching for international jobs, training opportunities, and competency-based interviews. Under 'UN Staff Development Resources' see the link to Agora - the excellent UNICEF learning portal which includes online courses on interviews and job applications - and links to new UN training courses. 


CVs for International and UN Organisations

For most jobs in the United Nations and other international organisations (IOs), applicants have to complete an online form which is called a Personal History Profile (PHP, sometimes called a PHF, formerly P11).  The United Nations Secretariat uses a talent management system for all job applications using an online profile. Candidates can draft and send different PHPs to target different job opportunities.

The system is used for jobs in the UN Secretariat in a system called 'Inspira'. Most UN specialised agencies and other IOs, such as WHO, UNESCO and UNICEF, have their own independent online recruitment systems which are similar to the Inspira model. An increasing number of international organisations, particularly in Europe, have an online application system and also request a CV. 

In order to be ready to apply for international jobs, and to network successfully, you need to be ready with an adaptable PHP, a CV, and a cover letter which can be modified to match the requirements of particular jobs. 

Describing your professional experience

The space for describing your work experience in PHPs presents an opportunity for you to show your skills, knowledge and competencies through concrete examples. As far as possible, include statements which use key words from the job you are applying for or the field or profession you are working in. This is sometimes called 'key word optimisation'. In reality, it means studying vacancies to identify the words and phrases which recruiters and hiring managers will be looking for. 

There are two types of PHPs: 'one box' and 'two box'. In the 'one box' version, you are asked to describe your work for each job with duties and achievements combined. In the 'two box' version (notably UN Inspira but also used increasingly by other IOs), the duties and achievements are split into two sections for each job:
1. description of duties
2. summary of achievements
This separation is an important feature of the UN application process. It gives an opportunity for applicants to describe their skills and expertise through career achievements as well as to describe job-related duties. Specialised agencies with their own recruitment systems usually do not formally split the work experience in this way, but the emphasis on describing achievements to illustrate key skills and expertise is the same. Even if the PHP does not mention achievements, I would encourage you to include some for your main work experiences. Don't rely solely on a list of duties and responsibilities.

Duties and achievements

I would recommend that you keep your duties as concise as possible (maybe 3-4 sentences for major jobs, and one sentence for the smaller duration ones), and then use the achievements section to highlight transferable professional skills and career strengths - especially those related to the target job - as well as specific achievements in the job.

Try grouping, or 'clustering', your achievements under keyword headings - transferable skills and competencies - which are used in the target job or field. Avoid long lists of unconnected achievements - find a way to connect them to well known and widely used competencies or areas of expertise. There is nothing more off-putting then a random list of bullet points. 

For a summary of tips for describing duties and achievements, please see 'Resources to download'. 

Also consider highlighting significant training and professional development as achievements, even if this information is given elsewhere in the PHP. Golden rule: highlight anything which is relevant to the target job or field you are applying for.

Note: Most PHP designs are very poor when it comes to giving space for describing professional training, voluntary work, freelance work, and skills and competencies (including IT skills). See the FAQs for some common issues and solutions to these problems.

Preparing for Job Change: PHP + CV

My advice for optimum preparation would be to draft a 'long CV' from which you can quickly generate three documents as required: draft text which you can copy/paste into online applications (with or without the duty/achievement split); a self-designed CV (one or two pages). Always work offline first - avoid drafting directly into the fields of Inspira or other online applications. Material is easily lost if you only have online copy. Also, the 'long CV' is a document which you can update quickly and where you can store and revise statements which can be used - and adapted - in different applications.

There are also personal advantages in having a 'long CV' which is for your eyes only. It gives you an opportunity to find out who you are professionally without the pressure of completing an application. What have you done? What have you achieved? What have you learned? What have you contributed to? What are your key skills? What do you want to do next? This preparatory thinking is essential in career planning and management. 

I have found that people who constantly work on their material, updating and revising on a regular basis and getting valuable drafting experience, are much more successful in the job market. They are proactive, not leaving applications to the last minute, preparing material in advance, and overcoming the fear of job applications and career change.

Sometimes it is only by drafting a CV for your own eyes that you find the best wording to use in an actual application. (See the FAQs for more on the 'long' and 'short' CV).

When you have copied material from your long CV into an online form, make necessary changes to meet the requirements of the target job. This may mean only editing a few words; but it may also mean reducing or increasing the amount of detail you give about each job, or changing the order or relevance of information.

More Tips on PHPs and other Online Applications

Completing online applications can be very frustrating. That's why starting early well before a deadline and working offline first can make a big difference. Here are a few tips for success: 

* Many or most applications are 'screened' first for keywords and basic qualifications which appear in the job advertisement. Make sure that these words appear in your application. Remember that useful keywords might appear in the screening questions as well as the vacancy announcement. Before adapting your PHP for an application, study the vacancy announcement and note the 10-15 most important keywords which should be included in your PHP and cover letter. 

*In most job vacancy announcements, the words used in the selection criteria are more important than those used in the description of duties and responsibilities. Some international organisations, such as FAO and EU agencies, make selection criteria explicit. You should include keywords from this section in your PHP and in the cover letter. In UN Secretariat jobs, pay special attention to the words used under the 'Professionalism' competency. This is the most common place for hiring managers to identify job-specific requirements and will be important in the selection of candidates.

*When describing your achievements, try using keywords related to areas of expertise (e.g. Human Rights) or competencies (eg Team Leadership) as headings. This will break up the list of bullet points and make your material more relevant to target jobs. Choose your keywords from the vacancy announcement. For this to work, you may need to adapt material from earlier drafts, so don't copy/paste from other applications without making changes. 

*Use a variety of dynamic verbs to describe your achievements. See under 'Resources to Download' for a list of good words to use in PHPs and CVs. When describing achievements, try to include the ACTION, CONTEXT and OUTCOME (A-C-O) of each event or project in the statement. Avoid vague statements such as 'performed a range of administrative tasks'. Be specific about numbers when describing size of team, number of clients, budget or material outcomes. For more on this see the summary of tips on PHPs under 'Resources to download'. 

*Keep your description of duties as concise as possible to give the reader an idea of the scope of your responsibilities. If you are applying for a job internally, information about duties can be more extensive. When applying externally, the most important thing is to describe your responsibilities concisely and to give some contextual information about the organisation you work(ed) for (e.g. 'UN international tribunal focused on war crimes prosecution'). Do not assume that readers will automatically know what your employer does just from the name. Avoid using abbreviations which readers outside your workplace or field of work will not understand. 

* Bear in mind that the duties/achievement split is only used by the UN Secretariat and a few other organisations. Most specialised agencies of the UN such as WHO, UNESCO and FAO have their own online systems or use application forms with only one box for duties and achievements combined. This also applies to other IOs such as ICC, OPCW and NATO. My tip for 'one box' PHPs would be to keep your duties as concise as possible (one or two sentences) and then focus on your achievements related to the core requirements of the job. Select the achievements which are most likely to get you an interview. Use a sub-heading such as 'Key Achievements'  or 'Significant Contributions' to set these apart from the duties. If you have been more than five years in a job and you have a number of achievements, consider clustering your statements under key competencies or areas of expertise rather than presenting them in a single list.

* Ensure that information about start/end dates, names of supervisors and salaries is correct. Keep a record of this data offline as you may need it for future applications. Always check and update the contact details of your referees. 

* If you are promoted to a new level and get a new job title, start a new entry in the PHP. If, however, you take on new responsibilities at the same level, put the information in one entry, and indicate a change of job focus or area of responsibility with start/end dates in brackets. In Inspira, put this information in the 'Duties' section. 

* If you have had lots of jobs and cross-training within the same organisation, decide if you need to create separate entries for each job. Will this help your application or make it too crowded? For example, a period of cross-training might stand out more if you create a new entry in your PHP. However, if it is not relevant to the jobs you are going for it might be better to list it as an achievement under your main job. Always think: will the information be relevant to the target job? 

* There is no need to repeat duties performed at a promoted level in earlier entries if the employer is the same. The reader will see the promoted level first. Earlier levels will probably include similar duties, in which case write 'Duties as above'. Don't fill your PHP with repeated information. 

* Remember, however, that earlier jobs in your career often include particular projects and outcomes which are worth mentioning as achievements. Use earlier jobs to highlight skills and expertise which might be useful in your future career and also to indicate career growth in the past. Always indicate promotions as achievements. For UN jobs, always include employment from the last 15 years. Make sure that the jobs you list give you enough years to meet the minimum years of experience for the target job. Internships and extended voluntary jobs should also be included as well as periods of military service. 

* Under 'Reasons for Leaving', indicate positive career direction as far as possible. Don't rely solely on negative reasons such as 'End of contract' or 'Downsizing'. Use verb phrases such as 'Looking for...' or 'Seeking opportunities to...' to indicate your career aims and your reasons for wanting to leave your current job. For earlier jobs, focus on career development as far as possible. 

UN and Other Non-profit International Jobs: What Experience is Valued?

Although the UN and other international organisations (IOs) employ a wide range of people in different roles covering almost every field of work, there are certain types of experience which are commonly valued in PHPs and may, in the right circumstances, make you stand out as a candidate. 

Whatever you do, proven experience is key, especially experience that gives you useful expertise and skills which are valued. Bear in mind that the UN and most IOs are not 'graduate employers' - they rarely employ people directly from university or school. Exceptions to this are the UN Young Professionals Programme (YPP) and, in some cases,  the Junior Professional Officer (JPO) programmes. If you are just starting out, the best thing to do is to apply for an internship and start building experience, professional knowledge, useful skills and contacts. Bear in mind that internships within the UN Secretariat are extremely competitive. You may have more luck with the specialised agencies and independent and smaller international organisations first. (For more on YPP, JPO and internships, please see the links in the side-bar).  UN Volunteers (UNV) as another way of gaining relevant field experience, but the emphasis is on volunteerism first, and not on  gateways to UN jobs. 

Remember always that UN internships, like UN jobs, are very popular. The 'market' is potentially the whole world. You need to be patient, persistent and creative if you are seriously committed to working in international organisations, and always positive about learning new things. Remember too that working at the national level - in education, health, human rights, law, business - might ultimately be more rewarding and more successful in long-term career terms than working internationally. 

Many international organisations, including the UN, are under financial pressure and constraints, with downsizing and contractual instability common career challenges . At the same time, international organisations depend on the commitment and energy of many thousands of brilliant and committed people - staff members, experts, contractors, interns and volunteers - who are driven by a humanitarian principle to improve the world without profit as the main concern. 

All this considered, what kinds of experience are most valued at the international level within civil society and non profit areas? All organisations and agencies have their own specific competencies and favoured areas of expertise, but some kinds of experience and knowledge are frequently asked for. If you have experience in any of these areas, make the most of them in your PHP or CV: 

Working in the field
If you have any experience working in the field, even for a limited period, make sure this is clearly described in your PHP and cover letter. Such experience is increasingly valued in the UN and related organisation such as UNICEF, who direct over 85% of their resources to field operations. Work in conflict zones, emergency situations and highly challenged development contexts warrant significant mention in your PHP. Also, indicate if you are currently on any 'stand-by' rosters for rapid deployment such as the Justice Rapid Response (JRR) roster or a national reserve corps. Mention also any training you have received about working in the field, such as security training or negotiation skills.

When describing any field work, make sure you explain briefly the context, scope and size of the field operation and its intended aim or mandate (one or two sentences). In particularly tricky and hazardous situations where, for example, you had to be evacuated, indicate this in the PHP. Don't assume that people will know all about the situation because it is in the news as a conflict zone.

Focus on specific projects or responsibilities. Where possible, indicate outcomes, both for yourself and the team or mission. Consider developments in your own skill-set and knowledge as achievements. As with all PHPs, select the details which are most relevant to the target job and consider clustering your achievements together under relevant 'transferable' competency headings such as 'Technical Assistance', 'Logistical Support' or 'Providing Legal Advice'. These keywords often appear in vacancies as desired areas of expertise, especially under the 'Professionalism' section of UN competencies.

Note: The 'Professionalism' section is the place in UN vacancy announcements where hiring managers add job-specific requirements to the list of standard UN competencies. These additions often give good clues as to what kinds of experience and knowledge will be valued during the selection process. Another good place to look for useful keywords is the section on 'Screening Questions' which often appears at the end of the PHP. 

Managing Projects and Programmes
Most UN activity takes place through programmes or funds with particular mandates to provide technical assistance, humanitarian relief or specialised aid, or a professional service such as legal advice or capacity building. Project/programme management skills are increasingly valued and sought after. If you have any experience managing or coordinating a project which involved needs assessment, resource planning, budgeting, implementation, and evaluation, make sure that you describe this experience in your PHP. If you have lots of project experience, choose the ones which are most relevant to the target job and which have the clearest outcomes.

As with field experience, describe the context and intended aim of the project as well as the results. Remember, when describing your achievements:  A - C - O = Action - Context - Outcome (see above for more on this, or see the handout on PHP tips under 'Resources to Download').

If you have a formal qualification in project management (such as Prince 2), include it in your PHP as an achievement and consider also mentioning it in your cover letter. Full details of the qualification can be given under 'Training and Education' or (in Inspira) under 'Certificates and Licences'. However, it may be worth mentioning project management as a professional development achievement in your professional history too, especially if you did the training 'on the job'.

If you have any experience of budget or financial administration, don't forget to include this in your PHP, especially for management-level jobs. It could prove useful as a value-added detail, even if the target job is not related explicitly to budget. Budget experience is particularly useful in small field offices where staff are required to perform a range of functions, but is generally a useful part of anyone's skill set in international jobs.

Raising Money and Making Partnerships
Fund-raising is an increasingly valued area of expertise throughout the non-profit and civil affairs sector, but especially at the international level where donors play such a major role. Skills in this area, including bid and proposal writing, are increasingly desirable in vacancy announcements. Look out for keywords in vacancies such as 'Donor Relations' and 'Stakeholder Management' and use them to structure achievements in your PHP if you have the right experience, however small.

If you have any experience raising money and building good working relations with donors, describe it in your PHP. Don't forget to indicate the outcomes (money raised) and the goals of the fund-raising initiative. Knowledge of relevant information management software in fund-raising and proposal development (for example, Raiser's Edge) could be an asset. If you have any NGO experience, you might find such software a useful addition to your skill set. Experience in writing or contributing to funding proposals (for example, for the European Union) is also proving to be an asset in some international jobs.

Building and maintaining networks and partnerships is another growing area where international non-profit employers look for talent and experience. If you have helped to build a partnership between two organisations or demonstrated skills in liaison and cooperation, make sure you mention this in your PHP with a clear statement of context and outcome. If you liaise in your current work with lots of other organisations and agencies, mention some in your PHP but don't get too carried away with name-dropping: your role in liaison and its outcomes are also important. If you work in a team to build partnerships, give an idea of the size of the team and your particular role in it. Use participation verbs such as 'contributed to' and 'acted as focal point for' instead of 'managed' or 'ran' if you worked as part of a big team. (For more on verbs, see under 'Resources to Download'.)

All organisations place great value on 'communication skills'. But what do these skills actually mean in practice? In each job there will be particular communication demands. Identifying these in each job might give your PHP an edge.

Instead of saying something vague in your PHP such as 'demonstrated good communication skills', try to be more concrete and job-specific. What kinds of communication skills do you have and what evidence can you give?

Vacancy announcements may give you clues. For example, if a job requires 'giving presentations', could you add to your PHP any examples of proven experience in presenting or public speaking? This may be presentations to colleagues, the public, a conference audience, or as part of a training programme. The ability to present confidently to different audiences is a valued communication skill in itself and is worth mentioning in your application. If any of your presentations are available online as videos, mention this.

Look out in vacancies for keywords such as 'knowledge transfer' or 'information sharing'. These areas, frequently connected to training, learning and resource management, involve communication skills, both written and spoken. Do you have experience in managing and sharing knowledge which you can add to your PHP?  Look out in particular for references to online communication such as writing and updating web copy or using social media for outreach. Increasingly, skills in this area are not just the province of media professionals, but belong to everyone. Do you have media experience that you could utilise, such as writing a newsletter, updating a blog, or creating a video for professional use?

Think also about written communication, a massive area of activity in all UN and IO agencies. What are your specific written communication skills? Remember that reporting and drafting are frequently cited as core skills in many jobs. If you have experience in drafting reports, consider mentioning some examples in your PHP with a clear statement of the report's audience and aim. If you regularly write many types of texts for different audiences, cite some examples to illustrate the range. You may even be able to identify the written genres used in the target job, such as 'project proposals' or 'mission reports', if you do your background research well. Some jobs ultimately depend on good writing and drafting skills and such skills often form the centre-piece of technical testing of candidates. Also mention any training you have done on report writing.

Note: If there is one thing you can do every day to enhance your international career, it is to develop excellent writing and drafting skills in English and one other major language. In European Union recruitment, writing skills tend to take second place to verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning skills during the initial testing phase, but they can turn out to be a crucial factor in the later stages of selection. The ability to write well can often separate equally qualified candidates in international jobs. 

Languages are another area to consider when describing your communication skills. If you are able to work in two or more languages which you know will be used in the target job, mention both languages in the PHP and the cover letter. Especially, indicate examples of any ability to write in two languages (for example, English and French, or French and Arabic).

Teamwork and Team Leadership
All international organisations, from the smallest field office to the largest UN agency, involve teamwork, usually in multi-cultural, multi-faith and often multi-disciplinary teams. Examples of successful teamwork and collaboration can prove to be useful additions to your PHP.

If you have been a team or project leader, consider including this in your PHP. Indicate the size of the team under your leadership and the areas of team-building and motivation in which you played a role, such as recruitment, performance management, or staff coaching. Refer to specific organisational changes which might attract the attention of employers. If you have managerial experience of start-up or downsizing, make this clear in your PHP; and mention any large-scale challenges which you faced as a team leader, such as budget cuts, re-organisation, policy changes or evacuation of mission. Often, specific management experiences like these - even if you were not in the job long enough to see the results - can catch the eye of recruiters who are facing similar challenges in their own organisations. Employers often select candidates to help solve problems they are facing. They will look for experience that matches the need.

Technological Awareness
In practically all jobs, there will be required technology. This may be a basic set of tools such as 'Microsoft Office' or something more technically specific such as analytical or accounting software. Depending on the job, make your IT knowledge clear in your PHP and avoid general statements such as 'I have good ICT skills' or 'I am able to learn new technology'. Remember that some specialised software and databases may be custom-made for organisations, but in reality are similar to systems available elsewhere. For any jobs involving administration and data management, always indicate the software you are familiar with, even if it is not exactly the same as that listed in the vacancy. Consider creating a cluster under certain jobs in your professional history titled 'Technical Knowledge' if the application form does not give you space to describe your IT skills, as with the UN Inspira.

Setting Out?
If you are just setting out on your career, make good use of your studies and any projects which involved teamwork and collaboration, especially in an international sphere. Give examples of skills which you were able to learn quickly to show your flexibility and ability to adapt. If you have done an internship, focus on the skills and knowledge you developed through your experience, and mention any positive feedback from supervisors or mentors which highlights particular contributions.

If you are currently doing an internship, make the most of your experience. Use the opportunity to talk to people, build your network, and volunteer to contribute to projects wherever you can.

Get Qualified
The UN and other international organisations are popular employers and receive hundreds of thousands of applications for jobs and internships every year. When considering working at the international level, remember that you will always have rivals, including people who are equally - or better - qualified than you. This is a fact of life. The market for UN and IO jobs is potentially the whole world.

In order to increase your chances, aim to get as well qualified as you can and always look for opportunities to upgrade your skills and add diplomas in areas which are in demand. This process should not stop throughout your career.

Bear in mind that having a Masters-level qualification is increasingly desirable for Professional (P) level jobs in the UN. At the moment a Masters is not essential, but it is quite possible that in the near future P-level jobs will become Masters-only.

Get Experience at National Level
As the UN and IO job market becomes more mobile and flexible, with regular upsizing and downsizing of operations meaning short-term contracts rather than permanent jobs, international careers will become more fluid and less predictable. Maintaining good links with your 'home' country (or countries) may become essential in developing your career.

If you are in a professional field such as law, medicine or engineering, it might make long-term sense to get a solid basis of national experience under your belt first, before embarking on an international career that might not be stable and reliable. It is very difficult to go back 'home' into a domestic job market without contacts and experience if you have been away too long. After all, the UN tends to look for initial experience in any case, with the average age for entry into P-level positions in the late twenties.

'Hybrid' careers, which combine national employment with international assignments, may become the norm in the future as international civil service jobs become less stable. There is also some evidence that international organisations will rely more on specialists who can deploy quickly from national reserve lists, rosters or through the UN's 'Global Marketplace' of consultants. Keeping in touch with the national and regional employment scene through your contacts and visits home may prove to be a smart career move.

Rob Oliver
updated  2019

* When describing duties and achievements, don't rely on lists of bullet points for each job and do not copy your official job description word for word. Cluster your achievements under keyword headings which matter in the target job - areas of expertise, core competencies, or knowledge areas. Don't use vague phrases such as 'Performed a variety of administrative tasks' and don't praise yourself without giving concrete examples (so avoid saying things like 'I am an excellent team player' without giving an example).

*When describing your achievements, make sure that your statements communicate to a general audience, especially if you are applying as an external candidate. Don't use abbreviations which readers might not understand. Each statement should give the reader an idea of the ACTION, CONTEXT and OUTCOME of the achievement (A - C -O).

*Make sure that you strike a balance between summarising your skills and achievements and giving specific examples. Make sure that achievements are at least as strong as duties - preferably stronger. Keep duties to a concise minimum and focus on achievements. (In the UN Inspira form the maximum space given for duties under each job is 2500 characters. For achievements, it is 3700. Although you should not strive to fill the boxes completely, these numbers are saying: focus mainly on achievements.)

* Make sure you use a variety of strong and dynamic verbs in your PHP/CV, particularly when describing achievements. Don't begin every statement with the same verb. For a list of useful verbs and verb phrases to use in CVs and PHPs, see under 'Resources to Download'.

* Most PHP job history sections include separate boxes for start/end dates (sometimes including months), names of employers and supervisors, official job titles, salaries etc. Make sure that these boxes are filled in and are accurate. Keep a record offline of the data. Keep your list of references updated (check email addresses and phone numbers regularly) and let your references know that you are applying for jobs.

* As with all online applications, check the language and proofread the text. Do not rely on a spellcheck programme to do this for you. Applications may be immediately rejected if you spell an important word, especially a job-related word, wrong. It creates the impression of carelessness and lack of attention to detail. If you can, get someone to check your application before you press 'send'.*Make sure you get the names of employers correct in written form and only use first-time abbreviations if you are sure that the intended readers will know what you mean. Avoid informal language and contractions like 'can't' and 'it's'.* Use your most recent performance appraisal (if you have one) to generate material for your PHP. For many UN jobs the two most recent ePAS documents must be submitted with applications through Inspira. Don't, however, assume that the ePAS will be read (so avoid saying 'see ePAS') and at the same time don't copy/paste chunks from your ePAS. Select, edit and highlight the strengths.