How to write a CV

Anyone who has sat down and stared at their screen in an attempt to document their career history knows how difficult writing a CV actually is. However, taking the time to write a strong CV is so important. Not only will it get you noticed, but it will leave a prospective employer wanting to know more about your skills and experience.

Your CV is your first chance to make an impression on the recruiter. Don’t forget to tailor each application you submit to the opportunity you are applying for, using the job description to customise the content.

In this guide, we will take you through the best ways to prepare a CV: what you should include, what works and – most importantly – what doesn’t.

Writing a CV can be a daunting prospect, but it doesn’t have to be. Our definitive guide will show you how to write a CV the right way.

Contents

      • What Do Employers Look for in a CV?
      • How to Format and Present Your CV
      • What to Include in Your CV
      • What Not to Include in Your CV
      • 10 Tips for a Great CV
      • Final Thoughts

What Do Employers Look for in a CV?

Your CV should present a clear, concise and powerful summary of your skills, experience and achievements, and be tailored to a specific employment opportunity.

Recruiters are busy people, so convey your most important skills and competencies as succinctly as possible, and in no more than two pages. Three pages is acceptable if you have a long career history.

What an Employer Will Be Looking For

When a recruiter picks up your CV they need to be immediately engaged. To make a strong first impression, your CV will need to communicate several important pieces of information:

  • Achievements – Don’t just list your duties and responsibilities. Take the opportunity to highlight what you have achieved in the role. Use examples relevant to the job you are applying for that paint a picture of a competent and skilled professional.

  • Experience – Recruiters will often scan CVs to select candidates with the right kind of experience. Communicate the value you can bring through your employment history and make your relevant experience stand out.

  • Skills – Highlight relevant skills acquired throughout your career history. Your skills should underpin your experience and demonstrate your suitability for the job.

  • Results – A recruiter loves to see results. If you have exceeded your targets in sales, achieved a huge performance increase on a campaign, or increased leads, performance or conversions, then be sure to include this on your CV. Use statistics as much as possible. 

What to Avoid

  • Unfamiliar formatting – The last thing that a busy recruiter wants to see when they have hundreds of CVs to sift through is an unfamiliar format. It can take much longer to find the required information. Always follow traditional CV formatting. More about formatting is explained in the next section.

  • Too much information – Don’t include your school grades when you have a Master’s degree and avoid listing every job you have ever held or every technology you have ever used. These will take up valuable space. Every piece of information on your CV should add value. It is recommended that more experienced candidates cover their employment for the last 10 years. For graduates, be selective about the jobs that you include based on the opportunity you are applying for. Including details about a summer placement in retail, for example, isn’t going to add much value if you are applying for a graduate opportunity in IT.

  • Writing in the first person – Always use the third person when writing a CV. Using the first person comes across as unprofessional.

  • Endless lists – Never simply add an endless list of duties (or, even worse, copy and paste your job description). Recruiters will find it much more interesting to learn what impact you had. So, instead of describing how you managed a filing system, say you ‘Increased efficiency by effective management of a paper-based/electronic filing system.’ This has much more impact.

Your CV is there to sell your skills and experience to potential employers and helps answer the question: “Why should I employ this person?”. It should provide a brief introduction to your key skills and experiences and highlight how you are suitable for the job you are applying for. 

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How to Format and Present Your CV

Employers see a lot of CVs and there are likely to be many suitably qualified candidates for any given role. Making your CV stand out is key to securing the all-important interview, and it is really worth spending time on.

Be sure to:

  • Keep it brief – Aim for a maximum of two sides of A4, unless you have a particularly long career history. A single page is perfectly acceptable for graduates.

  • Use good formatting – Use a common font like Ariel or Times New Roman, and a font size of 11 or 12. Ensure that there is plenty of white space on your page, as it will be easier to skim the document for key information. You can achieve this with standard margins, line spacing at 1.15pt and gaps between paragraphs. Don’t be tempted to try to cram too much information into a single document, since if it's hard to read then employers may not bother.

  • Use clear and engaging language – This means being concise, avoiding jargon and using active words like ‘leading’, ‘achieving’ and ‘delivering’.

  • Decide how best to order the information – Consider what information is most important to the role you are applying for. If education is the key criteria, then open with your grades and academic accomplishments. If commercial experience is most important, lead with this and include education beneath.

  • Choose the right software - Most CVs are created using Microsoft Word, but there is other software you can use to create a professional design, such as Adobe InDesign. Remember to publish your CV in a document that can be widely opened by recruiters. If they can’t open your CV because it’s in an unrecognisable file format they may move on to the next without reading yours. We recommend that you publish the CV in a PDF or Word document. If in doubt, ask the recruiter what file format they prefer. 

What to Include in Your CV

It is important that your CV contains enough of the right information for the employer to feel that you are a good fit for the role. There are a number of key sections which most CVs contain, and we’ll explore these below. 

Personal Details

You must display key personal details clearly on your CV, so the employer can contact you. However, this is not information that the employer will be using to assess your suitability for the role, so don't use too much space for it.

  • Name – Your name should be the title of your CV and should be in bold letters at the top. If your CV has more than one page, have your name on both, just in case they get separated.

  • Address – Make sure that your CV has your address on it, including your postcode. Think about how you want to present your address and how much space this takes. Consider the examples below – which demonstrates the best use of space?

    18 Random Road
    Town
    County
    Postcode

    18 Random Road │ Town │ County │ Postcode

  • Email – Your email address should be on your CV. This is often the primary way employers contact candidates. Make sure that the email address you provide is sensible and professional – if the email address you usually use is jokey or risqué, set up another email address for professional correspondence. An email address that starts with ‘drunkendancer’ isn’t going to make a good first impression.

  • Telephone – Include a telephone number. If you have a voicemail service for that number, take the time to record a personalised greeting. Again, keep it professional. A good message would be: “Hello, this is the voicemail for John Smith. I can't get to the phone right now but if you leave your name, number and a short message I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” 

  • Social media – Some people like to include details of their social media accounts. This can work well as long as they are professional; for example, a Twitter account where you regularly tweet on professional subjects. Accounts like these demonstrate that you are interested in and engaged with the topic and this can be beneficial to your application. If, on the other hand, your tweets are mainly photos of your friends or politicised statements, it’s best not to mention this account on your CV. Including a link to your LinkedIn profile is a good idea but you might want to avoid drawing attention to your Facebook account (and even if you do, you may want to change your privacy settings).

  • Nationality – As a rule, it’s best not to include your nationality; a caveat to this is if you require a visa to work in the UK (in which case you might also want to say what work your visa allows you to do).

Personal Statement

It's good practice to start your CV with a personal statement. This is your opportunity to sell yourself in your own words.

Clearly explain how you meet the requirements of the role while demonstrating your enthusiasm for the opportunity. Avoid vague statements such as, “driven with great commercial skills”, as you are providing no evidence that this is the case.

Instead, deliver factual information that illustrates your skills, for example, “Top-ranked salesperson in xx organisation, delivering sales worth over £10 million in 2017.” Make sure that the examples you use are relevant to the role and organisation you are applying for.

One or two sentences that convey a slice of your personality, the reasons for your career choices and why you are suitable for the position will separate your CV from the pile of others that begin with the bland, “During my time at X I was responsible for...”

Work Experience

One of the most important jobs of a CV is to summarise your previous relevant work experience. You should start with your most recent role and work backwards.

For each role, include:

  • Dates to and from – This is important because it enables a potential employer to see how long you stayed with your previous employer, and also to spot any gaps in employment they might want to explore with you. If you have many short-term jobs (e.g. through temping), explain why or the employer may assume that you are not someone who sticks with things. If you have any breaks in your career history (e.g. a gap year), explain it and say what you learned from it.

  • Name of the company (plus a brief explanation of what they do) – This plays two main roles: first, it can be used by the employer to check your references; second, it can help the employer understand more about the kind of organisation you worked for. For example, if you worked in a large multinational restaurant chain, your experience of the workplace is likely to be different than if you worked in a small local restaurant.

  • Your role and a summary of your key responsibilities – This explains what you did. Keep it brief and assume that most people are broadly familiar with what most roles do. If you managed people, mention how many. If you had budgetary responsibility, mention the size of the budget.

  • Key achievements and successes in the role – This is your opportunity to sell what you did in the role, especially if it was over and above what might be expected. Try to identify three or four achievements for each role and ensure they are relevant to the job you are applying for. Where possible, try to quantify the benefit to the organisation, for example, “Identified an opportunity for insulating pipework leading to energy savings of £23,000 per year.”

Qualifications and Education

It is important to include a section in your CV which illustrates your key skills and qualifications; the more relevant they are to the role, the better. List qualifications or courses undertaken with the name of the training provider and the dates. Be honest as these may be checked.

The qualifications section does not have to be exhaustive. Ask yourself if the qualification is relevant to the role. If it isn’t, you probably don’t need to include it. If you are a member of any (relevant) professional bodies, then include them here. It will demonstrate a deeper level of credibility and engagement with your career.

If you speak other languages, have particular IT or project management skills, or have achieved any particular levels of professional recognition, such as chartership, then mention it in this section.

Hobbies and Interests

Your CV should paint a picture of you as a person and your hobbies and interests can provide an insight into your personality. Your hobbies can demonstrate additional skills and differentiate your CV from other candidates. It can also show ways you are actively involved in the community or in voluntary projects, which you can talk about further during the interview.

That being said, hobbies are often subjective; some recruiters love them and others feel they are unimportant. Generally, an employer would only be interested in your hobbies if they are relevant to the role.

If you do decide to include them, place them at the end of your CV. There are lots of CV examples and CV templates online, so use these for inspiration.

What Not to Include in Your CV

Give the employer all the information they need to make an informed decision but don’t waste space with information they don’t need. There is no need to include the following information on a CV:

  • Date of birth/age – It is now illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their age.
  • Marital status – Employers don't need to know this.
  • Photo – Unless this is relevant for the role (e.g. you are applying to be a model).
  • Religion or ethnicity – A potential employer does not need to know about your religion and/or ethnicity. 

10 Tips for a Great CV

The following tips are worth keeping front of mind:

  • Double-check spelling and grammar – It's important that there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes in your CV. Mistakes like this suggest you have poor language skills or pay little attention to detail, neither of which are desirable from an employer’s perspective. Double-check your CV, use the spell check and then proofread it. If you’re concerned, get someone else to take a look at it too.

  • Keep it positive – Sometimes work arrangements end badly but avoid mentioning this on your CV. Instead, focus on opportunities for the future and what you learned. Never criticise or disparage a previous employer.

  • References – It is no longer appropriate to include references within your CV. You should assume that references will only be required should you be successful in the interview, and you can provide them at that point.

  • Try to provide evidence – Where possible, provide facts and figures to illustrate your achievements. Think of this as a way to demonstrate that the benefits you deliver are greater than what it costs the employer to employ you.

  • Use bullet points and lists – They are easy to scan and can help condense large volumes of information, though don’t overuse them.

  • Send your CV as a PDF – Most computers can open PDFs, while other file types may need to be translated for PCs or Macs. Any additional effort the employer needs to take makes them less likely to look at your CV.

  • Tailor it to the opportunity – Even though it will save time, don’t email 10 identical CVs to various employers. Tailor your CV to suit each role that you apply for. Use the information from the job description and person specification to identify the skills and expertise you need to focus on to create a strong CV.

  • Tell the truth – Lies on your CV will catch up with you. If you claim to have a skill you don’t have, you will be found out. The best policy is always to be honest.

  • Focus on achievements – A CV built around your achievements is much more powerful than one that simply lists your duties. Explain what you have achieved, such as assisting with a product launch, marketing a new solution, increasing sales or achieving a promotion.

  • Include a professional summary – Right at the start of your CV include a short paragraph, no more than five or six lines, that really captures the attention of the recruiter and encourages them to read more. What can you bring to the role, what skills do you have and how can you help their business?

Final Thoughts

It’s key to remember when writing a CV that you are essentially writing a sales document. Keep it brief, punchy and positive. Hold back on some details to leave the reader wanting more and give yourself a chance to expand at the interview.

Focus on the details. Keep formatting clean and appropriate to the role and make sure your contact details are correct.

Once you have finished writing, check through and make sure that the CV is specifically tailored to the job that you are applying for. Try to weave into your CV specific keywords and phrases that the employer uses in their job description and person specification.

Finally, ensure that you have listed your notable achievements, your most relevant skills and experience and personal qualities that you can bring to the role. Make sure you demonstrate that you understand the requirements of the job and that you meet those requirements. 

Further Reading

You may also be interested in these other articles on WikiJob: