Applying for a new job almost always starts with the same challenge: how to write a cv. Our essential guide will give you the information you need.
by: Jem Collins and Evie Breese
29 Dec 2021
Photo by: davidmulder61 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
While there can be a huge difference between applying for jobs in different sectors, the application usually always starts with the same thing – a CV.
Your CV is the very first thing a recruiter or your potential future employer will see in your application, and it will form their first impression of you. We all know that first impressions count, so on your CV you want to present your best professional self.
The number one rule when writing your CV is to never under-sell yourself. This is not the place for modesty. A CV is a document to highlight your achievements, unique skills, and paint a picture of yourself as the ideal candidate for the particular role you are applying for.
We’ve spoken to the experts – Amanda Augustine, a careers expert at TopCV, business coach Erica Wolfe-Murray and copywriter Jenny Stallard – to bring you the best advice on how to write a CV that will get you the job you want.
What is a CV?
First things first, it’s important to understand the basics of what a CV is and what it’s used for. Aside from just being a list of your relevant experience and education, think about what people who are hiring use it for.
“From a recruiter’s perspective, the CV helps them to answer the question ‘is this person a good fit for this opportunity’”, says Amanda Augustine, a careers expert at TopCV. “They’re trying to determine if a candidate possesses the right mix of skills or experience to perform the job they’re filling – and to do it well.”
Basically, it’s a short document that sums up all of your previous skills and experiences.
The other important thing to remember is that every CV is unique. The word itself comes from curriculum vitae, which roughly translates as “the course of my life” – a good reminder in itself that your CV should be personalised to you.
Generally, you’d expect to see details of your education, work experience, or any volunteering or key skills.
How do I write a good CV?
When it comes to actually writing a good CV, there are a couple of key points to bear in mind. Crucially though, you should always focus on selling yourself in the best way possible.
“Your CV is the shop window to you as the product,” says Jenny Stallard, a copywriter who also offers CV advice. “It’s a one shot offering to say to a potential employer ‘this is me, and here’s exactly why you should want to speak to me about this job.”
Make sure the design is easy to read
One of the most important things to get right is the design of your CV – but there’s no need to be a graphic designer. Instead, it’s about making sure your CV is clear at a glance.
People hiring for jobs will often be sifting through dozens of applications – according to Amanda, this makes it even more important that people are able to “quickly skim your CV and understand exactly what you do and why you’re qualified.”
Practically, this means not using fonts that are too small (size 11 is probably the smallest you can go) and using headings to break up your CV into sections like ‘experience’, ‘education’ and ‘skills’. You should also make sure to use bullet points to explain what you did at each previous piece of experience in a concise way.
Also make sure to use your own name as the title at the top, rather than simply writing CV or curriculum vitae. If someone is looking through lots of different CVs, you want them to remember your name easily.
Use a CV template
It can be difficult to know where to start when writing a CV from scratch, or giving it an overhaul if you’re looking to move into a new sector.
A common pitfall when writing a CV is to get too caught up in creating a unique, creative design. Unless you’re applying for a role that requires you to demonstrate artistic flair, don’t spend too long on the design. What you’ve written is what matters.
A ready-made template can take away the stress involved in designing the layout, as well as giving much-needed structure. A template will ensure that all the essential information relevant to the roles you’re applying for is included, too.
Whether you’re retraining as a teacher, getting into nursing, applying your programming skills, or just looking for guidance, we’ve got the CV template for you. Download CV templates for students, graduates and professionals in a range of industries here.
Write everything in reverse chronological order
In general, it’s good practice to make sure you have your most recent experience first on your CV, something which is also called reverse chronological order. For each position you list, put together four to five bullet points – although you will probably also find you won’t need quite as many for positions you held several years ago.
It’s also important to think about whether your experience or education comes first on your CV too. There’s no set answer to this, as it depends on each person. If you’re just out of university, and you feel this is your strongest asset, make education your first section. On the other hand, if you haven’t studied for a long time, or you have held more relevant roles, put this section at the top instead.
One of the biggest mistakes people often make is to assume a CV has to be overly formal. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“A CV should be clear, simple, and informative,” says business coach Erica Wolfe-Murray. “Skip the long sentences to keep it short and punchy.”
“I’m not a fan of stuffy language anywhere, and especially not on a CV,” agrees Jenny. “I cringe so hard when I watch the interview stage of The Apprentice. Say what you did, not a fussy business version of what you did. If you sold to customers on a daily basis in a shop, say so, in your own words.”
It’s also important to talk about results, rather than just making a list of tasks you did.
“Write about successful outcomes of projects or a job role, not just what you did,” adds Erica. For example, rather than just saying you sold to customers in a shop, talk about how you were able to sell more or hit your targets.
Always get someone else to check your CV
This might seem like a simple point, but it’s one of the most common areas where people slip up. Especially when you’re up against a lot of competition, employers will penalise, or even disregard, candidates who have let mistakes slip into their CVs and cover letters.
Try to finish your CV as much before the deadline as you can, so there’s time for someone else to have a look through. After all, it’s much harder to see your own mistakes.
If there isn’t anyone else who’s able to take a look, make sure to take a break after you’ve finished, so you can come back and look at it again with fresh eyes before you send it off.
What key skills should be on A CV?
It’s difficult to put together a complete list of key skills you should be including on your CV. After all, every job is different and every person’s experiences are different. However, there are some tips you can use to work out what an employer is looking for.
Analyse the job description for key skills
“The easiest way to do this is to read through the job description thoroughly,” says Gaelle Blake, a director at Hays. Sometimes, the easiest way to do this is to print out the job description and using a highlighter to work out what their main focuses are.
“Pick out the areas on your CV that directly correlate to these [and] make sure these parts are prominent on your CV so the employer or hiring manager can easily pick up that you’ve done your research,” she adds
Personalise every CV, every time
The main thing to remember though, is that you should always be setting out to create a new, personalised CV – because every role is different and will be looking for you to highlight different skills.
“Taking the time to tweak a CV for a particular role is something I’d [strongly] advise,” says Jenny. “It might seem tedious, but changing up those words to include keywords in the job description could be a clincher.”
There’s a lot to fit on a CV, so it goes without saying that many people also wonder how long it should be. However, the answer is probably shorter than you think, with research showing that employers will often spend less than 30 seconds looking at it.
In general, your CV should only be one page for most jobs, or an absolute maximum of two. “One of the biggest mistakes people can make with their CV is to include too much information,” agrees Gaelle.
It can feel ruthless, but focus on hitting the key points of the job description in a concise way, rather than cramming in as much information as you can.
Finally, even if you aren’t successful, it’s always worth keeping a record of the jobs you applied to, as well as the cover letters and CV you used. It can take a little while to find the perfect fit, and having a clear record of what you sent previously and how far in the process you got, can often help you work out what worked well and what didn’t, so you can make further applications even stronger.
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