How to write a successful CV
‣ CV Example (downloadable file)
What is a CV?
Curriculum Vitae: an outline of a person’s educational and professional history, usually prepared for job applications (L, lit.: the course of one’s life). Another name for a CV is a Resume.
A CV is the most flexible and convenient way to make applications. It conveys your personal details in the way that presents you in the best possible light. A CV is a marketing document in which you are marketing something: yourself! You need to “sell” your skills, abilities, qualifications and experience to employers. It can be used to make multiple applications to employers in a specific career area. For this reason, many large graduate recruiters will not accept CVs and instead use their own application form.
Often selectors read CVs outside working hours. They may have a pile of 50 CVs from which to select five interviewees. It’s evening and they would rather be in the pub with friends. If your CV is hard work to read: unclear, badly laid out and containing irrelevant information, they will just just move on to the next CV.
Treat the selector like a child eating a meal. Chop your CV up into easily digestible morsels (bullets, short paragraphs and note form) and give it a clear logical layout, with just the relevant information to make it easy for the selector to read. If you do this, you will have a much greater chance of interview.
An application form is designed to bring out the essential information and personal qualities that the employer requires and does not allow you to gloss over your weaker points as a CV does. In addition, the time needed to fill out these forms is seen as a reflection of your commitment to the career.
There is no “one best way” to construct a CV; it is your document and can be structured as you wish within the basic framework below. It can be on paper or on-line or even on a T-shirt (a gimmicky approach that might work for “creative” jobs but not generally advised!).
What information should a CV include?
What are the most important aspects of CV that you look for?
One survey of employers found that the following aspects were most looked for
(From the brilliant 2010 Orange County Resume Survey by Eric Hilden)
45% – Previous related work experience
35% – Qualifications & skills
25% – Easy to read
16% – Accomplishments
14% – Spelling & grammar
9% – Education (these were not just graduate recruiters or this score would be much higher!)
9% – Intangibles: individuality/desire to succeed
3% – Clear objective
2% – Keywords added
1% – Contact information
1% – Personal experiences
1% – Computer skills
Normally these would be your name, address, date of birth (although with age discrimination laws now in force this isn’t essential), telephone number and email.
British CVs don’t usually include a photograph unless you are an actor. In European countries such as France, Belgium and Germany it’s common for CVs to include a a passport-sized photograph in the top right-hand corner whereas in the UK and the USA photographs are frowned upon as this may contravene equal opportunity legislation – a photograph makes it easier to reject a candidate on grounds of ethnicity, sex or age. If you do include a photograph it should be a head and shoulders shot, you should be dressed suitably and smiling: it’s not for a passport!
Education and qualifications
Your degree subject and university, plus A levels and GCSEs or equivalents. Mention grades unless poor!
‣ Use action words such as developed, planned and organised.
‣ Even work in a shop, bar or restaurant will involve working in a team, providing a quality service to customers, and dealing tactfully with complaints. Don’t mention the routine, non-people tasks (cleaning the tables) unless you are applying for a casual summer job in a restaurant or similar.
‣ Try to relate the skills to the job. A finance job will involve numeracy, analytical and problem solving skills so focus on these whereas for a marketing role you would place a bit more more emphasis on persuading and negotiating skills.
‣ All of my work experiences have involved working within a team-based culture. This involved planning, organisation, coordination and commitment e.g., in retail, this ensured daily sales targets were met, a fair distribution of tasks and effective communication amongst all staff members.
Interests and achievements
‣ Keep this section short and to the point. As you grow older, your employment record will take precedence and interests will typically diminish greatly in length and importance.
‣ Bullets can be used to separate interests into different types: sporting, creative etc.
‣ Don’t use the old boring cliches here: “socialising with friends”.
‣ Don’t put many passive, solitary hobbies (reading, watching TV, stamp collecting) or you may be perceived as lacking people skills. If you do put these, then say what you read or watch: “I particularly enjoy Dickens, for the vivid insights you get into life in Victorian times”.
‣ Show a range of interests to avoid coming across as narrow : if everything centres around sport they may wonder if you could hold a conversation with a client who wasn’t interested in sport.
‣ Hobbies that are a little out of the ordinary can help you to stand out from the crowd: skydiving or mountaineering can show a sense of wanting to stretch yourself and an ability to rely on yourself in demanding situations.
‣ Any interests relevant to the job are worth mentioning: current affairs if you wish to be a journalist; a fantasy share portfolio such as Bullbearings if you want to work in finance.
‣ Any evidence of leadership is important to mention: captain or coach of a sports team, course representative, chair of a student society, scout leader: “As captain of the school cricket team, I had to set a positive example, motivate and coach players and think on my feet when making bowling and field position changes, often in tense situations”
‣ Anything showing evidence of employability skills such as team working, organising, planning, persuading, negotiating etc.
‣ The usual ones to mention are languages (good conversational French, basic Spanish), computing (e.g. “good working knowledge of MS Access and Excel, plus basic web page design skills” and driving (“full current clean driving licence”).
‣ If you are a mature candidate or have lots of relevant skills to offer, a skills-based CV may work for you
‣ Many employers don’t check references at the application stage so unless the vacancy specifically requests referees it’s fine to omit this section completely if you are running short of space or to say “References are available on request.”
‣ Normally two referees are sufficient: one academic (perhaps your tutor or a project supervisor) and one from an employer (perhaps your last part-time or summer job). See our page on Choosing and Using Referees for more help with this.
The order and the emphasis will depend on what you are applying for and what you have to offer. For example, the example media CV lists the candidate’s relevant work experience first.
If you are applying for more than one type of work, you should have a different CV tailored to each career area, highlighting different aspects of your skills and experience.
A personal profile at the start of the CV can work for jobs in competitive industries such as the media or advertising, to help you to stand out from the crowd. If used, it needs to be original and well written. Don’t just use the usual hackneyed expressions: “I am an excellent communicator who works well in a team…… “
You will also need a Covering Letter to accompany your CV.
What makes a good CV?
There is no single “correct” way to write and present a CV but the following general rules apply:
‣ It is targeted on the specific job or career area for which you are applying and brings out the relevant skills you have to offer
‣ It is carefully and clearly laid out: logically ordered, easy to read and not cramped
‣ It is informative but concise
‣ It is accurate in content, spelling and grammar. If you mention attention to detail as a skill, make sure your spelling and grammar is perfect!
If your CV is written backwards on pink polka dot paper and it gets you regular interviews, it’s a good CV! The bottom line is that if it’s producing results don’t change it too much but if it’s not, keep changing it until it does.
If it’s not working, ask people to look at it and suggest changes.
What mistakes do candidates make on their CV?
One survey of employers found the following mistakes were most common
‣ Spelling and grammar 56% of employers found this
‣ Not tailored to the job 21%
‣ Length not right & poor work history 16%
‣ Poor format and no use of bullets 11%
‣ No accomplishments 9%
‣ Contact & email problems 8%
‣ Objective/profile was too vague 5%
‣ Lying 2%
‣ Having a photo 1%
Others 3% (listing all memberships, listing personal hobbies, using abbreviations)
Choose a sensible email address!
unprofessional email addresses are ignored. Here are some (modified) graduate email addresses that you should NOT emulate!
How long should a CV be?
There are no absolute rules but, in general, a new graduate’s CV should cover no more than two sides of A4 paper. In a survey of American employers 35% preferred a one page CV and 19% a two page CV with the others saying it depends upon the position. CVs in the US tend to be shorter than in the UK whereas the 2 page CV still dominates for graduates but I do see a trend now towards one page CVs: as employers are getting more and more CVs they tend not to have the time to read long documents!
If you can summarise your career history comfortably on a single side, this is fine and has advantages when you are making speculative applications and need to put yourself across concisely. However, you should not leave out important items, or crowd your text too closely together in order to fit it onto that single side. Academic and technical CVs may be much longer: up to 4 or 5 sides.
How do I get my CV down to two pages from three?
‣ First change your margins in MS Word to Page Layout / Margins/ Narrow – this will set your margins to 1.27 cm which are big enough not to look cramped, but give you extra space.
‣ Secondly change your body font to Lucida Sans in 10 pts size. Lucida Sans is a modern font which has been designed for clarity on a computer screen. For more on fonts see here A good rule of thumb is to have your name in about 18 points, your subheadings such as education and work experience in 14 points and your body font as 10 points.
‣ Use tables with two or three columns for your academic results and references.
‣ Use bullets for content, rather than long paragraphs of text.
‣ Finally set line spacings to single space
If after all these tricks you are still on three pages you have to be ruthless with your content: read every single word and remove it if it doesn’t add value to your CV!
The one page lean and mean CV!
In certain sectors such as investment banking, management consultancy and top law firms, a one page CV, highly focused, highly objective CV, now seems to be preferred. All of these areas have in common that they are highly competitive to enter and it may be that selectors, faced with so many CVs to work through prefer a shorter CV.
There is no point putting lots of detailed information into a CV which doesn’t add any value, and in fact, just dilutes the impact. This is called the presenter’s paradox. These CVs normally have lots of single line bullets and no personal statement at the beginning. They are fully of factual, as opposed to subjective, content. You must make every word count. They focus on achievements, initiative and responsibilities more than on tasks and duties. When carefully designed, these can be the very best CVs, but also the hardest to write!
Bullets make CVs more readable
Our brains love lists: they create a reading experience with more easily acquired information. We process lists more efficiently, and retain information with less effort. Bulleted lists appeal to our tendency to categorize things since they divide information into short, distinct items. They also help to alleviate the “Paradox of choice”: the problem that the more options we have, the worse we feel.
But don’t bullet everything on your CV or it will look boring! Bulleted lists are great for lists of skills or interests but are necessarily limited in content and nuance, and so contain less depth than paragraphs. See Maria Konnikova’s article for more about this.
Tips on presentation
‣ Your CV should be carefully and clearly laid out – not too cramped but not with large empty spaces either. Use bold and italic typefaces for headings and important information
‣ Never back a CV – each page should be on a separate sheet of paper. It’s a good idea to put your name in the footer area so that it appears on each sheet.
‣ Be concise: a CV is an appetiser and should not give the reader indigestion. Don’t feel that you have to list every exam you have ever taken, or every activity you have ever been involved in – consider which are the most relevant and/or impressive. The best CVs tend to be fairly economical with words, selecting the most important information and leaving a little something for the interview: they are an appetiser rather than the main course. Good business communications tend to be short and to the point, focusing on key facts and your CV should to some extent emulate this. The longer and more dense your CV is, the harder it is for an employer to comprehend your achievements. As Mark Twain said: “If only I had more time, I would write thee a shorter letter”.
‣ Be positive – put yourself over confidently and highlight your strong points. For example, when listing your A-levels, put your highest grade first.
‣ Be honest: although a CV does allow you to omit details (such as exam resits) which you would prefer the employer not to know about, you should never give inaccurate or misleading information. CVs are not legal documents and you can’t be held liable for anything within, but if a recruiter picks up a suggestion of falsehoods you will be rapidly rejected. An application form which you have signed to confirm that the contents are true is however a legal document and forms part of your contract of employment if you are recruited.
‣ The sweet spot of a CV is the area selectors tend to pay most attention to: this is typically around the upper middle of the first page, so make sure that this area contains essential information.
‣ If you are posting your CV, don’t fold it – put it in a full-size A4 envelope so that it doesn’t arrive creased.