Whether you’re looking for your first gig or have a good few years’ worth of experience under your belt, you need a great CV. The job market is tough; you’re often up against dozens or even hundreds of other candidates when applying for a job.
According to the BBC, on average 60 people compete for a low skilled job and 20 for a skilled one.
To stand out in the crowd, you need an outstanding CV. And we’re here to help with our foolproof guide to perfecting your resume.
- CV essentials: what you must include
- What style of CV you should go for
- Common CV mistakes
- Covering letters
The purpose of a CV
The key purpose of your CV is simple and it’s to get you a job interview.
It also acts as your business card since it has your details on it, and employers use it as a reminder of what you’re about when your interview is over.
In short, your CV is a marketing tool – and you’re the product.
This means your CV should help you sell your skills. So remember: you’re writing your CV for a potential employer and not for yourself.
A good way to think about is, to misquote John F. Kennedy: ask not what your employer can do for you; ask what you can do for your employer. Don’t waste time telling your potential employers how great the job would be for you; instead, show them how you can contribute to the organisation.
According to research quoted in The Guardian, employers spend less than 30 seconds – and potentially only as little as 6.25 seconds – looking at your CV before deciding whether or not to invite you for an interview. So you really need to make it easy for them to make it a yes.
With that in mind, make sure your CV is:
- Concise (don’t go over two pages)
- Persuasive (demonstrate why you’re the perfect fit for this job)
- Professional (include all the essential information in a readable format)
There’s no single correct way to write a CV. Depending on your industry, you may want to focus on a different section. Sometimes you’ll need to highlight your employment history and qualifications, while other times it’s all about your transferable skills. You can judge this by analysing the job ad and doing a little research into the organisation you’re applying to work for.
Look at what other people write
- Go online and compare your resume to sample CVs in your chosen occupation.
- Type, for instance, ‘Marketing CVs’, ‘Law CVs’ or ‘Secretarial CVs’ into Google to get examples. Mind you, not all of them will be good. Many will be rubbish. But after reading this article, you’ll be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.
- While there’s no single ‘right’ way to write a CV, there’re a few golden rules to follow.
- Yes, you want to make your CV look perfect. No, now isn’t the time for fancy fonts, pretty borders or jazzy paper. Keep it simple. Employers want to be able to scan over your CV quickly, not wade through pages of calligraphy.
- Stick to common fonts like Arial or Times New Roman (no smaller than point size 11).
- Bold type can be effective if used sparingly on sub-headings, but avoid italics and leave plenty of white space between sections as it’s easier on the eye.
- Don’t be tempted to reduce the page margins in a desperate bid to fit everything in. It’ll only look crowded and unorganised. Worse still, if you make the margins too wide, your CV may not print out properly if your employer wants a hard copy for their records.
Keep your CV brief
- The simpler, the better. Use short, sharp sentences to get your point across clearly. Avoid jargon and try bullet points to guide the flow of the document.
- Unless you’re specifically told otherwise, your CV should be no more than two pages long. Think carefully about what information you need to include.
- If you have a long work history, don’t include everything you have ever done. Employers will largely focus on the last three to seven years. Add your most current work experience and anything which directly relates to the position you’re applying for.
- Make sure you don’t have any large unexplained gaps in your CV. If you’ve spent a couple of years in an unrelated industry, fine. List it and then expand on the experience you have that’s more relevant. But don’t leave an unexplained gap.
- Start your CV with your full name, contact number and email address. In the past, it was standard practice to also add your home address, but these days you can skip it or just include your city and country. Stick your details at the top of the first page so employers can easily refer back to it.
- Avoid including work numbers or email addresses. Use your personal email. Just make sure it looks professional first – you don’t want your potential employer to think of you as a ‘email@example.com’ or ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’. Firstname.email@example.com will do.
- These are becoming increasingly popular but that’s not to say you have to have one. Think of the job you’re applying for and use a judgement call.
- If you do decide to write a profile, avoid cliches. Would you be inclined to hire a ‘Dynamic self-starter with a great work ethic and a determination to give 150%’? That could be anyone. Instead, focus on solid facts that can be proved, such as your key qualifications and experience level. That’s another good CV writing rule: show not tell. Descriptions are great for books, but your CV is all about what you’ve done.
- So what do you include? Mention the position or qualification you have and perhaps the direction or ambitions you have in mind. For example: ‘A retail assistant with four years’ experience looking for opportunities that will lead to a management role’. This will let employers know where you’re in your career and what you’re aiming for. It can help.
- Don’t get caught up in detail rattling off a list of jobs and duties you’ve had. Try to add a little more substance and focus on concrete achievements in each particular job.
- Were you promoted?
- Did you lead a major project?
- Come up with ideas to dramatically cut costs?
- Don’t miss the opportunity to showcase your best work.
- It’s not enough to just say that you’re ‘highly skilled’ or ‘well organised’. Prove it. For example, instead of saying you’re ‘sales driven’, show evidence of this. Did you beat your sales targets last year? That’s exactly the type of thing that goes on your CV.
- Use ‘power words’. That means a compelling, direct language that will persuade employers that you’re someone they won’t want to miss out on. See how to use so-called ‘power words’ below.
- To organise your employment history, include start and end dates, companies and job titles, starting with the most recent.
- If you have lots of work experience but only some of it is directly relevant to the position you’re applying for, don’t worry. I discuss that below, and also in the CV style section.
- Include this after your work history, listed in reverse chronological order.
- Mention the subjects you studied and the grades you got if it’s relevant to the job.
- If you’re a graduate entering the work force for the first time – or in a field where certain minimum qualifications are expected (such as accounting or health) – put the education section before your work history.
Other skills/hobbies and interests
- You can add a brief section highlighting other practical skills you have that could be useful, such as computer knowledge, typing speeds or languages.
- If you’d like a separate hobbies section to share a bit of your personality outside the workplace, be careful in your choice. Coaching the local under 15s football team shows leadership and community mindedness, but mentioning your love of hanging out at the local pub probably won’t enrich your CV.
- Whether you choose to list your referees or simply state ‘available upon request’ is up to you. Just make sure they’re relevant to the potential new job or skills mentioned in your CV, and avoid using family members.
- Graduates entering the workforce can generally use an academic referee.
There really is no right or wrong way to write a CV – only good or bad.
We all have differing levels of work experience and skills, so you should select a style to highlight your achievements.
Consider which aspects of your work history or qualifications will be most relevant to any potential employers, then choose a layout to suit.
Many job, university and college websites have free CV templates for various industries in their careers advice sections. For instance, the National Careers Service offers lots of tips and examples.
And to make it easier for you, we’ve put together some of the basic CV styles you may come across:
- By far the most common format, you can use it to list your job positions in reverse order, starting with the most recent.
- Put your education/qualifications section after your work history.
- It’s best-suited to people looking to take the next step up the career ladder in their industry or those looking for new opportunities in closely-related sectors.
- Showcase your work history by including company names, job titles and the dates you worked at each place (e.g: April 2000 – September 2004).
- Don’t just list your duties or responsibilities – a potential employer will know, for example, what an office manager does. Instead, elaborate on your achievements, specific projects, promotions and skills you picked up along the way.
Hybrid or combination
- This is ideal for people making a career change or who have been out of work for some time. Instead of employment dates, focus on the skills you have and how they can be transferred to the new job.
- Replace company names and titles with skill sub-headings, such as ‘management’, ‘organisation’, ‘research’ or ‘sales’. Then elaborate with examples that demonstrate how you used or developed these skills in the course of your career.
- You should still include a list of employers, dates, job titles and duties, but keep it brief.
- This CV suits people who have recently updated their skills by doing a course, those who need specific qualifications for their job, graduates or postgraduates. It’s the type often used by IT people, for example.
- As the name suggests, you should put your qualifications, subjects and grades before your work history.
- You can download a free CV template for each of these CV styles from TotalJobs.
Forgetting to spellcheck
And by that I don’t just mean using your computer spellchecker.
- Give your CV a thorough re-read yourself.
- If your resume is littered with basic spelling or grammatical errors, employers will chuck it in the bin.
- Get someone else to read it. A fresh pair of eyes can pick up the things you’ve missed.
- Oh, and be sure to leave any abbreviations or ‘text speak’ where it belongs: in your mobile phone.
Not tailoring your CV
- If you’re looking for jobs in a variety of sectors, you’ll need various CVs, each tailored to suit individual job application. Time consuming, yes. But your chances of scoring an interview will improve if you make your application relevant to the employer. Take advice from the director of the National Careers Service Joe Billington who said that as an applicant you should “see how you can make the evidence of what you’ve done match up” with the role’s person specification.
- Save a couple of different versions of your CV. When you’re applying for a new job, select the most suitable one and simply make some adjustments.
Making it too cluttered
- Don’t shrink the font to squeeze in more information. If you need to, the chances are you’ve included far too much to begin with.
- Try to look at your CV from the employer’s point of view (or, again, get someone to read it for you) and cut out all the irrelevant points.
- Don’t clutter your CV. Keep the layout simple and let your well-chosen words speak for themselves.
Leaving it incomplete or out of date
- If you’ve been working for some time in a particular sector, it’s unlikely a new employer will be interested in reading about the weekend job you had in university to earn extra cash. Include jobs from the past 10 years but focus on the most relevant ones.
- If you’ve changed jobs quite a bit, worked in different fields or been out of work for some time, don’t leave things out in the hope an employer won’t notice. They will and any gaps will raise questions. Instead, rethink your choice of CV style. List the irrelevant jobs, but don’t spend much time expanding on them.
- Should you have lots of experience but only some of it directly relevant to the position you’re applying for, consider splitting your work history and experience sections. Break them down into two parts: first include ‘relevant experience’, then ‘other work experience’.
Not using ‘power words’
- e positive and decisive in your CV language. Instead of saying: “I feel I have good organisational skills…” put: “I have good organisational skills…” and back it up with an example.
- And yes, use first person. While saying ‘I’ and ‘my’ throughout your resume may feel informal, it gives you a more dynamic flow than writing in third person. More on the tone of voice for your CV in our article here.
- If you’re stuck for inspiration, there’re 100 power words here, and a useful list of power phrases here.
Being too modest
- Modesty is an attractive trait, but your CV and job interview aren’t the place for it. It’s up to you to showcase your best work – no-one else will do it for you.
- Equally, you don’t want to come across as a braggart. Put forward a confident case of why you’d be perfect for the job. CVs and job interviews are those rare occasions when it’s not only acceptable but actually expected to toot your own horn.
- It sounds corny but if you think of yourself as a brand or a product, it’s easier to be objective and promote your ‘product’ to its best advantage.
Not telling the truth
- It seems obvious, but the temptation to fudge their CV is too much to resist for many people.
- Unfortunately, the chance of being caught out in an interview is pretty high. And the chance of being caught out should you get the job is even higher. You could even get sacked with no reference and that’ll leave a pretty awkward gap on your CV to explain to future employers.
- Highlight your good qualities and use positive words to reinforce them. But never tell a barefaced lie.
Covering letters: the first impression
Now you’ve got your CV in tip-top shape, you’ll need an equally perfect cover letter. Your chances of getting an interview will be much higher if both documents are as good as each other.
Show you’ve done your research. This is your chance to prove you know what the job involves and what the company needs.
- Never send out a bog-standard cover letter for every job application. Instead, examine the key criteria for each position. Most employers will describe this in the advert, i.e. ‘we are looking for a person with…’, or share a job description. Address their needs in your letter.
- Keep your cover letter short – around six paragraphs – and make every word count. Highlight how and why you’d be best for the job and how you’d fit into the company. Don’t repeat what you’ve covered in your CV, though.
- If you’re changing careers, explain how the skills you already have can be transferred to the new job.
- Try to find out who will be reading your letter and address it to them. Some adverts will specify a name or you can be bold and call to find out. Be sure you’re certain of their gender and spelling of their name. You don’t want to write to Ms Kim White to later discover it was actually meant to go to Mr Kim Whyte – especially if you’ve made note of your excellent ‘attention to detail’. If in doubt, stick to the safe ‘Dear Sir/Madam’.
- Again, remember you’re writing to show the potential employer what you can do for them; not the other way around. Don’t mention how helpful to your career the job would be. You’re a product, remember, and you’re selling it to someone else to show how it can help them. Always keep that in mind.
Sending your CV and following it up
You’ve got a first-rate CV and a brilliant cover letter to match. You’ve checked and re-checked your spelling and contact details. All that’s left to do is send it off.
These days, you’ll most likely email your application.
- Save your CV as the second most-recent version of Word or, better still, convert it to a PDF document. This ensures that employers will see your CV exactly as you sent it. You can convert Word documents easily here – it only takes one click.
- Cover letter in the body of your email or as an attachment? The jury is still out as people have different preferences. Many argue that pasting it into the email helps you make a strong impression straight away and it saves the employer another click to download the document. It won’t make or break your chance of getting an interview, though.
- If you’re posting your application, use good-quality plain paper and make sure there’re no print smudges or anything to detract from a professional presentation.
- Sometimes it helps to use cream-coloured paper so that it stands out a little (though not in a bad way like acid lime green might, for example).
It won’t hurt to follow up with the employer a week or so after applying. Call the company to confirm they’ve received your application; it’s yet another opportunity to express your interest in the position.
Don’t be put off by people not ringing back – but don’t be pushy either. Stay friendly, bright, professional and positive. This will come across in the phone conversation and could help you get the job.
Get that job!
Follow the steps above and you’ll get frequent job interviews. With our CV templates, examples and advice, you have all you need to write a good resume.