As the job market gets increasingly crowded, it’s more important than ever to make sure your CV’s up to scratch. So here’s my foolproof guide to polishing up your CV to help you get your career back on track.
- CV essentials: what you must include
- What style of CV you should go for
- Common CV mistakes
- Covering letters
The purpose of a CV
Your CV has one main purpose: to get you a job interview.
The only other purpose it serves is to give employers your contact details and remind them what you’re about after the interview is over.
So a CV is a marketing tool – and you are the product.
Always remember that you’re writing your CV for your potential employer – not for yourself!
To misquote John F. Kennedy: ask not what your employer can do for you; ask what you can do for your employer.
I’ve had a load of letters from potential employees telling me how good the job would be for them rather than what they could do for me. Those ones went in the bin!
It’s been said that employers only spend around 30 seconds looking at your CV before deciding whether you’ll be considered for an interview or not. I think that’s true, particularly with big companies that get hundreds of applications per job.
So it’s essential that your CV is:
- Concise (two pages maximum)
- Persuasive (demonstrates why you’d be great for this job)
- Professional (containing all the information the employer will need in an easy to read format)
There’s no single correct way to write a CV. Different industries will prefer you to focus on different things – for example, some will want to know more about your work history and qualifications, while others will be more concerned with the various skills you can transfer to the job.
Look at what other people write
- The best thing to do is have a look at some sample CVs in your chosen occupation.
- Type ‘Marketing CVs’, ‘Law CVs’, ‘Secretarial CVs’ or whatever your profession is into Google… you should get lots of examples. (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.)
- Although there’s no single ‘right’ way to write a CV, there are a few golden rules that everyone should observe.
- Now is not the time for fancy fonts, pretty borders or coloured paper. Employers want to be able to scan over your CV quickly, not wade through pages of calligraphy, so keep your creative prowess and clipart to yourself.
- Instead, 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 will just 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 that get your point across clearly – avoid jargon, and try bullet points to guide the flow of the document.
- Unless you are specifically told otherwise, your CV should be no more than two pages long. Think carefully about what information you need to include and what’s going to enhance your application.
- If you have a long work history, there’s no need to include everything you have ever done. Employers will largely focus on what you’ve done over the last three to seven years. Include your most current work experience and anything which directly relates to the position you are applying for.
- Just 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.
- Your full name, address, contact phone numbers (home and mobile), and email address are generally sufficient. Make sure this information is clearly positioned at the top of the first page, so an employer can easily refer back to it.
- Avoid including work numbers or email addresses. Use your personal email – though if your email address is a bit too informal (e.g. something like ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ or ‘email@example.com’) you might want to think about setting up a personal email that is a bit more professional (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) for job-hunting purposes…
- These are becoming increasingly popular, but it’s entirely your choice whether you include one or not.
- Personally I can’t stand these, particularly the ones that say something like ‘Dynamic, self-starter with a great work ethic and a determination to give 150%’ or something like that (particularly when you suspect they’re actually a lazy clock-watcher who’s only in it for the money). I’m quite happy for people to put, at the top of their CV, what their main qualifications and experience levels are – in other words, something that can be proved – but anyone could describe themselves as anything on their own CV. I know other employers think like this too so be careful what you put at the top of the page. Most of us are more interested in your actual experience and qualifications than what you think of yourself.
- So it’s best really to state what position or qualification you have and maybe the direction or ambitions you have in mind. For example, you might write something like: ‘A retail assistant with four years experience looking for opportunities that will lead to a management role’. If I saw that on a CV it would help me to know where this person is at in their career and what they’re aiming at. It can help.
- Don’t just rattle off a list of jobs and duties you’ve had – try to add a little more substance.
- 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 on your CV that you’re ‘highly skilled’, ‘sales driven’ or ‘well organised’ – you have to prove it. Instead of just saying you’re ‘sales driven’, for example, give specific evidence. If you beat your sales targets last year by 10% – say so.
- When detailing your work experience, make sure you use ‘power words’ – compelling, direct language that will persuade employers that you are someone they won’t want to miss out on. See how to use so-called ‘power words’ below.
- How long your work history section is will vary depending on the style of CV you choose, but at its most basic level you should be including employment start and end dates, companies and job titles, starting with the most recent first.
- If you have lots of work experience but only some of it is directly relevant to the position you are applying for, don’t worry. I discuss that below, and also in the CV style section.
- This should normally come after your work history, listed in reverse chronological order.
- Include subjects studied and grades where you think it is relevant to the job.
- If you are 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
- A brief section highlighting other practical skills you have that could be useful, such as computer knowledge, typing speeds or languages.
- A separate hobbies section isn’t compulsory but can help to give an impression of your personality outside the workplace. Just be careful what you choose to include – coaching the local under-15s football team shows leadership and community mindedness; mentioning a love of hanging out at the local pub, however, is probably not really going to help you. Also, don’t make it look as though you have so many hobbies you don’t have time to work!
- Whether you choose to list your referees or simply state ‘available upon request’ is up to you. Just make sure they are 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.
We all have differing levels of work experience and skills, so you should select a style which will best highlight your achievements while hiding any gaps.
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, but here are some of the basic CV styles you’ll come across:
- By far the most commonly-used format, this will list your job positions in reverse order, starting with the most recent.
- The education/qualifications section will come after your work history.
- This is 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 (eg: April 2000-September 2004).
- Don’t just write a list of your duties or responsibilities – a potential employer will know, for example, what an office manager does. Instead, elaborate on particular achievements as well, such as specific projects, promotions you received and skills you picked up along the way.
Hybrid or combination
- This is ideal for people who are making a complete career change or have been out of work for some time. Instead of employment dates, you can 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 work.
- 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 to their job, and many graduates or postgraduates. It’s the type that is often used by IT people for example.
- As the name suggests, your qualifications, subjects and grades should come before your work history.
- You can download a free CV template for each of these CV styles at TotalJobs.
- Still not sure which option to go for? Get professional advice that will make your CV sparkle!
And by that I don’t just mean using your computer spellchecker.
- Give your CV a thorough re-read yourself.
- If your CV is littered with basic spelling or grammatical errors, employers will chuck it in the bin.
- Make sure you get someone else to read over your CV before you send it, as a second eye can often pick up things you 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, it’s no good having just one CV. Instead, tailor it to suit each individual job application. Time consuming, yes, but your chances of scoring an interview will improve if you make your application as relevant to an employer as possible.
- You might find it useful to save a couple of different versions of your CV – when the time comes to apply for a job, you can select the one that best suits the position and make the suitable adjustments.
Making it too cluttered
- Don’t shrink the font in a bid to squeeze as much information onto two pages as possible. If you need to do this, then 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 with too many fonts, borders or headings either. 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 a little extra cash. Include jobs from the past 10 years, focusing on the most relevant.
- If you have changed jobs quite a bit, worked in different fields or have 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, choose the CV style that will best complement your history. List the irrelevant jobs, but don’t spend much time expanding on them.
- Should you have lots of experience but only some of it is directly relevant to the position you are applying for, consider splitting your Work History/Experience section into two parts: ‘Relevant Experience’ (put this bit first) and ‘Other Work Experience’.
Not using ‘power words’
- It’s important to be positive and decisive in your CV language. Don’t say things like: “I feel I have good organisational skills…” Say things like: “I have good organisational skills…” and then back this up with an example.
- Better still, try and write your CV in the third person if you can. That way you avoid using ‘I’ and ‘my’ constantly.
- If you’re stuck for inspiration, there are 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 is going to do it for you.
- Obviously, you don’t want to come across as a braggart – just put forward a confident case of why you’d be perfect for the job. (CVs and job interviews are one of the few times in life when it is acceptable – indeed expected – that you 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 – in which case you’ll likely be sacked with no reference, and leaving you with an awkward gap on your CV to explain to future employers.
- So 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, don’t waste it by writing a less-than-perfect cover letter. Your chances of getting an interview will be much better if both documents are as good as each other.
This is your chance to show you’ve done your research and that 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 will have a job description available), then address it in your letter.
- As a general rule, you should keep your letter short – around six paragraphs – so make every word count. Highlight how and why you would be best for the job and how you would fit into the company, without going over the ground you’ve covered in your CV – refer them to your CV instead.
- If you are changing careers, point out 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 are writing to show the potential employer what you can do for them, not what they can do for you so don’t mention anything about how useful the position would be for you or how helpful to your career. You are a product, remember, and you are selling this product to someone else to show how it can help them. Always keep that in mind.
Sending your CV and following it up
These days, it’s most likely you’ll be emailing your application.
- Save your CV as the second most-recent version of Word, just in case the company you are emailing doesn’t yet have the newest edition, in which case your CV will be unreadable.
- Even better, convert your CV to a PDF document – this ensures that employers will see your CV exactly as you sent it. You can convert Word documents really easily here – it only takes one click.)
- It’s also a good idea to paste your cover letter in the body of the email, as well as attaching it as a separate file.
- If you’re posting it, use good-quality plain paper and make sure there are no print smudges or anything to detract from a professional presentation.
- Sometimes it helps to use cream-coloured paper so that it stands out (though not in a bad way like acid lime green might, for example!).
It never hurts also to follow up your application a week or so after sending it. Call the company to confirm they have received it, and you might have a chance to again express your interest in the job.
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 over in the phone conversation and could help you get the job.
Get that job!