CV Writing 101: The Complete Guide to Writing a Great CV

Whether you're looking for a new job, building your network or applying to university, you won't get far without a CV. This guide will help you build a CV that sets you apart from the competition.

Illustration of a CV on a desk

Confusing. Overwhelming. Frustrating. Intimidating. Discouraging. These are just some adjectives you could use to describe the entire CV writing process – particularly when there’s so much (and often conflicting) advice out there.

And there’s also a lot to know about putting your CV together, from choosing the right format to creating a logical structure, and designing with the reader in mind to effectively communicating your skills and experience to hiring managers.

It’s really no wonder that most people find the entire process off-putting.

But this CV writing guide simplifies everything for you in clear, easy-to-follow steps so you can build a CV that will grab the hiring manager’s attention from the get-go and get you one step closer to the job of your dreams.

1. Know the basics

First things first, let’s get the technicalities out the way.

Understanding the basics of CV writing – whether it’s your first or dozenth time round – will help you organise your CV with ease and accomplish your goals, whether it’s applying for a job, a promotion or a university placement.

Let’s get started:

What is a CV?

A CV – short for ‘curriculum vitae’, meaning ‘course of life’ in Latin – is a written presentation of your academic and professional history. It’s essentially a marketing document, and its purpose is to help you secure an interview by strategically advertising your most relevant skills, qualifications, knowledge, experience and accomplishments.

Mainly used for job applications, CVs are also commonly requested to apply for university programmes, scholarships and grants.

Why do I need a CV?

Simply put: because employers expect one.

As a hiring manager myself, I can assure you that every application that’s submitted without a CV attached gets deleted without so much as a second thought.

Essentially, your CV has the power to open doors for you. It’s your first point of contact with potential employers and, when done right, it can help you position yourself ahead of the competition.

PRO TIP

Before submitting your application, always check that you’ve attached your CV. If possible, it’s also a good idea to send a test email to yourself or a friend to make sure attachments open without issue.

How does a CV differ from a résumé?

They’re essentially the same thing. The only real difference between a CV and a résumé is how they’re referred to in different parts of the world.

In North America, for example, you’ll use a résumé to apply for a job. In Europe, though, there’s no such thing as a résumé – you’ll instead be asked for a CV. That said, CVs are also used in the US and Canada, but only for academic and research jobs.


Struggling to write your CV?

Our expert writers can take the stress off your shoulders and do it for you!

With 30 days of free unlimited revisions, a suitable writer matching your industry will work directly with you to create a CV that gets you noticed and lands you more interviews.

See our CV packages


2. Choose the right format

How you present the information on your CV is just as important as the information itself.

And this really all boils down to the particular CV format you use.

Each format has a specific purpose and unique qualities, and each takes a different approach in showcasing your experience and qualifications. And understanding what each format does (and which one works best for you) will provide you with the basis for writing a strong CV.

So:

What are the different CV formats?

There are two types of CV formats: traditional and non-traditional.

Traditional formats use basic text that highlights your background. These are:

  • The chronological CV, or reverse-chronological CV, which focuses on your work history and lists your experience in chronological order from latest to oldest.
  • The skills-based CV, or functional CV, which focuses on your professional skills, particularly those which are transferable to the job you’re applying for.
  • The combination CV, or hybrid CV, which gives equal weight to both your experience and your skills.

Non-traditional formats, on the other hand, still provide an overview of your background but they go beyond simply providing a general list of your experience and skills by also showcasing your personality and creativity. They include:

  • The infographic CV, which uses eye-catching imagery such as icons, graphs and charts to organise content.
  • The mini CV, which is a cross between a business card and a CV, and is mainly used for distributing at networking events.
  • The video CV, which is a filmed presentation of your application.
  • The CV website, which is an online version of your CV, either as a standalone webpage or a sectionalised website.

PRO TIP

If you use a non-traditional format for your CV, you should also create a traditional version to send along in your application. Some recruiters won’t care about looking at your non-traditional CV, so having a traditional CV ready might save your application from being ignored completely.

Which format should I use?

This largely depends on your particular career situation.

Indeed, what works for someone else – even in the same position and industry as you – doesn’t mean it will work for you too. For example, a social media manager with a solid employment history would ideally use a chronological CV, but if you – also a social media manager – were unemployed for a long time, then a skills-based CV is the way to go, as it will help you effectively bridge employment gaps.

Not sure which format to use? Check out the comparison table below to help you choose the format that is most appropriate for your specific situation and that will best highlight your expertise and accomplishments:

Format

Ideal for

Not ideal for

Chronological CV

Virtually everyone

Career changers and employment gappers

Skills-based CV

Employment gappers, overqualified professionals and creative jobs

Students, entry-level professionals, career changers and experienced candidates

Combination CV

Career changers and experienced candidates

Students and entry-level professionals

Non-traditional CV

Creative jobs

Everyone else

3. Plan out the structure

Before you start writing your CV, it’s a good idea to first plan out its structure. This way, you can make sure that you’ll cover all the important information that a potential employer should know about you and your professional journey.

Whether you do this using a word processor or on paper, make a list of all the individual sections you will include in your CV and then organise them in the order they’ll appear.

‘Sounds good!’ you say. ‘But –’

What sections should I include?

Your CV – no matter your position, industry and level of experience or your chosen format – should, at the very least, comprise the following five sections:

  • A header featuring your name, professional title, contact information and, depending on local conventions, photo and some personal details.
  • A profile that briefly outlines who you are, what you offer and what your goals are – typically in the format of a career summary or an objective statement.
  • Your employment history, which lists your previous jobs and explains what you achieved in each position.
  • Your education, which lists the degrees and qualifications you have earned or are currently pursuing.
  • Your skills, which highlight the specific hard skills you’ve developed throughout your career and which are relevant to your industry and the job you’re applying for.

If there’s anything else you’d like potential employers to know that you weren’t able to mention elsewhere on your CV, meanwhile, consider using additional sections to communicate that information.

Some ideas include:

Great, but –

How should I organise my CV?

How you organise your CV’s layout mainly depends on the particular format you’re using, as shown below:

Chronological CV

Skills-based CV

Combination CV

Header

Header

Header

Profile

Profile

Profile

Employment history

Skills

Skills

Education

Education

Employment history

Skills

Employment history

Education

Optional sections

Optional sections

Optional sections

If you’re using a non-traditional format, meanwhile, you won’t necessarily have to follow a specific structure. A video CV, for example, will generally rely on a well-written and engaging script to communicate the relevant information to employers in a natural and logical order.

PRO TIP

However you organise your CV, make sure that each section is accompanied by a heading that clearly tells readers what the specific section is all about. Ideally, use common names like ‘Experience’ and ‘Education’ for headings, but feel free to be creative – just not too creative.

4. Write your CV

Now that you’ve chosen the best format for your experience and particular situation and you’ve planned out your CV’s structure, it’s time to actually get down to writing.

This is the tricky part, but by implementing the following strategies, you’ll be able to write a CV that perfectly meets the needs of the vacancy you’re applying for – and successfully captures the hiring manager’s attention.

Tailor your CV to the job you’re applying for

The best way to get noticed as a candidate is to make the hiring manager feel special – so special that you’ve chosen them (and only them) out of everyone else to apply for a job with (even if you are applying for jobs with other companies). This means that you need to tailor your CV to the specific job you’re applying for.

Do this by researching the company (their website is a good place to start) to get a feel of their brand and culture, re-reading the job description and making a list of important keywords, and then strategically customising your experience, skills and qualifications to the employer’s needs.

Focus on achievements, not duties

Hiring managers don’t want to read a rundown of your day-to-day duties and responsibilities – they can hazard a pretty good guess as to what a French teacher’s job entails, for example.

What they do want to read about is how you can help their company.

This can be communicated by focusing on your achievements in previous jobs, instead of duties. Think about what you did and how you did it – and use numbers to quantify results.

For example, ‘Taught French to Grade 12 students’ can easily be reworked as ‘Prepared Grade 12 students for the SAT Subject Test in French, culminating in a 99% passing rate’.

Write for applicant tracking systems

You’re not just writing your CV for recruiters, but robots too.

Most companies today use an applicant tracking system (or ATS, for short) in their hiring process, which is a software designed to automatically filter applications based on preset criteria before they’re even viewed by a human recruiter.

One way to get around this is to strategically incorporate relevant, targeted keywords in your CV, which you’ll be able to find in the job description.

It’s also important to format your CV with ATSs in mind. Most can’t ‘read’ complex formatting and will instantly discard applications containing tables, columns, images and graphics, so it’s best to avoid these altogether.


Read more: Applicant Tracking Systems: How to Beat the Robots


Keep it concise

Hiring managers don’t have the time – or patience – to read a War and Peace-length saga of your employment and academic history. In fact, they barely spend 10 seconds on the initial screen of your CV.

If you can, keep your CV to one A4 page – particularly if you’re just starting out in your career and you don’t have a lot of relevant experience. However, if you have lots of experience and achievements, a two-page CV is generally better – just make sure to include the most compelling information on the first page.

That said, a CV should never be more than two pages long unless you’re applying for an executive, technical, scientific or academic position, in which case it’s perfectly normal to spread across 10 or more pages.

PRO TIP

If you use more than one page for your CV, make sure you use up at least half of the last page. If the content only fills a quarter or, especially, a single line of the last page, consider adapting the formatting or editing the content down.

Use actionable language

Your CV needs to stand out to potential employers if you want a fighting chance at getting an interview, not to mention landing the job you’re applying for.

A great way to do this is to use clear, actionable and impactful language that encourages hiring managers to keep reading.

One method is to start bullet points with powerful action verbs like ‘coordinated’, ‘maximised’ and ‘streamlined’.

It’s also a good idea to use the active voice (think: ‘Managed a small team of content writers’) instead of the passive voice (‘The content team was managed by me’) when writing your CV, as this makes for a more interesting read. In this case, it also sounds less arrogant.

Take local conventions into account

Depending on the country in which you’re applying for a job, there may be differing standards and guidelines for putting your CV together.

In most EU countries, for example, you’re expected to include things like your birthdate, nationality, gender and marital status – something that is generally discouraged in countries like the UK and the US.

We can’t stress enough the importance of checking – and following – local conventions before sending off your application, as including the wrong thing or leaving out crucial information could hinder your chances of getting an interview.

Proofread your CV

Nothing gets your CV tossed into the ‘No’ pile faster than an abundance of careless typos. Indeed, research shows that 44% of hiring managers will reject an error-laden CV – even if you’re the best candidate for the job.   

Always proofread your CV before sending it off to potential employers, checking – and double- and triple-checking – everything from job titles to contact information and formatting to grammar and hyperlinks to overall consistency.

That said, self-editing can be tricky since you know exactly what you want to say, so asking a trusted friend, relative, teacher or coworker to take a look at your CV is also a great idea. They’ll be able to point out any potentially embarrassing typos you may have missed (think: ‘excellent attention to derail skills’) as well as provide you with constructive feedback on how to make your CV look and read better.

Update your CV regularly

Ideally, you should revisit your CV at least twice a year – even if you’re not actively looking for a job.

As your job responsibilities change and evolve, and you learn new skills, earn new qualifications and achieve more professional goals, make sure to adapt your CV accordingly as they happen.

You never know when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will come knocking on your door, and the last thing you want is scrambling to update your CV – and potentially missing the application deadline.

5. Design for easy skimming

Recruiters don’t read CVs from start to finish. They scan them – at least the first time around.

They’re busy people, often looking to fill 10 or more different positions at the same time. And when you consider that a single job vacancy typically receives, on average, between 75 and 250 applications that they need to review, it’s really no wonder they’re tempted to cut corners.

The secret to ensuring recruiters actually pay attention to your CV is simple: make it skimmable. And the following tips will help you do just that.

Choose fonts carefully

When it comes to CV fonts, the goal is to choose one that’s clean, legible and easy on the eye.

It’s also important to consider how you’re going to send your CV. If you’re applying online, stick to a sans serif font like Arial, Calibri or Verdana; if you’re printing and mailing your CV, though, a serif font like Cambria, Garamond or Georgia is best.

Script fonts like Comic Sans and decorative fonts like Jokerface, meanwhile, have no place on your CV. They only hinder your document’s professionalism – not to mention your own.

Whichever font you choose, use no more than two different styles – one for headings and one for paragraphs and bulleted lists, for example.

PRO TIP

Keep font sizes between 10pt and 12pt. That said, section headings typically look good at 14pt–16pt, while your name at the top of the document can be even larger, generally set to 20pt–24pt.

Use bullet points

Nobody likes to wade through large chunks of text. It’s monotonous and overwhelming, and it can deter busy hiring managers from reading your CV. But you can immediately grab their attention by using strategic formatting to break up content and present information.

One way to do this is to use short bullet points and phrases instead of full sentences and, especially, paragraphs. This helps you break information down into manageable bite-sized pieces fit for scanning.

On that note, stick to standard round or square bullets or, if you prefer, hyphens. Whichever style you choose, though, make sure it’s consistent throughout your CV.

Go easy on the colours

While using colour in your CV can seemingly be a great way to communicate your creativity to potential employers, too much of it can be overwhelming and detract from your CV’s content.

As a general rule of thumb, stick to black and white (black for text, and white for the background). Feel free to add a third colour if you want – but do this sparingly, such as to draw attention to key aspects of your CV, like section headings.

Use white space liberally

The more white space you leave, the better.

In fact, white space (the unused space between design elements) increases reading comprehension by up to 20%. It also makes your CV look neater and more organised, and it focuses the reader’s attention where you want to put it – effectively creating a more pleasant reading experience.

You can accomplish this by playing around with page margins (which should be set to a minimum of 1cm on all sides), adjusting line spacing, and keeping bullet points to a single line.

6. Use examples for inspiration

Before you start writing and designing your CV, it’s always a good idea to look at examples relevant to your profession, industry and overall experience. Not only can this be a great source of inspiration, but it also gives you the advantage of capturing the latest trends and best practices when putting your CV together.

We created the following CV examples to give you an idea of what a great CV should look like, all of which are based on our professionally designed and ATS-friendly templates:

Entry-level CV

Rose CV Example - Entry Level Technical Writer

Get the Rose CV template

Mid-level CV

Active CV Example - Software Engineer

Get the Active CV template

Professional CV

Chic CV Example - HR Manager

Get the Chic CV template

Academic CV

United CV Example - Lecturer

Get the United CV template


Want to see more templates like these?

Check out our complete collection of CV templates and pick out your favourite to boost your job search efforts!

Our professionally designed templates are optimised for applicant tracking systems and easily customisable to fit your needs, and come complete with detailed instructions and downloadable font files.

Browse all templates


7. Get help from the pros

If all this sounds a bit too overwhelming or you don’t have the time to work on your CV, you might want to consider enlisting the help of one of CareerAddict’s expert writers to do all the grunt work for you and craft a compelling CV that effectively markets your top skills and achievements to employers.

Here’s what Alexandre says about his experience with us:

They really made an outstanding CV. It managed to capture my personality and qualities, and landed me many interviews. The interviewers often expressed their admiration [of my] CV.

Our CV writing process is simple:

  1. Once you place your order, we’ll be in touch to gather all the information we need from you, to get to know you and your career journey, and to learn about your specific needs and goals.
  2. We’ll then match you with an expert writer, who will work closely with you to craft a compelling, ATS-optimised CV that effectively markets your top skills and achievements.
  3. The first draft of your new and improved CV will be delivered within 3–7 business days. You’ll then get free unlimited revisions for 30 days, and your designated writer will provide you with expert tips and insights along the way.

Want help landing more interviews – and job offers?

Revamp your CV now

8. Market your CV

Now that your CV is ready, it’s time to get it into the hands of recruiters, hiring managers and people who can influence hiring decisions.

No matter how well-written your CV is or how perfect you are for a job, simply applying for advertised vacancies isn’t the only way to get your CV into the right hands. Remember: competition is fierce, so you need to do everything possible to stand out from the crowd.

Here, we’ll explore the different strategies you can implement to market your CV – and land more interviews.

Write an effective cover letter

Every CV you send should be accompanied by a well-written cover letter – even when the job ad doesn’t ask for one. (The only time you shouldn’t send a cover letter is when the ad specifically instructs you not to.)

Like your CV, your cover letter should be tailored to the specific job you’re applying for and should (and this is important to remember) expand on the relevant points made in your CV rather than repeat them.

Essentially, your cover letter is your chance to actually sell yourself to potential employers and tell them how you can contribute to their company’s success. You can do this by focusing on your professional achievements and how these match employers’ needs.


Read more: How to Write a Job-Winning Cover Letter


Create an online version of your CV

Everything is online these days, and you should be too. It’s the 21st Century, after all, and not having an online presence can potentially spell disaster for your job search efforts.

The solution: create an online version of your CV.

Whether it’s a carefully written LinkedIn profile or a dedicated page on your website, a virtual CV helps you get noticed more – especially when you’re actively looking for a job. Headhunters, for example, are always on the prowl to find the perfect candidate, and this makes it easier for them to find you.

Share your CV with your network

One of the biggest benefits of networking is that the contacts you make along the way can prove useful when you’re looking for a new job – particularly if you know someone who works at the company you have your eye on. An employee referral, after all, increases your chances of getting hired by 6.6%, according to Glassdoor research.

That said, don’t share your CV with complete strangers. Make the time and effort to develop a relationship with potential referrals first, and be ready to offer something in return – remember: networking is a two-way street.

Distribute your CV at job fairs

While most employers primarily use job fairs to promote their companies and collect CVs for future opportunities (not to fill current vacancies), attending – and distributing your CV at – such events can be a great way to meet and connect with colleagues and recruiters.

Make sure to take plenty of copies of your CV with you to share with recruiters. It’s also important that you take the time beforehand to really get to know your CV inside out, as some companies will review it on the spot and ask you to participate in an initial screening interview.

Post your CV online strategically

Uploading your CV to an online job board is a great way to increase your chances of getting noticed by potential employers. But it’s important to be strategic about where you post your CV.

While major job boards are certainly useful, you’ll generally have a higher success rate if you post your CV to niche and speciality sites, aggregator sites like our very own CareerAddict Jobs, and even professional association websites.

TL;DR

Didn’t have the time to read the entire guide?

Here are the main things you need to know about writing your CV:

  • Always send a CV when applying for a job.
  • Choose a format that fits your particular career situation.
  • Make sure your CV includes the five main sections: header, profile, experience, education and skills. Feel free to add extra sections to communicate other important information.
  • Tailor your CV to the particular job you’re applying for, use actionable language and incorporate relevant keywords.
  • Use a clean, user-friendly design that instantly grabs the reader’s attention.
  • Check out CV examples to see what other people are doing, and use them for inspiration when putting your CV together.
  • If in doubt, use a professional CV writing service to help you clearly and effectively communicate your skills, qualifications, experience and accomplishments to potential employers. See how we can help.
  • Submit a targeted cover letter along with your CV, and share your CV with your network to boost your job search efforts.

Additional resources


Join the conversation! Got a tip worth sharing or a question you’d like to ask about how to write a CV? Drop us a message in the comments section below!

 

This article is an updated version of an article published on 8 November 2016.