Writing a CV takes time, and this is probably one of the reasons why most people hate it. But even though it may be boring, it’s also one of the things that you absolutely must do if you are serious about getting a job. Since it is often the first contact with an employer, it is the single most important element in your job search. In other words, it is the key to your next job.
To create a winning CV, first, you need to understand what it is and why it’s so important to have one. It has become an essential part of the recruiting process and it’s rare to find an employer that doesn’t ask for one. Since the competition in the job market is fierce, it’s important to have a well-presented CV that can show employers what you are capable of and you need to update it constantly, no matter where you are in your career. The problem is that, while many people know this, they don’t know how to create a CV properly and how it can help them stand out the right way.
This article will guide you through the process of building a CV that presents your professional skills in the best possible light.
What is a CV?
It stands for Curriculum Vitae, which in Latin means ‘course of life’. It explains who you are, what you have to offer, how you can add value to an employer focusing on your education, skills, employment history, duties, achievements and why you are the ideal candidate for a position. It is used mainly in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand and less often in Australia, India, and South Africa. In the USA and Canada, a CV is the equivalent of the résumé.
A CV is the best choice when a) you are applying for a position outside the US b) you are a physician or scientist, and c) if you want to get into an academic field as a university professor.
How Employers Use It
For every position, employers are required to come up with a person specification. This is more or less, a list that explains what skills, personal qualities and level of experience the desirable candidate should possess to meet the requirements of the role. The list helps recruiters create the job advert. Employers examine CVs for evidence of the skills and the experience they asked for to decide whether your professional profile matches with the person specification. Essentially, this is what helps them determine if you are a good fit for the job or not.
Employers review CVs and make sense of the information they are given in a unique way. A comprehensive eye-tracking study conducted by The Ladders (PDF) that examined how recruiters reviewed resumes, found that the average time employers spend on each one is 7.4 seconds. The study showed that within those six seconds, almost 80 per cent of recruiters focused on the following elements:
- Your Name
- Current Title/Company
- Previous Title/Company
- Previous Position (start and end dates)
- Current Position (start and end dates)
The study identified these as the most important sections. This means that you need to pay more attention to these in the creation phase and if you must go into more detail.
How to Start Writing Your CV
While there is no one way to create a CV, you can’t start working on it without a set framework in place. Below is the prewriting process you need to follow to get it right:
1. Read the Job Description Carefully
The writing process doesn’t begin until you have done your research and examined the role you are interested in. So, before you are ready to do anything with it, you need to study the job advert carefully to figure out what it is asking of you It might help to research the employer and get some real facts down on paper. Just make sure to find out who these people are, what they do, how they work and most importantly what are they looking for in their employees.
When reading the job advert, it’s important to:
- Focus on the job title, get some information on it and come up with a list of job responsibilities as a reference point.
- Identify the most important soft and hard skills employers ask in the job advert and come up with real-life examples that can evidence your abilities.
- Look for key phrases that describe the personal qualities employers ask for the role e.g. ‘must be responsible, honest and results-driven’ and include these on your CV.
- Take industry-relevant acronyms and other important keywords that are directly applicable to the job you are applying for.
Copy the keywords employers use to describe the desirable candidate in the job advert and use them to tailor your CV to the job. This will help you make it more relevant to the position and show employers that you have understood the requirements of the role.
2. Use the Right Format
Step two is all about identifying your needs and choosing a format that can help you communicate your strengths the right way. This aims to help you connect with employers better. While there are many options to choose from, you should always go for the one that works for you the best depending on your career goals.
Take a look at the different formats to find out which one you need.
(a) Traditional/Chronological: the chronological is the most common type of CV and lists the most recent experiences and qualifications first to match these with the job requirements. It helps to emphasise your expertise and accomplishments to an employer using your work experience.
When to use:
- When applying for a position in the same industry and want to demonstrate your career progression.
- When you want to help the employer identify your previous roles and responsibilities in each job.
- When you don’t have many achievements or significant highlights to show-off and want to show where you have worked rather than what you have achieved.
- When you are well-established in your career and/or looking for a promotion or better working conditions.
(b) Skills-based/Functional: focuses on skills, your expertise and the achievements that you have gained throughout the course of your career. Unlike the chronological, it doesn’t care about the chronology of your employment to date or what your previous jobs were. The functional CV is not as popular as the chronological one amongst employers but can be used to help them identify your skills.
It usually comes with a personal profile (career summary) that lists the experience, skills and personal qualities that you possess. Then it lists your key skills separating these into different sections that relate to a different ability e.g. communication skills, teamwork and leadership.
When to use:
- When you want to change careers and go into a different industry.
- When you have changed jobs frequently or your experience is a combination of unrelated posts.
- When you have gaps in your work history (bringing up children, illness etc.).
- When you don’t have much experience and you are just starting out or finishing college/university.
- If you are a more mature applicant and want to divert the focus away from your age.
(c) Combined: this is a combination of the chronological and functional CV and it’s usually slightly longer than normal. Since it shares characteristics from both types, this is starting to become quite popular.
When to use:
- When you want to draw attention on skills and experience relevant to the job.
- When you want to emphasise skills that you haven’t used for a while.
- When you have a strong career progression with many achievements.
- When applying for managerial or executive positions.
While these three are the most popular types of CVs, there are also others that are worth checking out and can work perfectly for ‘special occasions’:
Academic: this is based on the chronological format, although it can be longer than two pages. It’s used when applying for lecturing or research-based positions e.g. post-doctoral research. Since it focuses on academic achievements, it needs to list any supporting information relating to your Ph.D. and other related research and it is expected to take up to five pages. However, this depends on your experience in the field.
Technical: this is similar to the functional CV because it focuses on the skills and relevant experience you need for any technology job. If the field you are interested in has anything to do with IT, computing programming and software engineering, then it can help you focus on those skills that are relevant to the job.
Mini: this is a short ‘card’ version of a CV that is intended to be used specifically for networking purposes. This is ideal when you are planning to attend meetings or events where you get to meet potential employers such as university events, seminars, conferences and career fairs. It gives you the chance to connect with them ‘on-the-go’ and provide a great point of reference encouraging them to look you up online. You carry the mini CV with you all the time and it’s perfect for opportunities that present themselves unexpectedly. It looks like a business card, includes a short career summary and lists education, skills and experience.
Profile: this gives a lot of emphasis on your personal profile otherwise known as ‘career summary' and/or career objective. It helps to focus what you are good at by looking at your skills, personal qualities, and achievements and explains why you are applying for the job in a few words. This is an ideal template when you want to justify ‘cultural fit’ based on your personality.
Non-Traditional/Modern: this can take the form of an infographic, video, online profile or portfolio. It’s considered to be ideal for creative positions or when applying for startup jobs. This may also be a web-based version of a CV that includes photos, graphics, images and other visuals that can help to present you as the best fit.
If you are applying for a creative role, you can go with something more extreme like a modern CV, such as a video, or an infographic, but you first need to ensure that the employer you are applying for will be happy with that. This can be a risky move and it’s always safer to go with the traditional option – the traditional chronological one. However, if you see that this doesn’t work the way you want, it might be worth trying out when applying for a startup job, or less-conservative industries/employers. If you need to, check these CV examples to get some inspiration.
You have to remember that whichever format you choose, same rules need to apply:
- It needs to have a good structure.
- It needs to be informative but concise.
- It needs to be engaging and to the point.
- It needs to be clearly written and easy-to-read.
- It needs to be targeted on the specific job or industry.
- It needs to be accurate in content, spelling, and grammar.
These six rules apply to everyone no matter your level of experience. If you don't get them right, you are going to have a hard time making a strong impression on potential employers because the first thing they see is the appearance of your CV. If they don’t like what they see on their first look, it's highly likely that they won’t like what’s in it either.
3. Use the Right Content
You need to start thinking about the actual content. While there are some differences between a graduate level and an executive level CV, most of what needs to go in it is roughly the same. Generally speaking, it needs to include the following elements – but not necessarily in this order:
PERSONAL DETAILS: this section makes it easy for employers to get in touch with you. Include your name, home address, email address, a professional email address (most not preferably Gmail or Y!Mail), LinkedIn profile address and any other contact details you want to write down. Listing other details such as gender, date or place of birth, religion and nationality is optional.
CAREER SUMMARY: this is a small paragraph (three to four lines), otherwise known as ‘personal profile’ that explains who you are and what your expertise are. It informs recruiters what you are good at. Although not compulsory, it provides a nice introduction to any CV and can add more depth. Many people prefer to include a career objective, but this statement alone can’t give the information employers need to make a correct judgment and quite often a career objective may be misleading.
In this section, don’t forget to include:
- Your years of experience.
- Your areas of expertise in the industry.
- Your key soft skills and personal qualities.
- Your short and long-term career goals.
WORK EXPERIENCE: lists tasks and job responsibilities that make it easier to identify essential skills needed for the job. It provides information on your work experience and refers to any paid jobs you had during vacations, term time, voluntary work, unpaid work placements or internships. You shouldn’t include every job you ever held. Usually a 10 years employment period is more than enough.
Don’t forget to include:
- Dates of employment (Month/Year).
- Name of the Company.
- Job Title/Position.
- Job Duties/Responsibilities
- Achievements as part of job duties (if any).
EDUCATION: talks about your qualifications and the degrees that you have obtained as a student. It can only go as far back as secondary education and give out details such as core modules that you were taught, your projects/thesis/dissertation subject and title – if it can be related to the position. If the content of your degree isn’t directly relevant to the job, refer to the skills that you have developed through it.
Don’t forget to include:
- Your degree title, subject (attained or expected) and the modules studied.
- Your A levels with dates and grades.
- Your GCSE/O Levels with grades or CSEs.
Don't be tempted to falsify any of your qualifications either, as they can be - and are - easily checked.
KEY SKILLS: lists essential professional skills that relate to the industry/position you are applying and provides evidence for these (through real-life examples). You might see this section named differently e.g. ‘relevant skills’, ‘professional skills’, ‘other skills’ or just ‘skills’. The section can be divided into other subsections presenting transferable skills that can be applied to any job such as communication skills, teamwork, organisational skills, and leadership and hard skills that are directly relevant to the position.
LANGUAGES: lists the languages you speak or you are familiar with and the level of proficiency in it. This section is not always necessary, but it’s important to include in the document when applying for a job abroad where people speak a different language or a position that asks for specific language skills.
AWARDS AND HONOURS: this section may also be called ‘achievements’ and gives you a chance to talk about your accomplishments in more detail. It lists any certificates that you have obtained during your studies, any other special distinctions e.g. a national high school student award, or titles that you have obtained at work e.g. Employee of the Month, Best Performer Awards or the Person of the Year. For this, you will need to make sure to give a quick explanation of what each award means and what you did to get it. It’s also important to separate your professional awards from personal achievements.
In this section, don’t forget to include:
- Real-life examples of how you made a difference in previous roles.
- Detailed information in terms of your contribution (numbers/figures) where relevant.
- Names of professional organisations and dates of membership.
- The title of the award, providing more details on the honor given.
INTERESTS/HOBBIES: most employers won’t need this, but if you have any hobbies that relate to the role you are applying for add them in. These can show evidence of suitability in terms of personality and work ethic and can present you as a well-rounded person. When you are including hobbies just list two or three that can demonstrate skills such as teamwork, flexibility and independence. If they aren’t relevant, make sure to refer to what you have learnt from them and how you developed them.
REFERENCES: not every employer checks for references at the application stage. If the job advert requests referees you need to include this on your CV. If it doesn’t, it’s OK to omit this unless you are applying for an entry-level position. If you are running out of space, it’s best to leave it out and provide a separate document for it with more information on previous employers.
What’s great about CV writing is that there is no one way of doing it and each document is unique. Obviously, there are some basic rules – or restrictions if you like – but it’s your personal marketing document and in the end, you get to choose what structure you are going to follow, what should go in it and how it looks given your circumstances.
4. Knowing Your Professional Level
The most common way graduates start their careers is with an entry level job. This is usually your first job out of school. It is usually a job that requires little skill and knowledge and most of the times it offers a relatively low salary. Many entry-level jobs are part-time, but there are also full-time positions that don’t offer many employee benefits. These are intended for recent high school, college and university graduates. Employers offering entry-level jobs may prefer candidates who have completed some basic training in the industry but don’t expect them to have an in-depth knowledge in the job. This is perfect because it helps you get started.
An entry-level job:
- Is intended for recent college/university students and graduates.
- Is intended for people with less than three years of experience.
- Offers salaries ranging from £16,000 to £25,000 annually.
If you are a graduate who’s looking for a job or is simply interested in postgraduate studies, expect that employers and universities will ask to see a CV upon application. But, no matter what you are looking for, the two CV formats that will work best in this situation are the skills-based/functional and combined. The chronological format wouldn’t work here because recent graduates aren’t expected to have a long work history section. Although having paid employment history is preferable, employers are well aware that you are just starting out, so what they want to find out is who you are as a person and what you can potentially bring to the table in terms of skills.
Main characteristics of a graduate CV:
- No real work experience.
- One page in length (A4 paper) although it can take up to two.
- Gives an emphasis on education and skills.
- Includes unpaid experience: volunteering/job shadowing, student placement/internships.
- Includes professional memberships (- if any, and duration of membership).
- Includes hobbies/interests.
- Includes references.
An entry-level CV tends to focus on skills and education but because of lack of significant work experience, it balances it out with unpaid experience including volunteering, job shadowing student placements/internships. It also lists interests that show evidence of extra-curricular activities and character, but preferably hobbies that can make you more employable. Unlike other types, this includes references, because it works as a great starting point for recruiters who want to make sense of who you are.
If you want to apply for an entry-level job you have to learn how to read between the lines in a job description. Employers want to get the best candidates out there and are looking to hire the smartest employees they can find so that they can train them in the skills necessary to advance within their company. The most important qualities that need to stand out from your CV are a) your willingness to learn, b) your initiative and c) your interest in the employer.
Many large graduate recruiters may not accept CVs and instead ask you to complete a job application form. When that happens, you have to be careful with the questions because they are designed in a way that gives out the kind of information employers need. They want to find out whether you are a good fit as well as what you are looking for in a job.
Download our Entry Level CV Template:
A mid-level professional is someone who has moved past the entry level, has some experience and is no longer considered to be a ‘newbie’.
A mid-level professional job:
- Is indented for professionals with 3 to 10 years of experience.
- Is suitable for people with leadership and some management experience.
- Offers salaries ranging from £25,000 to £65,000 annually.
Now, there are some obvious differences in the way you apply for a mid-level job compared to entry-level roles and this should be demonstrated on your CV. Apart from the format–the chronological works best here–you need to think of a better way to present your skills. As a mid-level professional you need to show that you are more knowledgeable and that you are not making the careless mistakes you did years ago. This means that you need to make it look more professional.
The best way to show this transition is to remove undergraduate and part-time positions, student placements and internships unless they are essential and directly relevant to the job you are applying for. You can also add numbers to make it more convincing, focus on accomplishments and provide more detailed information on each role you had. When using the reverse-chronological format it is also important to highlight your career progression. Your CV should tell the story of your career and how you have developed through the different roles you had.
Main characteristics of a mid-level professional CV:
- No more than two pages with an exemption of a one-page in some industries: If you are applying for a job in industries such as investment banking, management consultancy, and law, you might be expected to send a one page CV because they are very competitive fields to enter.
- Focuses on relevant work experience and achievements.
- May not include hobbies/interests.
- May not include references.
Download our Mid-Level CV Template:
Competition for high-level executive jobs is fierce and there is usually more work involved to stand out from the crowd. If you are applying for an executive position, your CV needs to look more or less like a value proposition. You need to focus on what you have to offer as well as how useful it is for the company that’s hiring.
An executive level job:
- Is indented for professionals with more than 10 years of experience.
- Is suitable for people with strong management skills.
- Offers salaries ranging from £65,000 to £123,000 annually.
Executive level CVs are used for people with lots of experience and possess excellent knowledge in their area of expertise. It is specifically intended to be used for those looking to find a position in high-level management like CEOs, CFOs, managers, directors, consultants, president or vice president. Since these roles need excellent leadership skills and management experience, it needs to be able to demonstrate authority, precision, and strong business acumen.
The best way to bring that out is through a reverse-chronological order that gives emphasis to your experience. It should contain at least three basic sections including the a) introduction/career summary, b) the body/work experience section and c) the supporting information such as education and other affiliations. Like the mid-level CV, the executive one should also highlight past achievements and present quantified results.
Key characteristics of an executive/managerial CV:
- Includes years of experience and areas of expertise.
- Focuses on achievements and management skills.
- Makes use of numbers, facts and more specific details.
- Includes professional memberships (if any, and the duration of the membership).
- It may go beyond the two pages and run from three to five pages.
The difference compared to other types of CV is that the executive one should provide an in-depth analysis of what you have done. Coming up with original statements and talking through real life experience providing tangible evidence is the best way to go.
Download our Executive Level CV Template:
5. What You Should Leave Out
Since a CV needs to be concise, it can’t go into too much detail. What you need to remember here is to focus on the information that is relevant to the position you are applying for.
Inevitably, there are going to be things that need to go in it and others that employers don’t care about – or shouldn’t know. The most important sections are work history, education, and skills. If it doesn’t cover any of these three basic themes, then it is a waste of time writing it.
Don’t forget that this is just a summary of your skills, experience and achievements. In essence, it should be a professional profile and not a testimony of your personal life. These are some of the things you don’t need to include in it:
- Your age.
- Your health status.
- Your marital status.
- Your sexual orientation.
- Your religious preference.
- Your social security number.
- Your school’s or university’s addresses.
- Your nationality, unless you will need a UK work permit.
- Your photo, unless you are applying for a modeling job.
Including any of this personal data on your CV – unless it’s important to the job somehow, shows that you are an amateur and nobody wants to hire an amateur. As such, it’s important to make sure that you maintain your professionalism throughout the document. It’s important to note that all of this information is illegal for employers to ask anyway.
Apart from personal details, it’s also a good idea to avoid:
- Opinionated statements.
- Personal nouns including the words “I”, “me”, “he/she”, “my”.
- Short term employment positions and jobs you were let go from or didn’t like.
- Annoying buzzwords such as ‘go-getter’, ‘best of breed’ or ‘thinking outside the box’.
Choosing the Right CV Layout
The visual layout of a CV largely depends on its format. As you have read previously, there is a great variety of formats and each one it is used for a different purpose. Depending on where you are in your career and what your professional level is, you will need to choose the one that matches with your career needs the most.
This is what’s going to determine what your CV will say about you. A good structure can direct the eyes of recruiters exactly where you want them to go and emphasise your strong points.
You also have to ensure that it looks nice, presents the content effectively and fills the white space evenly. This helps to avoid creating a CV that’s bulked up with too much text, extremely hard to read and gets thrown in the bin. As such, its looks are as important as its content.
Even though the design is going to be the last step in the process, you need to plan for it. Luckily you won’t have to come up with a design on your own. You can get help from a range of external career services and request it to be done in a certain way. CareerAddict’s writers can help you to write a professional CV from scratch, or fix up an existing one.
Alternatively, there are many online sites to get creative ideas from if you need help arranging your CV.
Your CV Checklist
Once you finish with the write-up, you need to make sure that you have got everything in place. If you can get all of these points checked off the following list – as proposed by the careers services of a number of UK universities, it means that you have created a high-quality CV that has the potential to score lots of interviews.
Specific Things to Include
- Have you added your name in a bold format and at the top (preferably the center) of the page?
- Have you included a professional email address?
- Can you make sure the employer will be able to contact you easily at this address?
- Do your personal details account for no more than one-third of a page?
- Have you listed the start and end dates of each position?
- Have you included the name of the company, the job title, main duties, and responsibilities?
- Have you included a broad range of relevant experience including voluntary work?
- Have you given more details on the most relevant positions? (e.g. contribution, achievements)
- Have you included the start and end dates for each institution attended?
- Have you listed your most recent/most important qualifications first?
- Do you give the full title of the courses?
- Have you listed relevant modules/projects?
- Are there brief details of your main project/dissertation(if relevant)?
- Have you received any scholarships or awards that would show relevant skills?
- Have you identified the skills that you need to succeed in the industry you have chosen?
- Have you demonstrated evidence of skills that are outlined in the job advert?
- Have you listed transferable and technical skills?
- Do you provide real-life examples (academic, hobbies, from work or university etc.) of how you meet these skills?
- Have you used this section to show examples of skills that the employer is looking for?
- Have you handpicked a few of your hobbies/interests rather creating a long list?
- Do you provide an explanation for each one?
- Do you give out the referees’ names?
- Do you include the referees’ job titles?
- Do you provide the referees’ addresses and telephone numbers?
- Have you asked your referees to provide you with a reference for this application?
General Things to Check
- Have you used a spell-checker?
- Have you proofread the document?
- Did you use capitalisation correctly?
- Have you used a lively writing style? (positive, active language)
- Does it meet the appropriate length for your level of experience?
- Is the text neatly aligned?
- Is it easy and clear to read?
- Do you have page margins at least 1 cm around?
- Do you make use of bullet points and short paragraphs?
- Is the most important information on the first page of the CV?
- Did you clearly separate the sections with headings/subheadings?
- Did you hold the document at arm’s length to see if it has a professional appearance?
- Does it have a balanced white space and amount of text?
- Does it make sense?
- Have you chosen the right format for the purpose it is intended?
- Are you using a professional font throughout the document?
- Have you used bold or italics to draw attention to key points?
- Have you made sure to use the right set of colours? (if using any)
- Have you kept the sentences short and avoided repetition?
- Have you used strong action words and relevant keywords?
- Have you avoided cliché words and phrases?
This checklist helps to ensure that your CV is constantly up to date; follows job market trends and works in accordance with the employers’ expectations. Don’t forget that employers are busy people and may not have much time on their hands. This means that they don’t want to waste any time on CVs that aren’t worth consideration. Your goal is to make your CV relevant to the job at hand, include keywords that can help beat the applicant tracking systems and hopefully get yourself an interview.
Writing your CV may seem extremely demanding but if you get to work on it bit by bit, you will realise that it really isn’t that difficult. Once you spend some time to learning how to create a CV, you can prepare more than one copy and tailor it to each position.
The more you get into it, the better you become at it and you get to learn a variety of tips and techniques in regards to presenting yourself (and selling your skills) better. There is also a way to test if it works. Your CV can only be effective if it’s getting you regular interviews. If it isn’t, it means that you need to continue working on it, or that you might need some help on improving your cover letter.
Have you started working on yours yet? Does it follow the rules above? Can you think of any other CV tips worth mentioning?
Let us know in the comments section below…