I remember when I left school and started looking for my first job. I knew I had to write a CV and, to this day, I’m still amazed how it even got me a job in the first place. You see, I did all the wrong things: I included a photo and my date of birth, I lied about my experience (I went as far as making up a company where I supposedly worked as a PA to the frigging CEO!), and I wrote the most unbelievably generic personal statement that would make every last HR manager cringe in disgust.
The problem, though, and without trying to dodge the blame (much), is that 12 years ago there was very little advice on CV writing available online. They were dark times, I tell you. Dark times!
Fast-forward to 2017 and the internet is home to a massive collection of (sometimes useful, sometimes not and sometimes conflicting) tips and advice about everything and anything. My point is that school leavers today have all the necessary tools and information available to them to help them write an entry-level CV without making the same mistakes I made, and this little guide aims to do just that.
Here’s how to write an awesome CV for your first job.
1. Choose the right format
The first thing you need to know about writing your first CV is that there are different kinds of CV formats, each serving a very different purpose. For example, the chronological CV, which is the most common of them all, is used to emphasise an applicant’s employment history. It starts by listing their professional experience in reverse chronological order (that is, with their most recent job first) and is ideal for jobseekers who have a strong, solid work history.
As a school leaver with little to no experience at all, though, you’ll be best using a skills-based CV where you can focus your application around your skills and attributes. This could be as simple as including a section dedicated to your skills right under your personal statement. Although you can still add some sort of work history section to a skills-based CV, it will be placed at the bottom rather than toward the top of the page.
2. Use the job description as a guide
Remember when you first read the ad for the job you’re applying to and thought, ‘I’m gonna apply for that!’? Well, your CV is meant to have a similar effect on employers and make them think ‘I want to hire this candidate!’
So, how can you make that happen? By copying the language used in the job description, of course. Now, I don’t mean that you should reproduce the thing in your CV word-for-word but rather that you carefully re-read the ad to identify keywords and phrases that you can weave into your CV. For example, if the ad requires that the ideal candidate is an ‘excellent communicator’, find a way to brag about your communication skills.
3. Highlight your transferable skills
As your professional experience is fundamentally lacking, your skill set is the greatest weapon you have in your employ. In fact, your skills should take centre stage on your CV.
You can do this by drawing on life experiences and transferable skills, skills which you picked up over time at school, extracurricular activities or even at home and which can be applied to a range of jobs and industries. For example, completing essays and coursework requires planning. Similarly, revising for exams involves learning new processes and information. The job ad may also prove useful when writing this section.
4. Focus on hobbies and interests
When you’re just starting out in your professional journey and writing a CV for your first job, it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd and especially other applicants who are at the same or similar level as you. And listing your hobbies and interests on your CV could be just the leverage you need to ensure that you do stand out.
For example, if you enjoy travelling, you could mention this on your CV and find a way to show your cultural awareness and that you’re comfortable in new environments.
A word to the wise, though: be careful with controversial and unusual hobbies like taxidermy. You want to be memorable, yes, but for the right reasons! You should also stay away from political views, etc, as the hiring manager reviewing your CV may have a polar opposite opinion and this can greatly hinder your chances of landing a job interview.
5. Don’t lie
It may be just a tad hypocritical coming from me, but – and no matter how tempting it may be – lying on your CV is always a bad idea.
Even though I was, for want of a better word, lucky (?) to get away with lying on my CV all those years ago, chances of getting caught in this day and age are high what with the readiness of the internet and the more frequent use of background checks on job applicants. Even if you don’t get caught straight away, the truth will eventually catch up with you.
And just because I got away with my lie doesn’t mean it was right to do so in the first place. It was a stupid, wrong, immature, unprofessional and desperate last-minute effort to embellish my CV with experience that I otherwise lacked.
Twelve years later and now a little wiser, I beg you: don’t do what I did.
6. Edit and proofread
There’s nothing worse than a CV full of typos and grammatical errors. Quite simply, it does the complete opposite of persuading the hiring manager that you’re the perfect candidate for the job; it shows that you’re careless – the very last quality employers look for in employees.
There are loads of proofreading tools available online which you can use to check your CV for spelling and grammar. Having said that, though, don’t rely on these tools too much – even the best spellchecker can miss a potentially embarrassing spelling mistake which is an otherwise grammatically correct sentence (eg: ‘Working in a busty office’). Enlisting the help of a human proofreader (like a friend or family member) is, therefore, just as important – they may be able to offer you constructive feedback about your CV’s content and layout, too!
7. Use examples
A great little trick to use when writing your CV is to use examples for inspiration. Below is a rough template to help you get started.
Your CV's header should include the following:
- Your full name
- Phone number
- Email address
- Personal website and LinkedIn profile (if applicable)
A personal statement is a short description of your professional goals and what you can offer to an employer.
A well-written statement should be between 50 and 200 words long. If you feel that there’s more to write about, save it for your cover letter.
Example: Enthusiastic school leaver with six GCSEs looking for an apprenticeship in hairdressing with an exciting and trend-setting company. Possessing excellent customer service skills and passionate about hair care techniques.
You could group skills into different subheadings like ‘Effective Communication’, ‘IT & Technology’ and ‘Commercial Awareness’, and include two to three bullets under each with examples. Remember: this is the most important section of your CV!
Example: Working in customer service has enabled to develop and expand on my communication skills. My role at Company ABC involved daily interaction with all kinds of people.
List your education in reverse chronological order – that is with the most recent event listed first.
Don’t mention anything before GCSE level. If you’re still waiting for any exam results, you can mention mock/expected grades, though this is not essential.
Make sure this section includes the following details for each entry:
- College/School name
- Dates of study
- Number and grades
Hobbies and interests
A hobbies section is completely optional, but if you don’t have any notable work experience, mentioning your hobbies and interests can be a great way to win employers over with your personality. Only mention a handful of examples and make sure that you elaborate a little bit on each one.
Example: I am involved in the local amateur dramatics society, where I volunteer as a lighting and sound engineer.
This section is also optional. If you don’t have any professional experience to brag about, you could mention any freelance or volunteer work that you did here. Make sure that you only list experience that is relevant to the job you’re applying for.
Make sure to include the following details for each position.
- Your job title
- Dates of employment
- The organisation’s name and location
- Key duties and accomplishments
List up to three references. If you don’t have much space, you can simply mention that you have ‘References available upon request’.
You could opt to remove this section completely if you wish.
Remember to seek people’s permission before you start listing them as references!
- Referee’s name
- Their job title and company name
- Their relationship to you (eg: family friend of 10 years)
- Their address
- Their phone number
- Their email address
8. Don’t forget the cover letter
Unless you’re specifically asked not to, you should accompany your CV with a well-written cover letter. Not only does doing so help you sell yourself to potential employers in a narrative format but also explains why you’re an ideal candidate.
Even if it’s not explicitly required in the job ad, it’s a good idea to send one, anyway, as it shows initiative and speaks volumes of your work ethic – this can work in your favour, especially if you’re up against more experienced competition.
Make sure your letter is targeted to the specific employer and job you’re applying for, it’s short and straight to the point (three to five paragraphs is the general rule of thumb), and that it complements your CV - not repeats it!
If you’re applying for a job online and there’s no place for you to submit a cover letter, don’t sweat it. It probably just means they don’t want one.
Do you have any tips and advice for school leavers writing their first ever CV? Join the conversation down below and share your thoughts and experiences with us!