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How to write a successful CV

What is a CV?

Curriculum Vitae: an outline of a person’s educational and professional history, usually prepared for job applications (L, lit.: the course of one’s life). Another name for a CV is a résumé.

A CV is the most flexible and convenient way to make applications. It conveys your personal details in the way that presents you in the best possible light. A CV is a marketing document in which you are marketing something: yourself! You need to “sell” your skills, abilities, qualifications and experience to employers. It can be used to make multiple applications to employers in a specific career area. For this reason, many large graduate recruiters will not accept CVs and instead use their own application form.

An application form is designed to bring out the essential information and personal qualities that the employer requires and does not allow you to gloss over your weaker points as a CV does. In addition, the time needed to fill out these forms is seen as a reflection of your commitment to the career.

There is no “one best way” to construct a CV; it is your document and can be structured as you wish within the basic framework below. It can be on paper or on-line or even on a T-shirt (a gimmicky approach that might work for “creative” jobs but not generally advised!).

 

When should a CV be used?

  • When an employer asks for applications to be received in this format.
  • When an employer simply states “apply to …” without specifying the format.
  • When making speculative applications (when writing to an employer who has not advertised a vacancy but who you hope may have one).

What information should a CV include?

What are the most important aspects of CV that you look for?

One survey of employers found that the following aspects were most looked for
(From the brilliant 2010 Orange County Resume Survey by Eric Hilden)

45% Previous related work experience
35% Qualifications & skills
25% Easy to read
16% Accomplishments
14% Spelling & grammar
9% Education (these were not just graduate recruiters or this score would be much higher!)
9% Intangibles: individuality/desire to succeed
3% Clear objective
2% Keywords added
1% Contact information
1% Personal experiences
1% Computer skills

Personal details

Normally these would be your name, address, date of birth (although with age discrimination laws now in force this isn’t essential), telephone number and email.

British CVs don’t usually include a photograph unless you are an actor. In European countries such as France, Belgium and Germany it’s common for CVs to include a passport-sized photograph in the top right-hand corner whereas in the UK and the USA photographs are frowned upon as this may contravene equal opportunity legislation – a photograph makes it easier to reject a candidate on grounds of ethnicity, sex or age. If you do include a photograph it should be a head and shoulders shot, you should be dressed suitably and smiling: it’s not for a passport! See our Work Abroad page for more about international CVs

 

Education and qualifications

Your degree subject and university, plus A levels and GCSEs or equivalents. Mention grades unless poor!

Work experience

  • Use action words such as developed, planned and organised.
  • Even work in a shop, bar or restaurant will involve working in a team, providing a quality service to customers, and dealing tactfully with complaints. Don’t mention the routine, non-people tasks (cleaning the tables) unless you are applying for a casual summer job in a restaurant or similar.
  • Try to relate the skills to the job. A finance job will involve numeracy, analytical and problem solving skills so focus on these whereas for a marketing role you would place a bit more emphasis on persuading and negotiating skills.
  • All of my work experiences have involved working within a team-based culture. This involved planning, organisation, coordination and commitment e.g., in retail, this ensured daily sales targets were met, a fair distribution of tasks and effective communication amongst all staff members.

Interests and achievements

  • Keep this section short and to the point. As you grow older, your employment record will take precedence and interests will typically diminish greatly in length and importance.
  • Bullets can be used to separate interests into different types: sporting, creative etc.
  • Don’t use the old boring cliches here: “socialising with friends”.
  • Don’t put many passive, solitary hobbies (reading, watching TV, stamp collecting) or you may be perceived as lacking people skills. If you do put these, then say what you read or watch: “I particularly enjoy Dickens, for the vivid insights you get into life in Victorian times”.
  • Show a range of interests to avoid coming across as narrow: if everything centres around sport they may wonder if you could hold a conversation with a client who wasn’t interested in sport.
  • Hobbies that are a little out of the ordinary can help you to stand out from the crowd: skydiving or mountaineering can show a sense of wanting to stretch yourself and an ability to rely on yourself in demanding situations
  • Any interests relevant to the job are worth mentioning: current affairs if you wish to be a journalist; a fantasy share portfolio such as Bullbearings if you want to work in finance.
  • Any evidence of leadership is important to mention: captain or coach of a sports team, course representative, chair of a student society, scout leader: “As captain of the school cricket team, I had to set a positive example, motivate and coach players and think on my feet when making bowling and field position changes, often in tense situations”
  • Anything showing evidence of employability skills such as team working, organising, planning, persuading, negotiating etc.

Skills

  • The usual ones to mention are languages (good conversational French, basic Spanish), computing (e.g. “good working knowledge of MS Access and Excel, plus basic web page design skills” and driving (“full current clean driving licence”).
  • If you are a mature candidate or have lots of relevant skills to offer, a skills-based CV may work for you

References

  • Many employers don’t check references at the application stage so unless the vacancy specifically requests referees it’s fine to omit this section completely if you are running short of space or to say “References are available on request.”
  • Normally two referees are sufficient: one academic (perhaps your tutor or a project supervisor) and one from an employer (perhaps your last part-time or summer job). See our page on Choosing and Using Referees for more help with this.

The order and the emphasis will depend on what you are applying for and what you have to offer. For example, the example media CV lists the candidate’s relevant work experience first.

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