How to write a CV: your step-by-step guide

By: Jen Wiss

Wondering how to write a CV, or why it's important to have a strong curriculum vitae? Your curriculum vitae, or CV, provides potential employers with an overview of your experience and qualifications, as well as giving them some clues as to the type of person you are and as to whether you'd fit into their organisation. Your CV is the first impression a potential employer has of you so it's important to make it neat and accurate, as well as to sell yourself in the best way possible. Every time you send out a CV, prune it so that it meets the requirements of the job you're applying for as closely as possible, and ensure your covering letter sets out exactly HOW you meet those requirements, even if it's evident from the CV itself.

Combined, your CV and covering letter need to demonstrate that you have:

  • the motivation for the role;
  • the ability to adapt to and share your employer's vision and ethos; and
  • the skills and competence relevant to the job.
Hiring new staff is costly in terms of advertising, time spent and training, so employers also gravitate towards candidates who look like good long-term prospects.

Layout

Unless you're applying for a graphic design job (and so can justify a little artistic license), your prospective employer will be looking for a neatly presented, accurate CV that follows a traditional format so that they can find the information that they're looking for quickly; and not something that looks like a GCSE art project. Don't bother with colours or fancy fonts, just keep it simple and clean.

Here are some free example CV layouts that you can download and use:

You should use these free CV templates alongside the advice below which explains what to put in each section.

What goes on my CV?

There's no hard and fast rule as to what a CV should contain but you should consider including the following sections:

  • Name and personal / contact information
  • Title/summary and objective
  • Work experience
  • Qualifications
  • Professional memberships / accreditation / honours / awards
  • Skills
  • Languages
  • Interests and hobbies
  • References and availability

Our example CV section contains the expected contents for different professions. We'll look at the previously mentioned CV sections in turn.

Name and personal contact information

This should include:

  • Name including title e.g. Mr John Smith
  • Address
  • Phone number(s)
  • Email address
  • Driving licence if you have one ("full, clean", if that's the case)

Some people include their date of birth here. Age really isn't relevant at all to whether you're suitable for a job, unless there is some specific requirement to the role you're applying for, so there is no reason to include it. Similarly, there's no need to include your marital status.

Title/summary and objective

Since your prospective employer likely has many hundreds of CVs to review, use a title to catch their eye and tell them that you're exactly what they're looking for, by reference to the elements of the job description that you meet.

Example of a title/summary - one line:

  • Solicitor with 4 years' PQE (post qualification experience)
  • Customer Service Representative with 5 years' experience
  • History Graduate with extensive work experience
Example of an objective - expand on who you are and include what you want:
  • I am a solicitor with 4 years' PQE at a busy East Midlands' Law Firm. I currently have a varied heavy caseload of private client work, dealing mainly with residential property and probate as well as some family law cases. I am relocating to Birmingham and looking for a similar role with a partnership opportunity in the near future.

Work experience

Usually this goes before your education. However, if you've only just graduated, unless you've clocked up a few years of relevant experience along the way, switch these sections around so that education comes first and work experience second.

For each item in this section, detail:

  • Job Title
  • Company Name and Location
  • Dates of Employment
  • Very brief intro to company
  • Description of your responsibilities
  • Key achievements

Offer more detail for your latest and/or most significant role and try to tailor what you include to the job you're applying for. Keep what you write factual and ensure your achievements are accurate, verifiable and specific. If you were responsible for supervising and/or training other people, detail this, and to what degree.

Sometimes it's helpful to say why you want to leave your current role, or why you did leave, but only if it's a neutral reason such as relocating or redundancy. Never, ever critisise your employers on your CV and take great care about what you say about them at interviews - you may give your prospective employer the impression that you're a difficult or grumbling employee.

If you've not stayed in any role for long, you may want to explain to your prospective employer why, if there's a good reason - such as that the roles were all temporary/contract positions.

"I don't have much / any experience!"

If you're short of work experience, make sure you've included:

  • Part-time work
  • Temporary work
  • Volunteer work
  • Freelance work
  • Experience gained through related hobbies
  • Relevant school projects, internships and extracurricular activities
  • Teaching (for example, graduates helping undergraduates)

The above can be great ways of demonstrating to employers that you're ready for the role so get involved while you're job hunting. Read our guide to work experience and also consider volunteering.

Education

For each entry, include:

  • Course and grade achieved
  • Institution/awarding body and location
  • Year completed

Start with the most relevant first (such as those requested in the job advert) or if none are especially relevant, the most recent first.

If applicable, you may also wish to include any training you have completed in your current or previous positions under a new heading of 'training'. This might include, for example, short courses in popular software like MS Word and Excel.

Professional memberships / accreditation / honours / awards

This is fairly self explanatory - the place to put any relevant professional memberships or awards, such as 'Microsoft Certified Engineer' or 'Certified Scrum Master'.

Skills

Under skills, detail any particular skills that are relevant to the job followed by any skills that may be of interest to your employer. After each skill, state your skill level. Here are some examples:

Hard skills

  • Use of common software - such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access and so on.
  • Use of specialist software - such as familiarity with Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Illustrator and so on.
  • Technical skills - such as the ability to code in a particular language like PHP.
  • Typing skills - with speed, including oral typing if you've done this before.
  • Admin / secretarial skills - such as shorthand, book keeping etc.

Soft skills

Ensure anything on this list is specific and highly relevant to the job. Avoid fluffy statements. A good way of listing soft skills is to state how you acquired them with reference to specific projects or experience. For example, "My work as a volunteer for Oxfam, organising convoys to remote parts of the World, has developed my skills in establishing cooperation between diverse groups". Focus particularly on any skills mentioned in the job advert. Here are some soft skills you may be able to find evidence for:

  • Communication (verbal, non-verbal, written, and interpersonal)
  • Presentation (demeanour, appearance, the way you engage with others)
  • Facilitation (coordination, resolution)
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Interviewing
  • Selling (goods, services, ideas, talents, organisational change)
  • Influence/persuasion
  • Teamwork
  • Management and leadership - make sure you know the difference. Very briefly, management is often about setting direction and strategy whereas leadership is about communicating, inspiring and driving people forward.
  • Handling difficult people and situations
  • Networking (online and offline)
  • Negotiation
  • Organising and multitasking
  • Mentoring/coaching - again make sure you appreciate the difference.
  • Learning

Languages

Include any languages you speak and to what level of fluency. If you have any specific qualifications or experience in relation to these, it may be worth mentioning here.

Interests and hobbies

This should be a brief summary of your favourite out-of-work activities. This section helps your employer guage how well you'll fit in to an existing team but be very cautious about what you write here - leave off 'going to the pub' 'socialising' 'seeing friends' and anything else that makes you sound like a party animal, but equally, leave off your model train, stamp and coin collection for now. Mention any sports or fitness acivities you take part in as this will help your employer see that you take an interest in your wellbeing - healthy employees are better than unhealthy ones!

References and availability

Offer two references, giving their name, job title and contact info.

It's usual to list your current employer as one of your references but it's perfectly acceptable to write 'references available on request' if you haven't yet discussed your plans to move on with your current employer. The other reference should be someone professional such as a former tutor or business contact who has worked with you on a project.

What doesn't go in my CV?

There are things you should NEVER include in your CV. Here are some of them:

  • CLICHES: Throwaway comments such as "able to communicate at all levels", "can work to tight deadlines" "able to work alone or part of a team" are just irritating fluff if they're not supported by examples and evidence. Of course you can speak to people and meet your deadlines - you might as well just write "employable"!
  • WRITING IN THE THIRD PERSON: Unless you're Richard Branson or the like, you're probably going to be writing your own CV. Don't be tempted to write it as if someone else did. It's annoying and ever so slightly pretentious.
  • PHOTOS: Unless appearance is in some way relevant to the job, don't include a picture. How you look has nothing to do with how well you can do the job and you give people an opportunity to exercise their prejudices, rightly or wrongly.

Finally...

Run a spell check on your finished CV and get a couple of people to look over it for you. It's easy to miss little errors when you've been working on something for a long time but they suggest to your prospective employer a lack of attention to detail.

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