How to write a great CV
Think before writing
Putting together your CV is not the easiest task in the world. It’s a skill, but it’s something you can learn, and you’re in the right place to do that. By the end of this page you’ll be looking at the perfect CV, with your name at the top!
When writing a CV the most important thing is to prepare – fail to prepare and prepare to fail! You only have a maximum of 2 pages to impress, and you don’t want to end up with a poorly structured, generic CV that will do you more harm than good in an ever-competitive job market.
Having said that, you also need to be careful about over-embellishing certain things and going over-the-top in an attempt to stand out. You want to find the balance. That’s what will get you the job you want, and that’s exactly what we’ll be looking at here as we take you on a journey to putting together the perfect CV.
Download our CV template
If you want to practice writing your CV as we go along, you’re welcome to download our free, clean and professional CV template designed for students and graduates. There are lots of free example CVs out there, including on this page, but this template has some of the best results.
Get an expert CV review for free
To maximize your chances of success, register for free with the Graduate Recruitment Bureau.
They are a specialist graduate career match-maker who will help with your CV whilst also finding you a job!
What do employers look for?
An important question every job candidate should be asking! Before jumping into writing about you, turn the tables and think about what most employers are looking for from their perfect candidate.
Tailor your CV for the job
If you’re going for a job requiring certain skills (whether it be a bar job or graphic designer), then it can be worth adapting your CV and experience to demonstrate you’re right for the job.
Also be sure to do your homework on every company you apply for, they’re all unique – research their website, the job advert or even contact current employees.
The traits of a perfect candidate
All employers will be looking for certain traits in a candidate. Whilst relevant work experience can often land you a job, there are a number of key personal qualities and skills that employers are always hunting for. Nail a few of these and your chances of getting the job are looking much better:
- Self-management (including time keeping)
- Teamwork and leadership
- Problem solving
- Communication skills
- Commercial awareness
- Customer care
- Academic and extra-curricula achievements
- I.T skills
- Commitment and enthusiasm
What makes you the ideal candidate for the job?
Now you’ve considered what the employer’s looking for, it’s time to model yourself towards this. Forget making stuff up or pretending to be someone you’re not, but emphasize and tailor aspects of your education, work experience and interests towards the job on offer.
We’ll now move on to choosing a CV layout before bulking it up with the very best things about you!
What is the best CV format?
The first vital step when writing your CV is to decide how to arrange your experiences in a coherent way that makes it easy for the employer to understand what you can offer.
There are a number of different formats you can choose to organise experience in your CV layout, but the two most popular types are reverse chronological and skills-based CVs.
Both have their advantages, and the choice is yours. Skills-based CVs are usually best for candidates with a good amount of previous work experience, whilst you can’t really go wrong with a chronological layout. Whichever you choose, make sure it all fits on to two A4 pages.
- This is the most common type of CV
- Lists your experience in a chronological order, with the most recent at the top
- The format is quick and easy to put together (but can look generic and emphasize any gaps that you have taken out of work)
- Skills can be highlighted under each experience heading (though if you find yourself repeating the same ones, you might be better off with a skills-based layout).
- This CV emphasizes your skills first (a big help for the employer)
- Takes more thinking than a chronological CV
- Experience is listed below each key skill, with years and a brief summary of key duties or achievements
- To make it easier, pick the top 5 skills for the job you will be applying for, then choose 2 or 3 examples for each skill from a range of examples including education, work and other activities
- It can also help to split skills up into these main headings: education, work and achievements (see below)
- The benefit of this CV format is that you are clearly identifying the skills required on the first page, but is not recommended for those with little experience.
Building up the content
There are 5 key steps that you should follow to best demonstrate your skills and ability throughout your CV:
- Right away give your full contact details, followed optionally with a brief personal statement
- Under the headings of education, employment history and main achievements include any relevant experience from the past few years
- Look at each key example then highlight the main skills used or learnt
- Go back to each example and the skills you’ve noted to create links. This will help to reinforce the skills an employer is looking for throughout your CV, but don’t overdo it!
- Add any wider personal interests at the end to help convey your character as a person.
With these in mind, we’ll now start constructing your CV from the top.
For all CVs the main headings are essentially the same, but the layout under each of them will depend on what CV format you have chosen (see above).
In the steps below, we’ll be using the reverse chronological layout which is more popular with students and recent graduates with little experience.
The sections of your CV
First off, you’ll want your full name in big letters right across the top. Under that you’ll put in your living address (remember to keep it up-to-date if moving soon), email address and contact phone number.
Stand out with a personal email address:
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Lastly, you can state your nationality in this section, especially if you are an international student as you may need to clarify your work status.
Personal Statement (optional)
This is not the place for your life story. If you feel that you can sum yourself up in less than two lines, then do it here. Your personal statement should simply state who you are and what type of work you are looking for.
For example, “I am an undergraduate on track for a 2.1 degree in Economics currently looking for part-time work in retail to complement the skills and ambitions I can offer your company.” If you think it sounds crap, or you need the space elsewhere, don’t feel as though you need to include it!
Education and Qualifications
In this section list your most recent education first (ie. university), finishing off with your GCSEs (or equivalent). Remember to include the title of each school, university or other institution and the years that you attended.
If you are an undergraduate then you can still include your expected grade and share any previous year grades.
It can also be a good idea to list some key modules that you have taken, especially if they demonstrate your knowledge, skills or interest in a certain job role. After this you should include all of your A-level subjects and grades.
GCSEs should be summarised not listed to save space. For example, “10 GCSEs (4 As, 5 Bs, 1 C) including English and Maths“. If you have foreign qualifications then try and put the grade into a UK context using equivalents.
Kick off with your most recent employment, as with the education section above. You should include paid work, voluntary work, internships, placements and shadowing roles.
It is important to state the months and years that you worked at each place.
Under each experience, highlight the key skills, responsibilities and duties which you gained to highlight your suitability for the job you are applying for.
Main Achievements (optional)
This section is not absolutely necessary, but is strongly recommended! It fleshes you out as a person and can set you apart from the competition.
You could include a range of extra-curricula achievements such as completing a Duke of Edinburgh award, captaining a sports team, winning a Young Enterprise program or even running a website.
Remember to make these achievements relevant to the employer and always demonstrate the key skills you have identified.
You wouldn’t have this in a skills-based CV layout, but otherwise this area gives you an opportunity to expand on the main skills you’ve highlighted to include a few more. Specific skills such as IT, language and having a driving licence, which may not be directly relevant to the job application can be included in this section towards the end.
This is an area which might be called up on in an interview, so don’t make anything up and have relevant examples of applying these skills ready.
Selective Interests (optional)
Selective because you probably have dozens of personal interests, and to be blunt, the employer won’t care about most of them. Keep it short and avoid obvious things such as “reading” or “watching TV”. This section is your opportunity to show what you do outside of work and give the employer another insight into character.
To tie your CV up you should have a reference section. You can choose to include two contacts – one academic and one a previous employer – or it’s perfectly acceptable to put “Available upon request“.
If you do put down references with contact details, you should always ask the relevant people or companies for their permission beforehand. This will save you and them any embarrassment if an employer follows up without warning!
10 top CV tips!
- Don’t include a photo as it can put the employer in a difficult position with discrimination laws, and may have to reject your CV altogether
- Don’t include your date of birth, marital status or health situation for the same reasons, unless you think it is needed
- Keep your CV within 2 pages of A4. You can be clever with margins, but anything longer and the employer is unlikely to read it. Also do not print it back-to-back
- There is no required format, so don’t worry if your CV looks different. If anything, it will help you to make a unique impression. New formats such as infographic CVs are becoming more popular in design industries However keep it simple, and don’t go overboard using things such as watermarks and elaborate borders
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short and snappy, avoid being vague
- Highlight key skills and examples throughout, and keep them up-to-date
- Try not to use coloured or funky fonts, keep everything consistent and easy to read
- Back up skills with relevant experiences and vice-versa
- Use key words to emphasize your points and do not use the same words over and over again
- Make sure that you always proof read and spell check the document before sending it off. If possible get a friend to check it for you too. There is nothing worse than a spelling or grammar mistake on a CV as it simply demonstrates carelessness and a lack of attention to detail.
Free CV review
Once you’ve put your CV together using this guide, we recommend registering with the Graduate Recruitment Bureau who can give you a free CV review. As specialist graduate recruiters, they have a vast amount of experience in what looks good… and what doesn’t. Register here.
Where to submit your CV
Once your CV is completed and you’re happy with it, then the challenge is to get it on the desks of prospective employers. There are a few ways to do this:
- Make direct applications for advertised jobs, for which you’ll be asked to send your CV in with. Search our part-time jobs here.
- Be speculative, but targeted. Hand out your CV to companies you’d like to work for, and inquiring about any open positions. Even if they don’t have any vacancies right now, offer to hand in your CV to keep on their record (this also shows enthusiasm)
- Submit your CV on job sites. This is a great way for jobs to find you as employers can search for your profile, download your CV and invite you to apply for a position. In this instance, it’s worth checking you have key phrases they might be searching for in your CV. Tip: use ICT instead of IT as searching IT will leave the recruiter with every CV that has the word “it” in it.
- Start looking now by using our guide to finding a job or go straight to our own job search.
Free CV template examples
The CV templates mentioned in this guide are free to download and have been designed with students and graduates in mind. Use them as a base to build up and help structure your CV.
Chronological: Download our free CV template »
Skills-based: Download our free CV template »
We wish you the very best of luck with your job applications, if you have any questions be sure to leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help you out.
Don’t forget to keep revising your CV whilst hunting for a job. You may also need to put together a strong covering letter tailored to the job you are applying for, see our guide here. Got an interview? We’ve got a guide for that too here!