How to write a great CV
Applying for a job? Follow our complete guide to creating a killer CV and hugely increase your chances of getting hired.
Putting together the perfect CV might seem like a daunting task, but with our shiny template and some pointers on what to include, you'll be done in no time at all.
Get yourself comfortable and go through this guide (we'd recommend grabbing a cup of tea and some biscuits first) and by the end you'll be looking at a prime example of a cracking CV, with your name at the top!
Trivia: What is the average time an employer spends reviewing a CV? Answer at the end!
What's in this guide?
How to create a CV
When writing your CV, things will be a whole lot easier if you prepare beforehand. We'd suggest you start by listing your past jobs and notable achievements.
This will get you thinking about what's definitely worth mentioning, and what's not quite impressive enough to include.
You only have a maximum of two pages to impress, and you don’t want to end up with a poorly structured, rambling or generic CV that will just end up in recycling bins up and down the country.
Having said that, you need to be careful about over-embellishing certain things and going overboard in an attempt to stand out from other candidates. There's a balance, and it's just a matter of finding it!
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 gets some of the best results.
Get a free CV review
To maximise your chances of success, register for free with the Graduate Recruitment Bureau.
What do employers look for in a CV?
Before jumping into writing about you want to write about, turn the tables and think about what the employer will be looking for.
Tailor your CV to the job
Most people think that once you've got a CV sorted, the job's done and you can send it off for every job application. While this is true to an extent, you should also try and adapt your CV and experience to demonstrate that you're right for that specific job.
This doesn't mean you have to craft a brand new CV from scratch for every single job application, but have a think about what specific experience or skills would impress that employer, and make sure these are prominent.
Also be sure to do your homework on every company you apply for. Each business is unique, so take the time to research their website, the job ad, their social media accounts, or even contact current employees if you can trace them down.
Aim to be the perfect candidate
Employers will be looking for certain traits in a new employee, so the 'perfect' candidate will vary from one vacancy to the next.
However, while it can be down to specific skills or relevant work experience, 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-curricular achievements
- IT skills
- Commitment and enthusiasm
Have a look at the skills most wanted by employers for some more help on deciding what to list on your CV.
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.
What is the best CV format?
The first step when writing your CV is deciding how to arrange your experiences so the employer can easily understand and follow what you have to say. The the two most popular formats are reverse chronological and skills-based.
Both have their advantages, and the choice is yours. Skills-based CVs are usually best when applying for roles you don't have a lot of previous work experience with – they allow you to emphasise how the skills you've gained are transferable to this role.
A chronological CV is best if you've got a lot of work experience and/or education in the field that you want to show off.
Whichever you choose, make sure it all fits on to two A4 pages.
Reverse chronological CV
- This is the most common type of CV
- Simply list your previous work experience/qualifications in chronological order, with the most recent at the top
- Don't forget to talk about what your learned and achieved in those roles. Be as specific as possible and focus on results
- The format is quick and easy to put together (but can look generic and emphasise any gaps that you have taken out of work)
- Skills can be highlighted as you go along or summarised at the end (though if you find yourself repeating the same skills, you might be better off with a skills-based layout).
- This CV emphasises your skills first
- Your work experience and qualifications are listed below, with years and a brief summary of key duties or achievements
- To make it easier, pick the top five skills for the job you'll be applying for, then choose two or three examples for each skill from a range of situations including education, work and other activities
- This type of CV can help you target the job description directly, but try and keep your examples as specific as possible so it doesn't become vague
What to include in your CV
Now that you're set on a layout, let's look at adding some flesh to the bare bones.
There are five key steps that you should follow to best demonstrate your skills and ability throughout your CV:
- After giving your contact details, we'd recommend following it up with a brief personal statement to explain yourself in a nutshell (one or two sentences max)
- Under the headings of education and employment history, include any relevant experience from the past few years
- For each, include a key example or two to show what skills you learned or what you achieved. Don't just say that you developed a skill, but explain how."I managed the social media accounts for the student newspaper and by developing more engaging content I increased our followers by X%" is better than saying "I developed skills in social media management"
- Go back to the job description and try to link your examples to this. Look at the key skills they're seeking and think about how you can demonstrate you have those
- Add any wider personal interests at the end to help convey your character and personality.
With these in mind, let's go through your CV from top to bottom in a bit more detail.
In the steps below we'll be using the reverse chronological layout, which is more popular with students and recent graduates applying for roles in a specific sector.
How to structure your CV
Generally, we'd recommend keeping the following sections in this order and adding or deleting any optional sections as appropriate:
First off, you'll want your full name in a large font at the top of the page. Below this, include your current address (remember to keep it up-to-date if you're moving soon), email address and contact phone number.
You can also state your nationality and any languages you speak in this section. If you're an international student, you may need to clarify your work status, and for some jobs it might also be useful to state whether you have a driving licence.
Stand out with a personal domain name
To make a really great first impression, register your own domain name. You can use it as your personal email and redirect to your normal inbox for free (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo etc).
How much better does [email protected] look compared to [email protected]? Use 123-Reg.co.uk, where you can buy your domain name and setup your email address in less than 10 minutes for around £4 a year. Check out our guide to starting a website for more info.
Personal statement (optional)
This is not the place for your life story. If you feel that you can sum yourself up as a candidate in less than two sentences, 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'm an undergraduate Economics student on track for a solid 2:1 degree. I'm currently looking for part-time work in retail to complement the skills and ambitions I can offer your company.”
Education and qualifications
In this section list your most recent education first (i.e. university), then A Levels (or equivalent), and then finish off with your GCSEs (or equivalent) if you think these are relevant.
If you're struggling for space or have more important things to include, we'd recommend cutting your GCSEs as it's unlikely employers will be too concerned with them at this stage. If you do include them, make sure they're summarised (not listed) to save space. For example, "10 GCSEs (4 As, 5 Bs, 1 C) including English and Maths".
Remember to include the title of each school, university or other institution, as well as the years that you attended.
If you're an undergraduate, you can still include your expected degree classification and share any previous year grades if you have them.
It can also be a good idea to list some key modules that you've taken, especially if they demonstrate your relevant knowledge, skills or interest in a certain job role. After this, you should include all of your A-level subjects and grades.
As with the education section above, you should kick off your employment history with your most recent job. You should include paid work (full-time and part-time), voluntary work, internships, placements and shadowing roles.
It is important to state the months and years that you worked at each place, as well as the company name and your specific job title.
In order to highlight your suitability for the job you are applying for, highlight the key skills, responsibilities and duties that you gained under each experience, making sure that they're relevant to the role you're currently applying for.
Main achievements (optional)
This section isn't absolutely necessary, but it can help flesh you out as a person and set you apart from the competition.
You could include a range of extra-curricular achievements such as completing a Duke of Edinburgh award, captaining a sports team, winning a Young Enterprise program or even starting a website (stick to four to five points max).
Remember to make these achievements relevant to the employer and always demonstrate the key skills you demonstrated to be able to get these achievements.
You wouldn't have this in a skills-based CV, but otherwise this area gives you an opportunity to expand on the main skills you've highlighted, and to include a few more. Specific skills such as IT, languages and even having a full, clean driving licence should be included in this section. And of course, any online courses you've taken!
If it's relevant to the role you're apply for, be even more specific and mention computer programs you're skilled in such as Adobe Photoshop or Premier Pro.
This is an area which might be called upon in an interview, so don't make anything up and have relevant examples ready in case you're asked.
Hobbies and interests (optional)
Be 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 "socialising" – this is another chance to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Things such as travelling and volunteer work are much better options.
This section is your opportunity to show what you do outside of work and give the employer another insight into your character.
To tie your CV up, you should have a reference section. You should include two contacts – one academic and one previous employer. It's acceptable to put "References available upon request" to save space, but it does work in your favour if you can provide two contacts straight away.
You should always ask the relevant people or companies for their permission before citing them as a reference. This will save you and them any embarrassment if an employer follows up without warning!
10 tips for a successful CV
- Don't include a photo as it can put the employer in a difficult position with discrimination laws, and they 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's extremely necessary
- Keep your CV within two pages of A4. You can be clever with margins, but anything longer and the employer is unlikely to read it
- There is no required format, so don't worry if your CV looks different from others you've seen. If anything, it will help you to make a unique impression! New formats such as infographic CVs are becoming more popular in design industries, but keep it simple, and don't go overboard using things such as watermarks and elaborate borders
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short and snappy, and avoid being vague
- Highlight key skills and examples throughout, and keep them up-to-date
- Stay clear of coloured or funky fonts, keep everything consistent and easy to read
- Back up skills with relevant experiences – and vice-versa
- Use keywords to emphasise your points and do not use the same words over and over again
- 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; it 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, the next challenge is to get it on the desks of prospective employers. There are a few ways to do this:
- Submit your CV to job sites like CV-Library. They do the legwork by encouraging companies to track you down as employers can search for your profile, download your CV and invite you to apply for a position. It's worth checking you have key phrases they might be searching for in your CV
- Be speculative, but targeted. By this, we mean handing out your CV to companies you'd like to work for and enquiring about any open positions even if there's nothing advertised. Even if they don't have any vacancies right now, offer to hand in your CV to keep on their record (this also shows you're keen to work for that particular company)
- Make direct applications for advertised jobs, for which you'll be asked to send your CV too. Start looking now by using our guide to finding a job or go straight to our own job search.
Free CV templates
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 CV: Download our free template »
Skills-based CV: Download our free template »
Answer to trivia: The average employer spends less than 30 seconds reviewing a CV for the first time. This is why it's so important to make a great first impression.
Next, put together a strong covering letter tailored to the job you are applying for.