How to write a great CV
Applying for a job? Follow our complete guide to writing the perfect CV and hugely increase your chances of getting hired.
Putting together your ideal CV might seem like a daunting task, but with our shiny template and top tips on what to include, you'll be able to write one that wows employers from beginning to end.
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 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 jotting down your past jobs and notable achievements in a list – this will help you identify the points that are worth mentioning, and what's not quite impressive enough to include.
Your CV shouldn't be longer than two pages, and you need to work on making it well structured, concise and different enough to grab the recruiter's attention.
But, you also 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. Trying a CV template can help...
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 CV examples 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?
Never send off the same generic CV to multiple recruiters. Each time you apply for a job, think about what the employer is specifically looking for and write your CV with them in mind.
Tailor your CV to the job
Most people think that once you've got a CV sorted, the job's done and you can use it for every job application. While this is true to an extent, you should also try to 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 in your application.
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, their social media accounts, the job ad and maybe even look up current employees to see how the company's structured.
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.
Best skills to include on your CV
- Self-management (including time-keeping)
- Teamwork and leadership
- 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.
Never make anything up on your CV or pretend to be someone you're not – instead, emphasise and tailor aspects of your education, work experience and interests towards the job on offer.
What is the best CV format?
When starting your CV, think about how best to arrange your experiences so the employer can easily understand and follow what you have to say. 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. Here are the best ways to write a reverse chronological CV:
- List your previous work experience/qualifications in chronological order, with the most recent at the top.
- Explain what you learned and achieved in those roles. Be as specific as possible and focus on results.
- Highlight skills as you go along or summarise them at the end (though if you find yourself repeating the same skills, you might be better off with a skills-based layout).
The format is quick and easy to put together, but please note that it can look generic and draw attention to any gaps that you have taken out of work.
These tips will help you write the perfect skills-based CV:
- Emphasise your skills first.
- 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.
- Then, list your work experience and qualifications, with years and a brief summary of key duties or achievements.
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
Once you've decided on the layout of your CV, you then need to consider the specific content to include.
Follow these five key steps 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 skills, but explain how e.g. "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 directly link your examples to this. Look at the key skills employers are 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
To write the best possible student CV, we recommend structuring it in this order:
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 set up your email address in less than 10 minutes for around £3 a month. 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."
If you think it doesn't sound good, or you need the space elsewhere, you don't have to include it. We'd only recommend including a personal statement in your CV if you're confident that it's a strong opening sentence.
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 name 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.
If you have foreign qualifications then try and put the grade into a UK context using equivalents.
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, internship 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 show your suitability for the job you're applying for, highlight the key skills and responsibilities that you gained under each experience, making sure that they're relevant to the role you're currently applying for.
As mentioned previously, don't just list key skills – talk about how you developed them. Mention specific projects you worked on, results you achieved or awards you won.
Main achievements (optional)
This section isn't absolutely necessary, but it can help to give more insight into you 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 programme or even starting a website (stick to four or five points max).
Remember to make these achievements relevant to the employer and always demonstrate the key skills you demonstrated to get them.
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!
This is an area that 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 about which hobbies to include in a CV. You probably have dozens of personal interests, but think about how many of them will actually interest the employer.
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 playing instruments, going travelling and doing 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 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 to make your CV stand out
These CV tips will help you to impress recruiters:
- 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 proofread 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 specialists in graduate recruitment, 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 effectively distribute your CV:
- 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've used key phrases on your CV that employers might be searching for.
- 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 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 – these ads will most likely ask for your CV. Start looking now by using our guide to finding a job or going 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 »
Next, write a strong cover letter tailored to the job you are applying for.