How to write a great CV
Applying for a job? Make sure you read this ultimate guide to creating a killer CV that'll hugely increase your chances of getting hired.
Putting together the perfect CV might seem like a daunting task, but it is something you can easily learn. And you're in the right place to do that!
Just set aside a little bit of time (maybe bookmark it for later) and a couple of teabags – by the end you'll be looking at a prime example of the best CV ever, with your name at the top!
What's in this guide?
When writing a CV, the most important thing is to prepare. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail!
We'd suggest you start by taking a pen and paper and 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 2 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 wastepaper 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!
That balance is what will land you the job, 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 maximise 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!
An important question every job candidate should be asking!
Before jumping into writing about you, turn the tables and think about what the employer will be looking for from their perfect candidate.
A CV that's tailored for the job
If you're going for a job that requires a certain set of skills (be it a bar job or graphic design position), then it's worth adapting your CV and experience to demonstrate that you're right for the job.
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.
The traits of a 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, whilst it can be down to specific skills or relevant work experience that'll 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
- 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.
Forget making stuff up or pretending to be someone you're not, but instead emphasise and tailor aspects of your education, work experience and interests towards the job on offer.
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.
There are a number of different formats you can try when it comes to CV layouts, but the two most popular types are reverse chronological and skills-based.
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, but 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 chronological order, with the most recent at the top
- 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 under each experience heading (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 (a big help for the employer)
- Requires a bit more thought 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'll 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
- The benefit of this CV format is that you are clearly identifying the skills required for the job and how you fit the bill (making it easier for the employer to make a decision quickly – hopefully to give you an interview!)
- This format isn't recommended for those with little experience.
Now that you're set on a layout, let's look at starting to add some flesh to the bare bones.
There are 5 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 (1 or 2 sentences max.)
- 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 and personality.
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've chosen.
In the steps below we'll be using the reverse chronological layout, which is more popular with students and recent graduates with little experience.
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 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.
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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 sounds crap, or you need the space elsewhere, don't feel you need to include it! We'd only recommend including if you're confident that it's a strong opening sentence. When in doubt: remove it!
In this section list your most recent education first (i.e. university), finishing off with your GCSEs (or equivalent). 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 grade 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 relavant 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.
As with the education section above, you should kick off with your most recent employment. 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.
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.
This section isn't absolutely necessary, but it 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-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 4–5 points max).
Remember to make these achievements relevant to the employer and always demonstrate the key skills you've 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, 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 towards the end.
This is an area which might be called upon in an interview, so don't make anything up and make sure you have relevant examples ready in case you're asked.
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 “socialising” – this is another chance to make yourself stand out from the crowd.
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 is 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!
- 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 2 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, 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
- 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; 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.
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 in 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
- Make direct applications for advertised jobs, for which you'll be asked to send your CV too. Search our part-time jobs here
- 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)
- Start looking now by using our guide to finding a job or go straight to our own job search.
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 »
Wishing you the very best of luck with your job applications! If you have any questions, be sure to leave a comment below and we'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, so check out our guide here. Got an interview? We've got a guide for that too!