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How to write a CV

What should you write in your CV? Whether you’re applying for a weekend job, graduate scheme or degree apprenticeship, stand out with our tips and examples...

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What is a CV?

A curriculum vitae (commonly referred to as a ‘CV’) is an overview of your skills, experience and qualifications that demonstrates why you’re suitable for a particular job vacancy. 

Writing your CV is a key part of any job application process, whether you’re applying for a part-time job at college, a graduate role or a position a few years into your career. Your CV may be used as the basis for subsequent interviews, where you’ll be asked more specifically about what you’ve included.

We explain below what should go in a CV, but it might be helpful to keep the following questions in mind when writing yours:
  • Are you showing you have the appropriate key skills and experience that are being  asked for (in the job description)?
  • Are you displaying this in the clearest and most concise manner?  Don’t make it difficult for someone (with a long list of CVs to go through) to find what they’re looking for.
  • Does this make you stand out from other candidates who may have similar academic achievements, qualifications, experience?
  • Would this persuade a potential (very busy) employer to take the time to meet you for an interview?


Part-time jobs at uni: student share their tips to find jobs (and more)
 

What is the right format for a CV?

While there is no ‘one way’ to write a CV, there are a couple of elements that most CVs always have:
  • Length: no longer than two sides of (white) A4 paper, typed (not including your cover letter)
  • Font: black, between size 10-12, and a sensible type such as Arial or Times New Roman 
  • Layout: simple and clear, using headings, formatting (bolding, italics, underlining) and spacing to structure the information and make it easily scannable.

In fact the simpler the layout, the less likely it is that elements will appear oddly when opened on different devices. Tip: edit it in Microsoft Word (or equivalent), and once it’s finalised, save and send it as a PDF.

Alternatively, it might be easier to avoid the following ‘CV don’ts’:
  • DON’T try to stand out by using lots of colours or other unusual formatting
  • DON’T save it under an odd filename eg John_Smith_CV_CopyCopyRealOne4.doc
  • DON’T include a photo unless specifically asked for – this can take up valuable space
  • DON’T send it without doing a thorough check for spelling, punctuation and grammar – there’s no excuse for typos!



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    What should go in a CV?

    The following is standard for most CVs. However, what you emphasise will depend on how much real-world work experience you have. We cover writing a CV for a first job, or if you don’t have much work experience, further below.

    The biggest tip for what to include in your CV... Tailor it to the job you’re applying for!

    Don’t send a generic CV that details all of your experience and skills (although if you’re writing your first CV, you might find yourself throwing everything in to pad it out – resist the temptation). 

    Read the job description for the role you’re applying for – research the employer, too – and select the experience and skills that are most relevant.

    So what should you include?

     

    Contact details

    The following should go at the top of your CV:
    • full name
    • phone number (home and mobile)
    • email address – not an embarrassing one!
    • current address

    Make sure this information is up to date so a potential employer can reach you. They won’t want to have to chase you.

     

    Introduction 

    This should be a topline summary about yourself, and a teaser for what you say later. It shouldn’t be longer than a few sentences.

    If you have some work experience, you can (briefly) highlight the field/s and area/s you’ve been working in.

    You may also mention some of your key strengths and attributes here, especially any that the role explicitly requires – expect to back these up in the main body of your CV and to talk about them during an interview. If you’re stuck on what to say, ask your peers or referee what they think yours are.

    Finally, say what interests you about the role and organisation you’re applying to, and why you believe you’re the best candidate.

    It’s important to note that an introduction might not be necessary if you are including a cover letter, which does a similar job.
     

    Work experience

    Beginning with your most recent/current position and going backwards, list out your previous jobs (including different roles at the same employer): 

    For each role, you should include:
    • company or organisation’s name
    • your official title
    • length of employment (month and year)
    • your main responsibilities

    Rather than simply listing everything in your job description, try to highlight what you achieved or the impact you made in a previous role (and tie these back to the required skills or experience).

    EXAMPLE - if you were applying to a graduate role in sales, a previous weekend job in a supermarket could demonstrate valuable skills:

    My role as a sales assistant required excellent communication and problem-solving skills when dealing with customers’ queries and managing their expectations, all under high-pressured circumstances (eg product recalls, sales). On one notable occasion, I was named ‘Employee of the month’ during our extremely busy Christmas period.

    Tip: as you progress in your career and get more experience under your belt, you can leave off any early, irrelevant experience. If you’re applying to a managing director role in your early 30s, you can probably leave out that weekend job in Asda when you were 17!
     

    Education 

    Like work experience above, beginning with the most recent (or current) one, list out your formal education history, going back to secondary school.

    You should include the name of the institution you studied at, when you studied there, and the qualification (and grade/s) you achieved.

    Tip: avoid using acronyms, especially when it comes to qualifications. The person reading your CV may not be familiar with them. Write them out in full, to be safe.
     

    Other achievements, qualifications and skills

    These can be further strengths that don’t quite sit within your work or education history. They may be asked for explicitly in the job description.

    Depending on the role, examples you might include could be:
    • specialist training, eg health and safety
    • ability to speak different languages 
    • knowledge of software or equipment, eg video or photo-editing programmes, inventory systems (eg in a retail role)
    • awards or other achievements (eg Duke of Edinburgh, recipient of an academic scholarship)

    You don’t necessarily need to hold a formal qualification or certificate for these, but if you’re proficient to a certain level (eg basic, advanced), mention it. It shows you’re adept at picking up new skills.

    EXAMPLE - If you have space, highlight a few notable examples (which you can expand on further in an interview): 

    Adobe Premiere Pro CC (advanced level) – I taught myself through online tutorials and forums initially for a school project. As a result, I film and produce regular video content for my own YouTube channel, which has accumulated over 10,000 followers. 

     

    Hobbies 

    Like with your personal statement when applying to university, your decision to drop in your hobbies, passions and interests will depend on what they are and whether they’re relevant to the job you’re applying to (or the skills required).

    They can be a great way to stand out from the crowd (and a nice icebreaker in an interview). But they won’t be the reason you clinch a position – experience and education will always win out here. Your hobbies should be the first to go if you’re short on space.

    Be mindful of how your interests may be perceived by a stranger and how that may influence their image of you. While you may find the Swedish death metal music genre to be  profound and inspiring, someone else may not feel quite the same. 

    On the other hand, running a regular gig night at a local venue can demonstrate great organisational and marketing skills, so there may be ways to turn a passion into a relevant example for your CV.

    EXAMPLE - Here’s another example turning a simple, seemingly unrelated extracurricular activity into a valuable asset:

    I’ve been playing rugby for a local team for two years, initially for the physical and mental health benefits. However, my role within the team has grown massively, giving me opportunities to mentor younger teammates, arrange tournaments abroad and raise money for charity. I can confidently say this has improved my confidence and communication skills, something which has been highlighted by teachers.
     

    References

    A reference is an endorsement of what you’ve put on your CV and a way for potential employers to check that you’ve not lied. The person who writes your reference is a referee.

    It’s standard to have at least two references when applying for a job, and these should usually be from your most recent employers (either your manager or a colleague). If you're a freelancer or independent contractor, you may ask a client or customer.

    A reference should include your referee’s:
    • full name
    • role in relation to you (including employer’s name and length of time)
    • contact details (phone number and email address)

    A reference can be used to confirm the following information:
    • that you worked where and when you’ve claimed to
    • your job title or role
    • your responsibilities and key tasks
    • your overall performance
    • the reason you left

    See who you can you ask to be a reference if you don’t have a long list of previous employers to choose from, in our section on writing a CV for the first time.

    It’s common courtesy to ask someone if they’ll provide a reference for you, beforehand. This way they can think about what they’ll say about you. A little notice can serve in your favour, especially if you can explain to them what the role is.

    Tip: if you’re running low on space in your CV, you can simply write ‘References available on request’ and provide their contact details later.
     

    Writing your first CV (if you don’t have any experience)

    We’ve already dropped in a few tips if you’re writing your first CV (for a part-time job at college, for instance), or if you simply don’t have much formal work experience to your name. 

    But here are a few more pointers to help you write that first CV:

    How to order it

    To make up for your lack of job history, your CV needs to be ‘skills-based’ rather than ‘experience-based’. This means highlighting key skills you’ve picked up in other scenarios which you can transfer to a workplace. 

    Common skills that are often asked for, which you may need to demonstrate, include working as part of a team, meeting deadlines, solving problems and being organised.

    Therefore, rather than your work experience being front and centre, look at the skills being asked for and lead with examples where you’ve demonstrated these. Keep reading for tips on what you might talk about...
     

    What to include

    So how can you show you’ve worked as part of a team or to deadline if you’ve not had a proper job before? 

    Here are some alternative examples you can use:
    • Academic performance: are they any subjects you’ve done really well in? Any standout exam results or pieces of coursework? Have you won any awards, such as for a project or perfect attendance?
    • Academic roles: have you been Head Boy/Head Girl, a prefect or mentor at school?
    • Extracurricular activities: have you been part of any clubs, societies or sports teams? Have you volunteered, helped out in the local community or done something for charity?
    • Unpaid work experience: have you helped out or shadowed a family member at their workplace or taken part in work experience organised through your school?

    How I got my dream work experience gig
     

    Who else can be a reference?

    Instead of former employers or colleagues, you can ask the following individuals for a reference:
    • teachers
    • careers adviser
    • sports coach
    • figure in local community eg priest, rabbi etc
    • supervisor during work experience 

    Read more about references, above.
     

    CV templates

    It can help to look at some templates to get an idea of how a CV should look and the language to use. Reed, Monster, CV Library and Total Jobs all have examples on their website.

    But don’t just copy these. It has to be your skills, knowledge and experience that you put down on paper, as this is what you’ll be asked about in an interview and will ultimately clinch that role. 

    Plus, if you’re caught out, it will really reflect negatively on you.

     

    Read more

    Get inspired! Check out our #CareerGoals interviews with graduates working in popular fields, including doctor Jodie, lawyer Anke and nurse Ewout.

    Still need some career inspiration? Here are a few places to find job ideas that may be staring you in the face, as well as George's story about how she got her dream placement.

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