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...
- What is a CV?
- What is the right format for a CV?
- What should go in a CV? (including help with references)
- Writing your first CV (if you don't have any experience)
- CV templates
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!
Do you need a personal statement on a CV?
A personal statement for a CV is a short introduction about yourself where you highlight a few key strengths that are relevant to the role you’re applying to. It’s very different to a personal statement that you’d write when applying to university, despite sharing the same name.
The aim is to give a recruiter a quick summary of who you are before they jump into a more detailed record of your job history, education etc.
A CV personal statement – also known as a ‘personal profile’ – should be included at the top of your CV. It can be written in either the first or third person (though TopCV suggest removing pronouns if you do the latter ie ‘A project manager with three years’ experience….’ rather than ‘He is a project manager with three years’ experience…’).
Learn more about writing an introduction below.
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 detailsThe following should go at the top of your CV:
- full name
- phone number (home and mobile)
- email address – not an embarrassing one!
- current address (doesn't have to be in full)
Make sure this information is up to date so a potential employer can reach you. They won’t want to have to chase you.
IntroductionThis 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 experienceBeginning 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:
Tip: as you progress in your career and get more experience under your belt, you can leave off any early, irrelevant experience. For instance, 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!
EducationLike 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 skillsThese 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)
- links to online portfolios or blogs
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):
Hobbies and interests
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 – work experience and education will always win out here. Your hobbies should be the first to go if you’re short on space.
What kind of hobbies and interests should I include on a CV?
Be mindful of how your interests may be perceived by a stranger and how that may shape their image of you. While you may find the Swedish death metal music genre to be profound and inspiring, someone with little to no prior knowledge of them may not see them the same way (even negatively).
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 or into a relevant example for your CV.
List out the key skills that are being sought out and decide if your hobbies or extracurricular activities have helped you sharpen these. Generally speaking, it will likely be those that you pursue actively, in some official capacity or where you possess a certain responsibility that will be worth mentioning here ie being captain of a local hockey team, as opposed to simply watching it on TV.
EXAMPLE - Here’s another example turning a simple, seemingly unrelated extracurricular activity into a valuable asset:
That’s not to say you can’t mention hobbies or interests that don’t demonstrate any relevant skills or experience, whatsoever. These can shed some light on you as a person, complimenting your work history and education (especially if you’re a school student with little prior work experience).
However, you might want to keep these brief (ie 1-2 lines only), keep in mind what we say above about how these can be perceived, and chop them altogether if that space can be better used.
ReferencesA 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 itTo 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 includeSo 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:
- careers adviser
- sports coach
- figure in local community eg priest, rabbi etc
- supervisor during work experience
Read more about references, above.
CV templatesIt 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, Total Jobs and Adzuna all have examples, pointers and builder tools.
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.
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.