How to write a successful CV

How to write a successful CV

Posted on: 20/04/2015

What is a CV?

Curriculum Vitae: an outline of a person's educational and professional history, usually prepared for job applications (L, lit.: the course of one's life). Another name for a CV is a résumé.

A CV is the most flexible and convenient way to make applications. It conveys your personal details in the way that presents you in the best possible light. A CV is a marketing document in which you are marketing something: yourself! You need to "sell" your skills, abilities, qualifications and experience to employers. It can be used to make multiple applications to employers in a specific career area. For this reason, many large graduate recruiters will not accept CVs and instead use their own application form.

Often selectors read CVs outside working hours. They may have a pile of 50 CVs from which to select five interviewees. It's evening and they would rather be in the pub with friends. If your CV is hard work to read: unclear, badly laid out and containing irrelevant information, they will just just move on to the next CV.

Treat the selector like a child eating a meal. Chop your CV up into easily digestible morsels (bullets, short paragraphs and note form) and give it a clear logical layout, with just the relevant information to make it easy for the selector to read. If you do this, you will have a much greater chance of interview.

An application form is designed to bring out the essential information and personal qualities that the employer requires and does not allow you to gloss over your weaker points as a CV does. In addition, the time needed to fill out these forms is seen as a reflection of your commitment to the career.

There is no "one best way" to construct a CV; it is your document and can be structured as you wish within the basic framework below. It can be on paper or on-line or even on a T-shirt (a gimmicky approach that might work for "creative" jobs but not generally advised!).

When should a CV be used?

  • When an employer asks for applications to be received in this format.
  • When an employer simply states "apply to ..." without specifying the format.
  • When making speculative applications (when writing to an employer who has not advertised a vacancy but who you hope may have one).

What information should a CV include?

What are the most important aspects of CV that you look for?


45%Previous related work experience35%Qualifications & skills25%Easy to read16%Accomplishments14%Spelling & grammar9%Education (these were not just graduate recruiters or this score would be much higher!)9%Intangibles: individuality/desire to succeed3%Clear objective2%Keywords added1%Contact information1%Personal experiences1%Computer skills

Personal details

Normally these would be your name, address, date of birth (although with age discrimination laws now in force this isn't essential), telephone number and email.

British CVs don't usually include a photograph unless you are an actor. In European countries such as France, Belgium and Germany it’s common for CVs to include a a passport-sized photograph in the top right-hand corner whereas in the UK and the USA photographs are frowned upon as this may contravene equal opportunity legislation - a photograph makes it easier to reject a candidate on grounds of ethnicity, sex or age. 

Education and qualifications

Some employers may spend as little as 45 seconds skimming a résumé before branding it “not of interest”, “maybe” or “of interest.

Your degree subject and university, plus A levels and GCSEs or equivalents. Mention grades unless poor!

Work experience

  • Use strong  words  such as developed, planned and organised.
  • Even work in a shop, bar or restaurant will involve team work , providing a  good services to customers, and dealing tactfully with complaints. Don't mention the routine, non-people tasks (cleaning the tables) unless you are applying for a casual summer job in a restaurant or similar.
  • Try to relate the skills  to the job. A finance job will involve numeracy , analytical and problem solving skills so focus on these whereas for a marketing role you would place a bit more more emphasis .
  • All of my work experiences have involved working within a team-based culture. This involved planning, organisation, coordination and commitment e.g., in retail, this ensured daily sales targets were met, a fair distribution of tasks and effective communication amongst all staff members.

Interests and achievements

Writing about your interests

Reading, cinema, stamp-collecting, playing computer games

Suggests a solitary individual who doesn't get on with other people. This may not be true, but selectors will interpret the evidence they see before them.

Cinema: member of the University Film-Making Society
Travel: travelled through Europe by train this summer in a group of four people, visiting historic sites and practising my French and Italian
Reading: helped younger pupils with reading difficulties at school.

This could be the same individual as in the first example, but the impression is completely the opposite: an outgoing proactive individual who helps others.

Skills

  • The usual ones to mention arelangauges  (good conversational French, basic Spanish), computing (e.g. "good working knowledge of MS Access and Excel, plus basic web page design skills" and driving ("full current clean driving licence").
  • If you are a mature candidate or have lots of relevant skills to offer, askills-based CV  may work for you

References

  • Many employers don’t check references at the application stage so unless the vacancy specifically requests referees it's fine to omit this section completely if you are running short of space or to say "References are available on request."
  • Normally two referees are sufficient: one academic (perhaps your tutor or a project supervisor) and one from an employer (perhaps your last part-time or summer job).

The order and the emphasis will depend on what you are applying for and what you have to offer. 

When asked what would make them automatically reject a candidate, employers said:

  • CVs with spelling mistakes or typos 61%
  • CVs that copied large amounts of wording from the job posting 41%
  • CVs with an inappropriate email address 35%
  • CVs that don’t include a list of skills 30%
  • CVs that are more than two pages long 22%
  • CVs printed on decorative paper 20%
  • CVs that detail more tasks than results for previous positions 16%
  • CVs that include a photo 13%
  • CVs that have large blocks of text with little white space 13%


If you are applying for more than one type of work, you should have adifferent CV tailored to each career area, highlighting different aspects of your skills and experience.

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What makes a good CV?

There is no single "correct" way to write and present a CV but the following general rules apply:

  • It is targeted on the specific job or career area for which you are applying and brings out the relevant skills you have to offer
  • It is carefully and clearly laid out: logically ordered, easy to read and not cramped
  • It is informative but concise
  • It is accurate in content, spelling and grammar. If you mention attention to detail as a skill, make sure your spelling and grammar is perfect!

 

CV

If your CV is written backwards on pink polka dot paper and it gets you regular interviews, it's a good CV! The bottom line is that if it's producing results don't change it too much but if it's not, keep changing it until it does.

If it's not working, ask people to look at it and suggest changes. 

What mistakes do candidates make on their CV?

One survey of employers found the following mistakes were most common
  • Spelling and grammar 56% of employers found this
  • Not tailored to the job 21%
  • Length not right & poor work history 16%
  • Poor format and no use of bullets 11%
  • No accomplishments 9%
  • Contact & email problems 8%
  • Objective/profile was too vague 5%
  • Lying 2%
  • Having a photo 1%


How long should a CV be?

There are no absolute rules but, in general, a new graduate's CV should cover no more than two sides of A4 paper. In a survey of American employers 35% preferred a one page CV and 19% a two page CV with the others saying it depends upon the position. CVs in the US tend to be shorter than in the UK wher the 2 page CV still dominates for graduates but I do see a trend now towards one page CVs: as employers are getting more and more CVs they tend not to have the time to read long documents!

If you can summarise your career history comfortably on a single side, this is fine and has advantages when you are making speculative applications and need to put yourself across concisely. However, you should not leave out important items, or crowd your text too closely together in order to fit it onto that single side. 

How do I get my CV down to two pages from three?

  • First change your margins in MS Word to Page Layout / Margins/ Narrow - this will set your margins to 1.27 cm which are big enough not to look cramped, but give you extra space.
  • Secondly change your body font to Lucida Sans in 10 pts size. Lucida Sans is a modern font which has been designed for clarity on a computer screen. 

    Bullets make CVs more readable

    Our brains love lists: they create a reading experience with more easily acquired information. We process lists more efficiently, and retain information with less effort. Bulleted lists appeal to our tendency to categorize things since they divide information into short, distinct items. They also help to alleviate the "Paradox of choice": the problem that the more options we have, the worse we feel.

    But don't bullet everything on your CV or it will look boring! Bulleted lists are great for lists of skills or interests but are necessarily limited in content and nuance, and so contain less depth than paragraphs. 

  • Use tables with two or three columns for your academic results and references.
  • Use bullets for content, rather than long paragraphs of text. (See the box to the right)


If after all these tricks you are still on three pages you have to be ruthless with your content: read every single word and remove it if it doesn't add value to your CV!

The one page lean and mean CV!

In certain sectors such as investment banking, management consultancy and top law firms, a one page CV, highly focused, highly objective CV, now seems to be preferred. All of these areas have in common that they are highly competitive to enter and it may be that selectors, faced with so many CVs to work through prefer a shorter CV.

There is no point putting lots of detailed information into a CV which doesn't add any value, and in fact, just dilutes the impact. This is called the presenter's paradox. These CVs normally have lots of single line bullets and no personal statement at the beginning. They are fully of factual, as opposed to subjective, content. You must make every word count. They focus on achievements, initiative and responsibilities more than on tasks and duties. When carefully designed, these can be the very best CVs, but also the hardest to write!