CV Writing Guide
Your CV and cover letter are the first things recruiters or future employers will see when considering you for a role. Chances are, everyone will give you different advice on how your CV should look and feel, and it can often get overwhelming about what you should include. Should it be short and snappy or go into detail? What’s relevant and what isn’t? What will help me stand out from the crowd? How long should it be? Should I be quirky and creative or keep it more structured? These are just some of the questions we get asked, so we’ve put together some of our top tips when it comes to writing a winning CV.
Step One: Know Your Audience
The type of content you include in your CV will change depending on who you’re writing it for.
Applying for a Specific Role
Applying for a Specific Industry
Maybe your dream role hasn’t cropped up yet, but you know you want to work within a certain industry, such as marketing or HR. In that case, take a look at person specifications or job descriptions for the types of roles you would like to work in. This can give you an idea of the skills and qualifications employers are looking for, and help you to tailor the experience you include in your CV.
We’ve identified a few trends in the following key industries, which will help you tailor your CV:
- A strong focus should be placed on key achievements, as everything within this space is tracked and measured. Key stats and figures will go a long way in highlighting your success
- For a more technical role, provide a clear and concise CV layout
- If your role is more creative, include a link to your portfolio. This allows you to showcase your style without visual distractions in the CV itself.
- Detail key achievements within each of your roles, providing specific examples and details. Marketing is very KPI-driven so provide evidence of how you’ve met or exceeded these targets
- Communication is crucial to a marketing role, so it is vital you triple check your finished document for errors
- Detail key marketing software used and any toolkits you have had exposure to.
- Detailing qualifications is essential. We recommend including a summary of your key skills below your opening personal statement, as this is likely to be one of the main things employers are looking for
- Under each role it is worth summarising the type of business, industry sector, turnover and number of employees to give an idea of the business exposure you have had
- Technical jargon is essential, but ensure it is clear and easy to digest. Your CV may not be going directly to an IT Manager or Developer - it may be going to HR for review initially, so your experience needs to be clearly understood by anyone
- Keep the structure simple and identify your contribution to any relevant projects
- Showcase an understanding of previous employers business needs and make results visible
- Provide details of client groups under each previous employer to add context
Seeing What’s Out There
Maybe you haven’t nailed down exactly what you want to work in yet, and you’re simply sending out your CV to a few recruiters and job boards to get a feel for what’s out there. If that’s the case, focus on the key skills and qualities which you think will make you a great employee, and include these when talking about your previous work experience.
Recruiters will likely use key word searches to find suitable candidates for roles, so including these will give your CV more visibility. You can use ATS (Applicant Tracking Systems) to compare the content of your CV with recruiter key word searches. Remember, for every job there are often hundreds of applicants, so you want to make your CV easily searchable.
Step Two: Structuring your CV
Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, it’s time to put pen to paper. You want your CV to be structured as clearly and logically as possible, so recruiters and hiring managers can easily pick out your key qualities and experience.
One crucial thing to consider is length: too brief and the chances are you haven’t sold your strengths, too long and your recruiter is going to get bored before you’ve given them the whole story. The key is to make sure recruiters are getting the relevant information as quickly as possible. Studies have shown that on average, recruiters only spend six seconds glancing over a CV, so you need to have all your best qualities ready to fly off the page.
Obviously, depending on how much relevant work experience you have, each CV length is going to be different. A general rule of thumb is between one and two pages, with as much relevant information as possible on the first page.
Much like you would dress smart and neutral for an interview, you want the design of your CV to look the same. Now probably isn’t the time for Comic Sans and colourful fonts! There are plenty of CV templates and formats that you can download to help you get started. Stick to dark colours, standard font and formatting.
Our tip is to keep things simple. Put your job titles and previous experience in bold, so they’re easily identifiable to the recruiter. Keep paragraphs short – anything more than a few lines, and the information might get lost as hiring managers are glancing over your details. If you do find yourself needing to include more information, move to bullet points, as these are easier to skim through.
Give clear headings for each section (e.g. personal statement, work experience, education, qualifications). This clearly breaks up the CV so recruiters can jump to what’s important, and avoids the overuse of white spaces, which can make your CV seem disjointed.
We’d advise against including a photo of yourself, or any visuals for that matter. Simple, to-the-point prose is the best option at this stage, and images can take up valuable space. If you’re applying for a role that does require graphics skills (such as in marketing or content creation), save the portfolio for the interview stage.
Finally, save your CV as a PDF before you send it off or upload it. While a Word document might look great on your own device, the formatting, spacing and fonts can often be disrupted when read on someone else’s device (e.g. if they have different software). Saving it as a PDF eliminates these formatting issues, and means that the document will look exactly the same whether it’s on your laptop or your hiring manager’s mobile.
Put your key details (name, email, phone number) right at the top of the CV to make it as easy as possible to contact you. (Now also might be the time to make sure you have a professional sounding email address, and not firstname.lastname@example.org). You may also want to include your address, as this can help future employees gauge your availability to get into the office. However, if you’re planning on relocating, make this clear!
This is a chance to give a short, snappy introduction about your key skills and attributes, and what you’re looking for in a role. In one or two sentences, summarise who you are, your work experience and relevant skills, proving why you’re suitable for the position.
If it helps, you can break your personal statement down into three key components:
- Introduction to who you are and your current position | For example, “A recent graduate with a 2:1 in Engineering from the University of Sussex” or “A skilled and experienced HR administrator looking to take the next step in their career”
- What you can offer the company | For example, “Proven experience of bringing innovation and creativity” or “Over ten years’ experience of managing diverse teams and overseeing software development projects”
- Your career aspirations and goals | For example, “Looking to build upon my existing skill-base across the technology industry”.
OK, we know it sounds obvious, but make sure you get the dates and job titles accurate in this section! This information will be checked against your references if you progress to the next stage of the recruitment process, so make sure everything is correct and lines up! For each item, include your job title, the company, and the dates you worked there.
Start with your most recent role. This is where you should include the most information about what you’ve achieved, as it’s your most recent experience and likely more relevant to what you’ll be doing in your prospective position.
Below are some tips on what to include:
- Overview of roles and responsibilities: You won’t need to go into too much detail here, as the job title will most likely give recruiters an idea of what you were doing
- Key achievements: Be specific here; provide key outcomes or statistics if you have them. Remember, the people reading your CV don’t know you or your company at all, so give them the context they need to really show off about your achievements
- Tie in with job description: If you are working from of a specific job description, tie in the skills, qualities, and key words they are looking for here.
You don’t need to include every role you’ve had within this section. We recommend listing out the last 10 years of employment history, or your last five roles, whichever comes first. Listing too many roles in this section is likely to add unnecessary length to your CV, and the likelihood is they won’t all be relevant to the role you’re applying to.
If you’re a recent graduate, or maybe undertaking a complete career change, you may find you don’t have that much relevant work experience under your belt. If that’s the case, we suggest using this Employment History space to talk about relevant internships, work placements, volunteering work, or anything that demonstrates your skills.
As with the rest of the CV, keep this section short and brief - you don’t need to list every single GCSE grade you achieved! The more recently you’ve finished with education, the more information you can provide in this section. List your educational achievements starting from the most recent, and keep it to subjects relevant to the role, or grades you’re proud of. If you have vocational qualifications related to your role (e.g. ACA / CIMA), it’s definitely worth including and prioritising these achievements.
Other Achievements and Interests
How much you include in this section is up to you. If you’re already nearing the two-page limit, you may want to keep this section brief. However, if you’ve got some space to play around with, this section can help you stand out from the crowd.
Maybe you’re a member of a few professional boards related to your field. Maybe you coach football on the weekends and have had to organize events, which has helped you develop your organisational and leadership skills. Maybe you volunteer every week and are keen to bolster the corporate social responsibility initiatives at your prospective company.
If it has a genuine relevance to the work you’ll be doing in your new role, these interests, achievements and hobbies are definitely worth including. You don’t need to go into masses of detail, just a few lines will do to help demonstrate the added value that you can bring to the role. A lot of people applying for the same role as you are likely to have similar work experience, but your interests and achievements are what make you unique, and can give you a personality beyond your work history. These can also be great conversation starters for the interview stage.
It can sometimes be all too easy to get carried away in this section, so try to keep it to a few bullet points, and again, keep it relevant. The blog which you’ve been writing is definitely relevant to a content creation role, but baking every weekend probably isn’t going to add much value to a software developer role.
At the CV stage, you don’t need to include these. You can normally simply write in your CV that you’re happy to supply references on request. Employers are usually only likely to get in touch with references much further down the line, often only after you’ve got the job, so wait until then to get in touch with your previous managers!
Give your CV a thorough proofread before sending it off. Having a spelling mistake in the first line isn’t going to give a good impression, especially when recruiters and hiring managers spend so little time reading each document. If you can, get a friend to read over it – a fresh pair of eyes can be extremely useful with documents as personal as these.
Now you should be ready to send your CV off! Be sure to check out Ashdown Group’s interview advice for when you get to the next stage of the recruitment process, and good luck!
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