For many job hunters, the task of writing your curriculum vitae can be a daunting one.
With so many elements to consider - bigging up your achievements without appearing big headed or accounting for significant gaps in your employment history, for example - it is easy to become overwhelmed and lose sight of the key points which, handled correctly, will improve your chances of reaching the next stage of the process immeasurably.
We’ve had the pleasure of reading tens of thousands of CVs in our time, and the following, comprehensive, guide is drawn from the experience of helping countless candidates find the perfect role for them. Read on to master the basics of CV writing, learn how to elevate your resume to the next level, and find out the most common errors many candidates make, and how to avoid them.
Basics of CV writing
With most things in life, get the basics right, and everything else will fall into place. This wisdom definitely rings true when it comes to writing the perfect CV. While there are some great examples out there of outlandish, experiential CVs, in most instances it’s best to keep yours clean and simple, leaving your skills and experience do the talking. In this section, we’ll outline the basics to tick off before adding your own flourishes.
A poorly-formatted CV will turn off most potential employers, as the likelihood is they’re sifting through a pile of applications and any that make a bad first impression are likely to be put to the back of the queue, or ignored entirely.
The general rule is if you have a decent to extensive job history, keep your CV to a maximum of two sides of A4. As we’ve mentioned above, employers are busy and are unlikely to read anymore than this, so they’ll appreciate a compact layout.
However, don’t be tempted to cram in a lot of text boxes, reduce text size or any other tricks to get fit your CV onto two pages. Instead, work through your CV and delete any information that seems superfluous and won’t actually aid your application. White space and frequent line breaks will make it much easier for the employer to digest.
Stick to a font size of around 12 - no smaller than 11 - for the body text of your CV to ensure legibility, and unless you’re a designer who’s a dab hand at picking typefaces, stick to standard fonts such as Arial, Calibri or Times New Roman. Avoid Comic Sans at all costs.
Finally once your CV is complete, save it as both a Word document and a PDF and attach in an email to the recruiter or potential employer. Some employers prefer one format, others prefer the other and as it’s so quick and easy to cater for both, it’s best practice to supply both formats.
Formatting top tip:
Download the POST CV template for a foolproof layout we know will improve your chances of being noticed.
Before you begin to populate your CV layout, it’s crucial to remember the importance of accuracy.
While a CV doesn’t act as a legal document and some elements such as unfavourable exam results may be omitted, always ensure that the information you provide is accurate and correct. Any hint an employer or recruiter gets that you’re embellishing facts or being dishonest could make them view your CV sceptically as a whole, dramatically reducing your chances of gaining an interview.
While the lure of adding seniority to a previous job role or adding responsibilities that weren’t actually yours may seem like a good way to boost your employability, the pitfalls of being found out are not worth any potential gain. Honesty is the best policy.
Accuracy top tip:
Get all of your experience down on paper as you remember it, then review point by point asking yourself “if I’m questioned on this in an interview, can I give an honest response?” If the answer is no, remove or modify it so it’s accurate and factually correct.
The level of educational information to include depends completely on the stage of your career you’re at.
For school leavers or students, the likelihood is actual work experience will be in short supply, so providing full details of your academic achievement is a good idea to give potential employers a taste of you as an individual. In such circumstances, a one-page CV is your best option.
Graduates or those who have recently completed a vocational qualification will presumably be applying for roles related to their subject of choice. If this is the case, keep prior educational information to a minimum, but add a bit more detail regarding any specialist modules taken or work placements experienced to show you’re committed to the discipline and ready to make the next step.
For everyone else, it’s best to not commit too much space to educational achievement. Listing relevant qualifications by name and simply listing overall grades for GCSEs and A-levels should suffice.
Education top tip:
Add dates of study to your qualifications to give potential employers greater context of your journey to this point.
The key element of any CV, and the part employers will pay most attention to.
When judging candidates on paper alone, the employment history section will give the clearest indication of your competence level for the advertised role, and will help to differentiate your application from the rest of the field.
Ensure the names of your former employers, related job title(s) and period of service are all included and easy to read, as this will be one of the first informational elements consumed by the employer and will be referred to further down the line should they need to check your references before confirming a job offer.
For each establishment, list key roles and responsibilities, prioritising those applicable for the job role you’re applying for. We also recommend listing any specific achievements under each relevant job. This will give the employer a full picture of your performance with previous or current employers, and also save valuable space by removing the standalone achievements section often found on CVs.
Employment history top tip:
This is the section that many candidates get carried away with by adding reams of extra information of little interest to your prospective employer. Keep referring back to the job specification of the role you’re applying for, and prioritise experience and achievements which will reaffirm your suitability for the role.
The skills section of a CV is often poorly implemented. Candidates can become confused between skills and strengths, and end up repeating many points already made in the employment history section.
‘Great timekeeping’ or ‘hardworking’ are not skills: they are largely unquantifiable strengths that any candidate could add to a CV in a bullet-pointed list - whether accurate or not - with little grilling from the employer.
For us, a skills section is only valuable if it is used to list hard skills that prove your competence for the prospective role. For example, a designer should list key programmes they are efficient in such as the Adobe Suite or Sketch, a web developer specific areas of expertise such as HTML5 or CSS.
Skills section top tip:
Order your skills by relevancy, and try to keep your list brief unless you are working in a particularly hard skill-based industry such as web development.
Speaking of software, for those in especially technical professions, we’d recommend expanding upon the skills section, being more specific with the software your are confident using. For example, simply stating you can use Microsoft Excel for data-heavy jobs will not suffice. You’ll need to provide more detail, adding your proficiency in VBA programming, the SUMIF function or ability to develop macros. Similarly for SQL developers, saying you do SQL is not enough, instead add further context and proof of your proficiency by stating your knowledge of SSRS or SSIS services, or similar.
This advice is relevant for almost every industry, and will give employers a good grasp of your technical knowledge and experience.
Technology top tip:
Consider combining the technology and skills sections into a ‘Systems Skills’ section, being careful to ensure all information is presented in a clear, concise manner.
One of the more functional elements of a CV. While you could list all references at the point of submitting your CV, it is best practice to withhold this information until you’ve been offered the role to remove the chance of unsolicited contact being made with existing employers.
A simple ‘references available upon request’ will suffice.
References top tip:
While you won’t be including the information right away, it’s good practice to at least mentally list the three individuals you’d like to act as your references should you succeed and be offered a role. Choose a broad spread of former managers from across your career, ideally those that you had a particularly strong working relationship with.
If applicable, we’d also recommend including a small section relating to any voluntary experience you may have. For example, if you’re fresh out of university, actual, relevant paid work experience may be thin on the ground, or if you’re looking to work for a philanthropic organisation, you may want to highlight your commitment to working for and helping good causes even at personal cost to yourself.
Voluntary experience top tip:
Handle this section in exactly the same way as you would the employment history section, listing voluntary experience in chronological order and including each organisation’s name and your length of service with each.
Ah the interests section, a much maligned addition to many a CV. Despite its detractors, when done correctly this area can add much-needed depth and personality to your application, and help you to stand out from the pack. While your ability to do the job is obviously of utmost importance to the employer, they also want to ensure you’ll be a good fit chemistry wise with the rest of the team.
Interests top tip:
Saying that, don’t go into too much detail here, or add anything too weird. Stating you like football is fine, however adding a preference to a particular team could cause issues if you support City and the boss is a United supporter. You’d hope the employer wouldn’t be so petty as to not give you the job based on this, but it’s best to err on the side of caution.
How to make your CV stand out
Now we’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to take your CV to the next level. In this section, we’ll share with you some of our top tips to elevate your CV from good to great.
The ‘So What’ method
To begin, let’s look at refining what you already have.
Put yourself in the shoes of the employer, then sit back and reread your first draft. For every statement, ask yourself ‘so what?’ Why would any employer care about this statement? If you can’t answer that question effectively, rework the statement so you can answer with an appropriate response, or ditch it all together if you can’t make it work. If the employer wouldn’t be interested, it shouldn’t be there at all.
For instance, a statement such as ‘helped my colleagues achieve the department’s goals’ will elicit a so what response from most employers. What was your involvement? What were the goals? How exactly did your involvement help the team achieve those goals? That’s the information that will take your statement from ‘so what’ to impressed.
In the employment history section above, we highlighted the importance of listing key responsibilities you undertook in each job role, prioritising those that are especially relevant to the job you’re applying for. Now, let’s take this one step further. Instead of merely listing tasks you completed, tell the employer what you achieved in the process.
Demonstrable facts and figures will make any employer sit up and take notice, so try and work as many as you can into your final CV.
You didn’t just manage a brand’s social channels, you grew their social audience by 150%. You didn’t just develop an SEO strategy for your clients, you increased organic visibility for your key client by 200%.
Tailor to the role
We’ve mentioned this in passing, but it’s worth giving it proper consideration. Writing one CV and sending it out to as is to a variety of employers will not work. Subtle nuances in job descriptions will be missed, and it’ll be easy for the employer to see you’ve just copied and pasted the application you did last time.
It’s hard work - especially if you’re applying for multiple roles - but tailoring your CV for each individual job is a must. Rather than sticking a header section at the top of your CV wherein you explain why you’re perfect for that particular role, we recommend you build your case directly into your employment history section. Cross reference the experience and results you’ve gained against the actual specification listed in the job ad, and make sure you’ve covered as many of the points as possible.
This approach will give the employer the confidence that you’ve understood what they’re asking for, and have the requisite experience to be able to hit the ground running.
Experiences change who we are, and this is especially the case with work. We learn something new and grow as people with each job role we take - sometimes for better, other times for worse - and making reference to your personal development in the employment history section is a good idea.
While you’ll need to be careful to not go into too much detail and dwell on yourself too much, a few bullet points littered throughout your employment history stating how the role helped you learn and achieve something you didn’t previously think you’d be able to do.
This technique has the dual benefit of increasing your humility for the employer while also highlighting your ability to learn new things and learn with them, developing both yourself and employer in the process.
If your job requires communicating information in an interesting way for an audience, practice what you preach and use your CV as a live brief to show off your skills. There are some great examples out there of developers creating immersive, side-scrolling games to show their employment history and skills, while some writers have reimagined their CV as prose to prove their storytelling credentials.
While this is definitely something to consider, especially for creatives, in most instances we’d still recommend to not go too wild with an experimental layout. Even if the employer is the most visionary of creative directors, they’ll still what to know who you are, what you’ve done and what makes you tick. Any creative layout will need to incorporate these themes in order to still function as a tool to get you an interview.
CVs: What not to do
We’ve had the good, now let’s move onto the bad. There are some things that, despite our best advice, candidates continue to include in their CVs and in many cases are prevent them from making headway in their job search. If you only take away one point from this guide, make it these:
Spelling and grammar
Yes it’s boring and yes it’s obvious, but CVs littered with spelling or grammatical errors will get binned. If you aren’t able to form a sentence when trying to create the best possible impression of yourself for a potential employer, how can they trust you to send emails to colleagues or clients accurately and professionally?
This is where planning comes in. Where possible, give yourself plenty of time before the submission deadline to write your CV with the basics, elaborate using our top tips then step away from it for a day and read it back, paying particular attention to spelling, grammar and phrasing.
While good literacy skills are important for all job roles, this is obviously doubly important for writers or content professionals. We can’t begin to tell you the number of times we’ve received typo-ridden applications for Head of Content jobs.
Version control and tenses can also cause issues. That great description you wrote of a role you had three jobs ago? You’ve just copied and pasted it and it still says ‘I currently do this’ doesn’t it?
You’ve put a lot of work into your CV so don’t ruin it all by skipping a final proofread and falling at the final hurdle. If all else fails, just make sure you spell the business name correctly.
We can’t stress enough the damage intangible statements can do to your CV. A great CV should be sharp, punchy and to the point. Any extra information that isn’t actively working hard to get you that interview doesn’t have a place, and is distracting the employer from the bits that matter.
Stating that you ‘always give 100%’ or how you ‘have a thirst for success’ adds zero value to the employer, as any applicant could add such phrases and be unable to prove exactly how they give 100%, or how thirsty they are. Cut these from your thinking, and your CV will be immeasurably better as a result.
Unprofessional email addresses
You could write the world’s most perfect CV; a resume that has the employer desperate to get in touch with you and offer an interview post haste. Their eyes are drawn to your contact section, and realise your email address is ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’. All the good work you’ve done is down the drain thanks to a 15 year old email address. Do yourself a favour and get yourself a clean, professional email that shows you mean business.
Stop talking about yourself!
It may seem like odd advice, but overusing personal pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘me’ is unnecessary in the context of a CV. The employer knows who you are without you having to refer to yourself every two minutes. Also, a CV should highlight what you can do for your new employer and how you’ll help them grow, not on what you’ll get by winning the job.
The perfect CV template
As you’ve kindly taken the time to read this far and learn the theory behind the perfect CV, we thought we’d help you out by sharing our own, tried and tested CV template that will help you take the stress out of resume writing and concentrate your efforts on the content not the layout. Download and use it for yourself using the link below:
There we have it, you should now have all the tools at your disposal to write a CV that will take you one step closer to the job of your dreams. Speaking of which, don’t forget to visit our jobs board - that dream role could be closer than you think.