How to write a CV employers will love
How do you get a job in 2020?
Despite the rapidly changing nature of the world of work, applying for a job hasn’t changed much. You find a job you like; you make sure you’re qualified; and then you write an amazing CV.
But what is a CV? How do you write a graduate CV to land your first job? Does it differ from the CV of someone experienced? Is it the same as an American CV? What’s a résumé, then?
It’s a confusing area. Let’s clear a few things up before we get into it.
Not to be confused with the American CV – a pretty lengthy document, usually reserved for applications to senior academic roles – the British CV is more akin to the American résumé. In a maximum of two pages, you need to convince a potential employer to invite you to interview over the other applicants. (For one corporate job, you can expect maybe five interviewees from two hundred and fifty applicants.)
Despite this page limit, your CV is your curriculum vitae – literally the ‘course of your life’ in Latin – so it’s no wonder you struggle to put something together that does you justice in just two pages.
Fortunately, this article is here to help.
You could download and edit a CV template, sure, but it won’t be yours, and an employer will know. Your CV is essentially you as a professional, so you must build it to resemble you: starting with the skeleton (the structure); putting flesh to bone (the core content); and dressing it up to go out and make moves (proofreading and formatting).
Let’s look at how to do that.
The Skeleton: Structuring Your CV
As we travel at breakneck speed through the twenty-first century, more and more inventive CVs are becoming acceptable, especially in the creative fields. However, most employers are older and more traditional, and do expect you to stick to the tried-and-true, seven-step formula:
- Identification: your full name and profession.
- Personal and contact details: your email address, phone number and LinkedIn profile.
- Personal profile: a short paragraph that summarises your suitability for the advertised role.
- Experience: your work experience, as relevant to the role, inclusive of dates and achievements.
- Education: your relevant education, inclusive of dates, awards and institutions.
- Skills: the skills you possess, whether technical or social, as relevant to the role.
- (Others): some applicants will include other information that relates to their suitability for a role.
The average employer spends just six seconds scanning a CV before deciding whether to read it in any depth, and half of employers surveyed by Reed claim that a logical order of sections is the most important feature of any CV they read.
“The average employer spends just six seconds scanning a CV before deciding whether to read it in any depth.”
Note that the employers’ plea is for a logical order, which means that there is some flexibility in this skeleton, but only really if you are a recent or prospective graduate. In that case, you would foreground your education more than your work experience – but more on that later.
Flesh to Bone: The Core Content of Each Section
This is the first thing your potential employer is going to see: your name. Make sure they remember it; make it bold, attractive and legible – you might even consider giving it its own banner, if you’re tech-savvy.
Do not, under any circumstances, use the words ‘CV’ or ‘curriculum vitae’ in your title. You might think it clarifies your purpose, but all it really does is divert attention away from your name and make you look like an amateur. If your new boss-to-be can’t recognise a CV on sight, especially when it has been submitted as part of a job application, with an accompanying cover letter, then something is seriously wrong.
We’d always recommend following your name with your profession. This is not a necessity, but it adds clarity (especially if you’re applying to a company that employs lots of different types of staff), and immediately cements your identity:
Liberal Arts Graduate
Leading with a noun-phrase like this puts your profession on a level pegging with your name: a subtle hint to your employer that your job role is who you are. That’s commitment.
Now, should you include a professional photograph of yourself?
Many would consider it a nice, personal touch, but just as many would deem it unprofessional – you’re not getting a job based on your face. It is your call (and may work in your favour if you’re applying for work in customer service or modelling) but I generally advise against it.
Professionalism comes first; you are your job to an employer, not a face – not yet, anyway.
Personal and Contact Details
There are two reasons that employers want to see your email address, your phone number and your LinkedIn profile (if you have one) in the first few lines of your CV: firstly, we hope, so they know exactly how to get in touch to invite you to interview; and secondly, more cynically, to conduct a background check.
Let’s say that you are applying for a competitive position in a top company and your employer has two hundred and fifty CVs to review. If your LinkedIn profile is out of date, your CV’s going in the bin. If your LinkedIn content doesn’t match what’s in your CV, the CV’s going in the bin. If, however, your LinkedIn profile is up to date, and linked in your CV, your employer knows you have nothing to hide. We don’t say this to scare you; we say it to prepare you. 87% of employers conduct this background check.
On that subject, many employers will go further, and use your name to stalk your social media profiles. You are, of course, entitled to your own life, but if your Instagram’s full of drunk photos, your Facebook’s dominated by unorthodox political messages, and your Tik-Tok videos are peppered with expletives, you undermine the CV’s professionalism you are trying so hard to cultivate – and you’d better believe your CV’s going in the bin.
If that’s you, then make sure the name on your CV doesn’t correspond with the name on your publicly accessible feeds.
Finally, we have the question of whether to include your date of birth. It is not a requirement, so, like with the photograph, decide whether your age is going to bolster or undermine your chances. This one is your call.
Also known as a personal statement, your personal profile is the only real chance you have to get creative. In this short paragraph (never exceed five sentences, or a hundred words), you are selling yourself to your employer.
If you’re experienced in your chosen field, your personal profile is a professional summary; if you’re brand new to the field, your personal profile is a professional objective. In short, your value lies in what you can offer an employer: an exemplary track record or aspirational intentions.
“Also known as a personal statement, your personal profile is the only real chance you have to get creative.”
An unbelievably common mistake is forgetting the purpose of this section and proceeding to demonstrate why you need the job rather than why they need you.
Showing your value, whether you are experienced or hot off the press, can be achieved in three ways – as simple as A-B-C:
- Anomalies stand out like diamonds in the rough. Your USP (Unique Selling Point) must be overwhelmingly clear, from the start. The worst CVs are littered with clichés like the vacuous adjectives passionate and hardworking. The best CVs demonstrate, in concrete terms, what separates a candidate from all others: quantifiable achievements or unique talents.
- Bespoke CVs show commitment to this role. A generic CV that has been spammed to a hundred employers will be spotted in an instant (and – you guessed it – will end up in the bin). Take the time to research the company and the demands of the role specified in the job description and tailor your profile to this role. Name-drop the company in the opening sentence.
- Charged language gives your message life. If your profile is dominated by nouns and adjectives, it doesn’t fizz with life. A good personal profile is carried by dynamic verbs. So, you aren’t ‘successful’, but rather have ‘succeeded’; you aren’t a ‘keen team player’, but instead someone who ‘plays keenly for the team’. You are a person of action. Do not languish in acedia. Here’s an example of a good personal profile for a teacher:
Experienced lead teacher of MFL, with expertise in French, Spanish and German, and the added capacity to teach Latin and Classics, seeks opportunity to progress to senior level at Cross Keys School. Performed five years each in Head of Year and Head of Spanish roles, with an exemplary record of GCSE and A Level class performances as both class teacher and department lead. Enthusiastic about ensuring excellent student outcomes at policy level in an innovative setting like Cross Keys.
This section will come next if your work experience outweighs your educational experience. If you are new to the game, then your education will likely come first – whichever is more impressive.
In reverse-chronological order (most recent first), this section should detail your work experience. To format this, we would recommend the following:
Company: job title (date from – date to)
A sentence that briefly summarises your duties and responsibilities in that role, for as long as you were working there.
- Bullet points summarising:
- Your promotions
- And your accolades
- And awards,
- With quantifiable language (dates, awarding bodies, official titles, etc.)
Bullet points are unfashionable among those who love extended prose (especially graduates who have just finished their dissertations), but they are incredibly effective, here. They function as palatable soundbites – your highlight reel, if you will.
Writing your highlights all out in sentences just looks like you’re trying to fill space on the page with not much substance; bulleting them looks like you’ve got so much to brag about that you can’t fit it all in.
Just like with your personal profile, make the language froth with vitality, leading with dynamic verbs like ‘implemented’, ‘launched’ and ‘achieved’, and legitimise it by citing dates, awarding bodies, and official titles – make it concrete.
Also just like your personal profile, you should make this section bespoke to the company and role for which you’re applying. Being awarded ‘Best Dressed’ at your last place of work is certainly impressive, but might seem like a fatuous inclusion in an application for a police constable role.
Every line should contribute to your appeal for the advertised role. Take a look at this example, for one listed workplace:
Sainsbury’s: Regional Operations Manager, Midlands (2014-2018)
Responsible for overseeing the smooth operation of 20 stores, through effective communication with middle-leaders and delivering KPI across the scorecard.
- Successfully managed 4,892 staff at different levels.
- Reduced overhead costs in 2016 by £1.2million.
- Chaired USDAW union, 2015-2018.
- Raised over £35,000 for Sainsbury’s charities, 2016-2017.
As previously mentioned, this section may precede the work experience section for individuals at the start of a new career. Typically, however, in more experienced candidates’ CVs, it follows that section. Relatedly, if you are at the start of your career, then this section can also be padded out with extra details, so it more closely resembles a typical work experience section.
In reverse chronological order again, it follows a similar format to the work experience section:
Institution: degree level and subject (date from – date to*)
(Repeat the above process for all your degrees. You might include A Levels, but probably not. If you go as far back as GCSEs, you’re scraping the barrel a bit.)*
If the degree is ongoing, you can put ‘present’ or the estimated completion date, here.
That’s all, if you’re an experienced candidate. If you’re a more recent graduate (or graduand), then you should enhance your appeal by appending a list of bullets that resembles those of the work experience section. They might include: academic prizes and awards; module choices and performance therein; dissertation focus and performance therein; publications, if applicable; and relevant extracurricular successes – if the section still looks thin.
Remember, as always, to create a bespoke CV; any bullet points you choose to include should demonstrate your suitability for the advertised job. Playing lacrosse with your friends is likely irrelevant for most posts, whilst forming a Model UN is likely appealing.
“Remember, as always, to create a bespoke CV; any bullet points you choose to include should demonstrate your suitability for the advertised job.”
Your degree classification is optional. If you achieved a 2:2 or 3rd, I would omit it, but be prepared to answer this question at interview. If you achieved a 2:1 or 1st, feel free to include it. The same goes for postgraduate degrees: Merits and Distinctions are worth shouting about.
Here is a great example for a recent graduate:
The University of Bristol: BSc (Hons), Plant Sciences (2017-2020)Awarded 1st Class with Honours.
- Won Rose Bracher Memorial Prize for Botany.
- Won Liv Sidse Jensen Prize for Outstanding Fieldwork Performance.
- Dissertation on Predator-Prey Interactions Accepted for Publication in New Phytologist Journal.
This is usually the hardest section to complete. All previous sections have been rooted in verifiable fact. By perusing your Record of Achievement, a stranger could fill in sections 1 to 6. But only you know your skills.
But what if you don’t know your skills?
We are a notoriously humble race, as Britons, so calling our most marketable skills to mind is not easy. This is where having the job description in front of you comes in particularly handy.
Start with the “hard skills” relevant to the job: the technical ones, like word-processing, speaking Italian, and knowing how the heck Adobe PhotoShop works. You will find these prescribed, either explicitly in a list, or buried amongst the prose. Select all the ones you know you can do, and then rate your proficiency in each one: beginner, intermediate or expert. Honesty is the best policy, here.
Next, we have “soft skills”. These are the inherent, personality-based ones that characterise how you work as a person. Often, these are listed on job descriptions, too, but sometimes you just have to assume.
Some of the most sought-after “soft skills” cited by employers include: effective communication, initiative or responsibility, task flexibility, collaborative competence, and creative problem-solving. From a longlist of soft skills, shortlist the ones you think are relevant to the role, and then cherry-pick the ones that best apply to you.
From there, your task is as simple as bullet-pointing your chosen list of skills. Five hard and five soft skills will usually be plenty, and these don’t require any elaboration beyond stating your proficiency in each of the hard skills and adding a congratulatory adjective to each of your soft skills.
Here’s an example for a research assistant at a university science department:
- Superb communication skills, both written and verbal
- Precise and careful attention to detail
- Excellent initiative and independent working ability
- Strong adaptability and time-management skills
- Effective and efficient collaborative strategies
- Proficient in SPSS (expert), R (intermediate) and MATLAB (intermediate)
- Experience using NVivo (intermediate)
- Secretarial word-processing proficiency (expert)
- Competent in content production using Office365 (expert)
- Data entry experience: Excel and Scoro KPI (intermediate)
Other Sections (optional)
Depending on how robust and comprehensive your CV looks and feels by this point, you may or may not wish to include another section or two.
This is rarely necessary and only occasionally useful.
If you are applying for a role in academia, then it is worth adding a section for your publications, if you have any. If you are decorated in your field, then you can include a section that showcases your awards in that area. If you are a recent or soon-to-be graduate, then you may need an additional section to add weight to your CV, perhaps detailing any extracurricular pursuits that have relevance to the advertised role.
Relevance and originality are (yet again) of paramount importance, here. It would be entirely relevant to document your volunteering history at the needle exchange if you are applying for a position in social work, for example. Just don’t tell your employer that you like ‘socialising with friends’ – or, even worse: ‘going to the cinema’.
Words from the inimitable Mark Corrigan from Peep Show come to mind with that one: ‘Of course you do; everyone does. Man seeks woman: must be interested in film, breathing oxygen and converting protein intake into muscle energy.’
Remember, you are trying to prove that you are unique, not the same as everyone else.
Dressing it up: Proofreading and Formatting the CV
You’re nearly there. All the hard work is done. All that remains is dressing it all up so that it’s fit to be seen by the outside world.
The first step is proofreading.
If you’re using a word-processing program with a spelling and grammar checker built-in, then use it, and check every flagged phrase. Then, re-read the whole thing, slowly. Then, read it backwards (yes, really). Finally, have your most literate friend or family member proofread it… and then five more literate friends or family members.
Do not underestimate the importance of this stage. More than half of employers in a recent Reed survey cited language errors as their number one turn-off – and if your prospective employer gets turned off, you’d better believe it: your CV’s going in the bin.
We could write an entire other blog article on common errors in expression, but for the purposes of this article, we’re limiting it to the most common homophone errors (where words are confused for other words because they sound the same) that we have found in drafts of CVs:
- The heavy metal (lead) is not the past tense of ‘to lead’ (led).
My discovery of a lead-processing technique led to my promotion.
- What happens next (then) is no the same as the comparative (than).
I was then voted more charismatic than my predecessor.
- ‘Who is…’ and ‘who has…’ are contracted (who’s), as distinct from the possessive (whose).
Mrs Simon, who’s in charge, decided whose salaries would increase.
- When you change (affect) something, you create changes (effects).
The intervention affected employee morale notably, with 98% positive effects.
- Your beliefs (principles) are not your headmaster (principal) or main thing.
The principal reason for the principal’s decision to promote me was my strong principles.
There are many more (such as there/they’re/their, it’s/its, you’re/your, etc.) and other typical confusions (like lie/lay and advice/advise), as well as common spelling errors (receive and separate stand out to me), not to mention the uncertainty regarding whether a word is one word or two (as well, each other, a lot, etc.) – but we could be here all day!
Just take your time with this bit.
As far as formatting is concerned, the key word is consistency. Your font, headings, bullets, colour scheme and order of constituents in a job or degree summary must all remain identical throughout.
If you’re a keen graphic designer, you can even organise the sections into columns and banners and make it all look pretty, but do not let it detract from the content.
Of course, there is no substitute for a professional eye in these matters. A professional CV editor can:
- Proofread for all typographical and technical errors;
- Format your CV for the utmost professionalism;
- Foreground and highlight your USPs;
- Provide invaluable feedback, as experts in the industry.
And they can do it all to a tight deadline (as little as two days).
Due to coronavirus and the huge numbers of job losses globally and in the UK, here at Oxbridge Editing we are currently running a 50% discount on our CV Editing service until the end of July 2020. Make the most of this opportunity to take the guesswork out of your CV and polish it to the standard that your career deserves.
Go right ahead. With the tips you’ve learned today, you’re ready to write an excellent first draft of your CV.