How to write a successful CV
- What is a C.V.?
- When should a CV be used?
- What information should a CV include?
- What makes a good CV?
- How long should a CV be?
- Tips on presentation
- Different Types of CV
- Targeting your CV
- Emailed CVs and Web CVs
- Media CVs (separate page)
- Academic CVs (separate page)
- Example CVs and Covering Letters (separate page)
- Further Help
Probably the first CV was written by Leonardo Da Vinci 500 years ago. You can view it here. Since then things have moved slightly on, and now it's essential to have a well presented professional CV, but still many graduates get this wrong. The following page will give you all the tips to make an impressive 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 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 my have one)
What are the most important aspects of CV that you look for?
|45%||Previous related work experience|
|35%||Qualifications & skills|
|25%||Easy to read|
|14%||Spelling & grammar|
|9%||Education (these were not just graduate recruiters or this score would be much higher!)|
|9%||Intangibles: individuality/desire to succeed|
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. If you do include a photograph it should be a head and shoulders shot, you should be dressed suitably and smiling: it's not for a passport! See our Work Abroad page for more about international CVs
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!
- Use action words such as developed, planned and organised.
- Even work in a shop, bar or restaurant will involve working in a team, providing a quality service 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 on persuading and negotiating skills.
- 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
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.
- Keep this section short and to the point. As you grow older, your employment record will take precedence and interests will typically diminish greatly in length and importance.
- Bullets can be used to separate interests into different types: sporting, creative etc.
- Don't use the old boring cliches here: "socialising with friends".
- Don't put many passive, solitary hobbies (reading, watching TV, stamp collecting) or you may be perceived as lacking people skills. If you do put these, then say what you read or watch: "I particularly enjoy Dickens, for the vivid insights you get into life in Victorian times".
- Show a range of interests to avoid coming across as narrow : if everything centres around sport they may wonder if you could hold a conversation with a client who wasn't interested in sport.
- Hobbies that are a little out of the ordinary can help you to stand out from the crowd: skydiving or mountaineering can show a sense of wanting to stretch yourself and an ability to rely on yourself in demanding situations
- Any interests relevant to the job are worth mentioning: current affairs if you wish to be a journalist; a fantasy share portfolio such as Bullbearings if you want to work in finance.
- Any evidence of leadership is important to mention: captain or coach of a sports team, course representative, chair of a student society, scout leader: "As captain of the school cricket team, I had to set a positive example, motivate and coach players and think on my feet when making bowling and field position changes, often in tense situations"
- Anything showing evidence of employability skills such as team working, organising, planning, persuading, negotiating etc.
- The usual ones to mention are languages (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, a skills-based CV may work for you
- 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). See our page on Choosing and Using Referees for more help with this.
The order and the emphasis will depend on what you are applying for and what you have to offer. For example, the example media CV lists the candidate's relevant work experience first.
When asked what would make them automatically reject a candidate, employers said:
If you are applying for more than one type of work, you should have a different CV tailored to each career area, highlighting different aspects of your skills and experience.
A personal profile at the start of the CV can work for jobs in competitive industries such as the media or advertising, to help you to stand out from the crowd. If used, it needs to be original and well written. Don’t just use the usual hackneyed expressions: “I am an excellent communicator who works well in a team…… “
You will also need a Covering Letter to accompany your 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!
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. Having said this, if you use the example CVs in these pages as a starting point, you are unlikely to go far wrong.
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%
Choose a sensible email address!One survey found that 76% of CVs with unprofessional email addresses are ignored. Here are some (modified) graduate email addresses that you should NOT emulate!
- Others 3% (listing all memberships, listing personal hobbies, using abbreviations)
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. Academic and technical CVs may be much longer: up to 4 or 5 sides.
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. See www.kent.ac.uk/careers/cv/word-cv.htm#margins for how to do this.
- 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. For more on fonts see here A good rule of thumb is to have your name in about 18 points, your subheadings such as education and work experience in 14 points and your body font as 10 points.
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. See Maria Konnikova's article for more about this.
- Use tables with two or three columns for your academic results and references. See a CV using tables for modules and references here and an explanation of how to do this here
- Use bullets for content, rather than long paragraphs of text. (See the box to the right)
- Finally set line spacings to single space
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!
See our page on Zen and the art of CV writing for more about this.
Tips on presentation
- Your CV should be carefully and clearly laid out - not too cramped but not with large empty spaces either. Use bold and italic typefaces for headings and important information
- Never back a CV - each page should be on a separate sheet of paper. It's a good idea to put your name in the footer area so that it appears on each sheet.
- Be concise: a CV is an appetiser and should not give the reader
indigestion. Don't feel that you have to list every exam you have ever taken, or every
activity you have ever been involved in - consider which are the most relevant and/or
impressive. The best CVs tend to be fairly economical with words, selecting the most important information and leaving a little something for the interview: they are an appetiser rather than the main course. Good business communications tend to be short and to the point, focusing on key facts and your CV should to some extent emulate this. The longer and more dense your CV is, the harder it is for an employer to comprehend your achievements. As Mark Twain said: “If only I had more time, I would write thee a shorter letter”.
HireRight, a candidate due diligence company, found that 63% of applicants provide incorrect information to potential employers. Steve Girdler of t HireRight, commented: “The challenging employment market created by the economic downturn has increased the number of inaccuracies in CVs and job applications, yet most businesses don’t check the claims of those they are about to employ."
- 38% exaggerated or lied about their education
- 35% included incorrect details in their employment history
- 31% made false statements about professional qualifications and memberships.
- Be positive - put yourself over confidently and highlight your strong points. For example, when listing your A-levels, put your highest grade first.
- Be honest: although a CV does allow you to omit details (such as exam resits) which you would prefer the employer not to know about, you should never give inaccurate or misleading information. CVs are not legal documents and you can't be held liable for anything within, but if a recruiter picks up a suggestion of falsehoods you will be rapidly rejected. An application form which you have signed to confirm that the contents are true is however a legal document and forms part of your contract of employment if you are recruited.
- The sweet spot of a CV is the area selectors tend to pay most attention to: this is typically around the upper middle of the first page, so make sure that this area contains essential information.
- If you are posting your CV, don't fold it - put it in a full-size A4 envelope so that it doesn't arrive creased.
Research by forum3 (recruitment and volunteering for the not-for-profit sector) suggested:
- Graduates sent out 25 letters per interview gained.
- The average graduate will send out about 70 CVs when looking for their first graduate job. Of these, the average number of responses will be 7 including 3 to 4 polite rejections and the remainder inviting the graduate to interview or further contact.
- There was a direct link between the number of CVs sent out and the number of interviews gained: the more CVs you send out the more interviews you will get.
- Applicants who included a covering letter with their CV were 10% more likely to get a reply.
- 60% of CVs are mailed to the wrong person: usually the managing director. Applicants who addressed their application to the correct named person were 15% more likely to get a letter of acknowledgement and 5% more likely to get an interview
To say things like I get on well with people is meaningless unless it is backed up by example
Selector for a retail bank
- Applicants sending CVs and letters without spelling mistakes are 61% more likely to get a reply and 26% more likely to get an interview. "In the age of the spell checker, there is no excuse for spelling mistakes". The most common mistakes to not show up in a spell check were: fro instead of for, grate instead of great, liased instead of liaised and stationary instead of stationery.
- Set your spell checker to UK English (assuming you are British) or you will get center
instead of centre, and color instead of colour.
- Other turnoffs include:
- misspelling the name of the company or the addressee,
- not having a reply address on the CV
- trying to be amusing.
- Using lower case i for the personal pronoun: "i have excellent attention to detail"
And why you must read it carefully as well
Thesaurusitis (using the wrong synonym!)
- TIMES NEW ROMAN is the
standard windows "serif" font. A safe bet - law firms seem to like it but it isn't easy to read on the screen, especially in the small font size you may need to use to get your CV on one or two pages.
If you do prefer to use a serif font, try CAMBRIA which has been designed for screen readability. See the example fonts to the right to see how much clearer Cambria looks than Times New Roman.
- I personally prefer sans fonts - sans fonts don't have the curly bits (called serifs) on letters. ARIAL is a standard Windows "sans" font and is now used by the BBC web site which used to use Verdana. As you can see
sans fonts are cleaner and more modern than Times or Cambria and also look larger in the same
"point" size (the point size is simply how big the letters are on the page).
However Arial and Times New Roman are so common that they're a little boring to the eye.
Unnecessary use of complex words or hard to read fonts gives a bad impression: people who use simple, clear language are rated as more intelligent.
- Classier choices might be VERDANA or LUCIDA SANS which have wider letters than most fonts but if you are running out of space then Arial is more space saving, as is TAHOMA which is a narrower version of Verdana. Notice how, in the example to the right, Verdana looks bigger and easier to read than Times New Roman. CALIBRI is now the standard MS Word font but is smaller and perhaps less clear than Arial, Verdana or Lucida Sans (see the examples to the right again). Never use COMIC SANS of course!
- FONT SIZE is normally 12 points for the normal font with larger sizes for subheadings and headings.
Or 10 points. My favourite CV body text font is 10 point Verdana or Lucida Sans with 12 or 14 points for sub headings.
- 14 points is too big for the normal body font - wastes space and looks crude.
- and 8 or 9 points too small to be easily readable by everyone, especially in Times New Roman which should not be used in sizes less than 11 points
- Although many people use 12 points, some research on this suggested
that smaller point size CVs (within reason) were perceived as more intellectual!
The Recruitment and Employment Commission says that about half of all CVs received by recruitment consultants contain spelling or grammatical errors.
Candidates aged between 21 and 25 are most likely to make these mistakes and graduates in this age group are twice as likely to make mistakes as those who did not go on to university. See http://careers.guardian.co.uk/cv-mistakes
- Most CVs are now read on screen rather than on paper. It's no coincidence that Serif fonts are rarely used on the web - they are much less readable on screen (Times Roman was first used on Trajan's column, 2,000 years ago!), and some fonts, such as Verdana, were designed with screen readability in mind. This web site is set in Verdana which, as you can see, is clear and easy to read.
- If you find fonts interesting see
- BBC article and this "Periodic Table" of Typefaces
- Helvetica: How did one typeface conquer the world?
- video: The History of Typography www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOgIkxAfJsk
Using bold for job titles and schoolsIt's a good idea to use the "bold" style for job titles and employer names in your work experience and education to make these stand out.
E.g.2003-2010 St. Paul's Girls' School, London
A-levels: Chemistry B, Biology A, Maths C
Summer 2011 Next Retail (Sales Assistant)
The job entailed working in the busy sale, taking deliveries, stock control and dealing with customers with high quality customer care.
- 33% preferred the use of bold on job titles in the candidate's work history
- 7% preferred the use of bold on employer names from candidate work history
- 31% preferred bold on both
- 29% had no preference
Different Types of CV
- Chronological - outlining your career history in date order, normally beginning with the most recent items (reverse chronological) . This is the "conventional" approach and the easiest to prepare. It is detailed, comprehensive and biographical and usually works well for "traditional" students with a good all-round mixture of education and work experience. Mature students, however, may not benefit from this approach, which does emphasise your age, any career breaks and work experience which has little surface relevance to the posts you are applying for now. See an example chronological CV here
- Skills-based: highly-focused CVs which relate your skills and abilities to a specific job or career area by highlighting these skills and your major achievements. The factual, chronological details of your education and work history are subordinate. These work well for mature graduates and for anybody whose degree subject and work experience is not directly relevant to their application. Skills-based CVs should be closely targeted to a specific job. See an example skills-based CV here
A survey of US employers found that:
- 49% preferred a traditional reverse chronological CV (all jobs listed in reverse chrological order including duties)
- 6% preferred a skills-based CV with skills related to the job highlighted
- 39% liked a combination of both the above styles
- 2% liked a portfolio with examples of completed projects
- 4% had no preference
If you are applying for posts outside the UK, remember that employers in other countries are likely to have different expectations of what a CV should include and how it should be laid out. The "Global Resume and CV Handbook" (available from Reception) and the Prospects website will help you prepare CVs for overseas employment. See our work abroad page.
Targeting your CV
If your CV is to be sent to an individual employer which has requested applications in this format, you should research the organisation and the position carefully.
In the present competitive job market, untargeted CVs tend to lose out to those that have been written with a particular role in mind. For example a marketing CV will be very different from a teaching CV. The marketing CV will focus on persuading, negotiating and similar skills where as the teaching CV will focus more on presenting and listening skills and evidence for these.
If your CV is to be used for speculative applications, it is still important to target it - at the very least, on the general career area in which you want to work. Use our I Want to Work in .... pages and sites such as www.prospects.ac.uk to get an idea of what the work involves and what skills and personal qualities are needed to do it successfully. This will enable you to tailor the CV to the work and to bring out your own relevant experience.
Even if you are using the same CV for a number of employers, you should personalise the covering letter - e.g. by putting in a paragraph on why you want to work for that organisation.
For example CVs, application forms and covering letters see www.kent.ac.uk/careers/cv/cvexamples.htm with notes highlighting points relating to the content and style.
How NOT to do it
One graduate had emailed out over 80 CVs without getting a single reply and was puzzled as to why.
I asked him to show me what he had sent out. He had sent identical CVs and letters to all the companies in one mass email. Recruiters opening the email could see the names of the 80 companies he had applied to in the "To: " box of the email!
Emailed CVs and Web CVs
- Put your covering letter as the body of your email. It's wise to format it as plain text as then it can be read by any email reader.
- Emails are not as easy to read as letters. Stick to simple text with short paragraphs and plenty of spacing. Break messages into points and make each one a new paragraph with a full line gap between paragraphs. DON'T "SHOUT": WRITE IN UPPER CASE!
- Your CV is then sent as an attachment. Say you'll send a printed CV if required.
In which format should you send your CV?A survey of American recruiters found that:
- 63% preferred MS Office Word format .doc
- 36% preferred Adobe Acrobat format .pdf
- 1% preferred rich-text format .rtf
- 0% preferred text format .txt
- 0% preferred web page format .html
According to Professor Tom Jackson, of Loughborough University, “Misunderstandings occur frequently via written communication. In fact, 68 per cent of employees said the emails they receive are sometimes difficult to decipher, whether it be a misinterpreted tone or rushed explanations.”
The most common mistakes made via email include:
PDF (portable document format) is perhaps becoming a widely used format now . There are PDF-readers for all platforms (Windows, MacOS, Linux). This also guarantees that the CV will look the same, no matter what reader is used to view the document. Modern versions of Microsoft Word contain a PDF export function or you can download a free pdf converter such as Cute pdf www.cutepdf.com/Products/CutePDF/writer.asp: you install it and then "print" the document to a folder on your PC. PDFs can however sometimes prevent keyword-scanning software on job boards or applicant-tracking systems from picking up information that allows you to be found.
You can also use MS Word (.doc) format, however .doc format is not guaranteed to be compatible among different versions of Microsoft Word, so a CV might look garbled when opened with an outdated or newer version of Word. Also .doc files may not easily open on computers using Linux and Apple platforms. .doc-files may also contain sensitive information such as previous versions of a document perhaps leading to embarrassment. MS Word documents can contain macro viruses, so some employers may not open these. Send the CV in .doc (Word 2003) format, rather than .docx (Word 2010) format, as not everyone has upgraded to Word 2010, or downloaded the free file converter.
Rich Text Format (.rtf), or html (web page format) are other alternatives but as can be seen from the above survey are not usually preferred.
If in doubt send your CV in several formats. Email it back to yourself first to check it, as line lengths may be changed by your email reader.
Also see How to Send a Resume by E-mail
Web CVs and Electronically Scanned CVs
The credit company Iprofile recommended that CVs posted on-line should not contain your date of birth, place of birth, marital status, address and phone number as they can allow fraudsters to carry out identity theft and perhaps open bank accounts or apply for credit cards in your name.
When emailing your CV to a potential employer it's probably wise to leave out your date of birth, place of birth and marital status if you have any doubts about the validity of the organisation you are applying to. Due to age discrimination legislation in the UK you no longer have to disclose your age on a CV but if you wish to, you could give this rather than your date of birth.
Web CVs use HTML format. You can include the web address in an email or letter to an employer. They have the advantage that you can easily use graphics, colour, hyperlinks and even sound, animation and video. The basic rules still apply however - make it look professional. They can be very effective if you are going for multimedia, web design or computer games jobs where they can demonstrate your technical skills along with your portfolio.
Electronically scanned CVs have been used by Ford Motors and others. Resumix is one package used for this: it has artificial intelligence which reads the text and extracts important information such as work, education, skills. For more information on this see our page on on-line applications
It's a good idea to have your profile and CV (without personal details such as your address of course: see right) on LinkedIn. In 2011 89% of businesses planned to use social networks for recruitment and LinkedIn was by far the most popular one for this purpose with 86% of companies wishing to use it, 60% were considering Facebook and 50% Twitter. Make sure that your Facebook page doesn't carry evidence of any of your indiscretions that employers might view - making your page private and viewable only by friends and family is wise!
If you reply to a job advert, be careful about what information you give.
The following are not needed by employers but can lead to identity theft. Don't include:
- Date of birth
- Place of birth
- Marital status
- Copies of birth certificate/passport documents or details of your bank
- You only need to give your first and last names, not your middle name.
For information on Skype and Video Interviews see our page on this
- Our example CVs, application forms and covering letters www.kent.ac.uk/careers/cv/cvexamples.htm
- Learning and Skills Council online CV Builder can help you build your own CV in just 12 steps. Very good!
- bab.la phrase dictionary http://en.bab.la/phrases provide useful phrases for CV writing, letters of application, and business letters in 14 languages including French, German, Spanish, Polish, Chinese and Japanese.
- The Careers Service runs talks and workshops on CV preparation throughout the year. Ask at Reception for details.
- If you are having difficulty your CV, you can consult the duty careers adviser from 10.30 am - 12.30 pm and from 2 - 4 pm, weekdays.
- Booklet: "Making Applications". Ask for your free copy from Careers Reception.
- "Looking good on paper" On-line Video. Kent students can view this here