How to Write a CV That Works

There is no such thing as a standard example of a good CV. A CV is only “good” if it works…if it fulfils its purpose of marketing your skills and expertise. If you are receiving calls and emails because recruiters/employers have seen your CV, then you have a good CV that works for you.

A CV should provide a summary of your expertise and evidence of your achievements. The reader wants to understand what you have to offer a future employer and this should leap off the page. Too often recruiters are presented with exhaustive bullet-pointed lists of everything a candidate has ever done in their career. Or a list of responsibilities cut and pasted from a job description. In order to be filtered through to interview stage, applicants are expected to focus on their relevant achievements and expertise. CVs don’t even include the words “curriculum vitae” (which means “courses of life”) on the first line of the document anymore; now the candidate’s name is the title for the document.

We asked leading career coach and CV expert Zena Everett, of Second Careers, for her advice on what should be in the CV that works…


Before you start typing

Congratulations! You are reading this on a job board so obviously understand that this is a digital age with high volumes of applications to compete against. CVs have to be optimised with key words. They must be relevant to the jobs you are applying for, not generic documents. This is one of the major weaknesses in unsuccessful applications.

So, before you start drafting your CV, find some suitable jobs to apply for. Ask yourself “if I was filtering through applications for these roles what would my screening criteria be?” Highlight the key words and phrases that the recruiter is asking for. Now draft your CV as described below, incorporating the same or very similar key words and phrases. Go into specific detail only about skills that are relevant to the role and provide examples of where you have successfully used these skills in the past. This is explained in more detail in the career history section, below. First, let’s look at the overall design of the document.

The look of the CV

Use a standard word template, lots of white space with a clean look. In a standard font, type size no smaller than 11. Two pages please. Maximum two and a half. Any more and the recruiter will assume that you can’t summarise information. Recruiters are most interested in what you have done most recently – they will scan the second page and don’t want to see lots of detail. If they want to know more about your previous jobs they can ask you at the interview.

Save it as your name and as a standard attachment so it can easily be emailed to recruiters.

Let’s look now at each component of the contemporary CV in the order they usually appear.

Personal details

Name and address: Make sure your address includes the first four digits of your post-code. Otherwise, your CV will be invisible if it is posted on job boards like this one and recruiters are searching its database. They start with a geographical restriction (eg 25 miles of IG10) in order to filter relevant CVs.

Telephone numbers: You probably only need a mobile number. Put a personal voicemail on there, not just the factory setting. Recruiters like to hear your professional telephone manner and know they are leaving messages for the right person. If you are including a home number then ensure that other family members answer appropriately and pass on messages.

Email address: Use a professional one; keep a jokey account name for personal use.

Date of birth: Don’t include this.

Nationality: Not necessary to put anything unless it is obvious that you are applying from outside the UK/Europe in which case you might want to include information about your eligibility to work here – eg Nationality: Indian, Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) Migrant, eligible to work in the UK for 2 years.

Photo: Don’t include one unless it is relevant to the job and you are asked to do so.

Marital status: Why is this relevant? No need to include.

Personal statement section

This statement or profile section at the beginning of the CV should state what you have done in the past, what you want to do next and the skills that bridge the two. It should sum up the whole document and explain to the reader why your application is relevant to them. Keep it simple and specific. Remember that you are competing against many other candidates so this section should explain what makes you stand out. The rest of the document provides evidence of this. When you have drafted it ask yourself if this has addressed the needs of the Recruiter. Does it explain what you have to offer them and what you are looking for as a next career move? Avoid unsubstantiated opinions of yourself and statements like “dynamic self-starter looking to contribute in a challenging environment”. Use specific statements like “HR Manager with seven year’s public sector experience specialising in employee negotiations, now re-locating to Edinburgh.”

Career history

For each of your jobs, include the company name and address, your job title and dates of employment (including the months as well as the year). Start with the most recent job first.

You might want to put a line of detail about the company. If you were employed by “XZA Industries” a recruiter may not know who they are. So, you could say “UK and Asia Pacific based toy manufacturing business, employing 350 staff across 11 offices

You might also want to add in a line about your broad remit and who you reported to, to explain the context of the role.

Reported to the Chief Operating Officer and held P & L responsibility for driving sales of £7 million across the organisation

Reported to the Catering Manager and responsible for serving over 150 customers a day

Describe your career history in terms of achievements

For each job, and particularly for the most recent roles, include three or four bullet pointed achievements. Demonstrate what makes you stand out from other applicants. Remember to use the same or similar key words and phrases from the advertisement.

Here are some prompts to help you remember your previous achievements:

  • What have you done over and above your job description?
  • Where have you gone the extra mile?
  • Where have you demonstrated flexibility, creative thinking or innovation?
  • What projects have you been involved in and what was your contribution to the outcome?
  • What legacy have you left behind?
  • What problems did you solve?
  • What did the team/business look like when you left compared to when you started and what part did you play in that?

For example, if you are a PA, then don’t list all the duties you perform in your role – the recruiter knows what a PA does. Describe your achievements that contribute to your expertise: did you organise the annual conference, make complicated travel arrangements, manage a budget for the Christmas party, write a webpage etc? This is the information that makes you stand out.

Include facts and figures

The more specific detail you can include (and the less waffle) the better. The outcomes you have achieved, described factually.

Costs, commercials, percentage improvements, key performance indicators met, targets met, costs saved, etc. “Increased sales turnover by 42% against a target of 35%, which made us the highest performer out of 7 teams” is much more effective than “excellent sales management skills” Be mindful of not revealing confidential company information.

Make every word count

Think “why I am telling them this?” If it isn’t relevant to the role you want next then don’t waste space telling them. “Works well in a team” is implicit if you have had a successful career working as a team member. You don’t need to spell it out. Do we need to know that you have a clean driving licence?

Education

The “why am I telling them this” rule applies here as well. Do you really need to put your GCSE results if you have a degree? If you are a Finance Director do I need your Maths O level results? Most people put their education after their career history, but if your education or professional qualifications are crucial to the jobs you are applying for you may choose to put education and training before your career history. Remember, there is no right or wrong way – it’s what works best for you. Wherever you put your education, most recent qualification should come first.

Hobbies and interests

Only include this section if it is relevant to the reader. Do they need to know that you like reading science fiction? If your hobby is fundraising for a local charity this may reflect the skills you need in your new role, so include it. Similarly, impressive results on the sports field may impress some employers. You may have extra-curricular activities or voluntary experience that relates to the field you want to move in to.

References

It is fairly obvious that they are available upon request, so this section is now superfluous and can be missed out.

Finally check for typos

Spell check the document. Then read it from left to right and right to left. Then get someone else to check it. You would be flabbergasted how many “mangers” send in their CVs!

 

Zena Everett is a career coach and consultant who helps clients reinvent their jobs, career paths, confidence, performance & wellbeing.

 

  • PHIL WATTSIE

    I find this  interesting, I have been applying for jobs for the last 3 months and I do not receive any feedback from jobs and have gone to extreme lengths I have changed my CV 4 times drove to companies and asked where the problem lies with my application and have been told sheer number of applications is  the problem. I am a fully qualified Carpenter and cannot find work in Leicestershire I was made redundant in 1/3/2012 after 9 years at the company and have never struggled to find work until now. I have applied for all manor of jobs from driving a van to warehouse picking. So do not beat your self up people as I  did I got very paranoid regarding my CV and thought I must be doing something wrong, the truth is there are too many people looking for work- too many people in the UK, I called a job I had not heard back from and they told me they had 1500 applicants!!

    • robb

      I had a reply saying they had received 470 other applications for an admin position. Good advice above, don’t get ‘paranoid’ if you don’t hear from applications. I have been unemployed since last year…

  • Big D

    From the
    viewpoint of a contractor who has worked for a variety of clients and their end
    customers the advice above has numerous ‘holes in it. For example.


    “For
    each of your jobs, include the company name and address, your job title and
    dates of employment (including the months as well as the year).” I would
    be interested to know why the author of this piece thinks the company address
    is important plus as a contactor which address is being referred to the client
    (which one again for example if they have sites across the UK and your job did
    not involve visiting any of them) or the end client client’s address. What if
    the company name has changed since you worked for them, the company has been
    taken over or the company no longer exists. I’ve yet to see any CV writing
    advice on this.

    All the text between “Describe your career
    history in terms of achievement”. and “Be mindful of not revealing confidential
    company information.” Especially include three or four bullet pointed
    achievements. If the client/end customer is the MOD or similar a bit more than
    confidentiality could be involved and to avoid problems it can be necessary to
    use phrases about skills that are transferable and avoid anything like the sort
    of material the author of the advice is expecting.

    “Two pages
    please. Maximum two and a half.” And “You might also want to add in a line
    about your broad remit and who you reported to, to explain the context of the
    role.” If the context for one contract role takes more than 2 minutes time to
    explain to a recruiter on the phone I would be interested to hear how the
    author could expect several roles not to bust the 2.5 pages limit on their own.
    This difficulty is compounded by identical job titles and skills that have
    multiple meanings requiring general context information of their own before the
    specific context can be indicated.

    “References  It
    is fairly obvious that they are available upon request” . Not if the client
    expects specific names at company names of line mangers. They can move on
    without leaving forwarding details , retire or even have died but a number of
    recruiters seem to think you can keep referees available from your most recent
    employers in all cases.  I’ve worked as a
    contractor on a project where the line manager (as well as the work location)
    changed weekly and in some cases daily.

     

    Spell checking –According to Word
    2007 with the spell checker set to English UK there are some typos in the text
    above. I wonder how many job advert texts have spelling /typo problems? I would
    have included in here “If you have time don’t check your CV just after writing
    it look at it later to avoid seeing what you thought you typed rather than what
    is there and use a spell checker (with the right dictionary)”.

    • http://www.second-careers.co.uk/ Zena Everett

      Hello Big D.  Thanks for taking the time to make these comments all of which seem very valid to me.  At the beginning of the article I said that there is no such thing as a generic “good” CV – a CV is only good if it works – i.e. gets you interviews.  So, all these points may apply in different circumstances, according to the perspective of the potential employer.  So, for example, if the company name has changed then of course give both names and explain the context if you feel this is necessary.

      Zena

  • Oj_curtis

    What is the difference between a curriculum vite and a resume?

  • Caroline Giles

    Very useful but it worries me that recruiters are only looking within a 25 mile radius – if you are a senior manager or live within 75 miles of London, you could well be looking for a job within that radius – it seems a little niave.  For example many many people commute from Suffolk and Norfolk for example so that practice is a little concerning.

    • http://www.second-careers.co.uk/ Zena Everett

      Hi Caroline
      Thanks for your comment.  You are right of course – recruiters don’t always look within a specific 25 mile radius.  I was just making the point that one of the first filters they put on when searching CVs is a geographical one, to limit the number of CVs they have to screen.  That’s why including a post code is important.
      Zena

  • Craig

    Zena, thank you, this is an excellent article! I will make a few additional amends to my CV in light of your comments.

  • BenF

    I
    like so many looking to progress with their careers welcome advise on
    successful job searching. Tailoring CV`s towards job descriptions’ is a
    standard practice as is most of the advice from the article above. I believe
    that the CV is fast becoming the old fashioned method for job applications and
    should only be considered as the overview document for when we eventually sit
    down at the interview, the important document being the personal statement which should be separated
    from the CV as a cover letter. This is the sales pitch with the elevator speech
    get this right telling them what they want to hear and an interview to discuss the
    CV is very possible. Many companies are using on line application forms which will
    restrict candidates doing what the author also explains. I have very little faith
    in recruiters as they seem more interested in the employer for their commissions
    and not so much the individual jobseeker so I only ever apply direct to the companies.