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CVs and cover letters: How to write a CV

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Tailor your CV to each job and highlight relevant skills and experiences to demonstrate how you are perfect for the role

What is a CV?

CV stands for curriculum vitae, which means a brief account of your career. CVs are used to explain to recruiters what you can do and what you have done, so a good CV looks forwards as well as accounts for what you did in the past. 

A CV should present your knowledge, learning, skills and competencies in a positive, honest way. Despite what you might have seen on The Apprentice, falsifying information on a CV gets you nowhere.

What should I include in a CV?

A CV needs to include enough information for the recruiter to decide whether you are likely to be a suitable candidate, so you should include:

  • contact details - name, address, mobile phone number, email address;
  • knowledge - educational or professional qualifications, dates of institutions attended;
  • skills and competencies - ability to work in a team, manage customers, specific IT skills, level of responsibility;
  • work-related experiences - periods of paid or unpaid work, previous employers, job titles, examples of tasks;
  • referees - two people who can comment on your paid or unpaid work.

It's important to tailor your CV to the needs of the recruiter and the particular job. So, if there is a job specification or job description, show how you are a good fit by giving examples of how your experience, knowledge and skills fit the requirements of the job, paying particular attention to the ones marked 'essential'.

If you list your previous jobs and there is a gap between them, it's often best to explain why. An unexplained gap can be interpreted adversely.

Reasons for gaps may include:

  • contract ended;
  • left to continue full-time education;
  • took a career break to raise a family;
  • made redundant.

For information on disclosing a disability, see cover letters.

How long should a CV be?

Ideally, a CV should be no longer than two sides of A4. Overlong CVs may not be read to the end or at all.

Do I need to include a personal summary?

It's not essential and choosing whether or not to add one to your CV comes down to personal choice. If you do decide to include one it should ideally be no more than four lines long and follow immediately after your personal details at the top of your CV.

Personal summaries should be written in strong, positive language and include information on who you are, what skills you can offer and generally what you are looking for in your next role.

Should I declare a disability on my CV?

You will only need to declare a disability or any other personal issues on your CV if you include a personal summary. If you do mention your disability it should be relevant to the role you’re applying for and may be more appropriate in your cover letter.

Under the terms of the Equality Act 2010 an employer is unable to discriminate against an applicant who has a disability. If your disability will require an employer to make reasonable adjustment to help you to do your job, they should be made aware of this when you apply. Sell yourself to an employer by focussing on the strengths and skills you have learnt from your disability. Your positive approach will demonstrate your ability to carry out the role you have applied for.

Do I list work experience or education first?

This depends on the type of CV you are creating and how much work experience you have. If you have recently graduated and don't have much work experience it is probably best to start with your education. For more information, see example CVs

Should I include hobbies in my CV?

It's not necessary to include hobbies in a CV but if you do, use them as examples of specific achievements, such as supervision of teams, organisation of rotas, collation and analysis of documents, etc.

How should I present my CV?

Aim to put your most attractive feature towards the beginning of your CV where it will be noticed by a recruiter. Similarly, construct a strong finish with a closing remark that is positive and enthusiastic.

Don't be tempted to keep the length of your CV under control by using a small font or closely packed lines of text. Instead arrange text with space around it. Use tables or text boxes and an easy to read font such as Arial or Verdana to ensure a clear layout; use bold font and capitals sparingly and avoid the use of underline.

If you're not a confident speller, have your CV checked by someone you trust. Often computerised spellchecks don't pick up every error.

If you need to post a hard copy of your CV, use good quality paper, staple rather than clip pages together and use an envelope large enough to keep the CV flat in transit. Unless you are advised otherwise by the recruiter, your CV should be accompanied by a cover letter.

Do I need to write a cover letter?

Yes, a cover letter will enable you to further tailor your comments to the requirements of the job role. It also helps to highlight any aspect that you want to draw to the attention of the recruiter. To find out more, see cover letters.


Get help with your CV

If you are a student, ask your university careers and employability service to help you polish your CV and cover letter. You may also be able to attend practice interview sessions. If you are a recent graduate, check if you are still eligible to use the careers service.

For more help with writing and structuring your CV, take a look at some example CVs.

Written by Editor, Graduate Prospects
April 2013

Graduate jobs


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