Writing a CV is easy. Writing a great CV is another matter.
The best CVs immediately grab the attention of their audience and provide them with the relevant information they’re looking for as easily and clearly as possible.
They also end up landing you the job.
Writing a great CV is essentially a three-stage process – and should never really end.
First, you want to plan the structure of your CV, ensuring everything you need to be on there is on there in the most logical and effective sequence. Second, you want to think about how to write your CV, creating a visually appealing and impressive document which does your application justice.
Lastly, each time you apply for a position your CV should be tweaked and edited to fit with that particular role and company, especially if you’re applying in a foreign country where expectations and requirements may be different.
Here we’ve compiled all the guidance you’ll ever need about how to write a great CV – whatever field you’re applying for, and whatever stage of your career you’re at.
Build a strong CV
Building anything great must start with a solid plan.
Outline the different sections you need before you start, ensuring all the essential details are covered and that the most important information is the first thing your audience – i.e. recruiters – will see.
Your aim, essentially, is to give the recruiter the information they’re looking for.
Ideally, they want to see that you’re a great candidate they can earmark for the next stage. But if you aren’t, they really don’t want to have to work hard just to find that out. If they’re struggling with the final shortlist, a messy or unclear CV will be sure not to make the cut.
A well-structured CV will help recruiters work out if you’re right for the job, giving you the strongest possible chance of making it to an interview.
Here are the sections you should consider including. (Tip: you might not need all of them for every application, but it might help to prepare each of them anyway).
- Personal information
- Core skills
- Additional skills
- Extracurricular experience
- Hobbies and interests
The title of the document shouldn’t just be ‘CV’ or ‘Curriculum Vitae’. Make it your name so recruiters will remember it.
Your contact information should be clearly stated (and your email address should preferably be as simple and professional as possible).
A profile picture should be included when applying in countries (or industries) where this is the norm, and should always be professional and show you with a smile on your face.
Include any extra information, such as date of birth, marital status, nationality only if this is explicitly requested or particularly relevant to the application (or if local customs dictate it – see ‘Take your CV abroad’ below).
The first thing recruiters should be drawn to is a personal summary, or ‘professional introduction’.
This section should be eye-catching and concise and should be the clearest statement of your suitability to the role.
Write an engaging headline about what you do and follow it up with a short paragraph summarising your core skills and most relevant experience. (The paragraph should be no more than 2 or 3 lines).
The first thing recruiters want to ascertain is whether or not you’re capable of fulfilling the expectations of the job.
A section clearly stating your core skills is, therefore, a must, and should match up with the ‘required’ skills listed with the position you’re applying for.
(This part shouldn’t be exhaustive, you can add ‘additional skills’ further down the page.)
The second thing recruiters are concerned with is how familiar you are with the demands of the job.
List only relevant experience, starting with the most recent, in a dedicated section.
Include a short explanation describing your responsibilities in each role, as the job title will not be sufficient to get across what you did.
(Tip: don’t write too much here, as recruiters will not necessarily read it in depth.)
Recruiters are often keen to chart your career progression and journey, so clearly state the time period for each role. (They will certainly not reward you for being evasive or unclear about this – and this also applies to your responsibilities in the role.)
Clearly state the institution(s) you attended, the name of the course(s), and the time period you studied during, starting with the most recent.
Your education may be highly relevant to the job, but should still come after the core skills and experience sections. As important as it may be, it is unlikely to be the unique selling point for you, as many others may have studied the same thing(s).
That said, recent analysis has suggested employers do not get enough information from candidates about how their education relates to their application. Ensure the skills and experience you gained from your studies are explained in your cover letter and highlighted elsewhere in your CV.
It can be very handy to include a section listing other skills and competencies beyond those central to the position you’re applying for.
These might be the ‘preferred’ skills from the job advert that you have or any others that you consider relevant to your application.
This is also the place to list some of your general skills that may not relate directly to the role but will support your application, such as languages, proficiency with software or hardware, and so-called “soft” skills, such as problem-solving or teamwork, that are important for any workplace.
Additional experience (‘extracurricular activities’)
This is not where you list irrelevant work experience (that should always be left off the CV entirely), but where you include experience that was not official work or formal education.
You should still only include extracurricular experience which supports your application, but this may be anything from founding a student magazine to coaching a local sports team or volunteering abroad for 6 months. It will depend on the position you’re applying for.
Make sure to always briefly (and clearly) explain why it is relevant.
It is not necessary to include anything that is not directly relevant to your application, such as how you spend your spare time.
You may, however, want to provide some sense of your personality and life outside of work, especially if you have a particularly interesting hobby. Only include this section if you’re sure it will reflect well on you and impress recruiters.
Avoid including reference details in full unless explicitly requested by the company.
It will suffice to list names without contact details, or simply to say ‘references will be supplied upon request’.
Make your CV stand out
Recruiters spend less than 8 seconds looking at your CV.
That’s an average based on recent eye-tracking analysis by the careers site Ladders Inc., but it should be something you take very seriously when writing your CV.
You have a tiny window of opportunity to wow the reader.
You also have very little space to work with.
Much of a CV is functional, and there are many expectations and standards we can’t get away from (such as calling it a Curriculum Vitae, even when the job doesn’t require any professional use of Latin).
But there are many things you can do to help your CV stand out and impress recruiters. Here are some ways you can ensure your CV gets noticed.
Design and formatting
This is your chance to make things personal.
Finding a clear, attractive layout, an appropriate (but not boring) font, and some personal flourishes is highly recommended. However, there is a fine balance to be found between individuality and familiarity.
After all, recruitment is a process – and reading hundreds of CVs is certainly not the fun part.
Recruiters might not want to see CVs that are too individual or different from the norm because it could make it harder for them to find the right information or to compare your CV against others.
Equally, though, they don’t want to be left trawling through identikit CVs with only the candidate’s name and the finer details of their experience to tell them apart.
Spend time establishing a style and layout that suits your application, fulfils the aims of recruiters, and is clear and concise.
For inspiration, try searching for CV examples online or browsing online catalogues. (No matter what you do, make sure not to stray too far from the typical expectations and preferences of the industry or field you’re applying to.)
Once you’ve established a visually appropriate and impressive style and layout, it’s a good idea to focus on the quality of your writing.
A good CV should never be more than two pages long, and should ideally all fit on one page.
That means you won’t have many words to play with. Take care to write concisely and clearly, giving yourself the time to edit and redraft your writing until it’s perfect.
You don’t have to be Shakespeare (in fact, it’s important to stick with conventional modern prose), but do try to give a sense of your personality through your writing.
Without straying into the unprofessional or conversational territory, use your own words – don’t just choice standard phrases, adjectives and terminology, and don’t use generic language that may sound the same as everybody else.
This part of the process is not easier, and should be iterative – you should be constantly improving and perfecting the content of your CV over time.
You may want to find your own strategy for this. We’ve written about how you can apply Marie Kondo’s influential method to ‘clean up’ your CV, helping you to spark joy for recruiters.
Cover Letter and Portfolio
Your CV should communicate the key facts about you that support your application, but will rarely be the only information you provide to potential employers.
Most likely, your CV will be submitted alongside a Cover Letter – and, depending on what you do, a Portfolio of your recent work may also be included.
Therefore it’s wise to remember that your CV needn’t say it all. Clarity and accuracy should be prioritized above all else.
Take your CV abroad
Once you’ve built a watertight structure and filled in your CV with strong content and the odd personal flourish, you’re still going to need to tweak and edit it from time to time.
Every job is different, and your skills, experience, and summary sections especially should address the specific requirements for each and every application. Such small changes can make a world of difference to the strength of your application.
Every employer is different too – especially if they’re based in a foreign country to that which you’ve been working before.
Here are some key points on how CV standards differ in some of the most popular places for jobs listed on Graduateland.
CVs in Britain
- Keep it short and sweet: a concise CV of one page is preferred in the UK, and written references are not typically included at this stage
- Focus on work over education: British recruiters won’t pay much attention to your grades and will care much more about your previous work experience
- No profile picture required: in contrast to much of Europe, it is considered odd to include a picture on your CV in the UK (unless requested)
CVs in Germany
- Keep it simple design-wise: in Germany, it will be advantageous to err on the side of restraint with style and layout, as recruiters have more conservative design tastes when it comes to CVs
- Focus on competences over motivation: don’t spend so much time and space laying out your motivations in a ‘summary’ section for German jobs – focus instead on skills
- Education should include your grades: it is common in Germany to include information about your results and your grade-point average
CVs in Scandinavia
- Keep it short: in the Nordics, a good CV is a concise CV, so make sure to keep the information highly relevant
- Tailor it to the employer: it is especially valued in Scandinavia to ensure your CV is highly specific to the employer you are applying to
- ‘Competence’ or ‘chronological’: it is common for Scandinavians to opt for one of two approaches, one focusing more on skills and competencies, the other giving a clear sense of career and study progression
CVs in Holland
- One page is enough: Dutch employers do not expect to receive long, detailed CVs, so keep them as close to one page as possible
- Personal info: in the Netherlands, it is normal to include more personal information than in other European countries, such as place, date of birth, and marital status
- Hobbies, interests and extracurricular: recruiters in Holland value information about a candidate’s life outside of work, and are especially interested in extracurricular experience and achievements
CVs in Belgium
- Don’t hold back: Belgian CVs tend to be longer than elsewhere in Europe, and may even exceed two pages – so be wary of writing too little
- Personal info and family names: recruiters in Belgium expect even more personal information than the Dutch, and, if applicable, typically want to know the names of your spouse and children
- Focus on work experience and motivation: employers in Belgium will focus on work experience but are also particularly interested in a candidate’s motivation, so be sure to flesh out your ambitions and goals in a ‘summary’ section