How to write a CV and cover letter

How to write a CV

When it is time to start looking for a job, the first thing you’ll need to get sorted is your CV, so that when you find the job of your dreams (or at least, one that will get you on the path to your dream job!) you’re ready to apply. Once you’ve got your CV ready, you’ll also need to have a cover letter prepared. Although you should write a bespoke cover letter for each job you’re applying for, you can prepare sections so that you can put your letter together efficiently. Through this post, we’ll look at what a CV is, detail what should be included (and what definitely shouldn’t!) before we move onto how to write a cover letter.

 

What is a CV?

CV stands for curriculum vitae, and your CV is used to detail your education, qualifications, skills, and experience. You’ll use your CV alongside a cover letter to make a case to potential employers that you should be interviewed for a job role.

 

Some parts of the world – the USA and Canada in particular – refer to CVs as résumés. Résumés tend to be shorter, with less detail, while in other areas there are different conventions for CVs and résumés, so if you are applying overseas, be sure to follow the correct format.

 

How long should my CV be?

If you’re just starting your career, your CV might be just one page long, which is fine. In the UK, it is expected that most CVs are two sides of A4, but up to three is sometimes acceptable, but remember – recruiters don’t want to spend a lot of time reading unnecessary waffle, so keep it brief.

 

What should I include in a CV?

In this section we’ll cover the sections you need to include in your CV. Applicants that are applying for an academic post or a medical post may need to write an academic CV, which is much longer – we’ll talk about sections to include in academic CVs later.

Contact details

You want recruiters and potential employers to be able to get in touch with you! Make sure your full name, current address, phone number and email address are included and easy to find. If you’re applying for a job either close to your permanent address or your term-time address, then depending on the job role, you may want to consider including both.

 

Personal statement

A personal statement, (sometimes referred to as a profile) is a short paragraph that summarises your qualities, skills, and knowledge. It is the first part of your CV, and really sells yourself. It is also the one that recruiters will scan quickly in order to decide whether to read on – so if you’re going to spend time tailoring just one section of your CV before you send your application, this is the one to spend your time on. Don’t waffle though, keep your personal statement to around 100 words – which is exactly the same number of words as this paragraph.

 

Education and qualifications

Start with your most recent education, and work backwards. You don’t need to mention module details here – if it is relevant, you’ll be asked during interview.

 

Work experience

Your work experience should be listed in reverse date order, with the most recent first. You should highlight any previous experience that is particularly relevant to the job that you are applying for when you are tailoring your CV and writing your cover letter.

 

Skills and achievements

This is where you can talk about your skills that might not be evident from the rest of your CV. Refer to the job description, and make sure you mention skills you have that fit – this isn’t the time to mention you can eat ten pancakes in a row! Talk about the computer packages you can use, if you have mastered a foreign language to conversational level and any creative ability you have in this section.

 

Interests

Even if reading, going to the cinema and seeing friends are your main interests, that’s not exactly going to grab the attention of whoever is reading your CV. If you have hobbies or interests that can be relevant to the job role that you’re applying for, then mention those and how they support your application. For instance, if you’re applying for a customer facing role and you’re a member of a role-playing gaming group, or an amateur dramatic society – these hobbies will definitely contribute to the role!

 

What shouldn’t I put on my CV?

There are a number of mistakes that appear regularly on CVs. Steer clear of including any of these on your CV, and you’ll be much more likely to be invited to interview!

 

  1. You don’t need to include the term ‘CV’ or ‘curriculum vitae’ at the top of the page.

 

  1. You don’t need to include your date of birth, gender information, ethnicity, marital status, sexual preference or religious information. In the UK it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of any of these things (except in very specific circumstances as defined by the Equality Act 2010) and so you don’t need to mention them.

 

  1. Unless you’re applying for a job that your appearance is relevant for – an acting role or a modelling job, for example – you don’t need to include a photograph.

 

  1. You don’t need to include references as part of your CV, and you don’t need to write ‘references available upon request’ either. If a potential employer wants to take up your references, they will ask you for their contact details.

 

  1. Don’t lie, or over-exaggerate the extent of your skills on your CV. If you’ve claimed you are fluent in a language but you can only just get by ordering a drink or asking for directions, you’ll get caught out when you’re called to interview and the interviewer starts speaking to you in that language. Sure, you can learn – but you’ll be identified as dishonest and you’ll probably miss out on the job.

 

  1. Don’t inflate your degree classification. Claiming you have a 2:1 when you really received a 2:2 might seem like a little white lie that nobody will check up on. The reality is though, it is actually illegal to commit ‘degree fraud’ – and it can be punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, and the institution that awarded your degree are entitled to revoke your degree. Not an ideal outcome when you’ve spent so much time and money studying!

 

Tips to ensure your CV gets you an interview

Although there are conventions that you should stick to when you’re writing your CV, these are some of the main things you should ensure you do when you’re putting your CV together for the first time.

 

Keep your CV well formatted and uncluttered

When you’re creating your CV, there are a number of ways that you can present the information, but here is the traditional way of doing so.

 

Name and contact details

Personal profile

Education history

Work experience

Hobbies, interests, and achievements

 

Depending on what stage you are at in your career, you may decide to switch education history and work experience. If you don’t have a lot of work experience, you may expand your hobbies and interests section, particularly if you are involved with clubs and societies and you hold any roles with responsibilities attached.

 

When you’re designing your CV, you should keep it uncluttered and easy to read. With that in mind, use a professional font that is easy to read, and use font size 10 or 12. Don’t go any smaller than that, even if your CV is being sent by email – you never know if the person recruiting for the post will want to print it.

Use section headings to help readers to move to what they are most interested in, and use a good amount of space around each section, and use bullet points to help keep things concise. Remember, your CV isn’t going to guarantee you a job – it is just the first step to getting an interview.

If you’re not great at design, are thousands of CV templates available to use for free online. You’ll simply need to add your own information, and formatting decisions like which font to use are all done for you. If you’re looking for a way to add a little more design, try making use of a design tool like Canva.

 

Tailor your CV for each application

Although you’ll be able to use a master CV as the outline for most of the jobs you apply for, you shouldn’t just send the exact same CV for each role. If you haven’t tailored your CV for each job, you are much less likely to be able to secure an interview, since recruiters know whether you have fully understood the requirements for the role, and whether you really have the skills that they want from the successful candidate.

When you’re editing your CV for a role, think about whether you can remove irrelevant experiences, and refer to the job description to make sure you’re hitting all the key words that the recruiting company are looking for.

 

Spellcheck your work

We cannot stress this point enough – especially if you’re claiming to have excellent attention to detail – check your spelling, punctuation, and grammar. You’re selling yourself to potential employers, and your CV is where you’re making your first impression. When you’ve finished, proofread your work carefully, then have a friend check your work for errors. If that isn’t possible, then run your CV through a tool like Grammarly, which will help you to identify any mistakes.

 

Tell the truth

We’ve already touched on degree fraud and the consequences of inflating your grades, as well as the potential for being caught out if you lie about your abilities. If you’re applying for a job that you know you can do and you’re qualified for, then there is no reason to increase your grades or abilities.

If you’re applying for a job that is just a bit above where you are now, rather than lying to get ahead, think critically about how you can convince the recruiter that you’re ready for the post even with a lack of experience. By being honest and saying what you’re lacking but how you can make yourself ready, you’re showing recruiters self-awareness and that you’re proactive – two great qualities in a candidate.

 

Use supporting evidence

Like an academic essay, one of the biggest mistakes you can make with your CV is to make statements that you don’t back up. As an example, if you’re stating that you have skills in a certain computer programme, state where you learnt it. If you’re making a statement about your personality, such as ‘I’m a team player’ then you need to back that statement up with experience. Use examples from work experience, from membership of clubs and societies and any volunteer work.

 

Explain any gaps in employment

Life happens, and employers know this. If you had to take time off work because you were ill or a relative was sick, then state briefly what happened. You don’t need to provide extensive details.

If you found yourself unemployed for any length of time, perhaps due to redundancy, explain how you used the experience. If you volunteered, or were able to study (either formally or self-directed) while you were out of work, how does that relate to the role you are applying for?

If you have been lucky enough to take time off to travel, then provide a short summary of your trip and what you got from it.

 

Specialist CVs

Sometimes, different type of CV are appropriate. Academic CVs are used for some job roles, and video CVs may be used for applying for jobs in certain sectors. We’ll just cover these quickly – if you’re going to use either of these CVs, be sure to do appropriate research to get it right.

 

Academic CVs

Academic CVs are requested when you’re applying for lecturing or research roles. When you’re writing an academic CV, you’ll need to focus on the direction of your academic work, the research interests and any specialist skills that you have.

graduate in academic dress

In addition to your statement and your academic education history, you’ll need to include sections for:

 

  • Any teaching or supervisory experience
  • Publications that your work has featured in
  • Specific research skills that you have developed throughout your studies
  • Details of any conferences or for papers that you have spoken at or contributed to
  • Any awards you have received
  • Details of any membership of professional associations
  • Any other qualifications (such as teaching certificates) that may be relevant to the role

 

While the focus is on your academic work, you’ll also need to include your employment history, and unlike a regular CV, you’ll also need to include contacts for referees. Including a non-academic referee is a good idea to ensure that potential employers are able to get a more rounded view of you as a person.

 

Video CVs

While they aren’t expected for most job applications, many candidates are using video CVs as a way to support their written application – to submit alongside their CV, cover letter and/or application form. Video CVs are particularly suited for applying for jobs in the creative industries, but a great one will help you stand out if you’re applying for roles in advertising, creative arts, marketing, media, PR or sales. Some websites such as the all-in-one hiring platform Tempo give you the option to record a video to complete your online profile. On Tempo a profile video even makes you seven times more likely to get hired.

If you’re applying for roles in traditional sectors – such as law, accounting, medicine, or construction – then a video CV is less likely to be well-received. If you’re applying for jobs such as these, then hone your traditional CV and concentrate on refining your skills that could be useful in the job you want, rather than attempting to make a video that may not even be considered.

There are a number of advantages to sending a video CV – here are just a few:

 

  • You’re demonstrating that you’re prepared to think outside of the box, and to work a little bit harder
  • You can really let your creativity shine
  • Employers get a feel for your personality immediately
  • You can show some of the skills you mention on your traditional CV

 

Although there are some excellent reasons to use video CVs, there are some down sides to using a video CV:

 

  • You might stand out for the wrong reasons
  • You don’t have long to impress potential employers, so you might end up leaving information out
  • Recruiters don’t look at applications for long – and so even a two minute video might be too much hassle
  • Video CVs take up a lot of time to both film, and to edit

 

If you’re going to use a video CV, once you have filmed it and edited it (and have ensured that it is as high quality as possible) you will need to decide the best way to share it. You might upload it to a video hosting site (such as YouTube or Vimeo), upload it to a file sharing site (such as Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive) or attach the file to the email with the rest of your application. Whichever way you do this, be sure that it is easy to find and watch, and test any links – if your potential employer has to enter a password, there is a good chance that they won’t bother.

 

Where can I get help with my CV?

If you’re currently studying, then you can get further advice about your CV from the careers service within your school, college, or university.

Outside of educational institutions, you may be able to get advice from the National Careers Service or a similar organisation locally. If you are working with a recruiter, you may be able to get feedback on your CV from them – particularly if they can advise you about what is missing from your CV to get those top jobs.

 

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is usually sent alongside a CV when applying for jobs. In your cover letter, you’ll introduce yourself and help to highlight the reasons that an employer should interview you – showing that you’d be an excellent candidate.

 

How should I write a cover letter?

Although you’re going to be marketing yourself to potential employers, now isn’t the time to write a letter that goes on for pages and pages. With so many applications for each job being advertised, cover letters are often simply scanned before being assigned to the shortlist pile or not. Because you need to keep your letter brief, you can use this format as a guide:

 

Paragraph 1: State why you’re writing the letter. You’ll need to state the role that you are applying for and where and when you saw the job being advertised. If there is a reference number, add that in brackets – particularly if the employer is a large company. In this paragraph, you should also mention when you would be able to start the job.

 

Paragraph 2: Discuss why you are the right candidate for the job. Mention what appeals to you about the role, why you want to work for the company and what you have to offer.

 

Paragraph 3: Talk about your experience, and how your skills are suited to the requirements in the job description. If you have any personality traits or non-academic skills that could be useful in the role, you can mention these here too.

 

Paragraph 4: Close off your letter by emphasising how interested you are in the role, and when you are available for interview. If you’re going to be away or unavailable at any time, be sure to mention those dates (although if you could be available to interview via Skype during that time, that may give you a chance to get your foot in the door!).

 

Once you’ve completed these paragraphs, round off by thanking the addressee for considering your application and that you are looking forward to receiving their reply.

 

How should I address a cover letter?

If you have the name of the person that you’re applying to, you should use that. If you don’t have the name of the person to apply to, try and find out the right name to address the letter with. Search the company’s website, or call the HR team to find out – your application is be much more likely to go onto the shortlist pile if you have taken the initiative to find out who to address the letter to.

On some occasions, it won’t be possible to find out the name of the person that you’re applying to – such as if you’ve stumbled on a great opportunity the evening before the closing date, or you can’t get through to the company on the phone. If that is the case, you can use a generalised opening to your letter.

‘Dear Sir or Madam’, ‘Dear Hiring Manager’, or ‘Dear Human Resources Manager’ are all acceptable ways of opening your letter. ‘To Whom it May Concern’ may be polite, but it is generally less favoured, since it implies that you haven’t even tried to find out who you are addressing the letter to – and it is likely that you’ve simply sent a generic letter.

When it comes to closing your letter, it is equally as important to sign off in a professional manner too. If you have addressed your letter directly to a person, then you should sign off with ‘Yours sincerely’, followed by your name. On applications that use generalised opening such as Dear Sir or Madam should be signed off with ‘Yours faithfully’, followed by your name.

 

Tips to help your cover letters to get you interviews

Even before the global pandemic, employers were receiving lots of applications for each job they advertised – in some cases, even hundreds of applications for just one role. Your cover letter is there to help you stand out from the crowd, and to create the best first impression you can – so it is well worth spending time on each one you send, particularly if you’re really excited about the job.

 

Don’t just send a generic, master letter

Just like your CV, your cover letter should be tailored for each application that you put in. Although you might have a template document that contains paragraphs that you can use to help build your cover letter each time, you should take the time to tailor your letter for each role you apply for.

 

Highlight your best points

Your cover letter will get scanned before the recruiter turns their attention to your CV. So make all the right points stand out, and don’t be modest – you need to play up all your best qualities here. You’ve got a lot to offer, so show the recruiter why they should interview you. Talk about your skills, and your experience, and how you suit the person specification and the job description. While you’re doing that, be sure to use examples and evidence of where and when you gained your skills.

woman wearing scarf holding laptop

 

Always edit and proofread

We’ve already mentioned this when we were talking about CV writing – but always check your work incredibly carefully when you’re creating documents for your job applications. It is the first contact you will have with a company, and so you need to make the best first impression that you can. Keep your cover letter succinct, and where you have covered the same information as in your CV, edit those points so they signpost to the relevant point in your CV, rather than covering the same thing over again.

Proofread your work, double check it and use a checking tool like Grammarly. If you possibly can, get a friend or family member to check it too – as well as catching any random errors that your spellchecker and Grammarly miss, they might notice you’ve not mentioned something that ends up getting you the job.

 

Ensure you format your cover letter properly

Getting your cover letter right is essential. We’re sure most people learnt the correct way to format a letter when they were at school, but details like your contact details being aligned to the right are important. As with your CV, keep the layout of your cover letter simple. Use the same font, and size as your CV and divide your text into appropriately sized paragraphs so that it is easy to read.

 

Sending your application by post

In most cases, you’ll be applying for jobs electronically. But you may still encounter situations where applications should be submitted by post, and these are our top tips for sending your application by post.

 

  • Use high quality paper to print your CV and letter on
  • Send your application in an A4 envelope – creases are a no-no!
  • Double check the address and if you can’t print the envelope, use neat handwriting
  • Leave enough time for the postal service to get it there
  • Ensure you pay the right amount of postage

 

If you have a choice, we recommend sending your application electronically – aside from the instant delivery (often accompanied by instant acknowledgement!), you’ll be saving paper, which is better for the environment, and saving yourself the hassle of having to get to the Post Office.

 

man overjoyed at getting a new job

Final thoughts

Although tailoring both your CV and your cover letter for each role can take up a lot of your time, there are ways you can make it easier for yourself. Saving each version you have, and keeping track of the jobs you have applied for means that when you find similar roles, you can simply edit your CV and cover letter.

While applying for work and trying to find your dream role is hard (some say searching for a job is a job in itself!) it becomes worth your time and effort when you find the job you feel excited to apply for. Tailoring your CV, and writing a great cover letter are the essential first steps to being asked to interview, and to getting the job (and salary!) that you want, so give yourself the best possible chance by doing them properly.

With that – all that is left for us to say is that we wish you the very best of luck with your job applications!

 

Last Updated on March 1, 2021

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