We can all agree that first impressions count. When looking for a new role, your CV is that first impression for employers. To help yours stand out, we explain how to structure and present your CV, when and how to put a positive spin on things and what kind of alternative CV options are out there.
Getting started – structure and content
Firstly, plan and write the structure of your CV. Here’s a steer on order and content:
If you are starting from scratch, begin by mapping out the structure of your CV before you fill it with content. You don’t need to have ‘CV’ written at the top. Include your name, contact phone number, address and email. You don’t need to include your date of birth, marital status, number or several different phone numbers, your main contact number is sufficient. Employers are keen not to discriminate, so including your date of birth, marital status, sex or how many children you have on your CV is not relevant.
Your personal statement is a short paragraph positioned near the top of your CV. Between 50 – 200 words and no more than six statements, it should state who you are, and what you’ve been doing. Leave out a wordy introduction with buzzwords and get straight to the point throughout. If you’re a graduate, lead with your qualifications, for those with work experience, get your major career achievements in there.
Include one or two short sentences on a project or job you worked emphasising the final result or achievement. For example, you may write about how you implemented new software to track customer orders and how it saved time for the company. Or, how you increased revenue or improved customer service by adopting a new daily procedure. You can also talk about awards you have received yourself on behalf of your company.
Employment history/work experience
After your personal details, it is usual for graduates to begin by listing their qualifications and training or outline their work experience or internship duties. If you have work experience, it’s tempting to go in-depth but starting with the most recent, one sentence or bullet point about each project or job is enough. For instance: “Junior Software Developer working for a high street retailer, responsible for writing code, testing new programs and resolving and diagnosing system faults.” Include a bulleted list of responsibilities demonstrating skills relevant to the job you’re applying for and don’t forget location. You don’t need to put your reasons for leaving your previous jobs, but you should list the dates you worked for a company so a recruiter can see how recent your experience is. Stick to relevant experience from each role, you will have the opportunity at the interview to expand on what you’ve been doing and what you’ve achieved.
When writing a CV for a technical role, it’s imperative to showcase what you can do with succinct content for readers. Use helpful headers and details such as programming languages, operating systems knowledge and coding skills and how experienced you are in each. Not everyone reading your CV will be from a technical background, so ensure you are explaining acronyms, and not including too much jargon. Employers want to know about your soft skills too, so include details of any presentation or communication skills you have.
If you’re a recent graduate or looking for your first job after leaving school, you’ll probably put this section at the top of your CV instead of your work experience. Start with your most recent and highest credentials, whether that’s a degree or professional qualification, and then work backwards. If you’ve got a lot to say about your work experience, there’s no need to make this section overlong by adding in every single GCSE you obtained 20 years ago and the grade in each – it’s irrelevant unless you’re applying for a job which specifically states you need a GCSE in a certain subject. Include also training courses and industry qualifications you have obtained, especially if these are directly relevant to the job you’re applying for.
Hobbies and interests
Put any hobbies and interests last. Including these, particularly as a graduate or someone early on in their career helps portray your individuality. In today’s climate where companies are looking for good cultural fits as well as skills and experience, this helps employers. Try to get in a good cross-section of interests to show off your abilities and personality. Examples may include playing chess or a musical instrument, taking drama classes, jogging, coding, animation or kite flying. Remember to be authentic. You don’t have to spend your weekends geocaching or beekeeping to stand out. If you’re interested in photography, write about reading and researching about it, or that you’re interested in becoming a volunteer for your local charity, for example. Making it interesting – think of things others may not have done or achieved and include that, for example, if you have worked abroad or run your own business.
Top tips for excellent CV presentation
Employers will choose substance over appearance any day. Printing your CV in gold ink on black paper or folding it like an origami swan won’t put it to the top of the pile. Unless you’re applying for a job which is judged solely on your creativity, it won’t work. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is if it doesn’t meet the criteria for the job role. That said, once you’re happy with the content, making it pleasing to the eye with a professional aesthetic will add oomph to your presentation:
Once you’ve structured and written the content, proof your CV using the following points:
CV presentation checklist:
- Font: Choose a classic, professional font like Arial, Calibri, Verdana or Times Roman rather than Comic Sans, for example
- User-friendliness: Set up a header or footer so readers can see your name and email on each page, in case they get separated
- Clarity: Avoid coloured fonts, outlines, boxes and images/icons and use white paper and black ink
- Conciseness: Ensure it’s no more than two sides of A4 paper
- Grammar and spelling: Proofread and ask a colleague or friend to proofread too for extra reassurance
- Structure: Check the logical order and flow of your headings. If you’re having difficulty, you can use an online CV template
CV content checklist
When it comes to content, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I staying relevant to the job role I’m applying for throughout?
- Am I using concise language, sentences and paragraphs?
- Can I remove some unnecessary information?
- Am I being too wordy and descriptive on irrelevant points?
A final point on CV content
If you’re actively job hunting, you’re probably sending multiple CVs and job applications to different companies. It can be tempting to print off dozens of the same version, but this isn’t doing you any favours. Take time to tweak your CV to each job role, adding more details about your relevant experience, and removing extra information about less relevant qualifications, for example. Your CV should always be accompanied by a cover letter, and it’s here also where you can detail the experience you think is particularly applicable to the position.
Turning negatives into positives on your CV
Few people have a perfect CV. We’ve all done jobs which didn’t progress our careers but were just a stopgap to pay the bills. Perhaps you didn’t do as well in your A-levels as you’d hoped, or were let go from a previous position. Increasingly, companies will fact-check CVs for untruths, especially for more senior positions. So, try to turn a negative into a positive.
Here are some typical examples of how you can do this:
Don’t highlight Your failures
Your CV is supposed to present you in the best light possible. It is not the place to include details of the exams you failed, points on your driving licence or reasons for leaving your previous jobs. If the employer wants to ask about these at interviews, they will.
However much you desperately want the job, don’t lie on your CV. This is illegal, and if you’re found out later down the line, the employer will count it as gross misconduct and may dismiss you. It’s not an easy thing to explain in your next job application either. So, steer clear of bumping up those technical qualifications and don’t be dishonest about how long you had that job as a junior software engineer role, it’s not worth it.
Mind the gaps
A common concern is having gaps in your CV. This could be down to periods of unemployment, time off for bringing up children or caring for relatives. Don’t try to hide these periods, or stretch periods of employment to cover up. Provide honest and clear reasons for the gaps. Explain how you had caring responsibilities, were travelling, taking time out to study, or actively looking for work. Use this to link in why this role is the right opportunity for you.
Re-work your work experience
Lack of work experience can be a worry for younger applicants or students who don’t have experience relevant to the position they are applying for. When applying for tech roles, hiring managers still want to see your teamwork skills and work ethic. Having an ability for good communication is a transferable skill too, and you can evidence this through lots of different work experiences, e.g., playing sports or volunteering for charity which also shows off your character and abilities. Rather than detail the sport or activity, emphasise the skills your experience taught you. An example could be: “When I volunteered at a local primary school, the experience taught me how to break down and explain complicated concepts and ideas for children.”
Reframe a previous dismissal
You don’t have to include reasons for leaving a position on your CV. If you’re asked in an interview about why you left, it’s best to be honest. If your skills weren’t up to scratch, you could say that you have in the meantime filled your knowledge gaps through taking training courses. Alternatively, if your dismissal was a while ago, focus your attention on what you’ve been doing in the interim on your CV. Don’t be afraid of saying you left as a result of company downsizing or redundancy either; it’s increasingly common.
Take the emphasis off poor qualifications
If you didn’t do as well at school as you’d hoped, then this can look unfavourable on your CV. If you’re further on in your career, passes might not matter as much. In this case, it’s probably more sensible to structure your CV with work experience first, and academic information at the end. You don’t have to give the grades either unless specifically asked; it’s fine just to write that you have passed and then give the subjects.
Rework management experience
Making the move into a management role is tough if you haven’t done any leadership roles in the past. Again, you can draw on experience in other fields where you have interests and hobbies. Use examples of when you took on a leadership or supervisory role and give a few examples of what you did to bring about a successful result, or how you managed any conflict during the process.
Consider alternative CV options
As mentioned in this guide, creating an elaborate or colourful CV to get noticed can backfire. The traditional CV is still the most recognised and valued tool to sway potential employers before interview. However, some hiring managers are no longer satisfied with appointing candidates on the strength of qualifications and background alone, they want to see skills first-hand. With this in mind, for some technical roles in particular, it’s worth looking at alternative CV styles to better showcase your abilities.
Thanks to the transformation of digital technology, there are several options out there:
The digital CV
One obvious but effective way to level up a traditional CV is by hosting it on a digital platform. As a reflection of our rapidly changing technological world, there is now a multitude of online platforms available. Have a look at content management systems like WordPress with CV plug-ins, or hosting platforms like Wix, GoDaddy and SquareSpace that offer CV template creation and support to optimise your content for search engines. This approach helps demonstrate your technical, IT, graphic design and creative skills without needing to put them into words. It’s an ideal way of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ – very effective, and a useful insight for the hiring managers of today.
The online portfolio
Digital portfolios serve as a useful accompaniment to a CV. They are a more comprehensive method of conveying your abilities and experience, providing a more rounded outline of what an employer can expect from you. Although they have been used by those in creative industries for a long time, many coders, software and IT specialists are now using online portfolios to illustrate their work. Similar to CV hosting platforms, there are a number of sites where you can build your online portfolio, for example, WordPress, Behance, or Dribble.
The LinkedIn profile
With around 722 million members, LinkedIn is the largest professional network and a strong profile on the platform can go a long way in promoting you as a desirable employee. In the same way, digital portfolios allow for expansion, LinkedIn profiles also provide useful tools to help demonstrate the breadth of your abilities. The first rule is to ensure you have an up-to-date profile photo, as those without tend not to get viewed as much. Make sure you give your profile a succinct, descriptive headline, highlighting your skills and summarising your areas of expertise without the use of flowery language or clichés. You can also convey your professional strengths through writing and publishing blog posts or presentations, sharing relevant industry posts with your network, and asking peers or clients to leave recommendations.
The video CV
Videos are capable of communicating so many more messages than a conventional CV. Not only do they inform, but done correctly, they give a prospective employer a glimpse of your personality, communication style and confidence. The purpose of a video CV is to provide a snapshot of yourself, so it’s advisable to keep your content between 1-3 minutes long, maximising the quality by including key facts about yourself. When recording, put some thought into your location and appearance by finding somewhere with no distractions, and dress as you would for an interview. Giving your video structure and practising it will also ensure you don’t deviate or leave out important points.
The skills-based CV
One of the simplest yet most effective ways to stand out, particularly when applying for an IT or technical position, is to create a skills-based CV. Instead of beginning with your employment history, highlight your skills at the top of your CV. The sequence of a skills-based CV is especially useful if you are changing career because you are straightaway conveying your suitability for a new role, rather than focusing on your latest position.
The rise of tech-driven assessments
Today, some companies are using tech-driven assessments to better establish candidate suitability in their hiring processes to remove unconscious bias and ensure diversity. During these assessments, candidates are given a series of tasks that allow companies to understand how someone is likely to behave, interact and respond in the workplace. Levels of extroversion, patience, conscientiousness, and cognitive ability can be gauged, along with the overall potential performance of an individual. The results also help indicate how a candidate might fit in culturally to an existing team and organisation.
Although new assessment styles do not directly replace a traditional CV, they are becoming a respected means of judging a candidate’s fit for a position. Bear this in mind when preparing for job applications and consider if an alternative style may help you get to the top of the pile for a certain position.
To get any type of CV or profile to stand out, ensure it has a sound structure, relevant and positive content, and ten out of ten for presentation. Simply writing and planning your CV, and thinking about your background, skills and experience is excellent preparation for the later stages of the hiring process.