Writing a CV or Résumé
What is a CV or Résumé?
In simple terms, your CV or resume sets out your skills and experience.
Your CV should demonstrate to any potential employer why they should hire you above any of the other skilled candidates who have presented themselves for employment.
In practice, plenty of CVs do anything but that!
Technically a CV (Curriculum Vitae) is a detailed document outlining all of your life achievements, qualifications, associations, awards and skills. Curriculum Vitae means ‘course of life’ in Latin.
A resume (spelt résumé, with accents, in its technical form), is a more concise document; an abbreviated version of your CV that focuses on specific skills and achievements, usually in relation and relevant to an employment opportunity.
However, for the sake of this page the terms CV and résumé are interchangeable.
In the UK and Ireland, job applicants are usually required to produce a CV whereas in the US and Canada the word resume is more frequently used.
In India, Australia and other English speaking counties either term may be used – for the purpose of applying for a job CVs and resumes are the same thing, it just depends on where the job is!
This page sets out some of the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of CV writing to help you avoid some of the worst pitfalls and prepare a resume that will stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons.
Things You Should Do When Writing a CV
Include your contact details at the top
Start with your name, address, phone number and email address. If your CV runs to more than one page, then make sure you include an identifier on every page, probably as a header or footer, and page numbers.
Decide whether you want to start with a personal statement
This is optional, although many CV-writing companies recommend it. If you decide to include one, it needs to say something real about you, and not just be an anodyne statement that could apply to anyone. Try to avoid jargon such as ‘forward-thinking’ or ‘strategic’ and use this to showcase your strengths, if possible focused on action.
Include sections on Key Skills, Knowledge and Achievements, Work Experience, and Education
Precisely how much to include in each section depends on the sector to which you are applying. Try to get some advice from someone in the sector if you don’t already work there. Start with the most recent achievement, experience or training, and work backwards in each section.
When discussing achievements, focus on what you’ve actually done and the end result achieved
Your statements should be in the form “In situation x, I did this, and the end result was that”.
In an unexpected funding crisis, I organised and carried out a cross-departmental review with colleagues, and managed to find savings which addressed all our funding concerns and gave us £x to put towards contingencies.
As president of the climbing club at university, I sought out a commercial sponsor from contacts made during work experience and successfully obtained funding for new equipment.
As chair of the college fundraising committee, I successfully organised an event which more than 200 people attend, and which raised £x. It has gone on to be a regular part of the social calendar.
Concentrate on your personal actions, the precise outcome, and how you knew the action was a success.
Include everything relevant in ‘Work Experience’ and ‘Education’
Once you’ve got plenty of work experience, it’s OK not to include the paper round you had when you were 16 and the summer jobs you had as a student, but you don’t want any gaps once you’ve started work.
If you’ve taken a career break for some reason, or had a period out of work after redundancy, say so. Otherwise you’ll be asked about it, if they don’t just assume you were in prison and bin your CV.
Don’t include every last course you’ve ever done, but do include everything that’s relevant to the job. If you’re going for a job as a forklift driver, they won’t want to know about your catering qualification, but your Health and Safety certificate might be relevant.
Check the essential requirements for the job, and make sure you’ve included anything that’s mentioned.
Make sure that your spelling and grammar are all correct
Many employers bin any CVs with spelling or grammatical errors.
Look at our pages on Grammar and Spelling, use your computer’s spell-check function, proof-read it yourself, and get someone else with good spelling and grammar to have another look before you send it.
Work on your presentation
Use a standard and professional-looking font such as Arial or Calibri, which is easy to read, and generally no smaller than 10 point for body text, larger for headings. Do not, under any circumstances, be tempted to use Comic Sans Serif.
Lay your CV out nicely on the page so that it’s easy to read and looks professional. Remember that it will probably be printed in black and white. If you’re not sure where to start with design, there are plenty of free CV templates available online.
Mistakes and Pitfalls to Avoid
Do not be tempted to lie
You will be found out sooner or later and, if a lie has got you a job, it will lose you one too.
Avoid leaving gaps in your career history
You may be ashamed that you had to spend time flipping burgers at McDonalds, and perhaps you don’t think it fits with your planned career as an astrophysicist. But, especially if you don’t have much work experience, every bit is useful and you should show what you learned from it: teamwork or time-keeping, perhaps.
Large gaps in your CV look like you’ve sat around doing nothing instead of having the initiative to go out and get a temporary job.
Do not start your CV with the dull bits
Many people make the mistake of starting with their education and qualifications. That’s really dull.
Start with your key skills, and what you’ve actually achieved in life. If potential employers like your key skills then they’ll read on to your qualifications.
Do not include your hobbies and interests
Unless of course they have developed skills that are relevant to the job.
Nobody really wants or needs to know that you do karate, or like going to the cinema. If you do include something relevant, don’t be tempted to show off by including something that sounds impressive, but isn’t really.
Murphy’s Law says that the person reading your CV will be an expert in that subject.
Be sure your sins (or exaggerations) will find you out…
As a very junior trainee in her first graduate job, Liz was astonished to pick up her telephone one day and find the company CEO on the other end of the line.
“Hello,” he said. “You know about canoeing, don’t you?”
“Yes, absolutely,” she replied. She had relied heavily on the experience gained from running a university canoe club on her CV. It was one of the few subjects she still felt certain about six weeks into the job.
“Good,” he said. “I’ve got a CV here from someone who says he’s got a One Star award in canoeing. What does that mean?”
“It’s the most basic canoeing qualification available. You can get it after a day’s course.”
“Hm. Not very impressive then,” grunted the CEO. “Have you got one?”
“Oh yes. I’m qualified to teach it.”
The candidate in question did not receive an interview. He probably never knew quite why.
Don't make your CV too long
Two pages of A4 is plenty. Nobody wants to read more. By all means make the font smaller, widen the margins and shorten the gaps between paragraphs, but no more than two pages.
Do not use an unprofessional email address
Get a professional-looking email address with your name, not a nickname. A jokey email address is fine for your friends, but it’s not OK for potential employers, and may even cause your CV to be rejected.
You may consider buying your own domain name; they are inexpensive and allow you to have a much more professional sounding email address. So rather than firstname.lastname@example.org you could have email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org – depending on the availability of the domain name you want.
If you are applying for a job in a computer or internet related field then having your own domain name is particularly important for your image.
Be careful if you use the email address that is linked to your Facebook page or other social media accounts. It is very easy for potential employers to search social media sites for email addresses, which could mean they find out a lot more about you than you would like. You may however want potential employers to find your LinkedIn account.
The Golden Rule of CV Writing
Put yourself in the recruiter’s shoes and think about what they need to know about you. The job description should give you a reasonable idea.
Use your CV to tell them what they need to know upfront and clearly, in a way that looks professional and believable.
Your CV will not get you the job but, if done well, should give you at least a foot in the door.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Develop the skills you need to get that job.
This eBook is essential reading for potential job-seekers. Not only does it cover identifying your skills but also the mechanics of applying for a job, writing a CV or resume and attending interviews.