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How to write a CV – the things you need to know

How to write a CV - the right questions

A guide to writing a good CV or resume and where to go for templates and examples

In this post we are going to be looking at how to write a CV (also known as a resume, pronounced ‘résumé’) with some exercises you can employ to help you. I will also be offering some advice on templates and examples.

CV stands for the Latin ‘Curriculum Vitae’ meaning ‘the course of my life’. And therefore, whether you are actively looking for a new job or not, you should keep your CV up to date as life develops. This is for several reasons:

  • You never know when an opportunity might arise and someone will ask for a copy
  • Your CV is the basis of your ‘brand’. It should be a reference document for all your online profile pages.
  • Updating your CV is a useful exercise in assessing ‘where’ you are, taking stock of your situation so you can assess your progress and plan your next moves.

Short, clear, concise.

I am a firm believer in keeping CVs short and to the point. I have sifted hundreds of CVs and a large HR department may have to look at thousands (one of the reasons many firms are turning towards online applications). You may be very proud of everything you have achieved, and rightly so, but your CV is your elevator pitch, your foot in the door, not your life history. You need your CV to get you that interview; then you can elaborate on how amazing you are.

Write out your long version to begin with, include everything and then keep that as a reference copy but then refine the CV for each application. There is plenty of debate on how long a CV should be but it is generally accepted that it should be longer than two pages in length. If you need two pages make sure the most important information is on the first page, and the critical points are at the top. Someone may only look at your CV for a few seconds; make sure they count.

Answer the question

As well as being short and concise it is vital that your CV answers the questions that the recruiter is asking. Think of it like an essay; you need to ask the question that has been set.

When a company announces an opening for a position it is because they have a gap; it is a problem that needs to be solved. They set out the problem in the advertisement and you want to be the solution.

If there is a job description for the post then scrutinise it. Does your CV tick the box for each qualification, level of experience and competency that the recruiter is advertising for? If you do not satisfy each requirement then what evidence are you offering that you can still do the job? If you are actually in the process of applying for a role then consider the content of the covering letter as this can help to reinforce how you are the answer to the question.

Make an impact

First impressions count. Looking smart, smiling and giving a firm handshake are important in making a good first impression in an interview. The same principles apply to the CV; a CV needs to grab (and keep) the attention of the reader. Therefore it is vital that it looks good and that there are no mistakes in formatting or spelling.

If you make a bad first impression it is very unlikely you will get any further. I can speak from experience. When I have seen CVs that are badly formatted, difficult to scan or have spelling mistakes then I draw negative conclusions about the person that wrote the document. Remember: if your document looks professional people will think you are professional.

Tell a story

Most CVs are dull lists of un-associated information. A list may give some facts but they do not necessarily sell you. You need to tell a story and demonstrate how you will bring value to the organisation you are applying to.

One excellent piece of advice I was given, when writing my CV, was to think of four or five success stories from work or your greatest life achievements. For each of these stories write a paragraph on what the situation was, what was the role you were playing, how you solved the problem, and then outline the results of achieving your goal. Illustrate the story with hard statistics (such as the amount of profit, percentage growth etc), to back it up.

Now create your bullet points as if they are headlines from the story. I do not mean that each point should be overly sensational or be some silly tabloid play on words, but each sentence should have impact and point to a larger story.

Chameleon communication

Some people do not like changing their CVs when applying for different roles. They often mistakenly think that adapting their CV for a new position is either:

  • Too much time and work to bother
  • That it is somehow lacking in integrity to change what they have written

But they are missing a very important point. You certainly do not want to lie about your skills and experience (this will soon get found out) but in any sort of communication you should consider your target audience.

For example when I was leaving the military and moving into project management I had to translate my experience for my new audience. How was someone in an HR department supposed to know that my experience as an ‘Operations Officer’ was equivalent to being a ‘Programme Manager’? If I had not adapted the terminology then my CV would have been completely misread. Make sure you write your CV in the language of the industry you hope to work in.

You are your own marketing department

Equally you should think of changing your layout and style depending upon whom you are applying to. Your CV is a marketing tool, you are selling yourself, and you need to research the market you are trying to sell into. In other words, if you are applying to law firm they may appreciate a more traditional and conservative CV whereas a young media firm will probably prefer something more original, creative and even fun.

Templates and examples

There are loads of templates and examples of CVs available to help you get started. Newer versions of word processors such as Microsoft Word and Mac Pages all have templates that you can use. I have adapted and used such templates with great success in the past.

There are lots of templates available on the internet, many for free, and I would not recommend buying a CV unless you are sure you are going to get a return on that investment. Equally I would not get someone to write your CV for you either for the same reasons, and you don’t want to be splashing out every time you need to adapt your CV for some new application.

To get you started I have created a simple CV and resume template that you can download for free – just click here. It also includes some further guidelines on how to craft the content of your resume. The headings and outline will provide you a guideline to what to include.

Whatever template you go for I recommend that you personalise it in some way. You want to make it your own and stand out from the rest. You do not want to turn up at the party wearing the same dress as someone else.

Get a second opinion

Even though I would suggest you write your own CV I would also recommend that you get at least one person to check it over. Get a friend, a colleague or a coach to read it through, proof read it and comment on the content and style. It is a good idea if you can provide a few examples for people to choose from and comment upon.

Choose people who will give you honest – and if necessary harsh – feedback. If you can get advice from someone in your network who is an HR professional or recruiter then so much the better.

Your CV is a living document

Once it is written do not think of it as being written in stone; your CV should always be a work in progress. In the same way you need to adapt it for every new audience you should also go back and review it on a regular basis. This is a useful tool in developing your self-awareness, personal brand and as a starting point for planning your own career.

Have you just nailed a job with a killer CV? Share your secrets and leave a comment so other people can benefit!

6 thoughts on “How to write a CV – the things you need to know

  1. Nice points, sometimes we struggle to know which CV format is the right one depending on our qualifications and skills, i think sometimes its a great idea to get a professional to do it for you.

  2. Thanks Isaac, and you are right, you can always get professional help if you need it. I would always encourage people to have a go themselves first though:)

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