How to write a CV

Advice and tips on how to write a CV / resume from a recruiter’s perspective. Whether you’re a recent graduate, writing a CV for the first time or looking for a career change, this article is designed to help you plan, structure, and write your CV.

Clarify your goals

How to write a CV

As the job market roars back to life after COVID, I’m receiving more and more requests for advice on how to write a CV. During my 10 years in recruitment, I’ve easily seen over 1,000,000 CVs. On a good day, I can push over 1000. At these volumes, it’s helpful to know what recruiters are trained to look for and 1 Million anything is enough of a sample set to draw some universal conclusions.

There are many articles written about how to write a CV, but not many adequately cover the ‘process’ of ‘how’ a CV is reviewed. As the author of any communication, it’s helpful to have an intimate understanding of your audience. This article aims to give you the candidate, the job seeker, an insight into how your CV is reviewed by a recruiter today, to help you stand the best chance of securing your dream job.

CV Planning & Approach

Before writing any important document, it’s important to know – what you want to communicate. The primary objective of a CV is not to secure a job; it’s to secure an interview. Like a good film trailer, its purpose is to motivative its audience into action, not tell the whole 2-hour story. Save that for the interview.

The first question to ask yourself is the most important – what job do you want?

It’s imperative you have a direction. Curriculum vitae is Latin for “course of life,” and the job market is simply too competitive to permit good luck alone to pilot this course for you.

Good communication consists of 2 main elements:

  • Content – The facts (it’s your CV, so hopefully you agree there’s not much you can do about this).
  • Context – How those facts are presented.
Tailor your CV appropriately

If the content is you, context would be like your clothes. You wouldn’t turn up to a corporate interview in a swimsuit, it may give the wrong impression of you. Yet, it is still you. Isn’t it? It’s the same with your experience. It needs to be tailored in clothes appropriate to the job you want. From your literary wardrobe, you will choose the language, vocabulary, structure, tone & style, but you will only be able choose effectively once you know what job you want.

Like many who traverse the great course of life, you may be at cross-roads or just starting out and simply don’t know what job you want. If that’s the case, you’re beyond the scope of this article, but let me make some suggestions.

Plan before your start

List your current skills. All of them. Including ones you’ve developed outside of work. Grade them out of 10, until you’ve got a clear list of your top 5 skills. It could be for example:

  • Communication
  • Influence and salesmanship
  • Subject matter expertise in telecoms and networks etc.

You may have a long list but keep grading each one until you have a clear top 5. Get on Google and use these skills as keywords to search for jobs descriptions that contain them. You’re looking for jobs that provide the opportunity for you to contribute your top 5 skills. Once you overcome the initial resistance, you should enjoy the process, particularly when you begin to read job descriptions that inspire you. The more inspired you are reading a job description the more likely it’s something you’re naturally inclined towards, and therefore want to do. Give yourself 2-3 days if necessary, to research job descriptions, watch corporate videos, browse LinkedIn etc. You should then have a clear job title you want to apply for.

Your next planning task is to mentally revisit each of your roles and ask yourself, “What was I most proud of during my time there?” and “What did I contribute?” Future employers want to know how you made a difference to past employers, and these questions are designed to cut through the noise and focus your attention on what really mattered. Note the first answers that come to mind, using the first words that come to mind. The answers that matter most are usually in plain sight, but overthinking can lead to us missing them. Doubting what comes up for you only takes you away from what you meant to say; so keep it real.

Continue asking these two questions for each role and recording your answers for the last 10-15 years. Detailed experience for each role prior to this is relatively negligible, particularly in innovative industries like Technology. You should now have a chronological skeleton of your CV, with core points for each role.

CV Structure & Content

Like any communication, CVs are most effective when they’re simple, clear, and straight to the point. Your immediate audience will likely be a HR department or recruiters viewing over 100 CVs per day. With these numbers in mind, you want to make your CV as easy for them to read as possible. When reviewing a CV, a good recruiter is trained to look for the following, in more or less this order:

  • Overall layout & presentability
  • Job titles
  • Companies
  • Dates of employment
  • What you actually do

Earlier I mentioned I’d seen over 1 Million CVs; from that data here are some Golden Rules worth adhering to:

Font colour – Black & White is a simple, neutral colour pair. When eyes are blurring after 8 hours screening CV’s, the last thing you need is Lime Green font. Ugh!

White space – Make your CV at least look friendly to read. Most recruiters are simple folk, most likely we haven’t got PHD’s, and seeing a page rammed full of size 8 font makes it too tempting to click ‘next’.

Structure – Single column, linear structure. This goes against many CV templates and online CV advice. However, resist the temptation to add too much complexity to your layout. Why? Almost all companies parse CVs through an ATS, CRM, Database, Content Management System etc. The simpler your formatting, the less chance for error. CVs not saved correctly on our databases, will not appear in searches, meaning you and your over-engineered CV may miss out on that dream opportunity.

Artistic expression – Refrain from adding too much artistic expression. Even if you work in UX/UI/Creative Design; hiring managers are more likely to appreciate a good online portfolio of your work, than a CV destined for the Tate Modern. Additionally, the software systems mentioned in the point above usually have zero tolerance for artistic expression.

Neutrality – Also linked to the above point. Yes, adding colourful, creative designs may make your CV stand out, but equally it may offend some people. You want the audience to focus purely on the good work you have done for others in the past. Don’t add any unnecessary decoration, that risks diverting attention away from this.

Simplicity – Most of us live in multicultural towns and cities. The first language of the person reading your CV may not be the same as the language you’ve written in. Chinese read from R-L, 30% of the world’s population use a completely different alphabet than Latin derived English. Keep it simple for all to interpret.

Uniformity – I can never understand this one. Size 14 font here, size 10 there, 12 over there, all in the same paragraph! All text of the same category and type should be the same font and size. Period.

Length – Ideally you want to aim for 1-3 pages. One page CVs containing 5+ years experience, usually leave me wanting more, and more than 3 pages may tell too much of your story before the interview.

CV sections explained

Name & Contact Details

Write your full name, even if it’s a long one. E.g., Maximilian Andrés Mustermann, instead of MA Musterman or Max M.

Include your email & phone number. Typically, recruiters have a short time frame to submit CVs for a vacancy – if we can’t contact you, you may miss out.

You don’t need a full address but it’s helpful to include your current location and willingness to relocate, if that’s a genuine option.

Profile

Short paragraph (or 3-5 bullet points) summarising your experience to a future employer. It should include your core job title e.g., “Successful Telecoms Account Manager” or “talented C# Software Developer.” Some CVs, I read for 5 minutes and am still not clear on what they do. A Google search will help you get the ball rolling here, with some templates and good buzz words. This is a chance to really sell yourself and no time to be shy.

Key Skills

It’s very important to include a list of Key Skills that are relevant to your core job title. Not only are recruiters’ eyes trained to spot these Key Words, but they also act as ‘search terms’ or ‘search queries’ once your CV is in the database.

Experience

Now is the time to evolve your skeleton of core points from your planning session into full bullet points. Bullet points are generally preferred over paragraphs, as they are easier to read and as the name suggests, each bullet is designed to convey a major point. Therefore, you will be less tempted to write fluffy sentences, that don’t really convey any factual information. E.g., “Continuously seek innovative solutions for all customers.”

Here’s an example:

Bad: “Built a Content Management System using Python.”

Good: “As part of a small Scrum team of 5 Python developers, I built the core back-end functionality of the HR department’s bespoke Content Management System (CRM). The system processed 100k transactions daily and was deployed into 8 international subsidiaries, supporting 4000 employees.”

As you can see, the first example leaves the reader with too many unanswered questions. Rather than an interest in finding out more, you are left with annoyance at the lack of understanding.

The second example paints a picture. The reader can visualise the team, imagine you working there developing the system. They can glimpse the scope and impact of your involvement and are naturally curious to found out more. This stimulates unanswered questions like, what challenges did you face? You’ve also included some metrics and abbreviations that double as searchable key words/queries (HR, CRM).

It’s a good idea to add some numbers / quantification – team sizes, improvements etc. From personal experience, people who are clear on the metrics they measure success by, and who readily volunteer these numbers for potential scrutiny during an interview, usually indicates someone on top of their game.

The number of bullets for each role should be appropriate to the tenure. Don’t write 4 bullets for a 3-year period and 25 bullets for a 6-month contact. Equally, don’t expect 2 bullets to satisfy 5 years recent experience. What have you been doing for the past 5 years? In general, 5-10 bullets should be appropriate for a 3/5-year tenure. Adjust accordingly.

Bullets should always be factual. They will be discussed during the interview, so they better be!

Bullets should also be in order of impact!

Remember to clearly state the dates of your employment (month & year), the company name and location of your employer (if different form the job location you’re applying) and your job title (ideally one that reflects what you did; ‘consultant’ helps no one).

Ideally you should write in the past tense, this indicates to a future employer you are ready to move on.

Avoid overuse of ‘I’ and ‘My.’ Instead begin sentences with verbs like, ‘Managed,’ ‘designed,’ ‘owned,’ etc.

Of course, don’t include negative things. You will no doubt get asked about this during an interview.

What to do about gaps in employment? I would suggest anything longer than 3-6 months should be explained. Even writing ‘planned career break’ is sufficient but be prepared to elaborate during an interview or vetting process.

Oh, yeh! Don’t copy and paste job specs – we can tell.

Education

Dates of study (month & year), name and location of education institute, and course title and result.

You should always display university or higher education but leaving your GCSE’s or high-school results displayed after a 20-year career is questionable.

Personal Section

This section really is up to you. I would certainly list any awards or achievements you’re proud of, particularly if they help sell yourself to a future employer.

One of my first managers in recruitment instructed me to remove hobbies before sending CVs to a client, as you never know how a client would react. This goes both ways of course, as a client may share the same hobbies as you. Use your own judgement, if you’re into Fox Hunting and have the foresight to appreciate this may offend some people, then leave it out.

Should I hire a professional CV writer?

Remember, the job of a CV is to secure an interview

A good CV can take a few days to write from scratch. If you dread expressing yourself through writing or simply don’t have the time, then of course you should seek help from someone who has the skills to help you. There is no shame in this and providing the facts are accurate, taking the initiative to ask for professional help should never preclude you from securing your dream job.

Conclusion

This article was written to provide some useful advice and best practice on how to write a CV. I sincerely hope it’s been helpful. Like many important things in life, CVs are something most of us never really receive any formal education on. Yet a good CV, can be the difference between a door opening and a door closing. For someone determined to secure their dream job, you owe it to yourself to make your CV is a polished as possible. Feel free to share this article, particularly if you have children who may be entering the work force for the first time, and don’t yet have a clear yard stick on what a good CV looks like.

Good luck!