A perfect CV takes work to write.

Writing the perfect CV can be a daunting task, especially if you're unsure of what's required. But with a bit of preparation and effort, you'll soon have a knock-out document. Whether you're planning to use a CV-writing service like TopCV or giving it a go on your own, a bit of thought is key – after all, the CV is only as good as the information within it.

What you have to consider

CV length

The average CV length is two pages. One page can work well for those just starting out in their careers or who have spent a long time in one role, and three pages is just about acceptable for senior executives or contractors, but any more than this and you're in dangerous territory. Many recruiters simply don't have the time or the will to read about the minutiae of your life.

Therefore, most professionals should be aiming for two pages. If that seems unachievable, it's likely that you're either going into too much detail or not enough. For more information, have a look at this article.

Layout and design

Your design aim should be smart and professional. Quirky layouts and graphics won't do you any favours if your CV is scanned by an applicant tracking system or ATS, which can reduce such CVs to garbled nonsense once being scanned. 

Use a linear, graphic-free document that will please the bots and help your CV land in front of a human. Then, please the human with a layout that is easy to digest, flows logically and uses standard, sans-serif fonts.

Online presence

Many employers will search your online profiles before deciding if they should interview you, so now is the perfect time to clean up your social media. Remove anything that could be seen as controversial or unprofessional, and remember to review your privacy settings so that you have full control over who sees what.

If you have avoided creating a LinkedIn profile until now, it's time to bite the bullet. If you already have one, make certain that it reflects your current situation and objectives. You'll also need to ensure it aligns with your CV so that you're telling the same story across all channels. Remember, your online presence should complement your CV and support your job goals – not sabotage them.

File format

We strongly recommend that you prepare and save your CV as a Word document. This is a format that can be opened by anyone and which ATS systems can read without any issues. Many CVs are saved as PDFs with the intention of preserving the layout, but unfortunately this can warp the document during the scanning process.

Plain text files should certainly be avoided, as the lack of formatting makes the document hard to read and can come across as rather amateur. We explore the pros and cons of each file type in more depth in this article.

CVs around the world

Requirements for CVs vary from country to country. Make sure you understand the expectations for the area in which you're applying.

What information to gather in advance

Sample job vacancies

A perfect CV is written with a particular role in mind. If your objective is just to quit a job you hate or grab any job available just to earn a living, it's likely that you'll produce a weak, unfocussed CV. Identify exactly what role suits you with these activities.

From there, use your conclusions to find some job adverts for the type of job you've decided to target. The wording of the adverts can be used to focus your CV on the hard and soft skills and experiences relevant to those types of roles – and to downplay your less relevant background.

Dates

It's important to be clear on your career history before you begin. Note down the dates that you started and finished each position you've held, as well as the years you completed any academic qualifications and courses.

Achievements

Many people find it difficult to identify their achievements, but this is the section of the CV that will set you apart from other applicants. Speak to colleagues and managers past and present (if you don't mind being open about your job hunt), review your performance appraisals and think about any projects you've worked on beyond the normal remit of your job. Then pull together any facts and figures that back up your claims so that you can provide concrete evidence of your success.

Writing the CV

Contact information

You'd be amazed at how many CVs we see where the writer has focussed so hard on their career that they've entirely neglected to include any contact details or hidden them away in a footer.

Your contact details should be placed at the very top of the first page of your CV. Bear in mind that a CV isn't a legal document, so if you prefer to go by a nickname, it's fine to use that. You'll also want to include a mobile number and an email address.

Regarding your home address, just the town and postcode is fine. Eliminating your house number and street name helps to minimise the personal information you're uploading online. Also, you no longer need to include details such as marital status, date of birth or gender due to anti-discrimination legislation.

Personal statement

This section is usually the hardest part to write, so although it belongs directly under your contact details, you may prefer to write it after you've completed the rest of the CV, as you'll have consolidated your thinking by then.

The personal statement is the first bit of information a recruiter will learn about you, so it needs to have an impact. Don't think about what you want from an employer, but rather what you can offer them. You need to state exactly what you do and whether there's anything in particular you specialise in. You also need to identify and explicitly state what value you can add to their business, like if you have a track record of reducing costs or increasing sales. You should aim to keep this section to 4–5 sentences; save the detail for later in the CV, or even for the interview.

Skills section

Next up, add a short summary of your key skills. Be selective and make sure they're relevant to your target role. 

For instance, you may be a whizz at sales, but if you're applying for a teaching position, that's probably not your main selling point. Focus on hard rather than soft skills – it's unlikely that anyone will do a keyword search using the term 'enthusiasm'. 

Work experience

Head each role with your job title, the name of your employer and your dates of employment (month and year only). Standard CV-writing practice dictates that you use reverse-chronological order – that is, placing your most recent job at the top and working backwards. After all, do you really want the recruiter to know about your Saturday job 20 years ago before they find out that you've smashed every target this year?

When writing your responsibilities, don't get bogged down in details. A general overview of the main objective of the role and a top-level summary of your key responsibilities is all that's necessary. You generally don't need to use more than about six lines for this. 

Bear in mind that you need to keep the CV relevant to your target role, so if you spend 80 per cent of your time doing something completely irrelevant, write the majority of this section about the other 20 per cent. Quantify what you can to give the reader an idea of the scope of your role, and consider using high-impact vocabulary to transform the mundane into the memorable.

Each role should contain its own Achievements section – ideally, a minimum of three bullet points that show the impact you've had on the business. Again, don't forget to quantify wherever possible. That's how you'll sound both impressive and believable, rather than arrogant.

Those who are self-employed or freelance might like to see these articles, for further advice.

When outlining your work experience, there is absolutely no reason to provide comprehensive information for every job you've ever held. This level of detail is really only required to cover the last 10 years. If you've been employed for longer than that, you can summarise the rest in an Early Career History section giving just job titles, employer names and dates. If you fear age discrimination, even the dates aren't strictly necessary!

Employment gaps

If you have gaps in your employment history, this may raise some eyebrows. Answer the questions before they're asked with brief explanations on your CV to ensure you're not overlooked for an interview.

After all, most gaps are for perfectly valid reasons. Usually one line is all that's necessary to cover this, and don't forget to include the dates so that the ATS can categorise this information.

No work experience?

No problem. Emphasise your qualifications with details of key modules and projects, thesis and dissertation titles, and university societies and responsibilities. You may also be able to highlight transferable skills gained from hobbies and voluntary work. We have further suggestions for you here.

Volunteer experience

Have you been actively volunteering with a non-profit organisation? Volunteering is a great way to fill an employment gap or supplement your work history when you're trying to change careers. List any volunteer work you've done in its own section (unless you're using it to cover an employment gap). The format should be similar to that of the main experience section, although you'll probably need less detail depending on how strong your professional experience is.

Education and qualifications

The information you include here will depend on how far along your career path you are. University-level qualifications and above should always be included, along with the degree type (BSc, PhD, etc.), subject, university name and year achieved.

Lower-level academic qualifications can be included if they are reasonably recent or if they are particularly relevant to your intended role. O-levels and CSEs can age you, so think carefully about the value they add before including them.

Professional certifications and courses are also valuable ‒ sometimes even more than academic qualifications ‒ so again, make sure you include the title and year of each course you've taken. You may wish to add a separate Professional Development section for these, or you can include them under Education if you feel that section isn't very strong on its own.

Professional affiliations

Professional affiliations can add great weight to a CV. Include the level of your membership (Student member, fellow, etc.), as well as the name of the institution and the relevant post nominals – for example, 'Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (FCIPD)'.

Hobbies and interests

Whilst this section is no longer obligatory on a CV, there are some instances where it can add value. Check out this article to see whether you should consider including such details. (Clue: If you're going to write Socialising and Watching Football, the answer is NO!)

Other details

What other skills and experience do you have that could set you apart from other applicants? Is there anything on the job advert that you haven't covered? Consider these headings:

IT proficiency: A section on its own for IT professionals, but potentially a selling point for many others. Administrators need excellent knowledge of Microsoft Office, Sales Executives may need Salesforce, HR professionals could show off their knowledge of Peoplesoft ‒ consider what software you can use that is relevant to your role. Just don't include bespoke in-house systems that won't transfer to another company.

Language skills: A bonus for pretty much anyone! Include the languages you can speak and your level of fluency.

Security clearance: Necessary for some civil service jobs, security roles and jobs working with vulnerable people. If you already have clearance, it can strengthen your case, so state which type of clearance you have.

There are plenty of other considerations for this section, so analyse your experience and the role requirements to cover as much as you can.

Conclusion

You can't write a perfect CV without a little time and effort. However, by working hard to create a stand-out document, you'll be positioning yourself ahead of other candidates and taking the first steps to securing your dream job. Future-you will thank you!

Clearly, writing the perfect CV isn't easy. If you want help that will ensure your document will impress an HR manager, consider working with a TopCV professional CV writer.

This article was updated in March 2020. It was originally written by Amanda Augustine.

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