A CV – or curriculum vitae, which is Latin for ‘course of life’ – is a useful document to produce and keep up to date as it captures key information about you and your background. A CV can be your opportunity to convince an employer or learning provider that you are the right person to select for a job, course, apprenticeship or another opportunity.
These days, many employers, recruitment agencies and learning providers expect you to complete application forms, usually online, but some still ask you to submit a CV. You’ll also need a CV if you want to apply to an employer ‘on spec’ – that is, in the hope that they will get in contact with you if a suitable position is available or becomes available in the future.
A CV is a useful document to have to hand for other reasons. For instance, it’s a handy document to refer to when filling in applications generally, or to put at the front of a portfolio you’ve produced for a course.
If you’re writing or updating your CV, there’s certainly no shortage of advice online and in books. There are plenty of things you need to get right, but no matter what you read, there really is no one secret formula for a ‘good CV’. A format that works for you and your situation may not be suitable for someone in other circumstances.
Let’s address some key questions you may have about producing a CV and, in the process, we’ll explain some ‘dos and don’ts’.
What should I include in my CV?
Name and contact details:
You need to make it easy for the recipient of your CV to get in touch with you, so include your mobile and email address as appropriate. You don’t have to write ‘Curriculum Vitae’ at the top of your CV, but make your name prominent.
A short introduction or profile:
Although not essential, this provides context. You can explain where you are at in terms of your career journey and what you are looking for, but if you are applying for a particular job or course place, make sure that it is tailored for that specific opportunity; read more on this later.
Career history/work experience:
State the name of each employer, your job title and the dates you were employed, on placement or volunteering. Briefly describe your role, responsibilities and the skills you used, giving examples where possible. Mention any particular achievements or awards.
Education and qualifications:
Provide the names of the schools, colleges, universities or other learning providers you have attended together with dates. List the qualifications you have achieved at each institution, giving the grades you’ve received (or are predicted).
If appropriate, describe any inhouse training or external courses you may have attended.
Hobbies and interests:
You may like to add a section on these, especially if the skills you have developed are relevant to your applications.
If not mentioned elsewhere, make sure you include any achievements, awards, positions of responsibility or other information that may be appropriate, such as the fact you have a driving licence or first-aid training.
Unless you are asked to provide referees, it’s up to you whether or not you include them on your CV. If you do, get their permission first. One may be your tutor or current manager, another could be someone you’ve known for some time in a different capacity, perhaps a family friend. You should include their names, job titles if relevant and their contact details. Some people include a statement, such as ‘Excellent references can be provided on request’ or similar.
How should I format my CV?
The simple answer is, format your CV in a simple, logical and consistent order. After your personal information and profile/introduction (if you’ve decided to include one), whether you put your education or career history first depends on which is more relevant. We’ll talk more about this later.
It makes sense to give priority to your most recent experiences or qualifications rather than putting them in chronological order so, if you’ve had more than one job, for example, describe your current position first.
Use headings, bullets, tabs and paragraphs to make your CV layout clear. Make sure you are consistent, for instance, embolden the same things, such as employers and job titles. Use the same size and font for each heading and equal line spacing.
How can I make my CV professional?
Apart from presenting a neat format, there are a number of other things to consider.
· Aim for one or two sides of A4. Employers and learning providers may have hundreds of CVs to go through, so if yours is too long, they may lose interest. Too short and you may miss the opportunity to market yourself.
· Use white or pale-coloured paper with black or very dark text in a clear font. Don’t try to do anything fancy. The only exception might be if you are applying for a design or artistic position, but even then you’d need to be sure that an out-of-the-ordinary CV would be well received.
· Nothing shouts unprofessional more than errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. Don’t rely on the spellchecker or predictive text; over the years we’ve seen plenty of people referred to as mangers instead of managers! Joking aside, check and check again, and then get someone else to check. Expect to do several drafts before you get your CV right.
· Ensure that all the dates you have given are accurate. It’s very easy to slip up, perhaps by putting your year of birth for the date you left school.
· There’s some debate as to whether you should write in the first or second person. For formal opportunities in traditional sectors, second person may be more appropriate, whereas in most circumstances, it’s fine to use the first person (e.g. My experience as a xxx involved… Through xxx I developed skills in…).
How can I tailor my CV for an opportunity?
By adapting the order and content of your CV, you can draw attention to the skills, background or experiences that make you suitable for the job, apprenticeship, course or other opportunity for which you are applying. Customising your CV is the key to its success!
If you’re applying for an advertised position, it’s a good idea to take the job advert, job description and person specification and highlight the main skills, experience etc needed. Then make sure you mention these key requirements and how you meet them in your CV. Always try to give clear examples of how you fulfil the criteria.
You can also adapt the layout of your CV so that your most relevant experience, skills etc for the opportunity are in a prominent position.
You should normally include a covering letter or email with your CV. This is another opportunity to tailor your application for a particular opportunity. Clearly state the title of the job you are applying for, mention where you saw it advertised, say that you’re attaching a CV and highlight the key things in there that make you suitable. Also say why you want to work for that particular employer. If you’re applying on-spec, you won’t be able to be so specific, but you can still say what sort of work you are looking for, why you feel you are suitable and why the organisation appeals to you.
How can I adapt my CV for my circumstances?
· If you’re a school/college leaver you may have little or no work experience. Do not fear! Many people will be in the same position. Never lie or exaggerate but think of all the other experiences you have had and the skills you have developed as a result. You may have had a part-time job, participated in an initiative such as Young Enterprise, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme or the National Citizen Service, been a prefect/form captain, raised funds for a good cause or taken part in volunteering. All these things are likely to be relevant and show that you can work with others, be relied upon, can manage your time and so on. It may be appropriate to put down information on your education and qualifications before your work experience.
· If you’re applying for an apprenticeship, in addition to convincing an employer that you are a suitable employee, you also have to show that you understand what will be involved in the off-the-job training aspects of the programme and that you are capable of studying and working at the same time.
· If you’re going for a graduate opportunity, unless you took a vocational degree, rather than being interested in the subject you studied, potential employers are usually more concerned with the transferable skills you have developed through your university studies, such as the ability to conduct research, give presentations, work with people from different backgrounds and your digital skills, so make sure that these are emphasised.
· If you are a career/job changer, you are likely to have had more than one job, so you will have to be particularly selective in what you include in your CV. If you are hoping to change careers, once again, focus on the transferable skills that you have to offer. If you have gaps in your work record because of caring responsibilities or for other reasons, briefly explain these. And don’t forget to mention skills that you may have developed outside work or education. Life experience can be valuable. Personal information, such as your date of birth and marital status, are not relevant, so there’s no need to mention these in your CV.
If you want to find out more about writing CVs, look at reputable websites, such as the National Careers Service.
Your CV will be an evolving document. As you gain experience, skills or qualifications, these should be added, while other things will naturally become less significant over time. And, as mentioned above, you should always tailor your CV for specific opportunities.
Debbie Steel, Updated May 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.