Writing an effective CV and covering letter

A good CV will show employers what you have to offer them and make them want to find out more about you and your experiences.

What do employers look for?

CVs are used by employers to identify how you match up to their criteria. Your CV needs to prove that you: 

  • have researched the opportunity, job or company.
  • understand what the employer wants.
  • can clearly identify what you have to offer them.

Employers will judge your CV on two criteria: 

1.  Does it clearly identify key skills, qualities and experiences?
2.  How does your CV look?

Employers will initially read your CV in about twenty seconds. You have this much time to make a good impression.

Step 1 - Identify the skills for the job

Employers will usually reject a CV unless it shows evidence that you have researched the opportunity and understand the skills they are looking for. You can use the following for your research:

  • The job description and the person specification.
  • Websites with occupational information, such as www.prospects.ac.uk.
  • Career guides which you can pick up from Careers Network.
  • Contacts from events and fairs that we run on campus

Step 2 - Choose a format

There are three main CV formats that you could consider:

  • Reverse chronological
    In this type of CV you list the jobs, study, or other relevant activities you have done, starting with the most recent and working backwards. You may also have an optional Skills or Achievement section. Example reverse chronological CV (PDF - 40KB)
  • Skills-based
    For this CV type you summarise experiences under skills headings with other data presented briefly. Example skills-based CV (PDF - 40KB)
  • Academic
    Use this CV type to apply for an academic post, especially if you are applying to Higher Education. Contains details of interest to academic employers, including research interests, publications, and teaching experience. Example academic CV (PDF - 48KB)

Step 3 - Decide what to include

Your CV should fit nicely onto two sides of A4. This means you will need to decide carefully what to include and what to leave out. In general, you can take out:

  • Words, paragraphs, sections that don't help you make an impact.
  • Information that is irrelevant to the employer or to the opportunity.

 You should make sure you include:

  • Key experience, skills and qualifications.
  • Up-to-date contact details.

 Find out more:

Step 4 - Prove your skills

Employers see general statements such as “enthusiastic team player with good communication skills” all the time. Without examples to back these claims up, why should an employer believe what they read?

You should have identified 4 key skills for the job in step 1, using the Job skills worksheet (PDF - 120KB). Now go through and provide an example for each of these skills. An effective way to structure your example is to use the STAR technique:

  • Situation - what was the situation that you were in?
  • Task - what did you have to accomplish?
  • Action - what action did you take to do this?
  • Result - what were the results of your actions?

Once you have written your examples, make sure you include them in the relevant parts of your CV.

Step 5 - Make your language effective

Your CV is essentially your marketing tool, so it should avoid woolly and passive statements and instead focus on the active. For example:

  • “Worked on the computer” could become “designed new database”.
  • “Talked to clients” could become “established effective working relationships”.
  • “Helped produce a leaflet” could become “researched, designed and produced targeted handout”.

Go through your CV and make sure your language is active and specific. This will help your CV stand out from the competition.

Step 6 - One last check

Before you send off your CV, ask yourself:

1.  Does it identify my key skills, experiences qualities and achievements?

2.  Is it:

  • Clear – and easy to read
  • Concise – avoid waffle and under 2 pages
  • Complete – cover education achievements, jobs, voluntary work, languages, IT skills, interests and references
  • Consistent – fonts and format
  • Current – most up to date

3.  Is it what an employer wants? Can they see it in 20 seconds and be persuaded to find out more?

Happy with the questions above? Then you're ready to send employers your CV. Good luck!

Useful links

Researching employers

Stopwatch

The 20-second test

Employers may only look at a CV for 20 seconds - is yours good enough?


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