Learn how to write a perfect CV
Writing a good 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 job search 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.
In this article, learn how to write a CV as we cover what a CV is, how to structure one, the contents of a good CV, and document formatting tips to help you not only meet the lofty job application standards but surpass them.
What is a CV?
“CV” is the abbreviation of “curriculum vitae,” which is Latin for “course of life.” In the job market, a CV is a document that gives a brief account of your employment history, education and qualifications, and key skills.
It's standard practice to submit your CV when applying for a job, so that prospective employers can get a sense of whether you're the right match for the vacancy. A CV is typically one part of an application process. Often, open roles require a cover letter and an application form too.
Requirements for CVs vary from country to country. For example in the US, CVs are known as resumes and are typically much shorter. Make sure you understand the expectations for the area in which you're applying.
Why you need a CV
A CV is a fundamental requirement if you're looking for a job. There's a common misunderstanding that a CV should detail every aspect of your career history and education, but that's not true. It should only go back roughly 10 years.
Your CV will stay with you throughout your career and will take many shapes and host ever-changing details, because its purpose is to show prospective employers why you're a good fit for a role. Therefore, you need a CV to highlight your most relevant professional attributes and achievements that prove to a company why you're the talent they should hire.
A CV can be used to apply for an open role, or it can be used to introduce yourself to an employer for a job that isn't advertised.
How to prepare for writing a CV
If you don't have a CV, or haven't updated your CV for a long time, writing a CV might seem like an overwhelming task. Preparation is key, and we advise gathering the following information in advance:
Sample job vacancies
A perfect CV is written with a particular role in mind. If your objective is to quit a job you hate or grab any job available to earn a living, it's likely that you'll produce a weak, unfocused CV.
Spend some time reflecting on what your dream job looks like, considering your strengths, dislikes, and what would drive you.
From there, use your conclusions to find some job adverts for the type of role you've decided to target. The wording of the adverts can be used to focus your CV on key hard and soft skills and experiences relevant to those types of roles – and to downplay your less relevant background.
Dates of jobs, volunteering, and qualifications
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.
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.
How to structure a CV
The most common way to structure a CV is the following:
Name and contact information
Personal statement (or profile)
Education and qualifications
However, you can amend a CV structure based on your strengths. For example, if you're a recent graduate, your education and qualifications are likely to be stronger than your employment history, so you could bump this section higher up the document.
Different types of CV formats
A reverse-chronological CV, also known as a chronological CV, is the most popular type of CV. It includes contact details, a personal profile, key skills, employment history, and education and qualifications.
However, as it says in the name, employment history and education are listed in reverse chronological order, i.e. they start with the latest role or qualification and work back about 10 years or so.
Skills-based (functional) CV
A functional CV is slightly different. Instead of going into details about your career, a functional CV expands on hard skills, soft skills, and technical skills. Hence it's also known as a skill-based CV. If you're returning to work after a long period away from the job market or changing careers, this is the CV format for you.
Other CV formats
There are other types of CV formats expected in certain industries, that borrow elements from a reverse-chronological and functional CV. They include:
What to include in a good CV
Now that you've prepared to write a CV and have a good idea of the structure, it's time to start populating each section.
Name, professional title, and contact details
Do not start your CV with the title “CV” or “Curriculum Vitae.” Your CV should start with your name, professional title, and contact details.
Your name should be your first name and surname only. You don't need to include your middle name - this isn't a passport application! Your professional title will likely be your current job title, such as “Marketing Manager,” but if you currently have an uncommon job title or are looking to change career paths, you might choose a title that's more descriptive of your skill set, such as “IT and Software Specialist.”
You'd be amazed at how many times we've seen a job seeker focus so hard on the career-focused sections of their CV, that they've entirely neglected to include any contact details in their CV or have hidden them away in a footer.
Your contact details should be placed at the very top of the first page of your CV. As a minimum, include your mobile number and email address. You can also include your location in the format of town and postcode. You do not need to put your full address. You may choose to include a link to your LinkedIn profile or your online portfolio too, if relevant.
You no longer need to include details such as marital status, date of birth, or gender, due to anti-discrimination legislation in the UK.
Here's an example of how your name, professional title, and contact details could look:
email@example.com • 07890 1234567
www.linkedin.com/in/loremipsum • City, Postcode
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. It typically covers three things:
Who you are
What you do
Your suitability for the role and the value you can add
When writing your personal statement, 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. For example, if you have a track record of reducing costs or increasing sales.
You should aim to keep this section to four or five sentences; save the detail for later in the CV or even for the interview.
Key skills and competencies
Next up, add a short summary of your key skills. You should aim to include between nine and 12 in bullet point form. 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."
Here is an example of how your key skills and competencies may look:
Areas of Expertise
Work history and experience
When writing your work experience section, start 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.
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 three to four lines for this.
Bear in mind that you need to keep the CV relevant to your target role, so if you spend 80% of your time doing something completely irrelevant, write the majority of this section about the other 20%. Quantify whatever you can, to give the reader an idea of the scope of your role, and consider using high-impact vocabulary and action words on your CV 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 sell yourself in your CV, to sound impressive and believable rather than arrogant.
When outlining your work experience, there is absolutely no reason to provide comprehensive information for every job you've ever held. 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 in hiring, even the early dates aren't strictly necessary!
Here's a template to help you draft your employment history section:
Company Name date – date
Day-to-day explanation of the role. Sell the relevance of the role towards the recruiter's goal. Three or four sentences should be plenty.
Key Contribution or Accomplishment 1 - remember to quantify wherever possible
Key Contribution or Accomplishment 2 - remember to quantify wherever possible
Key Contribution or Accomplishment 3 - remember to quantify wherever possible
If you have gaps in your employment history, this may raise some eyebrows. Answer the questions before they're asked and give brief explanations about employment gaps 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.
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 on how to write a good CV with no work experience for you here.
Education and qualifications
The information that you include in your education and qualifications section 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 of completion, like this:
Level - subject – Institution – Year
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 that 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.
Additional sections to add to your CV
CVs are very flexible in structure, since they're designed to showcase your candidacy for a role. While above we've explained the sections that employers expect to see in a CV, there are additional sections you may consider adding to showcase your value:
Have you been actively volunteering with a non-profit organisation? Volunteering is a great way to fill an employment gap or to 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.
Professional affiliations and memberships
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
Listing hobbies and interests on your CV should only be done if they boost your candidacy in some way. For example, if you're applying for a graphic design job and you like to create digital drawings, that would be an acceptable inclusion. Similarly, if you are applying for a role in the environmental sector and you like photographing nature, that would work too.
What other skills and experience do you have that could set you apart from other applicants? Is there anything in 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 365, Sales Executives may need Salesforce, and HR professionals could show off their knowledge of Peoplesoft. Consider what software you can use that's 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, state which type 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.
How to format a CV
Now you know what to put in your CV, it's time to perfect and polish it so that prospective employers and recruiters can extract key information from it and, ultimately, be impressed:
The average CV length is two pages. One page can work well for those who are applying for their first job 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 a CV with a length of two pages. If that seems unachievable, it's likely that you're either going into too much detail or not enough.
When choosing a font for your CV, prioritise readability and clarity. Always choose a clean font that can be read on-screen and in print, over a decorative font. Keep your font choice consistent throughout your document too, so it's not chaotic to the eye. Body text should be in 10 to 12-point font, whereas headings are best between 14 and 18 points. Popular fonts for a CV include Arial, Calibri, and Helvetica.
Spacing, margins, and alignment
White space is just as important as the content of a CV, as you want to make sure the document is balanced and pleasing to the eye.
By default, set your CV spacing to 1.15, which is standard business format. Double space between sections.
Set your margins to at least one inch on all sides, as this will create a nice white-space border that also aligns with the standard business format. If you find that your CV is spilling over to three pages, you can reduce the margins slightly.
Always left-align all text for a professional feel and legibility. Centred or justified text can be a difficult read.
File format and name
We strongly recommend that you prepare and save your CV as a Word document, which is typically the best file format for a CV. This is a format that can be opened by almost anyone and which applicant tracking systems can read without any issues. Many CVs are saved as PDFs, with the intention of preserving the layout but, unfortunately, this can warp words on 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.
When saving the document, structure the filename as “firstname lastname CV,” or “firstname lastname CV vacancyjobtitle,” so recruiters know it's yours. Recruiters will receive hundreds of CVs per vacancy and you don't want yours to get lost along the way.
Where can I get help with my CV?
There are many considerations and components when writing a CV, and while it may be straightforward to create a first draft, it can be tricky to perfect it. And while you might be tempted to use ChatGPT to write your CV, there are teams of experts that can write your CV for you and do a much better job.
CV writing services like TopCV are there to help you to land your next job and progress your career. A CV writing service typically offers a selection of CV writing plans, starting with an expertly written and keyword-optimised CV, expanding to a cover letter and a LinkedIn profile makeover. And remember, it's okay to ask for help with your CV.
Hopefully, you now have the knowledge you need to write a good CV for your next job hunt. If you want to be doubly sure that you've done a good job, submit your CV for a free review to see how it stacks up.
This article was originally written by Jen David and has been updated by Laura Slingo.