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Tips on writing the perfect CV

Kate Shorthouse

How to write the perfect CV and Covering Letter

Applying for jobs is a little like online dating – and having a good CV and covering letter is the online-dating equivalent to having a witty profile and a flattering photo. Your CV and covering letter is your key to getting an interview and getting your foot in the door. They’re the first impression you’ll make, so you need to be sure to make it count.

 

Let’s talk about the cover letter first

A covering letter is your chance to show some personality to the employer, and a chance to sell yourself. It’s the kind of thing that needs to be personalised and not just copied and pasted from one application to another. An experienced HR manager, or hiring manager, will be able to spot a mile off if you’ve taken time to put together an application, so you’d be foolish to rush this, thinking it goes unnoticed.

The first and most important piece of advice you could ever be given when applying for jobs, is that you need to make every single application count. Applying for jobs shouldn’t be something that’s crammed into an hour at lunch, or on your commute home – it’s something that needs to be taken care with, and needs to have time devoted to. Many people think that they can simply copy and paste the same covering letter and CV to 20 different job ads, but unfortunately that is (quite simply) not the case.

If you want to see results, and you want to land your dream job, you need to dedicate time and effort to the process by personalising each application you send out. With no exceptions.

Remember – no two jobs are the same, so no two jobs should receive the same cover letter.

How long should my covering letter be?

No more than a few paragraphs, and certainly no more than one side of A4. The key to success here is mentioning the things that are most impressive, and giving some context that a CV can’t necessarily provide on its own.

For example, it says on your CV you spent a year abroad in South America after graduating. Use your covering letter to explain what you did during that time, and why it is related to this position you’re applying for. Keep information in your cover letter succinct and relevant though, because if your gap year was actually 15 years ago it may not be something of interest to an employer anymore.

Getting the basics covered

Address the covering letter to the person who is managing the hiring process. This will usually be included in the online advertisement, but if it isn’t, a quick phone call to the company will tell you. Going that extra mile to address the letter to the right person (and not just ‘Whom it may concern’) will mean extra brownie points for you.

A few other things you shouldn’t forget:

  • Why do you want the job?

  • What was your most recent position, and why does it make you a good fit?

  • What do you like or admire about the company you’re applying to?

  • What can you bring to the table that they don’t already have?

  • Do you have any special skills or experience that sets you apart from other applicants?

Be particular with these details and don’t be afraid of noting particular examples. For instance, if you worked on an award winning campaign in your current role, that’s the kind of thing you’ll want to drop in.

Ensure you’re mentioning the company by name too, and ensure you’ve researched them enough to write confidently about why you’d like to work there. If you do all of this, then your enthusiasm and knowledge should shine through and be evident to anyone reading.

A quick note about speculative cover letters

A speculative application is one you send even though the company isn’t publicly hiring. Many companies will always be on the look out for talent, regardless of whether they have a specific position available, and it is for this reason that sending a speculative application is never a waste of time.

With speculative covering letters though, you need to focus much more on selling yourself. After all, if they don’t actually have any positions currently open, you need to convince them to make one because you’re too good to let slip away.

 

Show them how passionate you are about the company and the industry, and show off your knowledge and skills. You need to prove your case here, and you need to show them that you are a candidate too good to miss out on.

Now onto the all important CV

Your CV can be a little more flexible than your covering letter, and a well-written CV, shouldn’t need personalising every time you send a job application off. But that doesn’t mean it’s something you can rush – in fact, it means you should put all the more effort into making it perfect.

The average employer spends about four seconds looking at a CV before they decide whether or not you’re going in the ‘yes’ pile or the ‘no’ pile. This four-second window is precious, so you need to ensure all the key information is easy to locate and looks professional and well put together.

The biggest mistake people make…

Is assuming a CV has to be super detailed. It doesn’t. If a company wants you to expand on anything in your CV, that’s what an interview is for.

A CV needs to summarise your experience, and it needs to be easy to digest and easy to skim through. The last thing a HR manager wants (when they’ve been reading hundreds of CVs already that day) is a three-page essay-style CV that lists every job you’ve ever had (since you were 13) and has paragraphs upon paragraphs of what you did, when you did it and what your roles and responsibilities were. No one has time for that.

Instead, use friendly bullet points, headings and sub-headings to make your CV easy to navigate. Try dividing the sections up like this:

Personal details

  • Full name, email, telephone, address, DOB, etc

Education and Qualifications

  • Depending on your age, you don’t necessarily need to include everything you’ve ever got. If you’re educated to a Masters level, then listing your GCSEs isn’t always necessary. If GCSEs are where your education finished, then you need to list them all in detail.

  • Don’t forget to include relevant qualifications too. For example, are you a first aider? Do you own a clean driving license? Are you qualified in Google Analytics? These are not academic qualifications, but they are certainly worth mentioning, and valuable for the employer to know.

  • Include any professional achievements here too. Were you employee of the month at your last job? Have you spoken at conferences?

Previous Employment

  • Start with your most recent role, and work backwards. Always keep the most recent role at the top of the list. It saves the employer time – as it is usually the most recent roles they are most interested in hearing about.

  • With each role, state the company name, the job title and the dates you worked there.

  • Only include relevant roles. If you’ve been a social media manager for five years at three different agencies, then those three roles are important to include. What you don’t need to include is that summer you worked as a waitress at TGI Friday’s when you were 15. Not because it was invaluable (we all have to start somewhere!) – but because it doesn’t really matter to this employer, and it doesn’t hold much relevance to the position you’re applying for now.

  • With each job role you do include, list four to five responsibilities or achievements that made up the role you’re mentioning. List them in bullet points to make them easy to read. This gives an overview and gives detail, without cluttering up the CV.

References

  • This is personal choice. It is not necessary to give references at this stage usually, and most employers will request reference details after a first or second interview. Sometimes they may only ask for reference details after a job offer has been made.

  • If you do want to include them, simply list their name, a telephone number and email for contact – and what they were in relation to you (Manager, Supervisor, Director).

  • If you don’t want to put your references on your CV, then a simple “References available upon request’ will suffice.

Personal Statement

  • This is optional – as you may not have enough room left (remember we’re trying to stick to one or two pages of A4 here!)

  • Include a statement about yourself as a person. What unexpected skills do you have? What is your personality like? Do you have any strange or interesting hobbies/interests?

  • List anything that may make you more employable – for example, did you spend a year volunteering with under-privileged children in South America on your gap year? If so – mention it. Anything that makes you likable also makes you hireable.

  • Do you have an online portfolio or a blog you’d like to mention or refer them to? If so, mention it here and include a URL.

Remember, through all of this, that your CV is designed to make you look great, and make someone want to hire you. This can be difficult for many people to grasp – as it’s strange ‘bigging yourself up’ when so often we’re told to downplay our achievements.

One final tip is to find someone you trust, who thinks you’re awesome (could be your Mum, Dad, partner or best friend) and ask them to take a read of your CV and covering letter. They definitely won’t let your CV undersell you, so if they think you’re not selling yourself strongly enough, take another look and don’t be afraid to talk up your skills and experience a little more.

Remember, if you know you have what it takes, your CV and covering letter is your chance to prove that.