six-step guide to perfecting your CV

The 6-step guide to perfecting your graduate CV

A good CV is essential to get the graduate job you want so take the time to get it right. A well-crafted CV will show your career interests and highlight your most relevant skills and work experience in the way recruiters like.
The overall aim of your CV is to market you and your skills to an employer to convince them to call you for an interview.

There are no hard and fast rules for writing graduate CVs, but the overall aim is to market yourself and your skills to an employer and convince them to call you for an interview or assessment centre.

Step 1: focus your message

Decide what your CV actually needs to say. How you focus your CV will depend on the graduate job and industry you are applying to and on what you want the recruiter to pay attention to.

Read job adverts and job descriptions carefully and pull out the key skills and experience the employer seeks – circle the words and key phrases, or make a list. Use these to help you work out what information to include and how to express it so that your CV showcases skills, qualifications and experience that match the employer's requirements.

Step 2: pick a CV format and stick to it

This is where the '30-second rule' comes in. A recruiter is likely to spend between 30 seconds and a minute scanning a CV – just long enough to read it (and to notice any spelling mistakes). So first impressions count. As you put your CV together, ask yourself if it is clear, easy to read, and if the formatting is consistent throughout.

Graduate recruiters don’t waste time trying to locate hidden details, so your CV needs to be logically structured and broken down into clearly marked, easily readable sections. Most CVs follow the same format: personal details followed by education and work experience in chronological order and finally, your other interests. Alternatively, you might push your key skills to the fore using a skills-based format. How you choose to structure your CV is up to you, but the most important thing is to decide on a layout and style and then be consistent with your use of headings, fonts, etc, throughout.

It’s important to think about the industry you’re applying to as well. Some sectors, such as law, are more traditional than others and will not be impressed by anything that looks gimmicky. If you're applying for creative or design-oriented roles, a fresh approach might not be held against you, but some recruiters will be put off by any attempt to make your CV look obviously different. You are unlikely to be penalised for keeping your CV simple, and all employers need to be able to see easily if you have the skills and experience for the job.

Check any guidance the employer has provided very carefully. If the employer has asked for a one-page CV, that's what you need to provide.

You don't need to include a photo with your CV. This is not standard practice in the UK. However, it is sometimes a requirement in other countries.

Aim for clarity. Choose a font that is easy to read. Consider Times New Roman, Arial and Verdana.

Step 3: use the space on your CV wisely

The maximum length of a graduate CV is two pages of A4 – there is no room to waffle! Be logical – employers will read from the beginning so this is where the most relevant information needs to go to catch the recruiter’s attention.

Always make it easy for recruiters to find details that show you meet their minimum requirements.

Whether you opt for a chronological CV format, or a skills-focused format, it is crucial to give the most space on your CV to the information that is most relevant to the job.

Review the selection criteria for each employer and match your own skills as closely to these as possible. Writing a list of all of your skills and achievements can be a good way to do this.

Always make it easy for recruiters to find details that show you meet their minimum requirements (eg degree qualification and class, A level subjects, etc).

Save space by not including anything you don't need – which gives you more space to sell your skills. For example, you don't need to include the words 'Curriculum Vitae', or your age, gender or date of birth.

If your CV is two pages long, make the most of them; a recruiter may take the view that one and a half pages is neither here nor there. Aim to keep your bullet points short and snappy: up to a line long, and ideally not longer than a line and a half.

Step 4: fill in the gaps

Never leave anything up to the imagination of a graduate recruiter. Gaps are highly conspicuous on CVs and recruiters will spot them a mile off – they’ll be looking for them when they check continuity and consistency.

Tempting as it is to miss out bad exam results or not mention those lost summer months you can’t quite account for, it’s much worse to leave them out all together. If you do, recruiters have no choice but to guess what should be there and why you’ve left it out – this is nearly always worse than the truth. Gaps can put your CV in doubt and can result in a lost interview.

Step 5: stand out from the crowd (in the right way)

When you’re competing against other grads for the very best positions, you’ve got to stand out from the crowd or risk being lost in a sea of identical applications and CVs. Showing any evidence of work experience and skills developed through extracurricular activities will always give you an extra edge in a pile of CVs from similarly qualified applicants. But it’s important to get noticed for the right reasons.

Your CV isn't so much about what you've done, but how well you've done it. When you include your skills in a CV don’t just list tasks and activities you have done. Provide brief statements that illustrate how you have used your skills and performed the tasks well. If you have achieved a target, say so. If you have received praise from your manager or a customer, say so.

Recruiters will be distracted away from your attributes if they can't find your degree result or they have to make sense of a poorly constructed CV that's full of typos. Even your choice of email address can be a potential pitfall, so if it sounds at all dodgy or unprofessional, avoid using it.

Step 6: check your CV carefully

Once you have finished your CV print off a copy and read through it to make sure you are happy that it: 

  • makes sense
  • is targeted to the job and employer
  • shows you meet the employer's minimum requirements
  • has no spelling errors.

Try to get feedback from other people you trust. All of the details you've included in your CV will make perfect sense to you, but you may be surprised by the things that others will stumble over and query. Be prepared to take on board constructive criticism and to also hear about the positive traits others see in you that they think you should sell. Ultimately, this will help you to produce a more rounded CV that will be easier to read by recruiters and employers.

Your university careers service can help to devise and proofread your CV, and some offer sessions on CV writing.

The 6-step guide to perfecting your graduate CV