The 6-step guide to perfecting your graduate CV

The 6-step guide to perfecting your graduate CV

A good CV is essential to get the graduate job you want. Find out how to structure your CV so you highlight your most relevant skills and work experience.
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, or for the structure you should use, but here are some guidelines for you to use as a starting point. The overall aim is to market yourself and your skills to an employer and convince them to invite you to 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.

Don't bury your achievements, but make sure you include evidence that backs up what you have done and shows the impact you've had. If you can include numbers that give an idea of scale, for example, how much you increased attendance at an event you organised, so much the better.

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 traditional format, with information given in reverse chronological order (most recent achievements first):

  • personal details
  • education and qualifications
  • employment history/work experience. You could break your experience down into different sections, for example, 'Media experience' and 'Voluntary work' or 'Politics and volunteering'. You could group similar types of work experience together. For example, if you have done a number of similar retail part-time jobs, you could cover these together under a suitable heading.
  • other interests, skills and achievements. You could break this down into a range of sections with different headings, such as positions of responsibility, language skills and IT skills.

What's the best structure and layout for your CV?

There is no one right answer to this. The section headings you use are up to you. Present the information in the order you feel best reflects your strengths, and that clearly shows how you match the employer's requirements. For example, you might choose to list your employment history and work experience before your education and qualifications, or create a separate section for professional qualifications.

Aim to group pieces of information together in a way that highlights what you have achieved in general and that draws particular attention to any achievements that are relevant to the job. You should put your contact details first, but can put the other sections in the order you feel works best to showcase your suitability for the job. If you wish you could follow your contact details with a 'Key achievements' section, before the section on your education.

Should you have a skills section on your CV?

You might choose to push your key skills to the fore using a skills-based format. Our advice on writing CVs for different types of graduate job explains the differences between the traditional and skills-based approaches to CV writing, and explains how you can choose a CV style that is a mixture of the two. However, if you decide to go down the route of having a prominent section for all your skills on a CV that is otherwise chronological, take care that you don't interrupt the overall flow of the story you're telling about yourself and that you don't then end up repeating the information later in your CV. You will also need to pay particular attention to rewriting the skills section for each application.

What font should you use on your CV?

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

Once you've decided on a layout and style, it is important to be consistent with fonts and formatting, using the same style for headings throughout, for example. You can refer to our example CV and annotated example CV, which explains the CV writing process in more detail, for further help and advice.

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.

Should you use colour on your CV?

You can, especially if it makes it look more attractive. Bear in mind that it may be printed off in black and white, so check how it will appear then.

Should your CV be a pdf?

Follow the instructions that you are given by the recruiter. A pdf retains its formatting, but if you are sending your CV to a big employer or a recruitment agency they might prefer a Microsoft Word document or similar, as they may be using software to scan it. If this is likely to be the case, consider whether your CV includes the keywords that might be checked by a CV screening programme.

How long should your CV be?

The maximum standard length for a graduate CV is two pages of A4. 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.

What information do you have to include on your CV?

These are the only details you must always include:

  • Contact details
  • Work experience
  • Degree

Everything else is up to you.

What don't you need to include on your CV?

  • 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.
  • You don't need to include a personal profile or statement in your CV, but if you want to, read our advice to help you make the most of it.
  • You don't need to include the words 'Curriculum Vitae', or your age, gender or date of birth.
  • You don't have to include your referees' contact details, unless you are happy for them to be contacted before you get the job. However, if employers have asked for this information at this stage you should supply it. If they want it – and when they want it – they'll ask for it. Alternatively, you could use the phrase 'References available on request' rather than including full details.
  • You don't have to include achievements from your schooldays in a graduate CV, although you might choose to if they are particularly exceptional, or highly relevant to the job and employer.

You will save space by not including anything you don't need – which gives you more scope to sell your skills.

Step 3: use the space on your CV wisely

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).

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. If you're using bullet points, aim to keep them short and snappy: up to a line long, and ideally not longer than a line and a half. Alternatively, use short, punchy paragraphs.

Step 4: fill in the gaps

Never leave anything up to the imagination of a graduate recruiter. Significant 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.

If you're concerned about this, read our advice about dealing with gaps in graduate CVs and applications.

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

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