How to Write A CV That Employers Cannot Ignore

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Read this guide from Coursera to learn how to write a CV to help win you more job interviews and get you your next dream job. We cover the layout of your CV, types of CVS, what you should include, and what to do about special circumstances.

[Featured image] A hiring manager reviewing an CV with a video applicant

A curriculum vitae, or CV, is a formal document that you share with potential employers to sell them on you, the ‘product’. When writing a CV, you need to understand that you are using the limited amount of space on the two-page CV format to market yourself. Every word has a potential impact. The language, structure, and order in your content can either engage the recruiter or have them put your CV down in the 'not for shortlist' pile. 

In this guide, we will take a look at how to do a CV that can resonate with target employers, and provide you with a good chance of more and better job interviews.

Always start with the job

When you write a CV it is tempting to pour out all of your work experience into digital format, add some headings, and think you are done.

Your CV should actually start with you thinking about the job you are applying for. You need to look at:

  • The job description

  • The about us page and other company details

  • The person specification

Before you write your CV or edit a CV you already have, you need to plan out how you will match the competencies required in the role with the experience you have gained in your career to date. You can demonstrate your capacity to do the role through your:

  • Qualifications and certifications

  • Past work history

  • Extracurricular activities

Understand the job role from the recruiter's point of view

When you have identified how you map onto the role, you need to think about the language that the recruiter uses to describe the job. What are the keywords in their semantic web of understanding of the role? 

If you can get to a position where you are confident that you know what the recruiter wants to see, and the language that they use to describe a successful person in the role you are applying for, you have a complete picture of how your CV should look.

You can then go about producing a CV that is as near to perfect as possible, within the limitations of the qualifications, competencies, achievements, and responsibilities that you can demonstrate in your career to date. You may not be able to prove competence in every facet of a role. However, if you have chosen to apply for a role, then you should be able to unequivocally demonstrate your competence in the core competencies that the recruiter wants to see.

Your CV then comes down to written and visual communication.

The layout of your CV

When producing a CV you need to think about what the recruiter is going to expect and appreciate in the format that you provide. CV layouts or formats can be categorised in the following ways.

Academic CVs

These tend to be fairly long and detailed CVs, lifting qualifications to the prime real estate of the top half of the first page, and detailing every time you have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Study other academic CVs so that you get the formatting and academic style correct throughout your CV.

Skills or achievements based on CVs

With this type of CV, you will normally group your experience in categories of skill or types of achievement rather than using a chronological work history. You may have a skills-focused top section underneath your personal statement, with bold text for the core competencies that map onto the role.

Creative or portfolio CVs

For those working in digital media and graphics-based industries, it has become the norm to use more flamboyant CVs, with stylish typeface, graphics, links to portfolios, and even embedded images of portfolio items. There is much more licence for creativity in this type of CV. The medium is the message.

Traditional or chronological CVs

This type of CV is the most common and is historically the 'right' way to do a CV. You should list your work history in reverse chronological order, demonstrating your career progression.

By reading these short summaries above you probably have a pretty good idea of the layout of CV that will suit the job roles you are looking to apply for. 

If in doubt, get in touch with people that are doing the job you want to do and ask to look at their CV. You can speak to people in your organisation, or why not get in touch with people in your network on LinkedIn? People are normally happy to provide assistance, and you might even get provided with a CV template for your target role, or some really good nuggets of wisdom to help your application.

What should you include on your CV?

There are certain things that should definitely appear on your CV, and there are other things that you should avoid. Let's take a look at what should be on your CV first.

A way to contact you

You'd be surprised how many people send a CV without a phone number or email address. Your CV should have a clear section with your name, phone number, and email address. These days there is no need to put your physical address. You may want to add your professional LinkedIn profile though.

Your personal statement

You should write a few lines of personal statement in the passive third person tense. This should go in the prime top third real estate of the first page of your CV. Having done your research on the mindset of the recruiter you should be able to write a personal statement that resonates with them. 

Your achievements

Many CVs benefit from a key achievements section just below the personal statement. This is where you can explain to your future employer how many awards you have won, how often you've been in the top 10 percent, and why you are a high achiever. Six to eight bullet points across a two-column table should suffice. If you are writing a technical CV, then this section below your personal statement may be where you describe your experience with your experience of core technologies that are necessary to do your target job.

Work history

You should detail your work history, going back up to 15 years, or a minimum of five or six jobs. In some CV formats, work history is blended into achievement or skill sections. You need to make sure that you detail your employers, your job roles, and help recruiters to understand where you worked and when.

When writing your work history, make sure that you use active, strong language. You want to use words like:

  • Discovered

  • Won

  • Managed

  • Successfully implemented

  • Completed

  • Innovated

  • Grew

What do you do about education?

In some job roles, you want your education and certifications towards the top of the CV. In other roles, like sales roles, for example, you may want to relegate your education history to the bottom half of the second page of your CV. You should at the least have the highest qualifications that you possess on your CV.

Explaining gaps in your CV

Many gaps in your CV can be communicated as positives that reflect an opportunity. If you went back to university, then that's a huge plus for you, as you committed to your learning and development, and sacrificed earnings to do so. If you took a career break for family reasons, then frame it in a positive way. "Took the proactive choice to reassess career goals… having completed a new certification… motivated to push forward in a challenging role". 

Normally it's best to explain career gaps in your cover letter, and that can ensure that the space available in your CV is used for communication of competencies, experiences, and personality traits. 

What you shouldn't put on your CV

Here are some things you should not include or should avoid doing when you are writing your CV:

  • There's no need to put your age, date of birth, marital status, or nationality on your CV.

  • In addition, it is not normally wise to add a photograph to your CV, unless you work in an industry where it is the norm, such as acting or modelling.

  • Avoid using excessive design and graphic features on your CV, and choose a typeface such as Arial or Times Roman rather than a font that is more flamboyant. 

  • Avoid negative mentions on your CV.

  • Don't waste space in your CV describing tasks and duties that the recruiter will already know. Sometimes a keyword will describe what you did just as well as three lines of text.

  • Don't include references on your CV. When it's time for the recruiter to take references they will let you know.

Extracurricular activities

Hobbies and interests can be important on a CV. They provide personality and background to what is normally quite a formal document. If you are an entry-level candidate or a graduate, then your extracurricular activities may become prominent in your CV to describe who you are and why you have potential.

When you don't have skills and experience to sell yourself with, then you need to demonstrate immense potential in other ways to beat other candidates and get the job.

General CV tips to keep in mind and recap

A recruiter will spend about six seconds on average deciding whether to move forward with your candidacy or not. That makes it vital that you stack the deck in your favour, and these tips should help:

  • Make sure you've done thorough research on the company.

  • Choose a CV layout that fits the sector in which you are applying for a job.

  • Use a bold, clear font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, as mentioned before.

  • Use consistent formatting for headings and sections of content, with good alignment and design.

  • Keep your CV to two  sides of A4

  • Communicate clearly and don't waffle.

  • Use keywords and language from the job description, and build your CV as a semantic web describing the perfect candidate.

  • Proofread your CV and have someone else check it over as well.

  • Use a cover letter that is tailored to the role, but also tailor your CV to the application.

As you create your CV, you may find that you need to brush up on some soft or hard skills in order to meet the job criteria for certain roles.

Consider taking a course on teamwork skills, communication skills, or other soft skills. To learn more about writing an effective CV and preparing for your interview, take a look at the career planning course offered by Tomsk State University on Coursera.

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