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What is a CV?

A CV (or ‘curriculum vitae’) is a concise summary or snapshot of the skills, achievements, and experiences that make somebody a good candidate for the role they are applying for. A CV is used when applying for jobs. Submitting a CV usually forms part of the first stage of applying for a job. Sometimes employers ask for a CV instead of an application form, sometimes they will ask for both.

In the USA and Canada, CVs are referred to as ‘résumés’. A résume in the US or Canada is generally more concise than a CV and doesn’t need to follow any specific formatting rules.

What is a cover letter?

A CV details your qualifications, skills, and experiences. In contrast, a cover letter allows you to bring these to life by showing your personality and why you are a good fit for a specific role and/or organisation. In addition, you can use a cover letter as a place to highlight the most relevant sections of your CV and any transferable skills.

Cover letters provide a link between your skills and experience and the specifics of a job advert you have responded in order to explain why you would be a suitable candidate for the role. 

Do not confuse cover letters with personal statements for your CV, which you will read about below. Cover letters should complement your CV but should not duplicate or simply repeat it.

What do I need to do before writing a CV?

Before drafting your CV, you should consider which of your skills and experiences specifically match what the employer will be looking for regarding that role. These could come from academic or professional qualifications, previous jobs, voluntary work, any training courses you have completed, or even hobbies and life experiences.

You will need to have researched the business and job in order to do this properly. 

If you are unsure of the job description for the role you are applying for and are therefore unsure how to tailor your CV, the government’s website provides overviews of a range of job profiles. 

What should I include in a CV?

Contact details

Generally, you should only include:

  • your name - put this right at the top of your CV, there is no need to write ‘CV’ at the top

  • your phone number - choose one that employers can use to contact you during the working day

  • your email address - make sure that the one you choose looks and sounds professional. If your personal email address is inappropriate, create a new one to use professionally

  • your LinkedIn or other professional networking profile - this is not essential, but can help demonstrate your achievements and ability to network

Do not include your age, date of birth, home address, marital status, or nationality.

The sections that you include in your CV after this point depend on the nature of the role you are applying for. They may include:

Identifying the role and potential employer

You can begin your CV by highlighting the role you are applying for by referencing the job description, person specification, or details of the business.

Personal profile 

Some candidates will begin their CV with a personal profile (or ‘personal statement’). This is a few lines summarising who the candidate is and what they hope to do in their career. The personal profile goes just below the name and contact details in the structure of the CV.

Education history

You can also include a section on your education history if you are early in your career, if educational qualifications are important in your industry, or if you don’t have a lot of relevant work experience. This would generally go just below your personal profile. However, there is no hard and fast rule about its location and you can write your work history and skills first if you prefer. An education section should include:

  • the names of any qualifications you received, eg A Levels

  • the school, college, or university where you studied each qualification

  • the dates of each qualification

  • highlighting specific details relevant to the job you’re applying for, eg specific modules you studied or academic awards you obtained

Work experience

When describing your work history you should list your former jobs starting with the most recent and including:

  • the employer details (eg their name and the city in which you were based)

  • your job title (including any promotions)

  • the dates you worked there

  • what you did there or your key responsibilities - this can be summarised in 2 to 3 lines

It’s best to give specific examples of your achievements rather than to simply recite your responsibilities. You could use the ‘STAR’ method to do this. 

You can include unpaid roles in your work experience list if they help demonstrate your suitability for the role you’re applying for. For example, unpaid work experience or regular volunteering commitments.  

Hobbies, interests, and achievements

A section on your hobbies, interests and achievements can be included if, for example, you do not have very much work experience or you gained lots of relevant transferable skills from these activities. You can mention any foreign languages you speak or any software you can competently use. However, be careful only to highlight examples that show you have the relevant skills for the job.

Different styles of CV

There are a range of different CV styles that you may use to structure your CV. For example:

  • a traditional CV simply lists your work and education history

  • a skills-based or targeted CV focuses on skills and personal qualities that specifically relate to the job you are applying for

  • creative CVs may link to an online portfolio and contain video graphics, infographics, or digital tools. They are commonly used for creative or digital arts jobs

  • academic CVs are used for those in the teaching and research professions and are typically longer than most other CVs

You should choose the style which best suits both the role you are applying for and the stage you are at in your career. For example, a skills-based CV might be useful if you have had a lot of different jobs as you could use this structure to group them together. Alternatively, there may be a specific CV style that employers in your sector generally prefer.

How long should a CV be?

Unless it is an academic CV, a finished CV should generally be no longer than 2 sides of A4. At this stage in the application process, there is no need to include details of references (recruiters will ask for these later), although you could mention that ‘references are available on request’.

Is it okay to have gaps in my CV?

Employers and recruiters understand that in the real world gaps in employment or education are common. These may easily be due to, for example, a gap year, illness, starting a family, or caring for a relative. There is no need to worry that an employer will disqualify you for a job because of a gap in your job history. 

However, you should acknowledge any gaps in your CV. You can do this without going into too much detail, which can instead be done in your cover letter. In your CV, just briefly mention the reason for the gap and list any relevant other skills or experiences you gained in this period, for example, learning a language, attending webinars, or getting involved in charity work.

There may be times when you were not able to work that have resulted in gaps in your employment history that are more difficult to describe on a CV. Certain organisations offer guidance on how to approach these situations. For example:

  • Rethink gives advice if you have been affected by mental illness

  • Carers UK gives advice if you are returning to work after a period of caring

  • Nacro offers guidance if you are applying for a job with a criminal record

Never lie on your CV as this may be a criminal offence. Lying can include exaggeration. For example, exaggerating your academic grade from a 2:2 to a 2:1 would be degree fraud.

What should I write in a cover letter?

Writing a cover letter is an opportunity to let a prospective employer know that you want to work for them and why. Therefore, to write a cover letter, you must research the employer and the job (eg by looking at their website or talking to people who already work there).

In the introduction, you should introduce yourself and state the job you are applying for, including a reference number if there is one. 

In the main body of the letter, you should highlight any skills and experiences you have that are relevant to the job. Always back up any statements you make with facts or evidence. Many recruiters recommend using the ‘STAR’ method. Make sure to always write a new cover letter for every new job you apply for to guarantee that it is specifically tailored to the role and organisation. 

A cover letter is also a place to fill in any gaps you may have in your CV. For example, if there are any breaks in your employment history, you could talk about what you did during this time and the skills you got from your experiences.

If you have mentioned having a disability in your CV, you could also talk more about this in your cover letter. However, you do not have to mention your disability at this stage of the application process if you don’t want to. For more advice on discussing disability in job applications, see Disability UK’s guidance. The government also provides support on finding employment if you have a disability.  

At the end of our cover letter, you should thank the prospective employer for considering your application and restate your interest in the role. Point them in the direction of your CV and express your preference for how they should best contact you. Make sure to double check your contact details are correct on both your CV and cover letter.

If you know the name of the person you’re writing to, you should sign the letter with ‘yours sincerely’. If you’ve started the letter with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ or similar, you should end the letter with ‘Yours faithfully’.

A cover letter should not be too long. Try to keep it between 3 and 5 paragraphs.

Always make sure to read the job description carefully, as certain positions will request that additional information is included in your application on top of your CV and/or cover letter.

Be wary not to over-exaggerate any skills or abilities on your CV or cover letter. This will not be helpful in the long term as you may be asked to back up any claims in an interview.

Who should I send my CV and cover letter to?

It is important to try to address a cover letter to a specific individual by name. You should also check that you have the right business name and address.

If you do not know the name of your prospective employer, you can try and find out who they are on the business’ website. The person you are writing your cover letter to could, for example, be the head of a department, the head of human resources, or a recruitment manager. If you still cannot find the name of the person you are writing to, you can begin your letter with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’.

Unless stated otherwise (eg a job application might specifically ask you to provide a CV or cover letter as a Word document), save your documents are a ‘.PDF’ extension to ensure they can be opened on any machine.

Always keep a copy of the version of your CV and cover letter you send to the employer in case they ask you about them in a future job interview.

Can I ask my potential employer for information or assistance?

If an aspect of a job description or a set of application instructions is unclear, or if you want to discuss a unique situation (eg mitigating circumstances that influenced your performance on a course), there’s no harm in contacting a potential employer to discuss this or to ask for clarification.

You can also contact a potential employer to request any reasonable adjustments that you require due to a disability to enable you to participate fully and fairly in the recruitment process. Also note that it is against the law for employers to discriminate against any applicant during a recruitment process.

An appropriate person to contact may be listed in the job description or advertisement, or you could contact a recruitment or HR representative.

Final checklist for writing a CV and cover letter

Before sending your CV and cover letter, make sure they’re the best they can be. Check that you have:

  • used a clear font like Arial, Times New Roman, or Calibri

  • used the same font and size across your CV and your cover letter

  • used headings, bullet points, and spacing to break up your CV to make it easier to read

  • left wide enough margins. Having enough white space around your CV in particular will make it clearer to read and appear less cluttered

  • double-checked the business name and the details of the recruiter/whoever you are addressing your application to

  • used professional language and a professional tone

  • used the keywords that the employer highlighted in their job application

  • conveyed that you have researched the position and the business

  • backed up any statements you have made with facts

  • checked your spelling and grammar

  • saved backup copies of both your CV and cover letter

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