This article will provide you with a framework, a few examples and some guidelines to follow when writing a CV and covering letter, in line with common practice. It will also help you to focus on what you're trying to achieve.
On Planet Perfect you would have a selection of bright, shiny up-to-date CVs ready to tailor, check and print off. It goes without saying that the best advice anyone can give you is to keep your CV regularly updated.
Back in the real world, it's not quite like that! Even if you're organised enough to have an up to date CV to hand, you'll need to tailor it before it's good to go. Mass mailings can sometimes get you an interview, but it's hit and miss. That's because one of the most common misconceptions about CVs is that it they are all about showcasing yourself. While that is true, it's even more important to match your skills and abilities to the job you are applying for. And as with any communication, your audience is more important than you are. So it's also about the prospective employers and what they want. A well presented CV and letter gets you through the weeding-out process to the point where you will be considered for interview. As well as the content, a prospective employer is looking for effort, attention to detail and your presentation skills in written form.
In this article, we will give you a framework and some guidelines to follow, in line with current thinking and common practice, and, more importantly, a focus on what you're trying to achieve.
How can I make my CV and letter work for me?
Follow the logic: the perfect covering letter is the one that makes the recipient want to read your CV. The perfect CV is the one that gets you an interview. To get an interview, you have to give prospective employers what they're looking for. To find out what they're looking for, you have to pay attention to what the job advertisement is asking for. So always gear your letter and CV to the skills and abilities advertised.
If there's a job specification in an application pack, make sure you read that thoroughly. Find out about the employer (click the Employer Profile at the end of the job advert and follow the links to their website, if it's advertised on this site). If you need to know more about the position, the institution/organisation or anything else, contact the person named under Informal Enquiries at the end of the advertisement.
Writing a covering letter
The covering letter is a courteous introduction. It needs to lead into your CV and it must be concise and relevant. It is also a professional document, even if it is sent via email, so format it as you would a business letter. Keep it to a single page, including addresses and sign-off. If there's a job reference or advertisement reference, include it. An example ‘template' could be:
Dear (always use a name, if you can. Don't use a Christian name only, but use Mr. Mrs. Miss. or Ms - appropriate if you don't know whether she is Mrs or Miss.)
RE: job/advertisement reference number (if applicable)
Paragraph 1: clearly state which job you are applying for
I am writing in reply to your advertisement on the jobs.ac.uk website on (date of advertisement) for (the position/job title). I enclose/attach my CV for your consideration.
Paragraph 2: briefly outline why you are a good applicant -what you can do for them
You could echo (but not repeat!) some of the phrases in the advertisement. For example, if the advertisement says:
‘You will have excellent research and organisational skills, and the ability to work flexibly in a small team as well as alone. Although not essential, teaching experience and knowledge of the sector would be an advantage.'
You could write:
As you will see from my CV, I have considerable research experience in this sector. For the past three years I have had individual responsibility for my project as well as lecturing and working closely with team members to organise conferences and events.
Paragraph 3: Clarify or explain any problem areas (if applicable) or highlight relevant voluntary work.
Briefly explain anything in your CV that needs clarification - if your current position is completely different or if you have taken a break. Don't be apologetic! For example:
I took a break from academic research during 2003-5, and worked my way up to the position of Events Manager in a leisure centre, where I gained valuable experience and developed management skills. When a job opportunity came up at the University, I applied and returned to lecturing and research.
Paragraph 4: bow out gracefully!
You could include a sentence about the organisation or institution here, based on your knowledge or on what you have found out. For example:
I hope my application is successful. I would welcome the opportunity to continue my career in a University with such a good reputation for research/in a new and stimulating environment/in an innovative and exciting Company.
Writing your CV
The following is a suggested sequence and outline headings for a CV. Make it readable and use a no-nonsense font like Ariel or Times New Roman. Use headings in bold and bullet points for responsibilities, achievements, qualifications etc. The ideal length is 2 sides (on two separate numbered pages).
A word of warning - your CV is not an item in isolation. Bear in mind that you must be able to back up all your statements with information or examples in an interview!
1. Your name and contact details
2. Personal statement
A personal statement is a summary of your abilities. It's not about what you have done, jobs you have held, qualifications you have gained or your experience - that's in the rest of the CV. This is about the transferable skills that will contribute to the job. As in the covering letter, you need to gear it to the position you are applying for - and the clues are in the advertisement. Stick to one paragraph of three or four pithy sentences. Go through the job specification for the new post if you have one and make a list of the skills that are required. Make every sentence count. Be relentlessly positive and avoid negative statements. You need to give the prospective employer a snapshot of what you are like professionally. For example:
I am task-oriented, able to motivate myself and sustain focus from the start of a project through to completion. A naturally strategic thinker, I also have an eye for detail, quality and practicality. I enjoy collaborating with other people, working towards a shared goal and learning from shared experience.
3. Work experience
Starting with your current position, list these in reverse order. For the first one or two (if they are relevant to the new role), bullet-point your key duties and achievements under clear sub-headings. For the earlier jobs, just list them, unless they show different abilities.
Date Job title and organisation name
Where possible, link these to the specification for the new job.
Detail the results of your achievements.
3. Alternative Skills
If you have had a break in your career, have been self-employed or have had a ‘portfolio' career where you have done a number of different jobs, detail your skills before you list your previous jobs.
4. Qualifications, education and training
Unless you are starting out in your career, you don't need to put in all your GCSE subjects and grades, or all your A levels. If you have a degree, start with that, the University or College you attended, and the date and go from there. Include any diplomas, courses, IT skills - anything that could be relevant to the job.
5. Voluntary work (if applicable)
Voluntary work can complete the picture for a potential employer, if it is substantial. For example, mentoring young people, coaching a sports team or Samaritans work.
‘Hobbies' is not the hot topic it once was for CVs! Unless it is relevant to the job, keep it to a sentence about what you like to do in your spare time. Again, this will complete the picture for your employer.
If you have details of referees, put them in. Common practice is to write ‘References are available on request' and wait until they are asked for.
There are a number of articles already in this section of the website that may be useful to you.
Applying for a job
How to read a job advertisement
Top Ten Tips for writing cover letters
You've got 10 seconds to impress me - 10 things NOT to do on your CV