CV advice for students and graduates:

Fold your CV in half. If you haven’t started to solve the reader’s problem by halfway down the first page, it’s probably going on the ‘no’ pile.

This quote, from the well-known recruitment writer and trainer Mitch Sullivan,  is probably the best advice on writing a CV that I’ve seen.

I see dozens of CVs a day. They come in many different styles, and there is often a huge difference in quality. Over the years I have worked with 100s of employers, and the number of candidates that I have placed is into 4 figures, so I have an idea about what makes a strong CV.  These are a few tips based on my own experience and preferences. I hope they will be helpful.

Even professional CV writers don’t always agree on the best layout and structure. Everyone has their own preferences, myself included. In truth, there is no right or wrong way;  though there can be some variances between career types. The thing to remember is that the CV is there to get relevant information across to the recruiter, with the aim of attracting their attention. Make sure its formatted well, has key information on it, and is relevant to the role you are applying for. It is crucial that you add a summary that ties everything together, find out more here.

There is a CV template below that you can download, and fill in your own details. Or you may prefer this one

The importance of work experience:

I can’t stress enough how important work experience is. It really can make the difference between getting a job or not. And the experience doesn’t need to be related to the job you are going for (though if you have got some related experience then that is particularly powerful). Read this blog for more of my thoughts.

As a graduate you may have limited work experience, and it’s important to make the most of what you have. The person reading your CV will be looking to get an idea of your overall employability, not just your technical knowledge.

Some students and graduates have left work experience off their CV as it was not directly relevant to the job they were applying for. Please believe me that this is one of the worst things that you can do; you should add all of your work experience, and be proud of it.

It’s all valuable; whether it be a part-time Saturday job, newspaper delivery, voluntary work, university society work, cleaning, catering. Or anything else you have done.  And if a job is not on the CV, it can’t really be used to support competency based answers to interview questions; and many of these are best answered with work-related examples, not education.

If you do have any directly relevant work experience, including internships and placements, then it is a huge advantage. Make sure this is particularly prominent. This includes things you have done in your own time, or as a hobby. For example, if you are in Marketing and spent some time creating social media accounts for a society or sports club; you can show successes like increases in followers, etc.

Hints and tips to get a strong CV:

  • First impressions count, so make sure you are happy with how the CV will represent you. This is one of the most important documents that you will ever prepare. If there are errors then it can give the impression of carelessness / lack of attention. Not good at spelling? Use spellcheck or a programme such as Grammarly. Or ask someone to check it for you.
  • Make sure that you cover the key parts of your education; particularly if it’s something that is relevant to that employer. Write about modules, or projects; focus on the bits that may be most relevant to the job you are applying for (rather than listing everything). This could perhaps be done under your degree details- and also in the statement tying everything together.
  • I often hear from graduates that they have been advised by someone that the CV should only be one page. I would strongly disagree. Two pages is ideal. Whenever I see a one page CV I can’t help but feel that something is missing. And often when I speak with the graduate I find that they took something useful out to make sure it stayed at one page (I know of some who missed out on interviews as a result).
  • At the opposite extreme, anything 3 or more pages is usually too much. Often when a CV is too lengthy, the reason is wasted space. It can look very sloppy, especially if there is an administrative aspect to the job you are applying for. For example, massive margins, or too large font sizes. Also using too much space between sections; or listing the degree date, course, and university in 3 lines. And listing multiple modules (often with single word titles) in bullet points: they may be; better; listed; like this – so it’s across the page.
  • Or it may be that you have too many bullet points for jobs that are not directly relevant. For example, if you worked on a till in a supermarket a lot can be implied, so if you have many bullet points listing what you did then these can be trimmed if needed, and maybe leave 2-3, or just one with a summary of what you did.
  • There are many CV templates, usually designed by someone who does not review CVs for a living. Stick to something simple, avoid things like boxes for text.
  • For your font size, I would say that 10 or 11 is ideal. Use a straightforward, easy to read typeface such as Calibri or Arial. Avoid fonts with serifs (the sticky out bits on the edges of the letter).
  • Unless you are going for creative design type positions you will almost certainly not be judged on how artistic your CV is. The most important thing is to get across the information that is relevant to the recruiter in a clear way so they can easily read it.  I don’t see any need for columns, boxes, etc- particularly as they can take up valuable space (and make it hard to update the CV if you need to add something).
  • I don’t see any need for headers / footers, or page numbers either; again, these take up valuable space. I would recommend doing it simply, with each section coming in turn, and spread across the page. Not, for example, education on the left of the page, and jobs on the right.
  • If you are going for a creative type role then you need to make sure the CV is well designed; and for extra points, if a specific design package is used in the role (InDesign for example) then use it to do your CV.
  • If you have an account with examples of work (for example GitHub, or Behance, or just a portfolio) then put a link.
  • Employment related bullet points of key achievements are always powerful. Perhaps showing something you did that had a positive effect on the business. And if these can be shown in measurable terms (for example % increase) all the better.
  • And bring the bullet points to life. Many CVs have copy and pasted duties from the job description, and this will not do you justice. And often it’s not apparent what they actually refer to. Instead of doing this, write out the bullet points yourself. Think of if as if someone is asking you what you did – you wouldn’t quote duties from the job description, you would explain it in more depth, and give examples of what you did, including achievements.
  • It’s a good idea to update your CV as you are going, or at least make a note of any key achievements / projects so they can be added later. Otherwise you will be trying to remember everything that you did – believe me, I have been there myself, and it’s not easy!
  • Add school results (GCSE and A levels) with grades. It is often asked for by employers (especially Maths and English) and may need to be added if missing. If you didn’t do so well, you can address this in the summary on your CV. For example, if something happened that affected your grades; or even if you weren’t as committed at school as you are now, and you turned it around by getting a degree.
  • Write in the first person, not the third person (so you are referring to yourself, not as if someone else has written it for you). I know a lot of other recruiters, and all agree with me on this.
  • There is no need to put national insurance number, your photograph, or reference details (or even to say ‘references are available on request’). Also no need to write ‘Curriculum Vitae’. I would put your location but there is no need for your full address. And if you have your own transport then mention it.
  • I would advise against using your university email address for contact, as at some point you may no longer have access to it. It’s easy to set up your own email account, and will look more professional.
  • Make sure you have a professional looking email address – so nothing daft, jokey- or even worse (I have seen some crackers in my time!).
  • If there is a potential issue make sure you address it. For example if you got a 2:2 and there were extenuating circumstances. Or if you went travelling after studying (meaning you weren’t able to work). Or if there was another reason you were not able to work, leaving a gap in employment. These things will be noticed, and it’s best to address them up front.
  • When adding work experience make sure dates are added, including months- this is important as it shows how long you were in those jobs (for example ‘2021-2022’ could mean anything from 2 to 24 months, whereas ‘January 2021 to June 2022’ shows that it was 18 months).
  • Also, make sure you add the year that you finished (or are due to finish) your degree. Put the month you finish your studies and are available for work as the end date, not when you graduate. For example if you finish in June, but graduate in September then put June as the end date. If you put September then the employer will think you are not available until then.
  • If you had loads of part-time jobs while studying (particularly if they were one-off assignments for an agency), they can be grouped together. For example: September 2021-June 2022 Various assignments related to bar-work, customer service, and waitressing on behalf of recruitment agencies (a bit more detail than that, but you get the picture).
  • If someone leaves a permanent job after a few months, it can raise questions.  Especially if it happens more than once (this is known as ‘job hopping’). There are sometimes valid reasons for leaving,  but other times someone was let go by the business,  or chose to leave for another opportunity.  It can be seen as a negative by some recruiters.  So if it was only a short-term job, you need to make it clear; it will look so much better on your cv (and LinkedIn), and will avoid potential suspicion. After the job title, write the status in brackets; for example (fixed-term contract), (internship), or (placement). But don’t be tempted to use this to describe a permanent job that you left after a few months; it’s likely that you will be found out when being asked about your job, or at the referencing stage if you get an offer.
  • If you are looking for a work where you create things (for example design), make sure you put a link to any examples of work you have done. Or a GitHub account for computing, for example. Evidence of what you have done can be very powerful.
  • If you have a side-hustle, this should be on your CV. Be careful not to overplay it though, as if the employer thinks that it will take most of your time (and may even progress to the stage that you leave your ‘day job’) then it can give a concern about long-term commitment.
  • And try not to give yourself too grand a title, calling yourself  ‘CEO’ (or saying that you were working with, or advising, the CEO) of a small side-hustle, or university project, can be very misleading – and could potentially cause embarrassment if you are asked about it in an interview. There is also a chance that someone may take it literally, which would make you over-qualified for any graduate job.  It may be the working title that was given, but you would be better thinking of something more appropriate.
  • Don’t be tempted to lie or distort the truth; there is a chance you will be found out. It’s not worth the risk.
  • Some CVs have a ‘hobbies and interests’ section’ and there is debate about whether this should be on there. I would say yes: it adds something a bit different and can sometimes help to open conversations with the recruiter. If your hobby is something that is related to the job then even better. But if you don’t want to have this section then it is not a problem.
  • When saving and sending a CV I would always recommend using the ‘save as’ feature and naming the file, something like this: ‘Matthew Parry CV’, with maybe also ‘application for Marketing Assistant’ if you like. rather than using the default saving title. It may seem a little thing, but it looks a lot better when it arrives as an attachment; and it also makes it easier for the recruiter to find your details amongst all the other applications.

Remember, your university careers service offers valuable help and advice on applications and interviews. I would also recommend making an appointment with them if you are looking for help.

Matthew Parry,
Director. SME Graduate Employment

Email: matthew@sme-graduates.co.uk Telephone: 0370 774 9500

This blog is also covered on:

TikTok CV advice for students and graduates https://www.tiktok.com/@smegraduateemployment/video/7169555261529541893?is_from_webapp=v1&item_id=7169555261529541893

YouTube CV advice for students and graduates https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDh7fyjJHeA

SME Graduate Employment is a specialist student and graduate recruitment agency covering permanent jobs, placements, and internships across the UK. Most job types and business sectors are covered.

You can see student and graduate jobs advertised here Student and Graduate job vacancies (sme-graduates.co.uk) and read more blogs and advice to help develop your employability skills here University student and graduate employability advice and tips (sme-graduates.co.uk)

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