How to write or update your CV

CV on typewriter

Whether you're starting from scratch, or dusting off your oh-so-dusty pre-children CV, we've got advice on how to put together a top-notch job application that stands out from the rest.

Your goal is to grab an employer's attention in about five seconds; it's a scarily small window of opportunity. But there's no way round the fact that your CV is the thing that gets you the interview, so getting it right is vital. Think of it as being of similar importance to your birth plan (but hopefully more in touch with reality).

How should a CV look and how long should it be?

Trends and fads in CV presentation come and go, so don't obsess too much about which font you use (though no Comic Sans, for the love of God); less is more when it comes to CVs.

With length, one page of A4 is ideal but depending on your skills, qualifications and experience, it may not be possible to squish your CV onto one page. So don't – go onto a second page if you need to. But your Saturday job in the hairdresser’s when you were a teenager probably isn't relevant (unless you're applying for a job in a hair salon).

Use bullet points to break up text and ensure the line-spacing makes it easy to read. Long paragraphs and small type are not inviting to look at, and won't be read properly. It’s also worth double-checking that your CV looks as good on other people's computers as it does on yours – send it to a few friends and ask them if it's displaying properly.

No one is going to give you a job as an IT professional because you have a GCSE in knitting.

What should I include in my CV?

Again, there are loose conventions when it comes to the order you list your employment history, education, qualifications and skills, so feel free to diverge from this but the order usually goes:

  • Name and contact details
  • Personal profile – brief summary of your skills, experience and career goals
  • Job history – in reverse chronological order with brief descriptions of your responsibilities and achievements
  • Education (keep to most recent and relevant qualifications)
  • Interests/personal details
  • References

Don't try to hide the fact that you've taken time off to have children. If you’re looking for work after a career break state it clearly but briefly on your CV, and then focus on making sure that the impression you're presenting fits the bill for the company you're applying to.

The golden rule is always to think about what you're writing from the employer's perspective.
Education generally goes after work experience and, as a rule, you should include only the most recent and relevant.

If you have a degree, include it, giving the name of the university or college that awarded it, and the name of the course. Make sure to include any relevant training, courses and professional development you’ve completed, as they're often just as important.

What should I include in a covering letter for a job?

Lots of job applications are now done online, but the traditional format of CV plus 'covering letter', i.e. the box where they want you to explain why you'd be right for the job, still applies.

Your covering letter should be brief but full of information. This is your golden opportunity and in many ways it’s even more important than your CV. Think of it as your 'personal statement' for why you think you're right for the job, ie how your skills meet the job specification. Remember that at the first stage of shortlisting, some large companies may simply use a computer program to ‘crawl’ the CVs or cover letters for keywords used in the job specification so be as blatant about the fact that you’re a match for them as you like. And, it goes without saying, customise your covering letter for each job.

If you're applying online, then there will be a form with boxes for your qualifications and work history, and a box for you to explain why you match the job spec and want the job – this is where your ‘covering letter stuff’ goes.

When you write the personal statement, refer to each aspect of the person spec and give examples of how you meet each one. Generally, when organisations are shortlisting, you will be making their lives easier as they will be able to see that you meet all of their essential criteria.

Things to consider before you send your application

Get a friend or your partner to check it over before you hit ‘send’. It's easy to miss spelling or grammar errors when it's your own work, especially if you typed it late at night after the kids were in bed.
Make sure you've been honest. Don't exaggerate experience or responsibilities that you can't support in an interview. However, do give yourself credit where it's due. Phrases such as 'helped with' and 'assisted in' sound as though your level of responsibility was minimal. Try a phrase like ‘was instrumental in’. Now is not the time for modesty.

Once your CV is sorted, the next stage is finding suitable vacancies. Have a look on Mumsnet Jobs for a range of positions, including flexible or part-time work, and sign up for personalised job alerts if you want to be kept up to date with new openings.