Writing a Great CV (Part 2) – Preparing to write your CV

Don’t panic!

Nobody enjoys writing their own CV but with a bit of preparation it can be a positive and encouraging experience.  This is your chance to take as much time as you need to think about your life and your career, to note down all your best qualities, and let employers know what you have done before and what you can do for them now. and in the future

When should I write my CV?

It’s a good idea to have a recent CV that is always up to date, so the right time is always NOW!  Having said that, you will always need to update it – new skills, qualifications and jobs – and to reflect what you’re currently looking for.

Remember though that writing a CV is not a 2 minute job.  It needs a bit of preparation, thought and almost certainly a couple of re-drafts.  Don’t expect too much of yourself, you won’t finish it all in one sitting, so don’t get stressed – take a break and keep coming back to it until you’ve got it how you want it.

What do I need before I start?

Unless you have the memory of an elephant, you probably can’t remember every single job, course, project, activity and so on that you have ever been involved in.

So gather as much material as you can that will help you think about what you’ve done before.  Some ideas include:

  • Previous CVs (if you have them)
  • Old application forms
  • Job descriptions and personal specifications or contracts from previous / current job(s)
  • Job adverts for things you’ve applied for in the past
  • Performance reviews / appraisals from previous employers or work experience placements
  • References from previous jobs
  • School, college or University reports and references
  • Qualification certificates
  • Course descriptions from any training or education
  • Anything related to other relevant projects you may have completed outside of work

Forget you are writing your CV

Most of us have a mental block about CVs, so for now, forget that’s where you’re aiming for.  Start by literally dumping everything you can think of that might be even remotely relevant into a document somewhere.  Use your memory and any documents you’ve managed to find.  And ask friends, family, colleagues, teachers etc. what they think your skills and personal qualities are, it often really helps to get an independent view.

Forget that it’s for a CV; don’t worry about what section things might fit in, whether it’s relevant, if it’s spelt right, how to phrase it etc.  Nobody will see this except you so don’t worry.  Nothing is too old, or too weird, just get it all down!  This bit should be fun – a trip down memory lane remembering the things you have done and achieved in your life.  Hopefully at the end of this bit you will be feeling really positive about yourself!

What’s important is you get it all down somewhere you can then read through it.  You might end up deleting 90% of it, it doesn’t matter, there will be some gem in the 10% you keep that you would never have remembered if you hadn’t thought of everything!

Here are some ideas which should help you think about what to include:

  • What are you good at and what do you enjoy doing, in work, education or as hobbies?
  • What jobs have you had in your lifetime? However irrelevant it might seem, however short-term, include full time, part time, temporary jobs, Saturday jobs, everything!
  • What did you do in each job?  Daily tasks, projects, anything you changed or improved, any responsibilities you were given, did you manage anyone or any resources, did you get promoted, were there things people praised you about?
  • What skills did you use in these jobs –general skills like communicating and organising, or specific skills like fast typing speed, certain computer packages, certain types of machinery, or simply areas of knowledge that were required like medical or legal knowledge?
  • Have you done any voluntary work or work-experience?  For a charity, a company, a family business, helping out a friend, working in the community?
  • Have you done any training courses? At school or college, at work, evening classes, one-day Saturday courses.  Don’t worry whether you finished the course or whether you got a qualification or not.  And don’t forget practical things like First Aid, Health & Safety and driving licenses!
  • Have you managed or worked on any specific projects?  At school, college, work?  Any individual or group projects that stand out from the rest of the course?  What about any artwork, essays, school plays etc.?
  • What have you learned at home or on the job?  Online learning, teaching yourself from books, correspondence courses, or just things you’ve just picked up that you think you’re now pretty good at.
  • What do you do in your spare time?  Hobbies, sports, interests, clubs, community work?
  • Has anyone given you responsibilities?   Not just in work – this could be a group leader at a youth club, a prefect at school, a representative on a local housing/ residents committee.
  • Have you won any prizes or awards?  Duke of Edinburgh, art or business prizes; national, local or within your own school or local community.
  • Charity work?  Have you raised money for anything, taken part in events, volunteered?
  • Do you travel?  Where to, how often?
  • Do you know any other languages?  How well? Spoken, written or just to understand?  Can you communicate within a business context or socially?
  • Anything else you can think of that is unusual or interesting?  Get it all written down!

What if you haven’t worked before?

Don’t worry – go back to that list above and you’ll see you can still come up with answers to 90% of those questions, they might be about things you did at school or outside work but that’s not a problem.

What if you have long career gaps?

Don’t worry but think hard about anything you were doing in that time that might be useful to mention – any courses, training, qualifications, new skills learned, were you travelling overseas, any clubs or sporting activities.  For example:

  • If you have taken time out to raise a family what new skills have you learned (think laterally – it could be cooking or book-keeping, or managing difficult situations, and juggling multiple complex tasks).
  • If you were unemployed for an extended period, did you have to go on any courses; maybe you redecorated the house, visited a load of museums, got fit, it’s all good stuff!

Remember, this is your time to add, add and add more.  You don’t have to use it all in your CV, but it’s like word-association – you may find one thing sparks other thoughts and they spark others and so on.  If even one of those ends up being used it’s been worthwhile.

What do I do with all this..!?

This brain-dump will be the source material you’re going to use to do the first draft of your CV.  Trust us; it’s much easier to just write things down with no particular structure than to think “OK now I’m writing my CV”.

Now you’ve got the thinking and remembering bit done, you need to take a step back, think of which bits are going to be relevant to an employer – and more importantly for the specific types of employer you plan to apply to – and then piece this all together into an easy to read advert for yourself – your CV.

How do I make sure my CV emphasises what employers are looking for?

Once you have all your notes prepared on your skills and experiences, take a step back and look at things from the other side.  Below is quite a useful, and fun, exercise that may help align your personal skills and background with those things an employer is looking for:

  • Find a dozen or so job adverts that you think are interesting and relevant to your goals
  • Go through and highlight every keyword or key phrase – things like “must be passionate about helping others”, or “excellent MS Word skills essential”, or “will be required to manage relationships with funders /customers”.
  • Collate all these key words/phrases in one document and group them together under relevant headings, e.g. personal qualities, sector-knowledge, project-management skills, or whatever seems appropriate for the sector and roles you are targeting
  • Compare this list to the list of your skills and experience you just drafted:
    • You should find there are a lot of things that appear on both lists, but use different words – it is always a good idea to use the same terminology as your potential employers so they know you can definitely do what they want – don’t make them guess!  This is a chance to go through and edit your own skills and experiences to reflect the same language your targeted employers use
    • There may be things you felt were important but never appear on any job adverts – these shouldn’t necessarily be removed, but are worth flagging up as possibly less important – especially if you find you are running short of space later on
    • There will probably be things that are asked for in many of the job adverts, that you can do or have done, but you forgot to include in your own list – add them in now!
    • If you have time, a more thorough categorisation of each list, and mapping between them should give you your shortlist of skills and qualities you want to promote about yourself – this is an invaluable tool you can use in every section of your CV to make sure you are emphasising the right qualities, in the right language, in what you say about your personal profile, key skills , employment history and education.

Continue on to read Part 3 of the complete CV guide – Your first full draft