How to Write a CV – the 5 Step Quick-Guide to Writing a Professional CV

Your CV and not knowing how to write your CV can drive you nuts! Here’s where you’ll find a 5 step guide and a free CV template, from me, Gerard le Roux. C’mon, it’ll be easy.

How to write a cv” – you’ve just typed that into Google. Why? Well, you’ve just heard the rumour: “retrenchments” “layoffs”!!! Aaaaargh! What’s first? “I’ve gotta get my CV out there!” But your CV isn’t up-to-date, it’s a mish-mash, and you know it’s not the powerful promotional tool it needs to be.

So, Google has brought you here. Cool. I’m going to guide you through the cv writing how-to, step by step. In my CV writing practice – which I’ve been running for the last 6 years – I’ve kinda been able to boil down what works in a CV and what doesn’t. So what you’ll find here are what I believe are the 5 critical steps to writing a CV that works powerfully for you in the job market.

Here’s what’s ahead – scroll down to see each heading.

  • Step #1 CV How-To: Write an Opening
  • Step #2 “How to Write a CV”: Write Your Career History
  • Step #3 of Your CV How-To: Write Your Education and Computer Skill Details
  • CV Writing How-To Step #4: Loading Your Info Into a Template
  • How to Write a CV Step #5: Cleaning and Checking

[Just a note here from me, Gerard - your CV could be full of pitfalls, y'know: funny jobs you took, jobs you had for only 6 months, career changes, gaps when you had your kids, that job you had designing the cells on death row (true story) - or you may just be at your wits end and need professional help with your CV. Sometimes it is really best to haul in a CV writing professional - but someone please, who's proved their expertise. Every recruiter who's not making money thinks they're an expert. See my service :-) here.]

Let’s get started.

First: fire up your Notepad application. Yes, Notepad. Not MS Word! Just do it okay! At the start I want you to focus on quality CV content, not formatting or the ‘look’. Later I’ll give you a template to ‘pour’ your content into. We’ll start by gathering some info, then later we’ll put it all together.

And please keep on open mind! I’m not going to be showing you how to write a CV that’s average or typical. No. My CV how-to info is going to be a little different (better!!)

Step #1 CV How-To: Write an Opening

Say you’re an Accountant. Okay. What do you want a recruiter to see first in your CV? Your health, address, family, ID no., and schooling details? Nooooo! It’s of no relevance (“relevance” is an important word and a secret of how to write a CV, a great CV!)

Rather say this at the start – it’ll be your “opening”:

Accountant - Offering 6 Years Experience, a BComm Accounting Degree, With Special Knowledge of the Manufacturing, Costing, and Supply Chain Environment. Targeted Positons – Cost and Management Accountant, Financial Manager – Manufacturing.”

That’s better marketing, no?! Yesss! (air pump!) And the way we’ll format it later will pump that up even further. Now, here are the guidelines on how to write yours:

[Got your Notepad open?? Make notes as we go!]

  • What’s your career positioning/title? Accountant? Customer Service Agent? Sales Representative? Financial Manager? Attorney? Admin Clerk, Senior Admin Clerk? Personal Assistant?
  • How many years experience do you have in that kind of role? 5, 10. If it’s more than 20, just say “20+ Years Experience …” – just keep it basic.
  • What’s your best qualification for the role? This is not essential so if you don’t have one don’t worry. But if you do, include it.
  • How do you make a difference in your job? What “special knowledge” or expertise, or skills, or unique abilities do you have? And then what benefits have resulted from applying that skill?
  • And lastly, what positions are you looking for? You can call it your “targeted positions” or your “objective”.

Got it? Play around with it. Chop where its too long. Re-word it. Keep sentences short. Make it punchy. What are the essential points? Stick to them. Good, move on to step 2.

Step #2 “How to Write a CV”: Write Your Career History

Ok, now ‘lissen up’! Leave your baggage at the door please! Leave your old ideas of CV writing outside. Where it belongs. Because … your CV doesn’t get read. It gets scanned. Does that change the way you need to write. Um. Yes!

Here’s a quick summary of what’s in (cool, effective, influential) and what’s out.

  • Long, detailed descriptions of what you do/did are out.
  • Short punchy sentences are in.
  • Bulleted lists are in. But short ones only.
  • Achievements are in. But only in a certain way.
  • Your job title is in. But only in a certain way.
  • Your company name is in. But only in a certain way.

Know this: the reader (employer, recruiter) are going to be thinking like this -

“What’s the person’s title, ok, I now know what he/she does; who’d they work for? ok, I know/respect them – [or maybe, who? never heard of them].”

Read that again. That’s how reading your CV goes.

And that’s pretty much where the thinking ends. It doesn’t have to be the end though. If there are things that catch they eye then you may get another chance. It’s important that you do. Critical actually. Follow instructions and I’ll show you the CV how-to here!.

Let’s keep going.

Writing Job Titles on Your CV

What was your official title? Now look at it. Is it a title that immediately, clearly and easily communicates what you do/did? It must. If you had ‘sexy’ title, dump it. Like if you have “Financial Official”, dump it. Use “Accountant” instead. Don’t be scared, your CV is a communication tool. Not a legal document. Clarity. Clarity. Simplicity. Ease of reading. Those are your watchwords.

Company Names on Your CV

What was the company name? Ok. Now you want to do one of two things depending on whether your company was well known or not.

Well known company – provide a quick one line overview of how the company

has 3000 employees, annual revenue of R400 million and operates in 12 countries.”

Not well known company – provide quick insight into what the company does, if it has any high profile customers, say so, if it has any association with a well known company, say so:

“ACME Inc is a Microsoft Gold Partner”

- get it? Maybe give a website address (only if website is up-to-date and reasonably good looking.)

Dates on Your CV

Vital that you include the dates you worked at the company, also including, for recent positions (last 10/15 years) months and year details (your CV really is about your recent experience – older experience on your CV doesn’t have that much impact.)

How to Write CV Job Descriptions

Now give a 2 or 3 line overview of what your job entailed. Seriously keep it short and high level. As if you were explaining to a blond! Okay, maybe not that simple! But give it some thought and come up with something like:

“Managing the office of the CEO, with all administrative, secretarial and communications functions – ensuring a quick response, organised support office.”

And yes, give a quick glimpse into the kind of quality service you provided (“quick response” “organised”). 3 Lines max! The effectiveness of your CV depends on it!

How to Write CV Job Description Detail (Bulleted List)

Now think about your job, brainstorm, what were the 7 or 8 (or less) biggest things you were responsible for? Can you break your job down into 7 or 8 main areas of activity? Try and try again. Then you want to say this, or something like it:

“Managed and coordinated the following functions: Correspondence (letters and e-mail); the CEO’s diary; Planning of company events; Supervising 2 admin clerks; Writing and distribution of the company newsletter; Communication with all Executive Directors”

How to Write Achievements in Your CV

Did you win awards? how did you make a difference? can you put a number to it? (you must put a number to it, even if it’s a guess. Why? Numbers get attention. Numbers improve credibility.) So here’s an example:

Won the “Employee of the Month” award 3 months during 2008 for “efficiency” and “excellent customer service.

Notice the quotes – they get attention and are more believable – you’re quoting what someone else said.

And:

Achieved a performance appraisal rating of “4″ (“exceeds expectations”) consistently for 2 years, never dropping below “3.5″ in other years.

Figures on your CV! They’re brilliant. Again:

Raised team productivity by 35% in my first year by re-organising the machine layout.

That’s another great addition to your achievements – saying quickly what you did to get the great result. That also add to the persuasiveness of your overall CV.

That’s how to write your CV achievements!

What’s next!? It feels like we’re almost done! No.

Are you keeping up on Notepad?? If you write as you go it’ll be easy at the end.

Just a quick reminder – I’m here anytime to help you. If you’re getting bogged down – as one can! :-( – then just enlist my help. Just send me an e-mail and I’ll send you the service details or check the service options here.

Step #3 of Your CV How-To: Write Your Education and Computer Skill Details

In the training you’re received – degrees, diplomas, certificates, courses, etc – there are some that are just more important than others. Right? But how do you know which to give a higher profile – and which to exclude altogether (yep, sometimes they’ve just got to be dumped).

You look ahead. And you ask: “What’s an employer gonna want to see?” If I could only show him/her 3 qualifications/courses/diplomas – which ones would I feature?” Brainstorm aH little around that and you’ll get the picture.

How to Write in Your Degrees, Diplomas, Certificates

Aim for these inclusions/exclusions in your CV:

  • Always include your degree/s if you have;
  • Always include any serious Diploma (3 years long usually);
  • Only include a certificate course (usually 6 months of study) on its own line if it’s strongly relevant to the position you’re looking for. Like, you may be an Engineer. But you’re looking for a Project Management position. So you’ll include that “Cerfiticate Course in Project Management” – it’s relevant and on target.
  • Demote any other relevant (but less relevant) courses to a listing like this: “Technical Short Courses – Maintaining Bottling Conveyor Systems; … ” or … “Management Short Courses – Finance for Non-Financial Managers; …” Remove any really old courses, or courses that are just outdated (technology has moved on – don’t come across as a dinosaur by including it) and anything that doesn’t have a bearing of some sort on the position you’re looking for.
  • Soft skill courses like time management or interpersonal skills – are weak inclusions. They may be valuable, but not in your CV. They are pretty low on the list of priority inclusions.

How to Include Schooling

Then there’s your secondary schooling, matric. It’s not that important. However, I always find that it does fill an important function in your CV. It’s a key reference point for the reader. But it starts losing it’s positive effect the more you go along in your career. So I’d say start excluding it once you’re 20 years into your career. After that, there should be more important things to occupy that space.

Professional Details

One more thing: you may have some professional certifications – “attorney” or “chartered accountant” or “MCSE”. Depending on space you can include these with your education. Expand the heading to “Education and Professional”. Or if space allows, create a seperate “Professional” heading, under which you include your membership of organizations (relevant ones!) or certifications.

Computer Literacy in Your CV

  • If you’re just a regular person (a non “IT guy”) – unless you’re an IT ‘guy’ you don’t need to get too detailed here – just include your competence in the general office applications – like the MS Office suite. And keep it basic – you don’t need to include things like Windows ’95, ’98, XP, etc – it’s kinda assumed.
  • If specific software is important – One difference is this though: if your profession/job title requires knowledge of certain software. Maybe you’re an accountant, so Pastel Accounting or SAP Financials or whatever you have would be important to include.
  • If you are an IT ‘guy’ - then you want to give a much more comprehensive list – perhaps even a seperate page as an addendum to your main CV. And an important thing is to keep what you list there weeded. You don’t want old, outdated technology cluttering things up and, again, making you look like a dinosaur.

Are you making notes? Have you got Notepad firing? Keep it going, but we’re getting somewhere on the topic of how to write a cv!

In fact it’s time to start loading it all up into a template!

CV Writing How-To Step #4: Loading Your Info Into a Template

So you’ve got the content for your CV – with the exception of your contact details, etc – you’ve got that stuff in your head, right? So you can just add it in at the appropriate place in the template.

IMPORTANT INSTRUCTIONS: 1) Download the MS Word template via the link below;

CV Template (MS Word Version) | CV Template (PDF Version)

2) Save it to a file or to your “My Documents” or your “Desktop”; 3) Open it; 4) Then the idea is to replace the existing sample text with what you have in Notepad, either by typing over it or by copying and pasting from Notepad to Word (this can be tricky). Here are 2 key tips:

  1. Switch off “Word Wrap” in Notepad: Format/Word Wrap – deselect the option. If you don’t do this you’ll have funny paragraphs where you don’t want them in the MS Word doc.
  2. When you go to the template, select the text you want to replace and NOT the paragraph mark which contains the formatting for that paragraph. That way your Notepad text will display with the formatting used in the template.

How to Write a CV Step #5: Cleaning and Checking

So you’ve loaded up your info into the CV template. Now it’s time to get fussy. It’s time to check spelling, correct funny looking sentences, correct funny sounding sentences, and correct grammatically incorrect sentences.

Try not to skip over the checking. Not cleaning things up could spoil all your ‘how to write a cv’ efforts so far.

Correct all the obvious stuff first and then look for:

  • Sentences that end with just one or two words in a line. It looks lame and takes up valuable space. Try to shorten the sentence – or if that doesn’t work, lengthen it so it doesn’t look so lame!
  • How your pages end. If they end in the middle of a section (“Career History” or “Education” for example) can you make it fit by excluding some unimportant line/s of text? Or alternatively end the section in the middle and then start the page by repeating the heading (like “Career History Continued”) and continuing with the detail.
  • Check for long winded sentences. Can you prune them? Can you cut detail to the absolute minimum? You want a clear uncluttered message to come across. Too much detail will dilute and weaken it.

Right that’s the end of your CV how to lesson. How’s it looking?

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    Gerard le Roux

    [Updated May 2014]

    Hi, I'm Gerard le Roux, a CV writer and job search coach - published in The Star and Financial Mail and heard on Radio 702 and SAfm. I am also a Certified Guerrilla Job Search Coach.
    I help people get more interviews and job offers.


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