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ZD GUIDES: The Ultimate CV Writing Guide

How to write a CV that gets you to interview

How to Write A Better CV

You already have a CV. It’s pretty much the same one you’ve been using for the past few years, give or take a tweak or two. But is it doing the job for you? Here’s our guide to what employers really want to see from your CV.

What Makes a Really Great CV?

Let’s take a minute to remember what a CV is – and what it isn’t. A CV is your calling card. Its job is to get you through to interview stage. That’s it. A CV isn’t your biography. It isn’t a story that an employer will enjoy over a coffee and biscuit. It needs to make a big enough impact in a short space of time to enable an employer to quickly say ‘we definitely need to see more from this person’.

So like a front-page story in a tabloid newspaper, it needs to get its most important information out first to grab the attention and save any background for later.

In this guide, we’ll explore how to do that.

The Ultimate CV Writing Guide 2023

Should you target your CV?

Yes. Absolutely. Every time. You may be applying for lots of jobs right now, and tailoring your CV may feel like an almighty faff, but it will increase your chances with every single application.

That’s because, although lots of job descriptions look similar, there are always differences you can target and the more you target, the more chance you have of success. We’ll explore more about how to do that below.

How to write a CV by recruitment specialists.

CV no-no’s

We’re about to get into what your CV should contain but first, a little about what it shouldn’t:

  • Don’t write in a long, flowing narrative style. No employer wants to see an A4 solid block of text – it’s a killer to read. Also, you want them to be able to pull out the essential information fast. Keep it short and sweet. Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Short words. And a few bullet points to make it feel easier read.
  • Don’t go crazy with bullet lists. The great thing about bullet points is that they can:

    – Break up text
    – Make it more readable
    – Enable you to emphasise key points

    BUT a bullet point list loses its power if everything is bulleted. So mix it up.

  • Don’t lead with your academic qualifications. Even if you’ve just left education and have never had a full-time job before, still don’t feel tempted to list every GCSE you’ve collected as the main focus of your CV.
  • Don’t be dull. You can talk about your outside interests towards the end of your CV but keep it really brief – a sentence or two will do. Stick to the things that will stick in the mind. It’s not interesting that you like listening to music and watching Netflix. It is interesting that you won your county triathlon, you lead a local choir or you took up mixed martial arts in your 50s. It also reveals more about your character.
  • Show not tell. A little controversial, this one. Some would tell you it’s important to spell out that you possess certain skills and experience (like having attention to detail or being good with numbers) when the employer wants it. There is a role for that in your work experience (as we explore below). But anyone can say they are a details person. It’s another thing to actually show it. We’d suggest it’s better to show that capability through the achievements you describe.

  • What does that look like in reality? Well, it’s the difference between this:

    “I have a strong attention to detail.”

    And this:

    “To maintain a productive, friction-free supply chain I meticulously analysed data and compliance standards to weed out delays at multiple points. This detailed approach contributed to the company outperforming the market by around 5%.”

    How long should your CV be?

    2 sides of A4. If you’re applying for senior positions and have a wealth of experience to talk about, three or four sides may be reasonable. For most roles, two will be fine.

    Page 1: What should go first on your CV?

    Start with the basics: Name, address and contact details are all you need, like this:

    Sarah Jacobs
    1 Market Street, London, SW12 2DZ
    E: sarahj1234@gmail.com
    T: 07779 123456

    You don’t need to provide your age, date of birth, gender, pronouns, marital status, ethnicity or anything else unless you feel it’s important to your application.

    Personal statement: Think of this as the bite-size trailer to the movie that is you. What are the most important points you want to get across to this employer? If they only read this part of your CV, what do you absolutely want them to know about you?
    Keep it brief. A single paragraph of just a handful of sentences will be fine.

    Key achievements: There’s a temptation to think of achievements in terms of skills you’ve developed or ‘stuff’ you’ve done but remember that what an employer is looking for here is impact. Where have you delivered results and made an impact in a way that fits what the employer is looking for?

    In choosing which achievements to feature, consider these points:

  • Focus less on the skills you’ve got and more on what you did and the difference it made. Think results.
  • Tailor these for each employer so that the achievements you share align with the requirements of the role
  • Write these tightly, so you get to the point quickly
  • Example:

    This isn’t an achievement:

    “Managed a team of 8 crew members”

    This is getting there:
    “Led a team of 8 crew members to become the highest achieving regional store (turnover vs target) in 4 of 5 quarters.”

    This is a real achievement:
    “Led a team of 8 regular crew members to become the highest achieving regional store (turnover vs target) in 4 of 5 quarters, by refocusing on customer service standards and creating a positive, supportive culture that saw us nominated for a local workplace wellbeing award. This approach is now being rolled out region-wide.”

    Expertise: This might include leadership and management qualifications, professional accreditations, financial or HR qualifications, role-specific capabilities, IT skills, first aid skills etc.

    What should go on Page 2 of your CV?

    Work experience: Go back a decade (if you can). There’s no need to go back further. Start with the most recent experience and work backwards. Pay more attention to the most recent experiences (that is, say more about them) unless an earlier experience is specifically relevant to this role. In that case, it’s reasonable to go into more detail.

    Keep your descriptions tight so you get the key points across without waffling. In this section, highlight any keyphrases from the job description so it’s easy for an employer to pick them out:


    ABC Retail
    Store Manager
    July 2018 – Present

  • Led a high-performing store team through an extremely challenging pandemic and post-pandemic environment.
  • Delivered consistent on-target results through building team resilience and championing service standards.
  • Directly supported the development of team members and helped two gain promotion.
  • Qualifications: The importance of qualifications tends to diminish the further you are from gaining them. If you have a mile-long list of qualifications gained several years ago, just give a little detail about your graduate and post-grad achievements.

    Straight out of college? It’ll be reasonable to make a feature of your NVQs, GCSEs and A levels, although the employer will still want to know more about the difference you can make than the fact you got a B in GCSE history.

    If you lack industry experience, consider the skills and attributes you have gained from part-time work, volunteering or from gaining your qualifications, and the difference they have made, and make them a part of your key achievements.

    Pastimes: Just a line or two, and focus on the truly memorable.

    References: A line that says ‘references available on request’ will be all you need for now. That’s assuming you actually have some references that will be available on request.

    How to target your CV

    Your CV is done. But actually, what you’ve got on screen right now isn’t your CV; it’s more like a template. Think of it as your go-to base pasta or curry sauce, to which you can add or subtract a few ingredients to really hit the spot with your audience.

    Every application should start with your base, template CV, but you should then tailor it to ensure you’re offering exactly what the employer needs. Here’s how to do that:

    Read the job description

    We mean really read it. What sticks out? What are the keywords and phrases that jump out at you? What appears to be the most important skills, competencies and issues for this employer?

    Research the employer

    Time to dig a little deeper. Head to the employer’s website and dig around. What information does it give you that you could use? For example, as a buyer, a retailer’s shop could help you build a picture of its buying strategy. It’s an about section that could give you an insight into company culture – useful if you’re looking at an HR role. And the CSR or environmental pages could be vital if you’re taking on a head office role in estates, sustainability or similar.

    Assess what needs to change

    Compare your CV to the research you’ve done. How does it demonstrate the ways you meet the needs of the employer? Where are the gaps?

    You shouldn’t need to completely rewrite your CV. But you will probably find that by elevating some existing pieces of information and making them more prominent, you can align your experience with the employer’s requirements more completely. Here’s an example of how that might work in practice:


    Your CV already references the fact that you’ve got some experience of working internationally, although you haven’t made it a ‘headline’ of your CV. Now, though, you’re looking at a role that specifically mentions the importance of having an international view.

    Rather than leaving your line about an international experience where it is and hoping an employer will see it, reposition it so it’s part of your personal statement. Expand on it in the ‘major achievements’ section too, so no one can be in any doubt that you have the experience the employer is looking for.

    Reorder the information

    Does one employer value team leadership experience while another seems to want to focus on your innovative side? Shuffle your list of achievements so the things they want most appear first.

    All done? To find a role worthy of your CV, take a look at the ZD Jobs Page

    Or send us your CV, tell us about the roles you’re interested in, and let us search for you. Talk to us today.

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