Preparing your CV and covering letter

A CV is not a list of everything you have ever done; it is a marketing document and should set the agenda for the interview.

The information should be organised under clear headings using a consistent format and ideally should not run to more than two pages. A simple framework could include:

  • name and personal details
  • summary of key attributes and achievements
  • career history (list in reverse chronological order)
  • other experience (voluntary work, committee work etc.)
  • professional memberships etc
  • education and training
  • IT, other technical and language skills – state your level of competency
  • interests

Prospect’s podcast, ‘How to Write an Effective CV’, will help you understand the structure and flow of a CV.

Your aim is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to find evidence that you have the skills and experience they are looking for.

Tips include:

  • Begin each bullet point or sentence with a single key word summing up the relevant skill.
  • Give active examples to convey achievements and impact.
  • Add quantifiables (eg numbers, timescales) to make your examples more concrete, including tangibles and outcomes.
  • Include transferable skills and qualities developed outside work, for example, through involvement in voluntary activities, societies and sporting activities.

Hints and tips for writing a CV

Look at your CV as if you were the recruiter. After a quick scan can you pick out clear evidence of each of the requirements outlined in the person specification?

  • Do your key achievements stand out?
  • Have you avoided large chunks of descriptive text?
  • Have you used formatting tools (eg bold, italics, capitals and spacing) consistently?
  • If you are at a stage in your career where you want to change your sector or discipline, the podcast, ‘How to Write an Effective CV, part 2 of 3’, will help you to focus on how to highlight your relevant skills and experiences.

The Open University resource site has a series of ‘example CVs’ worth looking at, including both chronological and skills-based CVs.

Cover letter

Your cover letter is just as important as your CV and may be the first document that the prospective employer looks at. It’s another opportunity for you to convince the employer that you are a strong candidate and to showcase the skills, experience and achievements that you feel would enable you to succeed.

It is crucial to tailor each letter to each job and to convey your knowledge of the organisation as well as your understanding of the requirements of the role. Please refer to Prospect’s podcast, ‘How to Write an Effective CV, part 3 of 3’, which explains how to write a covering letter.

When structuring your cover letter, include:

  • Who you are/why you are writing to them – your ‘headlines’.
  • Why you are interested in the role and why you believe your knowledge, experience and skills make you a strong candidate. Provide context for the skills that you refer to – why are they relevant, what aspect(s) of the role would require these skills?
  • Why you want to work for their organisation. This might include: projects/initiatives/research they are involved in; client base, opportunities to expand and develop your skills and experience; opportunity to work in a sector that you have been involved in on a voluntary basis; the values/ethos of the organisation; and the expertise within the organisation.

Use positive language and, as with your CV, make sure that you provide clear evidence to underpin the skills and achievements that you refer to.

If you have recently been made redundant or are currently out of work you could refer to this in your letter and use it as an opening to explain why you are applying to the sector/organisation/role, for example: “Having recently been made redundant from 'x', I am using this opportunity to change career direction in order to pursue ‘x’ or move into a role that will provide me with ‘y'."

Identify the recipient and personalise the letter. If necessary, call the employer to find out who the letter should be addressed to. Use formal language (e.g. use surnames, yours sincerely/or yours faithfully if you do not have the name of the recipient) and be accurate – check spelling, punctuation and grammar and ask someone else to proof-read your letter as well.