writing the perfect cv

Here at Cactus Search, we can't stress enough how important it is to have a great CV. It's your first chance to impress not just us, but the client. And that's why we've created this guide to getting your CV up to the highest possible standards - to give you the best chance to secure that dream job.

First, however, you may need to go back to basics and ask yourself "Who am I?" A key step should be a self-assessment. You must have a realistic idea of your strengths and weaknesses, expectations, and your own unique selling points. You can’t be all things to all people and your CV needs to be tailored towards a targeted sector. You have to focus.

Even if you already have a CV, you need to continually review and revise it, so make sure you take the time to ask yourself the following:

  • What are my strengths?
  • In which areas did I excel in my previous position?
  • In which working environment would I thrive?
  • How can I minimise my weaknesses?
  • What are my mid to long term professional goals?
  • Which areas of past experience are no longer of any relevance?
  • Can I define exactly what it is I do, professionally?
  • Do I have a proven track record?
  • What personal attributes can I bring to the role?
  • How motivated am I towards this change?



The Basics

Your CV reflects your professionalism. It needs to state quite clearly that you are the person for the job. So a great CV should contain:

  • An attention grabbing summary section
  • A clear, uncluttered layout
  • Active and precise description
  • Contact details
  • Job specific information
  • Articulate, concise language
  • No mistakes
  • No more than 2 or 3 pages
  • Consider carefully what the recruiter (agency or employer) would like to see on any CV.
  • The right skills and quantifiable experience
  • Suitable interpersonal and communication skills
  • The ability to flourish in the company’s environment
  • The competence and confidence to adapt to the job.

Your New CV

With PC skills being widespread the visual impact of CVs has improved dramatically. Attention to layout not only reflects your sense of

professionalism but, more importantly, makes it easier for the recruiter to browse through.

There are two types of CV format and you should use the one that suits you best:

  • Time based CV’s: are more traditional, they list previous employers and job roles in detail, and are suited to professionals who have a formal history of experience. Start with your most recent.
  • Skills based CV’s: are better suited to contractors, graduates, people who have moved around a lot, or taken time out. They are also useful when making a complete career change. These types of CV’s are more descriptive and focus more on skills and direct experience

A good advert in the Sunday Times or on Monster.com can bring in many 100’s of applications, so if a CV is difficult to read, or information is buried, you wont get your opportunity to shine. Without creating a CV that looks like a Christmas tree, you should aim to effectively impart a limited amount of information which will ultimately secure you an interview. Quality takes precedence over quantity. Do not include photographs, as they could prejudice your application, and they make emails too large.

Personal Details

Use either a letterhead style or a section at the end to include your name and basic contact details, as letters and emails become detached from the CV. Leave out date of birth, salary, marital status, NI number, driving licence and nationality details etc.

Hobbies and Interests

If you must include it, leave it to the end. People seem to do the most bizarre things in their leisure time, none of which helps their job application.. It is best to keep it to a couple of ‘main stream’ activities and maybe something of interest that you can talk about. But remember - if the interviewer spends time talking to you about “bell ringing”, they are not talking to you about how you can do the job you have applied for!

Your Summary Section

The most significant impact could be the introduction of a summary section. It can outline your professional profile, key skills and experience, and strengths and achievements. It may get you the interview, and at the very least the summary section should make an immediate impact on the recruiter; it gives you a chance to show off your personality and personal attributes.

Your summary should be made up of the following in order:

A descriptive profile: Key features of your professional self, including your immediate ambitions. This should be punchy, precise and no more than 2 or 3 short sentences.

Key skills: Listed as bullet points. 6-8 points is sufficient - make sure they’re relevant to the particular position and concisely written. Make sure you quantify your results (e.g. increased turnover by 40 per cent), and be careful of meaningless phrases (e.g. good team player).

Achievements: These should be presented in the same manner as skills, although about 3 significant achievements with numbers is enough.

Your most recent job experience: Basic details of your most recent, or most important role so far. Include your job title, the name of company and date of commencement. This should be followed by a 2 or 3 sentence description of the role and about 6-8 bullet points of your key responsibilities, tasks and achievements in the role.

This should fill up the first page. If you’ve done a good job, the recruiter will be reaching for the phone to call you in for an interview before they've reached the second! However, assuming that they continue, secondary work experience and any relevant qualifications can appear on the second page. If you have a long, important, career history then you can indulge yourself a third page, but it's best to keep it as tight and focused as possible. Less is more, avoid squeezing too much onto the page, use white space to effect and choose a font that is easy to read. Make use of power words and key phrases.

Key or power words to include in your CV:

  • Competence and experience
  • Relevant skills and the ability to adapt them to the new role
  • Strategic thinking
  • Creativity and problem solving ability
  • Leadership
  • Interpersonal and communication skills
  • Personal management skills
  • Integrity

Facts and Fiction

Although the CV is a sales brochure, you should never fabricate anything. In the end, you'll always be found out - maybe not now, but later when you are asked to

deliver, and the process of psychometric testing and rigorous interviews can be very revealing!

Rather than being vague, leave problem areas out of the CV and focus on other allied skills that you are confident with. Honesty is a good virtue, valued by employers - discuss the problem area in the interview, but don’t dwell on it.

Always use figures to quantify your achievements, as this creates reassurance.

Make changing career direction a positive thing, placing emphasis on your determination and courage to make the move. Make your past sound relevant, and be open and honest. If you lack a track record in the job, emphasize your skills which apply to the role. Present your willingness to learn as an advantage.

Not a graduate? If you have succeeded without qualifications, then turn it into a positive and mention your focus and determination, you don’t need to apologise. After all, most multi millionaires are not graduates!

Gaps in your CV? If you’ve taken time out to travel or pursue a different activity this is now perfectly acceptable. However in many eyes it is not a ‘proper job’ so won’t carry the same weight as more work based contact centre management experience. Remember - spending 6 months as a ‘hippy’ does not say “focus, ambition and motivation” so be careful to sell your experience, whatever it is, as worth having!

Quitting your previous job? If you are currently unemployed, the recruiter will want to know why you left. You can get away with short period out of work, but it is acceptable to simply say you left for personal reasons. The employer might be suspicious, so be sure to back up your reasoning, and don’t use this excuse more than once.

Being fired! Never mention this on your CV. Even very successful CEOs occasionally get the sack and football managers have a particularly poor track record. Never let it ruin your confidence. The details can be discussed in the interview if necessary, answer any questions, but don’t dwell on it.

Too much experience? This can be a frustrating situation, but it is easier to swing to your advantage. If you’re older than the employer is looking for, focus on how your experience can benefit them. Don’t apologies for having wisdom and maturity. Objections are often centred on an unwillingness of older people to adapt, so reassure the recruiter you can adapt. You can state your intention to step down the career ladder in order to solidify certain experience, or move into a bigger corporation.

Too many short jobs? The employer will no doubt wonder about how long you’ll stay. By honestly confronting them, and stating your seriousness to remain in the position, you can avoid suspicion. Contract work is one excuse for a patchwork CV. You can also join several short jobs into one title (e.g. Freelancing trainer: ABC, DEF, GHI companies). Reassure them that you are now serious about your new direction.

Customising your CV

Each time you apply for a job, it's essential that your CV is customised to suit that position. Identify the key strengths which you can apply to the role, imagine the ideal person they are seeking and match your CV as closely as possible to a profile of that individual.

Make sure you eliminate those skills or strengths that are unlikely to appeal to the new employer. This gives you space to elaborate on those key areas which are most relevant to the new role. Don't forget those key words!

It's also wise to minimize those previous roles that are not similar to the job you're applying for, and expand on the responsibilities which show your suitability for the new position. Mention specific examples to prove your point.

That said, don’t make it too obvious that you have changed things - it should look natural, so check your formatting and layout!

Proof-Reading and Checking

It's difficult to stress just how important this is! A small error, or misleading information, will seriously undo all your effort. At a professional level, grammar, spelling and punctuation should all be impeccable. Ensure that details, contact numbers and references are accurate (e.g. claiming to be proficient in Quark Express sounds dubious when the software package is actually called Quark Xpress!).

The spell checker on your PC is not enough. Get someone else to check it for you - you don't want to be a 'contact centre manger' instead of a contact centre manager!

  • Is it easy for someone ‘speed read’ your CV?
  • Does it look tidy and organised, or too busy?
  • Does it look appropriate for your industry - too formal or too funky?
  • Grammar, punctuation and spelling?
  • Is the CV relevant to this job?
  • Is it concise, punchy and informative, and have you used ‘power’ words?
  • Have you used numbers to quantify claims? Can you back them up?
  • Is there too much detail?
  • Is the personal summary meaningful? If not, re-write it.
  • Read it through one last time, any mistakes? Are you sure?


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