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How to build a strong graduate CV

By Karen Young, Director of Hays Accountancy & Finance

Have you recently finished education and are now about to take your first step into the world of professional work? If so, then creating your first graduate CVmay feel like a difficult task, given that you don’t have much professional experience to your name yet, and the advice your careers counsellor gave you at school is now outdated or forgotten. Understandably, you may be feeling daunted and unsure of where to begin.

You aren’t alone, and plenty of your peers will be having this same dilemma. Let me reassure you, however, that just because your experience is mainly academic, doesn’t mean that you can’t create a winning graduate CV which showcases your employability.

However you will need to take the time to plot out the structure, and be resourceful in finding informative, relevant and substantial information to fill each section. Once you get this right, you can tweak and adapt your CV to each role you apply for from hereon, which is much easier than starting from scratch. So how do you get started on building a strong graduate CV?

Contact Information

First things first, place the essential information at the top. This includes your full name, contact number, your location, and a professional sounding email address (for instance, if your email address is still pretty_gal123@hotmail.com, I would advise changing this ASAP).

Beneath this essential information, link to any online professional profiles such as LinkedIn. Make sure they are up to date, and ensure you stay active on these channels, demonstrating your interest in the field of work you are job searching in.

Personal Statement

A strong personal statement is particularly important for someone without much experience, as this is the part where you can explain why you are applying for this role, and why you would be suitable. This information may not be immediately clear if you have no experience within a certain area. For instance, it would be clear to a recruiter why a sales co-ordinator with years of experience would be applying for another sales role. However, if you are a History graduate, it may be harder for a recruiter to see why you are applying for a job in sales.

As such use your personal statement to introduce yourself, and explain how your interests, academic and employment background or your key skills, relate to the role you are applying for. For example:

“I am a History graduate with a keen interest in pursuing a sales career. During my degree, I was largely graded on my presentation skills, and this was an area in which I scored highly. I also held a part time role as a retail assistant, and during this time, I enjoyed developing my interpersonal and customer service skills. I would like to apply my communicative and interpersonal skills to a more challenging sales role where I would have room to grow and develop as a professional.”

Key Skills

Next create a bulleted list of skills. This part may seem tricky given your lack of professional experience, but I’m willing to bet there are hidden skills that you didn’t even know you had.

  • Self-taught skills: Have you taken it upon yourself to upskill in any way whilst you have been unemployed? If not, it’s never too late to start
  • Transferable skills: So you may not have had a professional job before, but what about any transferable skills learnt during work experience, part time jobs or education? For instance, using the same example as above, a History degree may require you to write a lot of essays and present to your lecturer. During this time, you will have developed some strong writing and presentation skills
  • Soft skills: Discover your soft skills i.e. -the skills which reflect your personality traits and can’t really be taught, such as being naturally well organised and a problem solver. Reflect upon which traits people have always praised you for, whether it’s your teachers, friends or family, and take some often free of charge online aptitude tests to discover more about your core strengths

If you are struggling, don’t worry. It may be easier for you to think of these skills once you have completed the Career History and Education part of your CV, so you can come back to this later.

Career History

This is often the part where many first time job seekers get stuck –their Career History section. If this area of your graduate CV is looking particularly bare, then I would advise that you include everything, even if it’s not relevant to the role you are applying for, for instance volunteer work, or a part time job you had whilst studying. Including these roles will demonstrate your work ethic, maturity and employability. List your experience in chronological order always starting with your most recent role, and include the company name, your job title, and your employment dates.

Underneath, write a couple of lines detailing your role, and beneath that, a bulleted list of your responsibilities and which key skills you developed as a result, plus any career highlights and achievements. If you can link to online examples of your work-even better.

Avoid using too many CV clichés when talking about your career history. These clichés tend to be overused phrases which don’t really provide any evidence of the skills you claim to have, for example stating that you “provided great customer service” without giving any other information to support this statement. Instead, use action verbs to explain how you provided great customer service and give examples. For instance, rather than saying “provided”, you could use the action verb “improved”. Action verbs sound much stronger on a CV, and prompt you to provide evidence of your strengths. You can read more on action verbs here.

Lastly, do not, under any circumstances, lie about your experience. Sure, there is information you could omit, and you can read more about just how transparent you should be with your graduate CV here, but by no means lie to the hiring manager. These lies can be very easily uncovered during an interview, or, thanks to the thoroughness of most professional recruiters, beforehand. Needless to say you will quickly be dismissed from the hiring process.

Education

Next, add your recent education starting with the last place you studied. List the educational institution, the dates you studied there, your course title and qualification type and which grade you received. You can also use this space to include which different projects you worked on at university, linking to any online examples, and mentioning the skills you developed as a result. There are occasions when if your career history is very limited or you have no work experience at all, you should put the Education section above the career history and this is fine, and often something I recommend.

Hobbies/Interests

This section is not to be underestimated, and can give your hiring manager an insight into your personality. List your Hobbies/Interests, and remember to include any extra-curricular activities you were involved with during your time in education. Don’t be afraid to go into more detail in this section, talking about any individual team achievements or personal awards, plus the core strengths and skills you developed during this time. For instance, you might mention how you played for your university women’s football team, and how this team reached the semi-finals of the national university championships.

Additional Information

At the end of your CV remember to add a final sub header titled “Additional Information”. This should include any other qualifications, licenses or certificates which don’t clearly belong in any other sections of your CV or add much value to the role you are applying for, but are still worth mentioning (for instance being First Aid trained or having a clean driving licence). Lastly, put “References available upon request” at the very end of your CV.

A final note-check before you send!

Finally, don’t forget to proofread your CV multiple times, looking out for these common errors. I would advise asking somebody with more professional experience than you to sense check and provide feedback on your graduate CV as well.

So, you may not have much professional experience, but that’s really no reason to panic. By following my guidance you can create an impressive graduate CV by optimising the skills you didn’t even know you had, without embellishing the truth or providing irrelevant information. Your graduate CV is your ticket to getting you on the path to job search success, so take the time to carefully follow these steps, and no doubt you will get that phone call (or email!) inviting you to an interview in no time.

About this author

Karen is a Director and recruiting expert at Hays Accountancy & Finance. She provides strategic leadership to a team of 400 accountancy and finance recruitment professionals across 100 UK offices. With 20 years of finance recruitment experience, Karen has a track record of recruiting top finance talent for businesses across a range of industry sectors, and is a trusted industry voice on career planning and market insights.

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