How to build a strong graduate CV
12 min read | Karen Young | Article | CV & Cover letters Job searching
Learn the key information and skills to include on a graduate CV that help you stand out from the competition.
Have you recently finished education and are now about to take your first step into the world of professional work? If so, creating your first graduate CV may feel like a difficult task. You won’t have much professional experience to your name yet, and the advice your careers counsellor gave you at school is probably outdated or forgotten.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.
Rest assured, hiring managers are also fully aware that you probably don’t have a catalogue of experience and skills to your name just yet. They won’t expect you to list off endless examples of these during your interview. Instead, they’ll be more focused on assessing your potential during the interview – and more specifically, the transferable graduate job skills you’ve developed.
Graduate CVs at a glance
First, take the time to plot out your graduate CV’s structure. Try to include informative, relevant and substantial information in each section. Once you get this right, you can tweak and adapt your CV to each role you apply for, which is much easier than starting from scratch.
Once you’ve created an attractive, readable and useful structure, it’s time to enter information. So, what do you include on a strong graduate CV?
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 (if you don’t have one, create a new one from your full name and a few numbers.)
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. Demonstrate your interest in the field of work you are job searching in.
A strong personal statement is particularly important for someone without much experience. 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. 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.”
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
- 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.
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.
Now include the transferrable graduate employability skills that came from your years at university. You might include:
- Self-motivation and tenacity: Being able to motivate yourself to do a good job is incredibly important to your day-to-day performance at work, and is a skill all employers look for when hiring. There will also be occasions that test your motivation levels – be it a heavy workload, a trying client or a difficult project. It will be down to you, and only you, to spur yourself on when faced with these challenges.
- Time-management and the ability to work well under pressure: Next, employers will likely be looking for assurance in the interview that you can complete tasks to deadline and manage multiple projects simultaneously. This is a key part of everyday working life.
- A thirst for learning and self-improvement: Third, the world of work is changing so quickly alongside technology that employers want to hire people who will learn and keep up.
- Interpersonal and communication skills: Last, the ability to effectively build relationships with different kinds of people is incredibly important in the world of work. Employers are looking for candidates who are able to effortlessly adapt their communication skills in order to build a professional rapport with colleagues, clients and stakeholders.
This is often the part where many first-time job seekers get stuck. 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. An example might be 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.
Lastly, do not, under any circumstances, lie about your experience. Sure, there is information you could omit but don’t lie to the hiring manager. They can be very easily uncovered during an interview, or, thanks to the thoroughness of most professional recruiters, beforehand.
Next, add your recent education starting with the last place you studied. List the educational institution, the dates you studied there, your course title, qualification type and which grade you received.
You can also use this space to include which different projects you worked on at university. Link to any online examples, and mention the skills you developed as a result. If your career history is limited, you might choose to place this section above it.
This section is not to be underestimated. It 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. Talk about individual or team achievements, personal awards, plus the core strengths and skills you developed during this time. For instance, you might mention how you played for your university football team, and how this team reached the semi-finals of the national university championships.
At the end of your CV remember to add a final sub header titled “Additional Information”. This should include any other qualifications, licences or certificates which don’t belong in any other sections of your CV. Many 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 errors. I would advise asking somebody with more professional experience than you to sense check and provide feedback on your graduate CV as well.
What you need to remember about graduate CVs
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 graduate employability skills you didn’t even know you had.
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. You will get that phone call (or email!) inviting you to an interview in no time.
About this author
Karen Young, Director of Hays Accountancy & Finance UK&I
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.