CV Basics

In June 2021, GEM and Fair Museum Jobs (FMJ) collaborated on a short series of events continuing themes from the #FMJSummit and contributing to GEM’s rebuilding of the sector through the Cultural Recovery Fund. Click here to find about more about GEM.

One of those events was a CV Basics session; as FMJ identified the need to give more simple advice about how to structure your CV, particularly for early career museum professionals. This blog summarises our advice for creating your CV from scratch – the things you must include, the things you absolutely shouldn’t, and some hints and tips to help along the way.

You can watch the full session here: CV Basics

You can also watch the #FMJSummit session on CVs here: #FMJSummit: CV Advice

Please note before reading that this advice is specific to UK CV expectations; many other countries have their own preferred styles. There are also many different types of CVs; this advice is focused on a general job application CV and the standard expectations you might encounter from recruiters towards that sort of document.

Image showing 2 CVs - one belonging to Arnold Schwarznegger and one for James Bond.
Image by Oli Lynch from Pixabay

So why do you need a CV anyway?

If you’re applying for jobs, you’ll usually see 2 main ways of making an application:

  1. Application Form – either a document or an online form/system
  2. CV and covering letter/supporting statement

When applying using the second method; the covering letter is where you set out how you meet the person specification, with your CV supporting what you say in it and providing an “at a glance” view of your career history. A good CV should add value to what you’ve written elsewhere, and is a chance to reiterate some key skills of the job for which you’re applying.

The CV you submit for a job application shouldn’t be a list of everything you’ve ever done. We all do more in our jobs than can fit on a CV, so it’s absolutely crucial that you tailor your CV to each role for which you’re applying. You might be applying for many similar roles but you need to personalise your CV each time to the individual role – matching the language and buzzwords of that organisation and making sure you’re using the best examples when describing your experience.

What must my CV include?

Three sections will always be expected on your CV:

  1. Name and contact details

Obviously, it’s completely essential to make sure someone is able to contact you – you’ll need at least your name and a way to contact you. We recommend including email and phone number – but email is the most important.

In the session we had an extensive conversation about whether to include your address. This practice is likely a left-over from the days when recruitment was managed through physical letters so it’s no longer 100% essential, and some advice will say you shouldn’t. Ultimately it’s a personal choice but don’t forget to apply the test of whether it adds value to your application. If you live locally, for example, that could be compelling for jobs where local knowledge is necessary.

  1. Experience

The bulk of the content of your CV will be describing your experience. You can use this section to describe both paid and unpaid experience; making it clear where roles are voluntary. You’ll always need to include the role title, organisation, and dates. You can do this in any order as long as you keep it consistent and it makes sense.

Experience should be listed chronologically by end date; so your current or most recent role/s will always be first in the list.

We recommend using bullet points to describe the key aspects of each role; somewhere between 3 and 6 per role would be best, although for more complex or senior roles you may need more. Make each point specific and give numbers or statistics where you can e.g. rather than saying you delivered school sessions; say how many, how often and to how many children. You’ll also want to make sure the language you use reflects the role description as much as possible.

  1. Qualifications

This section is specifically for accredited qualifications; the majority are likely to be academic such as degrees and secondary school certificates but it could include other accredited courses such as project management qualifications.

As with experience these should also be in chronological order by end date; any qualification you are currently studying should be first in the list and you can give an expected end date.

Whether to include your grades is a personal choice; but the further away you are from the qualification the less likely it is that you need to. However, if the role description contains a particular qualification requirement that you have this is a good place to list it.

What other things could be on my CV?

There are other standard sections included in many CVs that you should include if it adds value to your CV:

  1. Personal Summary

A personal summary is essentially a short introduction to you. It’s not mandatory to include but if you’re going to have one it should always be the first section after your contact details.

Personal summaries can be challenging to write, so we suggest trying to answer these questions in up to four lines of text:

  • Who are you?
  • What are your key relevant skills? (making sure this reflects the language in the job ad)
  • What value do you bring to the role/team?
  • What are you looking for?
  1. Skills and professional development

A section like this could go after your work experience and qualification sections and can be particularly useful in highlighting key skills relevant to the role, notable training courses which don’t fit under qualifications, memberships of professional bodies, licenses and languages.

Some examples of the above could include:

  • General IT skills, such as familiarity with Microsoft office 
  • Having attended a training course on GDPR
  • Membership of GEM or a Subject Specialist Network
  • Holding a DBS check
  • Holding a driving licence
  • Being a confident speaker, reader or signer in a language (without necessarily having a qualification in it)
  1. Publications and presentations

This where you can include details of anything you’ve written that’s relevant for the role, or any talks that you have given. These don’t necessarily have to be book chapters, peer reviewed journals or delivering formal lectures. Other examples could include:

  • Being published on a website
  • Writing for and editing your own blog
  • Editing a museum’s newsletter 
  • Delivering talks over zoom
  • Having your own Youtube or TikTok channel
  • A relevant university dissertation, essay or presentation 

Is there anything that shouldn’t go on my CV?

Anything that could be used to discriminate shouldn’t be included. Perhaps the most obvious of these is date of birth, with biases prevalent against both younger and older candidates.

Another important thing to avoid is a photograph of yourself. Such practice is almost unheard of in the UK, although it may be more common in other countries. Beyond suggesting your age, a photograph may also make obvious other information such as ethnicity, gender, or religion. These are all sources of potential biases amongst recruiters. 

Many recruiters are moving towards ‘blind’ recruitment, which anonymises almost all aspects of a candidate’s identity. This helps recruiters to assess candidates on the strength of their applications alone, without any privilege or prejudices coming in to alter a decision. Discrimination against (amongst others) women and candidates who experience racism is a real thing. To include a photograph risks either opening yourself up to that discrimination if you are from one of these groups, or showing a disregard for it if you are a candidate who does not routinely experience such disadvantage.

You don’t need to include references. If an employer needs them they will ask for them. A line such as “References are available on request” is also not needed. It will be assumed that you have references on hand so that line adds no value! 

Many people list hobbies on their CV but this should be done with caution – only relevant hobbies to the job add value. For example, if you are applying for a job at a science centre and one of your hobbies is amateur astronomy this is definitely relevant! However, the fact you enjoy watching films and reading novels is maybe less so. 

Hints and tips on formatting

  • Aim for 2 pages unless the job advert says something else. You might want to go over to 3 pages when you have a longer career history
  • Make the whole document clear and readable 
    • Use bullet points and size 11 or 12 font
    • Use headings and leave spaces between sections
    • Use a font without serifs, such as Arial
    • Use standard margins
  • Accessibility and readability are more important than fancy design!
  • Language – echo back that which appears on the job advert. Recruiters love the sound of their own buzzwords. 
  • Save in either .pdf or .doc (MS Word) format
  • Make sure the version you send really is the final version – no track changes should be visible!
  • Put YOUR NAME in the FILE NAME!

Questions on CVs

My CV is too long, what can I cut?

As we progress in our careers, take on more responsibilities within our current roles and move between jobs, there is a real danger that our CVs can get overlong. If that starts to happen, what should you look to cut first?

With the caveat that almost all jobs offer opportunities for learning and upskilling (and transferable skills are a very real thing), you can focus less on past roles which are not as directly relevant to the one for which you’re applying. For instance, if you have had both retail and collections experience, it might be worth giving more weight towards the latter if you’re applying for a Collections Manager role. It is fine to give a single-line entry, without any bullet points explaining what you did, for any past job that fits in this category

You could also leave out older roles altogether. A Saturday job that you had as a teenager is not likely to add much value to your CV if you are now in your 30s. If you now have plenty of documentation experience, a holiday job in university might also not be so relevant. Although this may leave gaps, we will discuss these later.

Finally, it may be worth cutting mention of GCSEs and A levels altogether, especially if you later went on to university. However, as we noted above, if a specific qualification is listed in the job description, you should always include it.

I have gaps in my CV, what should I do?

People have stuff going on in their lives. Whether it’s starting a family, caring responsibilities, being made redundant, or struggling to find employment after education, many of us will have gaps in our CVs. We don’t believe that people should have to account for these, but many employers may still expect it.

We don’t think that gaps have to be mentioned on a CV necessarily, but if you do feel you want to address them and you’re running out of room, then you can mention these in the covering letter or personal statement. It’s also worth noting that if you were in education or volunteering then these activities can also be used to fill a gap in paid employment specifically.

Naturally, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused disruption for so many of us. It should be so obvious why people might have gaps in the period 2020-21 (and even beyond) that we don’t necessarily think these need to be raised at all. 

Short answers to questions from the session

During the session questions were asked in the chat; here’s some quick answers.

  • I was told a covering letter should be no more than one side of A4 – is that right? / How long should a covering letter be?

Covering letters can vary – you should normally do whatever it says in the application – we wouldn’t recommend going over 2 sides unless it’s for a more senior or complex role with a longer personal specification. It’s usually not necessary to stick to one page. However, if a length is specified in the job advert; make sure you stick to it or you risk your application not being read.

  • I was advised by my university careers service that it was a good idea to send out a CV and cover letter to museums speculatively. As in, not in response to a job advert, just saying you are interested in working there. Would you agree?

This advice is very sector specific, but in museums and heritage this is extremely unlikely to get you a paid job. The most likely outcome is that you’ll be told where their vacancies are advertised when they come up. One caveat to add though, if you’re looking to volunteer then sending your CV unsolicited is ok.

  • Is it ok to talk about some early experience not on your CV in the covering letter if it is relevant?

If something is important enough to be mentioned in your covering letter, it should be on your CV as well; otherwise you have the risk of confusing the recruiting manager. It’s crucial to make sure your covering letter and CV work together to explain why you are suitable for the job.

  • Can you include Future Learn courses on your CV?

Yes but with a note of caution that you need to make sure they add value. Adding every course you’ve ever done is probably not helpful – adding one or two that are related to the job description is the best route.

  • Does it matter how long the training was that you list on your CV?

The person reading your CV will never know how long training was. If you did a very valuable two-hour course that proves something crucial about how you meet the person specification then include it. As always, add value to your CV from any training you chose to list.

  • If training courses are relevant but old, should you include it? / If you have forgotten the date of a short course, can you include it without the date?

Similar to the answers above you need to make sure you’re adding value. Some training is unlikely to go out of date and so including it will be useful; other training may change considerably over time e.g. digital best practice. Think critically about what you’re trying to show by including the course, whether you know the date or not, and use that to decide whether to include it.

  • I’ve just been rejected from a job and managed to get some feedback on why I wasn’t selected. They mentioned I had a couple of jobs that were irrelevant but if I left them off it would leave gaps on my CV – what do you think would be best to do in this situation?

There are a few options here:

  1. Split your work experience CV section into 2 on your CV – one titled Relevant Experience where you outline your key experience that meets the role description; and another called Other Experience where you list the less relevant experience but show there are no gaps.
  2. Keep your experience together; but for irrelevant jobs that you aren’t mentioning anywhere else in the application list only the dates, job title and company.

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