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Career building series - Part 1:

4 Steps for writing a successful CV and cover letter

A piece by Venita Januarie – Stellenbosch, South Africa

In the current economic climate, finding employment is a daunting process. The world is shifting between status quos, which leaves many youths (especially unemployed graduates) stranded in a volatile economy. This article seeks to alleviate some of the uncertainty by collating the latest research on job-seeking in the Covid-19 economy.

Step 1: Building your CV

First things first, create a CV and cover letter that covers your basic information. This will save you from having to write or update your CV on short notice. Job-seeking is a continuous process and it is crucial to have the necessary documents in order and up to date for when you encounter suitable job listings. You should customize these templates for each application. Hiring managers can receive up to 100 applications for a job so they are not looking for generic cover letters and CVs. Do this and your application will end up in the nearest bin. The purpose of your CV is to present a two page summary of your experience, skills and education written to convince employers that you are the best choice for their vacancy. Your basic CV should cover the following points:

Keep it to two A4 Pages: Your CV is an opportunity to show a company that you tick all the right boxes and the goal is to get an interview. As a result, you have to keep things relatively concise. You can let your personality shine through in your cover letter. However, one size does not fit all, and so for some professionals, one or three pages may be more appropriate.

Ensure it is Error Free: Employers go through thousands of applications per vacancy. Therefore, any CV with even one spelling and/or grammatical error is cause for immediate rejection. In other words, meticulous proofreading will immediately increase your chances of being called in for an interview! Other potential errors to watch out for include providing the wrong contact information (phone numbers and email addresses) and getting the dates in your education and employment history wrong. Double-check everything!

Keep Your CV Updated: You need to keep your CV updated on a regular basis and add new experience or skills as you achieve them. For example, do not neglect to add details of a new project you’ve just worked on. Employers are always seeking people who are constantly looking to improve their existing capabilities. If there are clear gaps in your CV, employers immediately become suspicious. First of all, do not try and change the dates of past jobs to make everything ‘fit’ as employers can just ring up past employers and uncover your deception. A better tactic is to try to ‘reframe’ your absence from the workforce as a positive. An example would be to mention any volunteer work you did and mention that it helped you develop soft skills such as project management and teamwork. A keynote here is that most businesses is moving towards the digital space, especially post Covid-19. To show that you are present and active in the digital job market, including a link to your updated LinkedIn profile, which is known as a leading job search and business networking app.

Build your online career brand: An increasing number of people are applying for jobs through online sites. Building your online brand simply means showcasing your expertise and passion online where employers searching the Web can find it. Most recruiters, use LinkedIn as their primary search tool and if you are a professional, you need to be using LinkedIn to your full advantage. It’s a great resource for finding people working at companies that interest you and also for positioning yourself to be found by recruiters and hiring managers with relevant openings. In this instance, you need to include keywords specific to the industry and the role you are applying for in order to ensure the search engine picks you out from the crowd. Keywords are essential today, if only to get past the software scans. If you are applying for a job, it must be tailored to the role. Not only will this show employers why you are a match, but it will help your application beat the ATS robots too.

Do not spam your CV through by repeating tracts from the advert unnecessarily – you'll be rejected before anyone's even read your application. Examples are always good – try to show a good story about why you're doing this line of work, why this job is the next step for you. Add information which supports your assessment of the key competencies required for that role. For example, if you are applying for a marketing position, you could include terms such as digital marketing and SEO. Go online to find out the keywords best associated with the job title.

Experience and employment history:

A competency-based CV is pretty much what you need for all CVs now. It means that instead of just writing a list of your previous duties, you look at exactly what the employer says they are asking for and you show that you have what they need. Your employment history section gives you a chance to outline your previous jobs, internships and work experience. List your experience in reverse chronological order as your recent role is the most relevant to the employer. When listing each position of employment, state your job title, the employer, the dates you worked and a line that summarizes the role. Then bullet point your key responsibilities, skills and achievements, and bolster each point with powerful verbs and figures to support each claim and showcase your impact. Focus on quantifiable achievements that are relevant to the job you are applying for.

Formatting and spacing guidelines:

Each section must be introduced by a big, bold heading to ensure an easy read. Most employers will receive your CV in a digital format, so choose a clear font like Calibri or Arial. You can use a different font type for your headings, but keep it professional and easy-to-read too. The body of your CV should be between 10 and 12 point font, and your headings between 14 and 18 points. Keep your page margins around 2.5 cm, but never reduce them to less than 1.27 cm or your CV will appear cluttered and hard to read. White space ensures clarity and professionalism. Your formatting must be consistent throughout your CV to keep it looking polished and professional. Proofread like a pro to capture every mistake or invest in intelligent spellcheckers like Grammarly.

Step 2: Customize your CV

Read the Job Description:

Always read the job description from start to finish and highlight keywords. Try to find out the aspects of the job you can satisfy and those you cannot. You do not need to be a 100% perfect fit in order to have a good chance of getting an interview for the role. Make yourself an obvious fit. Study the words and phrases that are used in the job description? Make sure you include them in your CV (provided you have that experience, of course). Tailor your CV to each job – the recruiter should know within a few seconds of looking at your CV that you have the skills they are looking for.

If you find there are a few areas where you are not strong, compensate by adapting your existing skills. This process will be a lot easier if you have a number of ‘transferable’ skills. By carefully reading the job description, you can avoid wasting time by applying for jobs you have little chance of getting. Think about what the words in the description actually mean when it comes to your day-to-day role and look at ways to make your CV ‘fit’. This can help you show that you have what it takes to handle these responsibilities.

Match terminology to company culture:

It is okay to add a technical term or two in your CV when appropriate but do not fill your CV with jargon. For the most part, use ‘everyday’ language and throw in an applicable term just to show that you understand the industry. Be sure to match the tone of your writing to the culture of the company. A great tip for learning the company culture a new job is to investigate a company’s Glassdoor page. It will help you figure out what the company is looking for in potential employees, and even reveal questions they commonly ask in interviews and what salary you are likely to be paid. Traditional/conservative companies will reflect that in their communication and will look favourably on a candidate who adopts that tone. Creative industries will look for someone who can demonstrate a creative spark from their first contact so be willing to take more risks if you want to catch their attention.

Try to write a CV and cover letter which uniquely complements the company’s culture and presents you as a future employee who would fit right in. Your research into the company should help uncover its culture. For example, if it is a ‘work hard, play hard’ type environment, you can tailor your Interests section to show how you would fit into such a culture.


The person reading your CV wants to know if you can do the job and if you are a good fit for the company’s corporate culture. A good CV should answer both these questions conclusively.  and involves making the most of the Skills and Interests sections. Include key skills relevant to the role; they may include Teamworking, Problem Solving and Communication skills. To do that make the most of the Skills and Interests sections.

Take a moment to consider how you have grown your skills. You do not necessarily need to have gained them in a working capacity. You may have gained Leadership skills by running a volunteer scheme for example. In your Skills section, use adjectives similar to those you see in the job description. Obviously, you have to be a little creative or else it will be obvious that you blatantly copied the company.

Add References: This is a tricky one. In a lot of cases, you could get away with adding "references available upon request", but in some instances, employers will specifically ask for them. Try to get your references from past employers as they can back you up when it comes to skills and experience. This is why you should always look to leave your current workplace on good terms. If you do not have professional experience, use a teacher or a tutor as your reference. Most employers want two references.

Make the Most of Your Experience: Choose the duties most relevant to the job you’re applying for, especially if it’s a long list. If you have many years’ worth of experience, you can reduce the detail of old or irrelevant roles. If you have positions from more than 10 years’ ago, you can delete them. You should focus on your most recent 2-3 positions unless you have older jobs relevant to the position you’re applying for. When describing your employment history, try and be as specific as possible when listing responsibilities, duties, skills and achievements.

It is always best to include details of how you managed to help your employer. For example, in your role as manager you could outline how you increased productivity by 20% or saved the company money by eliminating inefficient processes. When talking about your experience, you need to forget about showing how amazing you are and concentrate on how you can be a fantastic acquisition for the company.

Step 3: Perfect your cover letter

After hours spent crafting your CV, it can seem a little superfluous to transfer the information into letter format. However, your cover letter shouldn’t be a regurgitation of your CV. Instead, it should zoom in on a few key skills and experiences on your CV that the employer values the most. As a result, your cover letter should be bespoke for every application.

Some recruiters may receive hundreds of applications a day, so your cover letter gives you a chance to stand out from the crowd. With 57.1% of professionals ranking the cover letter as an essential application component, you cannot afford to leave it out. Your cover letter needs to provide this information and leave the reader convinced that you are the right person for the job. There are several online tools to help you write a perfect cover letter.

The Society for Human Resources surveyed organizations on CVs, cover letters, and interviews and found the top three things that must be included in a cover letter are:

  • Which position interests you and why.

  • How a candidate’s skills meet job requirements.

  • How your skills and experiences can benefit the employer

  • Why a candidate wants to work at the organization.

  • Requesting an interview.

To accomplish this, you should be using the requirements of the job to dictate the content of your cover letter and following these best practices:

  • You should write like yourself, but you should also pick the appropriate voice and tone for the company you’re applying to. Researching the company will help dictate the tone you want to use, which may differ greatly, depending on where you apply. 

  • Telling stories from your career is a great way to demonstrate your skills and give hiring managers some insight into your personality and work style.

  • Time spent on making your cover letter look good visually is bound to enhance your chances of getting your letter read. Use standard business letter layout and don't forget to use 'Yours sincerely' and 'Yours faithfully' correctly.

  • Address your covering letter to the right person as failure to do so has the potential to annoy the reader. It could also cast a doubt about your attention to detail or indeed your failure to find out how the company operates and who exactly is hiring you. Use of a title such as Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr and so on is usually most appropriate in the first instance.

  • Make it clear which position you are applying for and make reference to how you heard about the job, as this helps with a company's marketing and it may be a small plus for you that you mentioned it.

  • Proofread and edit your letter. Hiring managers look at hundreds of applicants, a small typo can make or break your chances of getting an interview. Therefore, be sure to thoroughly proofread your cover letter (and all of your application materials, for that matter). Read through your letter, looking for any spelling or grammar errors. Make sure you have the correct company name, hiring manager’s name, date, etc. in your heading. Reading your letter out loud is a useful way to check for mistakes. Consider asking a friend or family member to read your letter as well. Ask them to check for errors, but you can also ask for more general feedback. Ask whether or not your friend is convinced that you are a great fit for the job after reading your letter.

Step 4: Apply

It is likely you will send your CV via email or through a job board like CV library. Save your CV as a pdf file to ensure recruiters can open it on any device. A pdf will also maintain formatting, so you can be sure that employers will see your CV as you intended.

Always follow the instructions specified in the job posting. The most important part of sending a cover letter is to follow the employer's instructions. If the job posting says to include your cover letter and CV as an email attachment, attach your CV and cover letter as PDF files to your email message. If the hiring manager says they want you to submit your materials using an online application system, do not email or mail a physical application.

If you need to email your cover letter, be sure to include your name and the job title of the position in your message. It is important to send your cover letter and CV attachments correctly, to include all the information requested so your message is read, and to let the receiver know how they can contact you to schedule an interview.

These are the four main steps to successful employment. I would love to hear whether these tips are useful to you and what you are going to change in your job search after reading this article.

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