When studying it can be difficult to think much beyond the tasks at hand like the next assignment or test. Looking a little further ahead, your end goal is obviously to complete your course and graduate, but what about after that? Gaining a qualification is the start, the next step is landing yourself a decent job.
When applying for a new job, you need to present yourself as well as possible to stand out from the crowd, especially with South Africa’s high unemployment rate. A well compiled and intelligent CV, along with a good covering letter, is the best way to do this.
In this article, we will cover all the basics you need on how to format your CV, what to put in the CV and how to write a cover letter for your CV as well as share some very useful resources and services that are available to you as a Wits student (and some useful information even if you aren’t enrolled).
Before you get stuck in preparing your cover letter and CV, there are some important things to think about and consider. The most important is that you read the job requirements and the application details very carefully. The information we will give you below is quite general, but a particular recruiter may ask for something different to what we have recommended. For example, we would advise that you fit your CV onto 2 pages, but the recruiter may ask for something different.
Make sure you check your spelling and grammar very carefully as careless errors will give a poor impression. Use polite and formal language and avoid slang or colloquialisms.
Before a recruiter even looks at your CV, they will read your cover letter first. The purpose of the cover letter is to explain why you should be chosen for that specific job. While a CV can be reused again for multiple job applications (if the role and requirements are the same), the cover letter really should be unique for each application.
In your cover letter, you want to show that you have done your research about the prospective employer. Try to pick out any aspects about both the company and yourself that make you a good candidate for the position. You want to put your best features first and fit them into just two or three paragraphs.
Wits CCDU has prepared a detailed presentation PDF on creating your cover letter and CV that you can view here. (this document goes into more detail and also includes details for a motivation letter, which is not covered in this article.)
Things to remember for a cover letter:
- Do not sound desperate or plead for the job.
- Be polite.
- Be concise – the letter should not be more than a page.
- Introduce yourself.
- Explain why you are suitable for the position and/or organisation.
- Do not speak badly of past employers or colleagues
A quick online search will bring up heaps of templates and fancy tools for creating CVs, but do not get carried away. Many of these do not comply with the standard South African CV format. Simplicity is important. The websites offering these templates also need to stand out from their competition and each year they offer new formats with new bells and whistles. These can look flashy and impressive, but you could end up doing yourself a disservice.
For most jobs that require a university qualification, a plain text-based simple CV format, laid out neatly in black and white is entirely sufficient. Things like skills graphs, fancy graphics and a photograph will likely only detract from the core information you want to present.
Read the job application instructions carefully and follow them precisely. The job advert might specify a particular format that they want to receive your CV. If they specify a Word document, don’t send them a PDF, for example.
Knowing more about your prospective employer will also help you nuance your CV and cover letter to suit them. An established accounting firm will likely have very different criteria and expectations to a startup social media marketing company, for example.
What you put in your CV largely depends on the experience and qualifications that you have. The challenges are different depending on where you are in your career. If you are a fresh graduate entering the job market, then you likely have little in the way of relevant job experience.
Different industries will have different focuses and your own experience will also determine what goes into your CV, but there are some basics that should be included in any CV.
- Name, professional title and contact details should all go at the top of the CV
- Personal profile
- Experience and employment history
- Education and qualifications
- References (if you do not include references in the CV, then it is recommended to include a mention that references are available on request)
- Additional skills / Hobbies and interests (strictly keep relevant, eg hiking, camping and birdwatching could be relevant to a conservation company)
- Awards and achievements
Wits CCDU put together a CV & cover letter presentation that gives you much more detail into what you will need.
If you are or will be, a fresh graduate then you’ll likely want to put your education and qualifications ahead of your work experience. As you won’t have much or any work experience, you can put more focus on the course you have completed and go into more detail on your results and can include your school leaving results and achievements.
For young job-market entrants, the trick is to take what work experience you do have and highlight features from it that could relate to your job. Even completely unrelated work experience can be presented in a way that improves your chances.
What you lack in relevant work experience, you can make up for by showcasing your “soft skills”. Having waited tables for example might not be relevant to the position you are applying for, but it involves elements that could be positives for the role, such as customer engagement, conflict management or sales experience.
Once you’ve got more work experience, your CV should put that ahead of your education and qualifications. As you add more work experience or accumulate additional postgraduate qualifications, you can go into less detail on earlier education. School results and achievements can be left off too. Applying for any senior position, it is unlikely that
For older, more experienced job applicants the challenge shifts to one of presenting the most relevant recent experience. If you work in a fast-changing industry, you want to show that you have kept up with recent trends and advances. This can be shown by both relevant on the job experience or by showing additional learning or skills development.
Soft skills are skills or personal attributes that generally aren’t taught at university but that can help you within your job. These are things like communication, reliability, time management, problem-solving, teamwork, work ethic and conflict resolution.
If you join a company, you will likely spend a lot of time with your new colleagues. They want to know that you are capable of doing the job required, but beyond that, they will likely pick someone that is also a pleasure to work with. Take the opportunity to show off your soft skills in your cover letter and when describing your work experience.
The Wits Counselling and Careers Development Unit (CCDU) has good CV examples for first job applications and a template you can make use of:
- Sample CV (Word) – A Word template providing a guide to the essential elements of a CV.
- Sample CV (PDF) – A PDF version of the above Word document
Keep in mind that the above sample CV is specifically for a fresh graduate and new entrant into the job market who has no experience in the field for which they are applying. For someone with more relevant experience, the work experience section will usually come before the education section.
Wits CCDU has many resources, including a comprehensive list of South Africa’s top job search websites.