How to write a CV that will turbo-charge your career even before you've finished school


A key section of the #SavvyTeenAcademy curriculum is devoted to writing your own CV and cover letter. During this workshop, you will methodically examine your life story (that's what "curriculum vitae", or CV, means!) and extract the information that will be of interest to an employer.

Many people, even adults, feel completely discouraged when having to compile a CV: it feels like writing a CV is trying to read the mind of somebody (the employer) you've never met and know nothing about. "If I say I did X, will they think it's good? Will they think it's useless? Should I mention Y? Maybe they will be displeased if I do? I have no idea what they want!"

If you approach CV writing like this, it will feel like playing a real-life version of minesweeper - and it will be very stressful! But writing a stellar CV can be a wonderful experience, when you realise all the incredibly valuable skills you have amassed, simply by going through your life.

Here are ten characteristics that employers are looking for in a new hire, and how to demonstrate you have what it takes!

Functional excellence

Functional excellence refers to your technical skills, so perhaps that's languages, engineering or maths. Reflect on the subjects that you've studied during your time in secondary school; which ones have you got your best results in and even more importantly, what have you enjoyed the most.

Put your top two or three together and group them. For example, if they are english and history, then you would call them the "humanities". If they are physics, biology and chemistry, then you would call them the "sciences". If they were woodwork and metalwork, then you would call them the "practical" subjects. If they were music and art, you would call them the "arts".

Use the term "functional excellence" in your CV and highlight your excellence, backing it up with evidence. Have you been getting consistently high marks in the subjects? Have you won any awards inside or outside your school?Curriculum Vitae Have you been taking part in any extracurricular activities that demonstrate your interest? In my case, I was captain of the debating team in fifth year and my functional excellence was in putting forward a case and defending it, as well as my command of English to articulate my points. To this day, this skill still benefits me, over and over and over again.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is being able to deal with people in a caring, empathetic way. Throughout your teenage years, you have probably had classmates who have gone through difficult times: perhaps a close family member died, they had been bullied in the past or broke up with somebody they really liked. If you helped them through that process by listening to their problems, if you helped them see a solution and supported them along the way, you have demonstrated emotional intelligence.

Think back through those times that you've had with your friends and be ready to highlight some examples to a prospective employer. I remember a new girl joining our school in fifth year. I made an extra effort to make sure she had somebody to talk to at lunch time and that she was included in any jokes that were going on in classroom conversations, etc. She didn't take long to settle in, and it was important that somebody looked out for her.

Personal advocacy

Personal advocacy is having somebody who is willing to act as a reference for you: somebody who would be willing to tell an employer about you (and show you in a good light!). If you have had a job in the past, could you ask this employer? Alternatively, could you ask a teacher with whom you get on well?

Such a reference is a great bonus. To a prospective employer who might consider giving you a summer job or an apprenticeship, it shows how others see you and it is additional evidence that you can actually do what you say you can do. This makes them take your application more seriously.

My first reference was the mother of the childen I used to babysit on a Saturday night: don't think that babysitting isn't a "real" job. After all, somebody is trusting you to care for the most precious thing in their life, their children.

Cross-cultural dexterity

This term refers to an ability to work with different cultures. For example, did you participate in a French Exchange during Transition Year? Have you volunteered abroad for charity? Are there some international students in your class who you've welcomed into your school? Any or all of these examples show that you're able to work with people from different backgrounds and you're adaptable to new situations. Employers truly value this in a dynamic, ever-changing world.

I went on a two-week "échange" to Redon, France. It was a fantastic experience, but it was hard sometimes to be away from home, try to constantly speak another language and get used to how a family in a different part of the world lived their day.

It was really embarrassing one day when the student's mother made an omelette and put it in the centre of the table. I picked up the plate and put it at my place, like I would do at home, but my student had to politely point out that it was to be divided up into pieces like a pizza. In essence, I had taken the whole family's dinner for myself. I still blush thinking about that occasion!

Geek acumen

The word "geek" is now a great badge of honour as tech skills are highly sought after in today's marketplace. Think about how you use a computer or smartphone: for FaceBook and Snapchat? To use apps? To scratch code? To use Word, Excel or PowerPoint for projects? To find information via Google and YouTube?

You might think that everybody does this, but it's important to show an employer that you're comfortable with technology by giving concrete examples of how you adopted new technology. An employer wants to know whether you will be willing to learn new skills as you go along, and to apply technical skills to their business.

During Transition Year, I did the ECDL (European Computer Drivers License) and put that on my C.V. I actually got a summer job for a month creating Excel spreadsheets and it's a skill that I use all the time today.

Virtual collaboration

First, think about times that you've worked with others in your school. Were you part of a group project, a sports team, a choir, etc.? It's very important to show that you can work with others successfully. Second, how did you keep in contact when you weren't all together? Did you use WhatsApp, FaceBook Messenger, a group text or another mechanism? This is evidence of "virtual collaboration".  In my company, we use Slack and Trello. You may use these tools all the time and think nothing of it: that's all the more reason to show this to employers.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Businesses love to have people who come up with new ideas and are willing to go about putting them into action. Have you any "business experience "? For example were you part of a Transition Year Mini Company? Alternatively, have you ever raised money for charity, in a cake sale, a sponsored walk or a "no-uniform" day? Each of these examples demonstrates that you've created a product, a service or put some activity behind a cause, and that people were willing to buy your product or service, or support your cause, with their hard-earned money. When I was in school, I used to babysit during the school year, get summer jobs and raise money for charity.

Creative problem solving

Problem solving is one of the most revered skills in the workplace. We all go through problems in life: we don't know the answer to a question, we can't understand something, we are feeling down in the dumps and unmotivated, somebody comes to us with a request that we don't want to fulfill, like a friend asking you to help them cheat in an exam, etc.

Life constantly throws problems at us, and we don't have a user's manual for each and every situation that will come up. We have to be creative, ask for help, look for the information we're missing, negotiate and think of possible outcomes: this is problem solving. We are not blindly applying a tried-and-true recipe, but coming up with an original solution ourselves.

Think back to a time when you faced a problem and had to work towards the solution. In my case, I struggled a lot with Applied Maths and that continued right up until the week before the exam. I tried to isolate the pieces that I couldn't understand and asked my teacher to help me go through those areas. I practiced and practiced and PRACTICED. I tried all the exam questions when I finished the textbook examples. I asked other people who had done well in the subject how they managed. I used to talk to my Granny when I was finding it very tough. Eventually, all of my work paid off as I figured out exactly how each question worked and I got an A1 in my Leaving Cert - in a subject I had still been struggling with just the week before!


Have you ever spearheaded a project? For example, have you been captain of a sports team? Were you the CEO of the mini company in Transition Year? Were you Head Girl or Head Boy? Did you play a lead role in a play? All of those are examples of a time that you had a critical position and others turned to you for direction.

In my case, as I mentioned earlier, I was captain of the debating team. I could prepare my first speech, but then my closing presentation needed to be written "on the fly", while my own teammates and the other team were speaking. I also remember the painful night we didn't win the semi-final of the Concern debates and I made an impromptu speech on the way home in the bus to thank our teachers, our supporters, our families and the opposing team because that's what a captain does... even though I felt like curling up in a ball at the time.


This is the expertise that you learn through stretching your abilities. Think about a time that you developed and grew: at first you felt completely out of your depth, but you quickly learned to adapt. 

Perhaps it was the time that you went from thinking that the Junior Cert maths exam would be impossible to walking out punching the air because you aced that test! Maybe you had a disastrous day in Home Ec when the recipe went totally wrong and you had to throw all of your ingredients out, but you tried again at home a few times and now it's your "signature" dish.

I went to the Gaelteacht twice when I was in school and I used to find the first week very difficult as it's hard to speak in a different language and be away from home and meet new people all at the one time. However, on both occasions, I built resilience and came home with a much better command of the language while having made some great memories in Dub Chaoin, Co. Chiarrai.

Don't for a moment think that "you don't know anything and nobody would want to hire you". You don't have to wait until you graduate or even leave school before you can exhibit the very skills that employers are looking for today. 

Susan HayesCulleton CFA


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