Curriculum vitae vs resume: Key differences and similarities you need to know

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When one job application demands a curriculum vitae and another asks for a resume, you might be wondering: What’s the difference? Can you submit the same document for both?

The answer is no. While curriculum vitae and resumes have a lot in common and can look very similar in certain respects, their functions and forms are varied enough to make them two distinctly different types of documents that both detail your accomplishments and credentials. Here are the key differences and similarities between CVs and resumes, to help you better understand how to prepare both.

International relevance

There’s a regional factor that can determine what advice is relevant to you regarding curriculum vitae, since “CV” means something different inside the US than it does abroad. Outside the US, curriculum vitae can either be one-page documents that look strikingly similar to resumes, or they can also look like what the US refers to a CV as: a multi-page epic that goes into far greater depth than a resume with regards to your achievements and career.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on the US definition of a CV. In the US, CVs are typically lengthy documents reserved for fields such as academia. Abroad, though, while CVs can be those, they can also be shortened and modified to look much like resumes and be used for applications in most other professions.

Core focus

Curriculum vitae are meant to show your career and achievements, whereas resumes focus more on your skillset and abilities. I was able to ask Karyn Mullins, the President at MedReps, a job board that specializes in medical sales and pharmaceutical sales jobs, some questions about CVs. When asked about something that applicants shouldn’t do on a CV, Mullins had this to say:

“Applicants should never submit a CV that focuses more on responsibilities than it does achievements. This is a slight difference that gets CVs placed at the top or the bottom of the pile. If one of your responsibilities was to perform research, explain how long it took you to perform the research, how accurate it was, what role you played in the overall success of your team, and so on.”

All of what’s described here paints a vastly different picture compared to what goes on a resume. While there’s definitely a place for achievements on this type of document, the bulk of a good resume details relevant job experience, specifically in terms of which duties you performed and how they’ve equipped you for what you’re applying for. That’s all there’s really room for on a resume, hence the brevity. CVs, however, can often run much longer, giving the writer space with which to discuss their feats.

Chronology and customization

Here’s an area where curriculum vitae overlaps a bit with resumes: both are documents that should be meticulously customized to fit the individual needs of each and every job application you send out. When I asked Mullins about whether a CV should be a static document-based purely on chronology or if there were smart ways to modify it to suit individual applications, she gave a firm answer as well as critical advice.

“No application document, including CVs, should be static. Each role, no matter how similar, has its own unique qualifications and skill requirements. Optimize every CV as a marketing material that’s targeting a whole new audience. Even your personal profile, such as your introduction, what you can do for the company, and career goals should be customized per the job description, the company’s mission, and brand.

Then, as you chronologically layout your employment history, alter the details within each position. List the key achievements in order of most important for a role to least important.”

These salient points do a good job outlining why you should always optimize your CV. And as alluded to in her opening sentence, there isn’t a document under the sun that shouldn’t be tailored toward your target—including resumes. Whether your resume is functional or chronological, you’ll still need to make modifications to the file for it to help its application achieve maximum potential.

Necessities for writing

Another similarity between CVs and resumes is that you don’t need a ton of career experience to write either. I asked Mullins about guidelines and tips for writing about research experience on CVs, specifically with undergrad and graduate students in mind, to which she responded with an answer that should be reassuring to readers of this article with less experience under their belt than they think is needed.

“There’s a common misconception that you need years upon years of experience to write an effective CV. That’s simply not true. Even when writing about research experience, it’s important to use the same tried-and-true methods of writing a traditional CV. Connect each experience to the role or program you’re applying to. Show how your success, knowledge-earned, and the process of performing the research makes you an expert in a specific field.”

It’s not about how much you highlight, but rather, what you highlight. Quantity is nice, but if you can write a CV that demonstrates quality, that can be just as good. The same goes for resumes. If you can describe any activity, schooling, or job in such a way that it shows you’re equipped for the role you’re currently applying for, then it doesn’t matter what your background, or lack thereof, is—all that matters is that you have a built-in skillset to impress the recruiter.

The true difference

At the end of the day, CVs and resumes really aren’t all that different—they’re both sheets of paper where you describe what you’ve done and how it has equipped you for what you’re applying for. And many similarities abound in how you should prepare each document, as evidenced by the above comparisons. However, a key area not yet touched on is how similar they are in terms of what you should not do on each document.

Both documents represent your communication and writing abilities. Therefore, they should be grammatically sound and free of typos. Neither CVs nor resumes should include lies you think may boost your career prospects or extraneous details (hobbies, irrelevant jobs, etc.) that fail to communicate your worth as a potential hire.

Really, the major difference between the two is in how the curriculum vitae and resume go about saying the same thing. The resume will quickly mention that you lifted a ten-pound weight for eight hours a day at your last job, whereas the CV will describe how many big-muscle competitions you won as a result of said weightlifting over the course of three pages. Looking past that bit of exaggeration, if you take away one thing from this piece, it’s this: don’t bring a CV to a resume fight, and vice versa.

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