Whether you’re a struggling undergrad hoping to get into a PhD program or an accomplished academic looking to shake up their career, a good curriculum vitae is a key asset in your arsenal for ascension.
What makes a good CV isn’t quite 1:1 with what makes a killer resume, so even if you know your way around the latter, you’ll want to read extra carefully when it comes to tips and tricks on how to write the perfect curriculum vitae that stands out and gets you the gig.
Stateside and international curriculum vitaes: the differences
It’s important to note that this particular article is written primarily with US audiences in mind. For most topics, good career advice is good career advice regardless of what region you’re from, but the tricky thing with CVs is that their definition changes outside of the United States. Whereas in the US resumes are the default application supplement for the vast majority of fields and CVs are mostly reserved for academic, medical, and scientific professions, CVs abroad often function similarly to resumes.
Outside the US, a CV might resemble its American counterpart and be a lengthy, multi-page epic detailing every triumph of an individual’s career, or it could very well look like an American resume and be a snappy one-page affair. So for sake of giving advice in a concise, focused manner, we’re going to be zeroing in on the lengthy, multi-page document version of a CV, since that’s the American standard.
What not to do on a curriculum vitae
Before we dive into what you should be doing on a curriculum vitae, it’s best to outline some red flags and warnings regarding what you should not do.
I reached out to Alexandra Levit, bestselling author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College, to get her thoughts on how to write the perfect curriculum vitae. Among the questions I asked her, one was “what’s one thing you should never do on a CV that most people wouldn’t realize is a mistake?” Levit had this to say in response:
“You should never lead with contact information containing an email address that makes you look silly and immature (for example, email@example.com). The reader will see that in the first glance and discard the rest of the content.”
On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that one should never use an unprofessional email for professional purposes. On the other, the fact that Levit chose this as her response paints a worrying picture of the state of would-be CV writers in the US. Do they not understand that amateur-hour email addresses are going to hinder their chances of scoring dream jobs in serious fields like neuroscience or pharmacology?
With this in mind, if you are an undergrad preparing to apply to the Harvards and Stanfords of the world and are even briefly considering using a goofy email, do yourself a favor and drop it from your CV. Please.
Another tip Levit gave about what not to do came when I inquired about her thoughts on artistry versus simplicity in curriculum vitaes. She said there’s a balance to be struck.
“I actually think there’s such a thing as an overly artsy CV. Don’t let too many graphics bells and whistles distract from the matter at hand, which is your experience. You don’t know that much about the organization’s culture yet, so err on the side of caution and select a tasteful template with a readable font and a pop or two of color. “
Her insights about not yet knowing the organization’s culture are key. Though you might presume your personal flair will fly, or that your one-size-fits-all CV is bound to be a winner if it’s too artsy it could make a bad impression. Still, a little style and a color or two might help you stand out from the stacks of plain-old black and white CVs.
To wrap this section up, here are a few things you shouldn’t include on your CV:
- Tired buzzwords. Say “synergy” on your CV, I dare you (just kidding, don’t do it).
- Lies. If you get caught, it’s game over. If you don’t get caught, you’re still risking trouble.
- Hobbies and irrelevant personal details. Save those for your blog.
- Typos (obviously).
How to write the perfect curriculum vitae
Now that we know some of the many, many things you shouldn’t do or include on your CV, the question remains: how does one write the perfect curriculum vitae? I asked Levit about that as well, and she gave a key piece of advice: “you must customize a CV to the specific job ad, meaning that you load it with the keywords mentioned by the company. Specific results achieved in your prior positions are also essential.”
That’s tip number one, right there. Tailor your CV to the role you’re applying to, and don’t be afraid to toss in some company keywords like the recruiter catnip they are.
Another important order of business is to decide whether you want your CV to be chronological or functional. If you’ve been working in the same field or industry for a while and have been consistently climbing the ranks, a chronological format might be best.
Alternatively, if you’re fresh out of university and your chronology is less than impressive, opt for a functional format that highlights your research accomplishments, honors, and awards. And remember, achievements are more important than responsibilities, so if you have to pick one to cram onto your CV when discussing a certain bit of research you were a part of, go with the flashy success marker as opposed to the tired job description.
For an example of CV formatting accompanied by solid pointers concerning the do’s and don’ts of curriculum vitaes, check out this post on Indeed.com that covers some essential info and formatting tips.
To summarize the general content on most guides like these, here are a few key things to always include on a CV: contact info, your academic and professional history, any major awards and grants you’ve received, as well as any publications and major presentations you’ve played a key part in.
Keep your formatting in check, as well. That means 12 point font—and no weird fonts—as well as standard one-inch margins. If the reader has to squint to understand your CV, you’re doing it wrong! Also, be sure to include headers and bullet lists for sake of readability and the illusion of brevity. You’ll be amazed how “short” and tidy bulleted lists and section headers can make multi-page CVs look.
How to write the perfect curriculum vitae, the TL;DR version
You’ll notice this piece’s attention was split pretty evenly between what you should and shouldn’t do. That’s because for every tip that’s commonly provided on the internet with regards to “how to write the perfect curriculum vitae,” there’s a vital warning missing about what not to do. And make no mistake, even if you include all the “right” stuff on your CV, including any of the wrong stuff on top of that can still disqualify you from your dream school or job. So pay close attention to what not to do. No goofy email addresses, no typos or grammar issues, and no formatting faux pas. Make your Titanic-sized CV iceberg proof.