Monday, July 1, 2013

Writing/Interview skills: 10 rules for a great CV

It is debatable nowadays, but traditionally your curriculum vitae or CV was a comprehensive list of all your professional accomplishments. Opposed to a traditional resume, which is shorter and  just hits the highlights. Today, though, these terms are often used interchangeably. However, in academia, which doesn't change fast, a traditional CV is king. Your CV is often the first impression you make with a prospective academic employer. So make yours great. Below are my 10 tips to how to write a curriculum vitae or a professional academic CV.

1. Best at top. Put the most important (read: impressive) stuff on the top 1/3 of the page. Readers often flip through CVs, only skimming the tops of pages. This is even more true if the reader is on an electronic device. So make sure you have something intriguing at the top of each page. This will entice your reader to read further.

2. Leave white space.
You may have a zillion wonderful qualifications, but if your CV is a b*tch to read no one will ever know, because no one will read your CV. A solid block of text is not inviting, spaced bullet points are.

3. Use bolding to offset important points. But do not bold every-other-word that defeats the purpose. Use bolding to draw the reader into bodies of text he otherwise might not venture.
    • Also play with lines and other page break elements. 
    • Consider experimenting with different font sizes.
    • Your goal is to make your CV easy to navigate. Sections should be clear and intuitive. This may take some tweaking with font size, bolding and lines. 
Story time: In my Bio 212 class there was a girl who highlighted her entire textbook. I mean the entire thing, every line, every word, every caption, every footnote. It was crazy, the pages were wrinkled from getting wet with highlighter ink. Do not be this person. It makes no sense and defeats the purpose of highlighting, which is to bring emphasis to salient or key information.
4. Do not include every detail. The goal of the CV is to get to the interview. Just give enough information to intrigue your reader and make them believe you are qualified. You will do the rest in the interview. If you try to include too many details your CV will be too long, too dense, and hard to read.

5. Keep it short. Again, no one wants to read your life story. Some companies will even throw out your CV/resume if it is longer than two pages. The thought is: If you cannot express why you are qualified in 2-3 pages, you are unfocused, a cruddy writer/thinker, and we do not want you. 
    • Analyze your verbiage. Often keeping it short, does not mean cutting things out, but condensing your wording. If you struggle with long winded passages, read the book On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. It is a wonderful grammar/writing book.
    • To keep it short, you may choose to not list all your publications. That is fine. List your most impressive top five. Then make a reference to the others, such as “20+ publications not listed here, but available by request”.
6. Highlight your skills, not your jobs. This is especially important if you are young and your CV is a little sparse still. Some job titles do not look very impressive. Other job titles are not intuitive. Be sure to elaborate about your hard and soft skills.
    • For example: I worked as a pooper scooper at a dog boarding kennel during high school. Not impressive right? I would not want to just list “pooper scooper” as a job on my CV. No one would care to talk to me. But if I list hard and soft skills acquired at this job, I look much more impressive. My pooper scooper CV entry might look something like this:
                                   1997-2001      Kennel Technician
                                                             Skills: comfortable working with a variety of unruly animals,
                                                             experienced in administer medications, had regular customer
                                                             contact, enjoyed working on a team.
      •  Note I did not list all of my technical skills – cleaning dog runs, scooping poop and walking dogs – these skills are unimportant (and likely to vary from kennel to kennel). 
      • BTW, I no longer list this job on my CV. I have since had many more relevant jobs. But it works as a nice example of making the most out of a "meh" job experience.
7. Tell a story. It should begin “Once upon a time”, with your education and past employment skills. And end “Happily ever after”, leaving the reader convinced that you and your new job are made for each other.
    • Do not take this literally. You should not actually have the words "Once upon a time" anywhere on your CV. But you should take care to arrange, and emphasize and de-emphasize as needed to give your muddled experiences the feeling of a coherent adventure that culminate in your new job.
You and your new job
8. Don’t take my word for it. One of the best things I ever did was ask my advisor for example CVs. She handed me a stack, and I spent the better part of a day reading them and taking notes. I encourage you to do the same. Go to the big wigs in your field, and ask to see their resumes and CVs. Most are happy to share. Read the CVs and reverse engineer what was done well.
    • When reading ask yourself (based on the CVs):
      1. Which are easiest to read? Why?
      2. Which are most impressive? Why?
      3. Which person did you like the most? Why?
      4. The least? Why?
    • This is also a good time to figure out what you need to do professionally to rise to "big wig" status. Note how many papers the big wigs have, and by what stage in their career. What grants and fellowships they were awarded, etc.
9.  Rewrite your CV for each job. Study the job description, the company motto, chat with inside people, anything to get an idea of what the company/lab wants. Use  keywords and phrases gleaned from these sources in your CV. Be honest but use as many keywords as you can. Make it easy for your reader to see how you fit in their company by using the vocabulary they are most familiar with. 

10. Edit, edit, edit. Then send it to someone else to edit. Then edit again. Make it spotless. After all it is the first impression you will make – good is not good enough.  It needs to be great.


Jen said...


Trudy Sealy said...

I think it's really hard to include every credential that you have on your CV, especially if not all of that are read by the interviewer. However, as they skim through it, what they will always look for is your skills in performing the job. Entice everything in it, and do well on the interview!

Jen said...

I agree it is impossible to include everything, I think "entice" is a lovely way to put it. Your CV/resume should entice, you can do the rest during the interview. Thanks!