CV Writing Tips
An Introduction to Writing a CV
This page is designed particularly for graduate students in all fields and provides introductory advice on how to write a CV. The term "CV" is short for "curriculum vitae"—the Latin phrase for "the course of one's life." Your CV is a document that presents who you are as a scholar. CVs are used in academic spheres to organize your education, experiences, and accomplishments in a clear and predictable way that allows readers to skim and find information efficiently. When you apply for an academic position or opportunity, a CV is usually requested instead of a resume.
Hiring committees may receive hundreds of applications for any one job, and their time is limited. Therefore, you want to make sure that your CV is as clear and directed as possible. Your CV needs to be tailored to that position's specific expectations and structured and formatted so that all your material is clear, consistent, and skimmable. Your integrity is very important to uphold, so as with any other application document, make sure that anything you include on your CV is accurate and will stand up to questioning in an interview.
In the sections below, you'll find information about:
This information is general and not tailored to any particular discipline. As such, you absolutely need to:
- locate strong current sample CVs from your field,
- talk to your mentors and professors about particular expectations of CVs in your discipline, and
- share drafts of your CV for feedback from trusted advisors and colleagues.
The insight you receive from these other sources along with the information provided below will help you to make informed decisions about how to approach, draft, and revise your particular CV.
Resumes vs. CVs
While CVs and resumes are similar documents, they are also different in some key ways. (You can find more information about resumes and resume writing here.) This table details some of the most important points of comparison and contrast to be aware of:
|Purpose||To present the case that your experience and skills make you a great candidate for a particular position.||To present the case that your academic experience and accomplishments make you a great candidate for a particular academic position.|
|Audience||Any possible employer or HR employee.||Fellow academics on a hiring committee.|
|Length||Probably only 1 page and absolutely no longer than 2 pages.||As long as you need it to be while still keeping it as concise as possible.|
Description of Experience
Focused on active skills linked with quantifiable results you’ve achieved.
May appear on the top of the first page.
Often not needed since your audience understands academic work and many job, publication, and conference titles are self-explanatory.
May appear at the end of the CV.
|Formatting||Simple, clear, and skimmable.||Simple, clear, and skimmable.|
Sections to Include
Your CV should be divided into clearly labeled sections that allow your readers to easily skim through and learn about your relevant qualifications. The exact sections you include will depend on your background and the positions you're applying for. In some disciplines, there may be an established order to the sections after "Education." If so, follow that. If not, highlight your greatest strengths for the position. For example, if you are applying for a position at a research university, you might choose to start with your publications. If the position primarily involves teaching, lead with your teaching section.
In what follows, we detail the most common CV sections:
This information should appear at the top of your CV and should include your name, phone number, mailing address (either work or private), and professional email address. You may want to draw some attention to this information by slightly altering the formatting, alignment, or font, but don't overdo this.
Frequently this section follows your contact information. This section, like most in a CV, is organized in reverse chronological order, so that your most recent (or highest) degree or degree–in–progress appears first. Include the name of the school, the degree conferred, the area of study and/or major and minor, and the year the degree was completed. This is also an appropriate place to include the title of your dissertation and/or Master's thesis along with your key advisors' names. Don't include your GPA, and generally, do not include information about anything prior to your Bachelor's degree.
Given the expectations of a CV, include only employment experience that is connected to your academic work, interests, and development. Also, whereas in a resume you describe your work, skills, and accomplishments, such detailed descriptions are often out of place in a CV. The people reading your CV have a pretty good idea of what it means to have taught, for example, a general chemistry or an introduction to philosophy course. Of course, if a position you held wouldn't be clear to other academics, you may choose describe it here. For example, if you worked at an MRI lab but your primary responsibilities involved subject location, screening, and interviews, this would be an important descriptive detail to establish in this section.
While you may choose to not use subsections and there may be others to consider, the three most common are: teaching experience, research experience, and administrative experience.
Often this details: the institutions where you've taught, your job titles at these institutions (e.g., TA, intern, adjunct instructor, etc.), the names and course numbers for the classes you’ve taught, and the dates when you taught these or the number of terms you taught them.
If you've served as a research assistant in any capacity, this would be an appropriate section to identify that. Depending on your field and experience, you may choose to detail: the names of labs you’ve worked in, the names of PIs you've worked under, the titles of projects you've worked on and the nature of your contributions, and the dates of your involvement. It is appropriate to use vocabulary here that is familiar to your scholarly peers.
If you have leadership experience in your department or in connection to other organizations or initiatives, you will want to identify your role, the name of the program, the dates you served in this capacity, and perhaps a brief description of your responsibilities. While many CV items won't include descriptions, when accounting for your administrative experience, you may need to offer a sentence or a concise bulleted list in order to inform your readers of what you did within this position.
Include the titles, names of any co–authors, and publication information for your scholarly reviewed publications. Some writers format their references by following the major documentation system used in their discipline. Often publications are organized in reverse chronological order starting with your most recent publication. There are some very specific rules about how to describe manuscripts that are under consideration but not yet accepted or that are in press. Be sure to ask your faculty advisors for instruction about how to claim credit for work in progress without inflating your accomplishments.
Sometimes CV writers want to showcase other, slightly less academic publications (e.g., blog posts or creative writing). If you choose to do this, make sure you use subsection titles to provide clear distinctions between types of publications.
Presentations and Posters
Include the presentation or poster titles, names of any co–presenters, conferences, and dates for your scholarly presentations at conferences. If you have many of these to choose from, select only the most relevant or prestigious presentations to include in a given CV.
Grants, Fellowships, Honors, and Awards
Depending on how many of these you have to draw from, you might choose to break this into subsections. Mostly, this section is about acknowledging the accolades you’ve won and the competitive resources you’ve received. Include the names of the awards or grants and the date you received them. Here again, be strategic about what you include. If a grant you received is particularly prestigious or sizable, it can be appropriate to detail the amount received.
CV readers want to know about your participation on committees, the ways you've contributed to the life of your department or other organizations, and the associated volunteer work you've done. In this section, include information (titles, organization names, dates) about this part of your academic experience.
If you've been a member of a scholarly organization, include the titles of those organizations and the years of your membership.
Especially if it is relevant to your research or academic work, include any languages you know and the extent of your proficiency. If appropriate for your field, this might include foreign languages as well as computer languages.
When it comes to formatting your CV, your priority should be maintaining simplicity, clarity, and skimmability. Now is not the time for you to experiment with different fonts and unconventional alignment. Follow the formatting standards you identify within the sample CVs that you locate. Don't try to be original with how you lay out your information. Make sure your CV looks like the others so that readers can focus on the content of your document. Here are some specific formatting tips to keep in mind:
- Balance text and white space. Pay attention to where text is bunched up and where your page is empty and try to spread these elements out so that your information is clear.
- Don't use anything smaller than point 11 font, and while it's okay to adjust the margins, don't go under .5–inch on all sides.
- Be stylistically consistent. For example, if you choose to make one section title bold, make them all bold.
- Be smart about where your page breaks occur. For example, don't leave a section heading stranded by itself on the bottom of one page. Also, if you have a choice on an electronic application, upload your CV as a .pdf file. This will let you control the formatted appearance regardless of what templated preferences reviewers have on their computer.
Be consistent and work with parallel structures.
Across your CV, be consistent in your formatting, structure, and content. This is a matter of very closely following the norms that you establish for how your CV is set up. For example, if you abbreviate state names in your education section, abbreviate them in your work experience section as well. If you include a 12–point line break after one section, include the same size line break after every section. If you use complete sentences in your description of one job, use complete sentences in every description.
Revise and proofread your CV.
No matter how many similar CVs you've sent out, always read through each newly adjusted one slowly and in its entirety. Consider critically your content, clarity, order, and layout. Make sure that your grammar is flawless. Ask people whose opinion you trust to look at your CV, and be open to making changes to your document based on their recommendations. In addition to getting feedback from experts in your discipline, if you are a currently enrolled UW–Madison student, you are welcome to bring your CV into the Writing Center or visit us at one of our satellite locations to have one of our instructors help you re-see and re–consider your work.
Organize your CV drafts and information.
Your CV will change and grow as you continue through your academic career. Find a way to keep track of your additional experiences so that when it comes time to submit a new CV you aren't scrambling to remember recent conference presentations, awards, classes, etc. Some people have a CV folder on their computer where they can progressively deposit details about additional work and accomplishments. Others find it useful to have a master or composite CV that includes formatted information about everything they've done. They return to this document several times a year to update it, and when it's time to submit a new CV, they paste items from this list into a new document. However you do it, make sure that you're keeping track of the impressive things you've done so that nothing gets accidentally left out.
- Chapter 1 "Preparing for Entering Academia" of Prosanta Chakrabarty's A Guide to Academia: Getting Into and Surviving Grad School, Postdocs, and a Research Job (2012) has great tips and insight for junior scholars writing their first CV.
- Chapter 7 "Your Career" of Martin H. Krieger's The Scholar's Survival Manual: A Road Map for Students, Faculty, and Administrators (2013) includes some important questions for you to ask yourself to make sure that your CV accurately and efficiently represents your best work.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a range of detailed information, samples, and before–and–after renovations of CVs through its 2008, 2009, and 2010 "CV Doctor" content. You can find links to all of this material here.
One of the best ways to learn about CVs is to carefully study successful samples. While you should be absolutely sure to ask faculty mentors and other collegaues in your field for CV models and advice, we have also a few .pdf files of successful CVs from UW–Madison colleagues in various disciplines. While there is no single right way to compose a CV, these samples can open up conversations about choices you have for organizing and structuring CVs.
Resume Writing Tips
The least you need to know about writing a resume.
This page is designed for undergraduate students from all kinds of majors and provides introductory advice on how to write a resume. The word "resume" comes from the French for "to summarize," which is the purpose of a resume: to summarize your education and experience for your potential employer in a way that positions you as a good candidate for the job.
Prospective employers may receive hundreds of resumes for any one job, and their time is limited. Therefore, you want to make sure that your resume will help you stand out among all the other applicants as a good fit for the position by tailoring the information you include to your audience and to the position description. Your integrity is important, so make sure that anything you include on your resume is accurate and will stand up to questioning in an interview.
Everyone wonders about how long a resume should be. The usual advice is that, for a current undergraduate student or someone just finishing an undergraduate degree, usually one page is enough. As you accumulate more experience your resume will get longer. We recommend asking a career advisor, professor, or professional in your field about the appropriate resume length.
In fact, you should consult with faculty and career advisors in your field no matter what, but here are some basic principles designed to help you get started. Click on the links below to be taken directly to a certain section of the page, or scroll down to read about all of our tips
Types of resumes
There are three different kinds of resumes: chronological, skills-based, and a combination of the two. Each type serves its own purpose as explained below.
The chronological resume lists past and present experiences in reverse chronological order. Present experience is usually listed first, using present tense verbs, then all other experience is listed in reverse chronological order using past tense verbs. This is by far the most common type of resume.
Skills-based resumes base resume sections around specific skills related to the job. For instance, if you are applying for a teaching job and you have relevant teaching experience, plus other work experience unrelated to teaching that would make you a good fit for the job, you might include a section on "Teaching Experience" and a section on "Other Work Experience." This method helps clearly highlight relevant experience using section titles in addition to job descriptions, and is a great way to pull out keywords.
Skills-based resumes can also allow you to combine related work and other experience through the skills-based headings. In the above example involving a resume for teaching, you might list your extracurricular tutoring experience in the "Teaching Experience" section instead of in the "Other Experience" section of a skills-based resume.
Skills-based resumes prioritize experience description order based on relevance to the job, rather than chronology. Use a skills-based resume if your previous job experience does not necessarily fit with the job you are applying for. The sections labeled with skills will help show your employer how your past experience is relevant to the job.
The combination resume is the type of resume we most commonly see in the Writing Center. Combination resumes might include some skills-based headings, but list experience in each section in reverse chronological order. Combination resumes allow you to show your audience your recent relevant experience, while also taking advantage of keywords, which is good for online resumes that might be found via search engines.
Sections to include
Your resume should be divided into clearly labeled sections that allow your prospective employer to skim through and learn about your relevant experience. The tables below explain the required and possible sections you can have in your resume. These are just some of the possible sections. There may be others specific to your field, or others that reflect your strengths and that are relevant for a particular job, so make sure to get advice from advisors, faculty and professionals about what sections to include.
|Contact Information||This section should be at the top of your page and include your name, your phone number, your address, and your email. See our samples to get a sense of what this section should look like.|
|Education||Starting with college, include which school you are attending, your major, your degree type, and your expected degree year. Only include your GPA if it will impress your employer (above a 3.4 on a four-point scale is a good rule of thumb).|
|Work Experience||This is the heart of your resume. Include your job title, your employer, the time span you worked, and the location where you worked. Use your active verbs and keywords to describe work experience in bullet points with two to three bullets under each job. Use present tense verbs for current jobs and past tense verbs for past jobs.|
|Honors and Awards||An honors and awards section highlights that you have been recognized as exceptional in an area relevant to your job. The section should come close to the beginning of your resume and include the name of the award and the year received.|
|Other Experience||This section is a space to describe community service or other extracurricular experience that might be relevant to the job. As with the "Work Experience" section, include your title (for some this may just be "Member"), the organization name, the time span you were involved, and where the activity was located. Choose which activities you include based on what might be of interest to your potential employer. Any organization where you’ve had a leadership positions, for example, is a good experience to include in this section.|
|Objective||The objective is a sentence included at the very beginning of your resume, right after your contact information, that states your goals in submitting the resume. Since objectives frequently repeat job titles or descriptions, which are likely included elsewhere in your application, not everyone agrees about whether you should include an objective statement. We recommend consulting with someone in your field about whether to include this section in your resume.|
|Languages||This section includes a list of the languages you know and your level of knowledge (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Fluent). If you speak an uncommon language (e.g. Swahili or Finnish), including languages can help make you more memorable compared to other candidates. If you speak Spanish, for example, your employer might find that especially valuable, particularly if the job would have you working with people in Spanish-speaking areas.|
|Technical Skills||Technical skills include any specialized computer skills you may have that could be relevant to the job. You can either list them with bullet points or list them with commas, if you need to save space. If you know the job requires you to use specialized software or hardware, be sure to include this section.|
|Certifications||Usually, this section comes towards the beginning of your resume under the "Education" section and includes any field-specific certifications you may have along with the year you obtained them. For example, if you are applying for a job as a Project Manager and have a PMP (Project Management Professional) certification, you would want to include a certification section because it shows you have pursued this field beyond your basic education.|
Aim for breadth, not depth
You want to demonstrate to your prospective employer within the limited space you have that you have a variety of skills. So, if you have had similar jobs, choose different skills to highlight under each job heading. For example, if you have two food service jobs on your resume and are applying to a non-food related customer service job, instead of casting your job as
"Managed orders from 15-20 tables"
under each heading, you could highlight your managing under one job and highlight a different aspect of food service—say, collaborating with other staff members—under the other job heading. Make your choice based on which job involved more managing (perhaps you managed only 10 tables at your other food service job) and which involved more collaboration.
An exception to this rule is if you are applying for a field-specific job in which you have much experience. Then, you use the repetition of the field-specific verb to emphasize the amount of experience you have in that field.
Use active verbs
Use active verbs in a telegraphic (verb first) style to describe the responsibilities you had in a particular job. It’s important that you never exaggerate or overclaim your role, but you want to describe the work you’ve done in a way that demonstrates that you have taken responsibility and been a leader in the past. So, when you can, try to use an active verb that shows you taking an action.
For example, "helped" and "assisted" are both active verbs, but they frequently fail to portray the applicant as an actor.
"Helped my advisor research..."
"Researched..." or "Collaborated with my advisor to research..."
The revised verbs "researched" and "collaborated" portray you as an actor.
However, make your active verb choices based on the skills required for your job or keywords in the job description. If the word assist has a specific technical meaning in your field, then you would want to use that verb on your resume.
Use keywords drawn from the job description
One important strategy for attracting the interest of an employer is to try to include in your resume, whenever possible, some of the keywords from the job description you are applying for. Many employers use search engines to find candidates with resumes containing certain keywords. Even if you submit a resume directly to a prospective employer, your audience will likely glance over the document, scanning it for certain keywords from the job description.
When you are tailoring your resume to fit a specific job, make sure you spend some time identifying the keywords in the job description, which include specific skills or tasks the job requires. We also recommend consulting with someone in your field about keywords in your specific area. Then, when possible, make sure to include those keywords in your resume.
Quantify, when appropriate
It's common advice to include quantitative measures or information on resumes, but, as with all other information included on your resume, you have to make a choice based on whether quantifying will help you stand out as a better candidate for the job than you would have seemed had you not quantified. If you had leadership or management responsibilities, how many employees or volunteers did you supervise? If you handled investments, how many assets did you manage?
For example, if you are applying to work as a lab assistant and managed a cash register at the local movie theatre, you don’t need to include that the cash register contained $200, because your job at the movie theatre would not have changed depending on the amount of money in the cash register, and you likely won’t be managing money as a lab assistant.
However, if you are applying for a teaching job, you want to include the number of students in each class you have taught in the past, because teaching three students is very different from teaching twenty students. While the amount of money in the cash drawer at the movies doesn’t emphasize your skill at the job, the number of students in your class highlights your teaching ability.
With a resume, formatting is part of what makes it easy for a potential employer to scan the document. Therefore, ensure your formatting makes your resume easy to read, rather than trying to make it stand out by calling attention to the formatting. Here are some good rules of thumb for resume formatting:
- Include 2-3 descriptions of relevant experience in single line bullet pointsafter each job title using your active verbs and keywords. The more concisely you state your experience, the more impact that experience will have on your audience. Limiting yourself to two or three single line (or at most two line) bullet points under each job also makes it easy for your audience to scan down the bullets to see what you’ve done in the past.
- Choose an easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Arial, rather than a font with odd flourishes. You want your resume to stand out because of its content, not because of you’ve chosen a strange font.
- Font size should be at least 11 and no larger than 12. Any smaller, and your audience will have a difficult time reading the text.
- Use space wisely. If you have a lot of experience relevant to the job you are applying for, do what you can to fit it in. Consider decreasing the font size in the white spaces between sections or thinning some other sections of your resume. No matter what, do not try to jam too much onto a page by using smaller margins.
If you don’t have much work experience yet, rather than increasing the size of the font or including more white space, consider adding an additional section on non-work experience or skills that might be relevant to the job, such as your experience leading an extracurricular club or a section on your technical skills. See our advice on sections to include for more information on optional sections.
- Standard margins are 1 inch all around. Make sure there is enough white space and that you don’t fill the page so fully that your document becomes difficult to read or unappealing.
As with all writing, a resume will benefit from revision based on feedback from multiple audiences. If you are a UW-Madison student, you have many great resources available to you. Letters and Sciences students have the L&S Career Center, Engineers have Engineering Career Services, Nursing students have the School of Nursing Career Services, students in Education have EPCS, Pharmacy students have Career Development Services, and Business students have access to the Business Career Center. For individual feedback on a draft resume, these offices are a great resource, but we also recommend you consult with professors who know your field.
Additionally, if you are a student at UW-Madison, the Writing Center would be happy to give you a writing teacher’s feedback on a resume draft. We see many resumes from all kinds of students in the Writing Center, and our instructors will help you fit your resume to your particular audience based on the job description you provide. To make an appointment, call 6082631992 or submit your resume via email and hear from an instructor within 3 business days. You can also work with us on a first come first served basis via Skype or at one of our satellites. To learn more about our various services, see this page.
Click on the examples below to view sample resumes in PDF format.