Seven common CV mistakes – and how to avoid them

A comprehensive, up-to-date and well-worded CV is invaluable for anything from grant applications to publishing, awards and fellowships, and crucial when applying for your next academic post.

While it may be one of the shortest documents for which you are responsible, your CV has an out-sized job to do. Representing all that you have achieved in your career and can offer to your future employer, it needs to stand out from the crowd – but only for the best possible reasons.

Although there is no single, definitive format, almost all academic CVs have one thing in common. They will need to vie for attention from busy selectors working through a pile of many others. At the earliest stage of the recruitment process your CV is likely to be skim-read – sometimes in even less than a minute.

So, to help ensure selectors find what they need quickly, and spot the important content rather than the unintended omission or quirk, we’ve put together top tips for avoiding seven potential pitfalls. Here’s how to ensure your CV is not:

1. Out of date

As the months go by, you are deepening and developing your research, teaching and administration experience in a demanding and fast-paced environment. Don’t let your CV be a victim of your success by failing to update it. Instead, set a regular reminder to review and refresh it so nothing valuable or relevant is omitted. Your CV is often read alongside your online academic profiles, so make sure they match each other. Keep an inventory of all sites where your CV or career summary is posted and keep them up to date, so your online presence is as consistent and impressive as it can be, wherever a selector might be checking it.

2. Fussy

If the first impression your CV creates is one of clutter and complexity, you risk putting your reader off. Instead, a visually simple, clear and clean-looking document will draw the eye more quickly to what’s important. To achieve this, it’s best to stick to a sans-serif font: we recommend Arial, point size 11. Avoid using colour or a variety of fonts. Make strategic but minimal use of bold and italics. If the institution to which you are applying uses an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), your formatting is likely to be removed before scanning and screening, prior to assessment by a human selector. For this reason, it’s a good idea to avoid using images, columns, tables, fields, text boxes and graphics.

3. Generic

Any post you apply for will have its own set of defined requirements. Fail to tailor your CV to demonstrate how you meet these and you will only reduce your chance of success. Even if you’re hard-pressed, it’s worth creating time to do your research, identify exactly what specific selectors are looking for, and adapt your CV accordingly. Chronological order might be logical, but ditch it in place of prioritising your most relevant experience. Which keywords are your readers searching for? What are their preferred terms? Find these out and avoid using alternatives, even if they’re what you use every day in your current institution. Do what you can to create the impression of a match wherever possible.

4. Incomplete

While the three pillars of education, research and teaching may be front of mind, it’s worth checking carefully to make sure you haven’t overlooked other details that may go a long way in helping your application to stand out. These may include:
– your supervisors, advisors and collaborators
– funding
– patents (give the title, inventors, patent number and date granted)
– committees you’ve been part of
– conferences/seminars/reading groups you’ve organised
– mentoring
– public engagement
– professional memberships (include dates)

5. Unwieldy

Once you’ve made sure your CV covers all these areas and is fully up to date, it’s likely to run to several pages. There is no limit to the length of an academic CV, but there will be a limit to the time available to a selector. There are a few ways to ensure that your CV, however comprehensive, is well structured and easy to navigate. Don’t make it any longer than it needs to be: use the full width of the page and set addresses out on a single line where possible. Include page numbers and your name as a header to keep it coherent when it’s printed out. Make sure sections finish within pages wherever possible. When turning over to a new page, many people skim to the next heading, thus potentially missing crucial content. Lastly, consider attaching publications and conferences in a clearly labelled and referenced appendix.

6. Poorly-worded

Comprehensive doesn’t preclude concise. Once you’re happy with content and structure, cut back hard at any unnecessarily repeated terms or superfluous phrases. (It’s best not to include ‘Curriculum Vitae’ at the top, for example, as it’s understood.) Check through to identify any institution-specific jargon or acronyms. Translate or set out any that may not be understood outside your institution, and take time to look particularly carefully at the terms you use if you are applying abroad. Avoid passive constructions and abstract nouns. Inject energy instead, with varied and dynamic active verbs. Where possible, place powerful terms in prominent positions at the start or end of a line to catch the eye.

7. Inconsistent

In all probability you will draft, redraft and revise your CV several times. This is important, but unfortunately it can also lead to the kind of snow-blindness that means you lose the ability to see your CV clearly any more. Any tiny errors or inconsistencies that have crept in are likely to be picked up quickly by a selector. There are often different ways to refer correctly to the same institution, subject or area of research. But choose one and stick ruthlessly to it. Don’t bounce between slightly different variations; the effect jars your reader, even if subconsciously. Print your CV out and ask a friend or colleague to check it through one last time. Alternatively, consider using an objective and expert professional editor to guarantee an error-free document. Finally, save your CV as a PDF so it can’t develop a life of its own when opened by its recipient.

Once you’re happy that you have successfully avoided these pitfalls and that your CV is the best it can be, remember to upload it here.

Further reading:

Steve Joy on irritating CV mistakes to avoid

Dr Karen Kelsky’s ‘Rules of the academic CV’

University of Manchester academic CV writing advice

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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