Did you know that graduate school applicants creating their first CV often get it wrong? It's way too detailed, not detailed enough, the formatting is incorrect or the content is irrelevant. In this post, I’m going to tell you how to write a CV for graduate school, answer some of the most common questions regarding CVs, provide you with some tips on how to make yours stand out, discuss common mistakes and give you specific section examples.
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What is the difference between a CV and a resume? This has to be the most popular question that students ask us and it's always a good idea to think of one versus the other, meaning no, they're not the same. A resume is a short, concise 1 to 2-page document that summarizes your education and credentials, employment history and other accomplishments or skills. Resumes are often used in the professional field and are designed to give potential employers a “snapshot” into your relevant background.
A CV, on the other hand, is often used in the academic field as it encapsulates your education and academic background. There are unique sections that allow you to really showcase your experiences and achievements which may include teaching, research, awards and publications. As it's a lot more detailed than a resume, CVs often extend past the two-page mark, depending on the level of experience you have. However, for graduate school applications, each school will have specific requirements so as always, make sure you follow the instructions.
A CV is designed to give admissions committees insight into your academic potential, background in the field, and extensiveness of that background. This will be your first direct communication with the admissions committee, so it has to be done correctly. Put yourself in their shoes, if you had to sift through hundreds maybe even thousands of applicants that you've never met before and don't know anything about, their CV, along with their statement of purpose, is what you'd be using to whittle down the pile of contenders. Don't worry if you're not familiar with a statement of purpose, in another blog we provide statement of purpose examples. Your purpose as an applicant is to create the perfect document that best showcases your talent, accomplishments and experiences. Ultimately, you want to be selected for their graduate program and to do so, you must convince the reviewer to move you forward throughout the graduate school application process.
Check out this video for some great tips on creating the best CV!
Knowing what to include in a CV for graduate school is something that a lot of students struggle with. While there is no golden CV template that every student should follow, it should be structured in an easy to follow format and should generally include the following sections:
The personal information section is standard in every CV and should be included at the very top of the page or as a header. You will be providing your contact information, so the admissions committee can easily access the best way to get in touch with you. Make sure you don't include overly personal information such as your birth date or social security number.
- Full name
- Mailing addressing
- Email address
- Phone number
Example: Personal Information
1232 Palm Springs Drive, Florida 32006
Typically, you want your education to follow directly after your personal information, this information is essential and the admissions committee needs to be able to find it quickly. Always start by writing your education in reverse chronological order, meaning that the most recent education should be listed first.
- Name of the school
- Program you attended
- Degree you achieved
- Year you began and completed your degree
Note: If you have not finished yet, just list your major and your anticipated date of completion.
Example: Education2010-2011 MA Anthropology, York University
2006-2010 B.S.c Marine Biology, University of Windsor
This section should follow your education and can be broken down into different sections to enhance your CV. Depending on your experiences, you could include research, teaching and/or administrative subcategories. This is one of the most important sections of your CV because this is where your experiences will help set you apart from other candidates. You should be tailoring this part of your CV to the specific programs you're applying to while ensuring your listed items are relevant. As with the education section, write in reverse chronological order. It's important to be specific in the skills gained and the activities that you did.
- Organization name
- City and state
- Position title
- Dates the position was held
- Use action words to summarize your duties, accomplishments and successes
Example: Teaching experience
Tutor - 2008-2010
University of Windsor, ON
- Tutored students in organic chemistry to improve understanding and test scores
- Collaborated weekly with other tutors and professors to develop effective tutoring strategies
Example: Research experience
Research Assistant - 2010-2011
York University, ON
- Managed lab operations including training new lab assistants
- Assisted in the development and preparation of experiments
- Developed research papers for publication
Honors and Awards
This section should include any awards or honors you've received such as scholarships, grants, teaching assistantships, and even being included on the Dean's list. This section can be written in order of importance, to highlight the most impressive achievements first.
- Name of the honor/award
- Date you received the honor/award
Example: Honors and Awards
Jean A McMillan award for graduate research, York University 2011
Dean's list, University of Windsor 2009-2010
Presentations (Oral and Poster)
Whether you've been involved in giving presentations or even contributed to the visual work, both are important to list here.
- Title of presentation
- Conference name
- Location of conference
- Date of conference
- Brief description of the content you contributed
“Transitional Experience,” York University Seminar, speaker and organizer. North York, ON, January 2011
"Drifting Ideas," Canadian Literature Association, speaker and designer. London, ON, November 2010
Have you written or contributed to any published articles, books, research reports or any other form of publication? If so, use bibliographic citations in the format that is acceptable for your field of study.
Travis, J., additional authors. (in press). Title. Journal, Volume (Issue), page numbers.
Victor, A, additional authors. (in press). Title. Journal, Volume (Issue), page numbers.
Three to five references is an appropriate amount to include on your CV for graduate school. List your references in order of strength and relevance. Note that if you're applying to a program where you were already asked to include your references separately, it's not necessary to include them again here.
- Name of reference
- Professional title
- Contact information (email and phone number)
Spencer French, Professor and Graduate Programs Head
Department of Anthropology, York University (416) 244 – 2345, [email protected]
Rebecca Mann, Faculty, Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology, York University (416) 244 – 1234, [email protected]
There are a variety of optional sections that you could add depending on your specific experiences or skills.
Describe any community or volunteer experience you've had that are relevant to the graduate program.
- Name of the organization
- Position held
- Brief description of duties, projects or services in which you’ve contributed
Example: Community Involvement
The Youth Career Centre, 2006-2007
- Provide information to students on university and college programs.
- Provide assistance with applications and securing funding.
The admissions committee is looking for a well-rounded individual, this section is where you can discuss extracurricular activities you've participated in. For example, if you were part of a debate club, it’s a great opportunity to list it to showcase your interpersonal, teamwork and problem-solving skills. If you are part of any professional organizations or student councils related to your graduate field of study you could list it here.
- Name of organization
- Positive held
- Date you joined/retired
- Brief descriptions of projects you contributed to
Example: Extracurricular Activities
Debate club, 2009-2010
University of Windsor
President and Founder
- Collaborated with club management to initiate a new program
- Recruited individuals to populate club
- Coordinated weekly meetings and facilitated discussions
Skills or Qualifications
If you have a skill or qualification you'd like to highlight that will be applicable to the graduate program you're applying to, you can list it here. This can in some instances include language proficiencies.
Programming mathematical packages: Matico lab, Mathematica
Computer-aided design: Imaging and AutoCAD
In this section, you can include any relevant job positions that you may not have included in the experience section. Perhaps you worked as a mentor in the career center or as an editorial assistant for your school paper. If these positions help support your application for graduate school and your area of study, they should be included.
- Organization name
- City and state
- Position title
- Dates the position was held
- Use action words to summarize your duties, accomplishments and successes
Managing Editor, 2010-2011
Northern Edge Journal, York University, ON
- Process manuscripts for publication.
- Supervised production, printing, and publication procedures.
- Manage editorial correspondence with prospective contributors.
- Public outreach and engagement including publicity, subscriptions and advertising.
Perhaps you've been abroad and have participated in a related educational experience? Educational travel can be beneficial to your CV for graduate school as it can highlight your personal development and expand your knowledge of social, political or economic issues.
- Name of country
- Dates of trip
- Brief description of the purpose of the trip
- Special Interests
Example: Educational Travel
Costa Rica, April - May 2008
- Conducted research to analyze fish population, density, and composition
- Documentation of research findings
- Participation in report for submission
Is there a particular research area that you’re interested in that may align with what their program offers? If so, list a few special interests here.
>>Be prepared early, check out some grad school interview questions<<
1)Format your CV appropriately.
The format of your CV is extremely important to the way it is initially perceived. Use bold, italics or the underline feature to highlight key sections and headings. Font should be easy to read and standardized, such as Times New Roman, 12. Make sure to separate your sections with breaks and keep everything organized so it flows logically. Unless otherwise stated, you should always save your CV as a pdf, this ensures that the formatting you see when you view the document on your computer is the same formatting the reviewer sees. The insertion of random characters and spacing inconsistencies can cost you a spot in the program. Whatever you do, remember to remain consistent throughout your document.
2) Perfect your grammar and spelling.
Proofread, proofread, proofread! It is not acceptable to have ANY spelling or grammar mistakes in your CV. The time and effort you put into your CV is a direct reflection of how you value the graduate program you're applying to. If you have mistakes, you're essentially showing the admissions committee that you're careless, didn't spend much time on your CV and are not very detail-oriented. It's a sure way to have your application rejected. Always check your CV on multiple occasions with fresh eyes, have someone who is not a friend or family member and has an appropriate level of education (e.g. Ph.D.) and expertise to review your CV and provide you with honest feedback. Someone who is a friend or family member normally doesn’t work because they may be inclined to hold back to avoid offending you with their feedback and that may actually give you a false sense of confidence that may hurt your chances of acceptance.
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3) Label your CV appropriately.
Hundreds if not thousands of CVs are being reviewed to assess an applicant's suitability for a specific program, have you labeled ALL of the pages of your CV? If not, they could be mixed up and if the reviewer doesn't have a way to quickly re-assemble them, it's game over. Always label the bottom of EVERY page of your CV. This should include your first name, last name and the page number. This way, with little effort, your CV can be put back together.
In addition to labeling each page, be sure your document title includes your first and last name. For instance, save your CV as “RachelGreenCV”. That way it's easy for the reviewer to find your document instead of a file named “myCV” which could be any student and can be frustrating to navigate.
4) Use bullet points instead of paragraphs.
Even though this is a detailed document, long paragraphs are never appropriate. Use bullet points to describe and summarize each point to discuss. 2-4 bullets are usually a good amount to use to convey the required information.
5) Use action verbs to grab and keep attention.
This is a great way to make your CV stand out compared with the competition. Take these two sentences;
a – ran weekly staff meetings to provide client updates
b – initiated weekly staff meetings to communicate client updates
The second sentence is definitely stronger and more memorable.
6) Don’t underestimate what you have to offer.
Often students get discouraged when they come to the realization that they haven’t won any awards, published any articles or participated in any presentations. The optional sections are a great way to fill in any gaps and showcase a variety of different skills or experiences you may have.
Ready to apply to graduate schools? Check out our blog on the top 12 tips for applying to graduate school.
1) Disregarding the program guidelines for CVs
The program you’re applying to may have specific guidelines for how to structure your CV. Perhaps they don't want you to include any references, or they're not interested in you including a community section. The point is, the program guidelines take precedence over anything included in this guide so make sure you check to see if there is anything listed you need to follow.
2) Getting creative
Normally being creative is a good thing, but when it comes to CV's it's important to stick to the basics. Now is not the time to try coloring your entire CV pink or try that new cursive font that is impossible to read. The admissions committee is interested in finding your information where they expect it while making sure the format is consistent and it comes across as professional.
3) A one-page CV
Remember, your CV is not the same as a resume, therefore it should be very detailed in order to best highlight your experiences and academic strengths. A one-page CV can be a red flag as it tells the admissions committee you may not have enough to contribute.
Take the time to review all aspects of the program you’re applying to so you can include information that is related. In addition, you should review the school’s core values and mission statement to ensure your experiences and skills are in line with what is important to them. Another rule of thumb is that in general, anything you did in high school is probably too far back to include.
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To your success,
Your friends at BeMo