Editing layout of academic CV

#18: CV-makeover: revamp the design of yours

Are you sure the visual appearance of your CV is helping you to stand out in the crowd? Will it help you outshine the competition? It’s used in the most crucial moments of your academic career – but does yours stand the test? Get our ‘Quick guide to a great-looking CV’ and increase your chance of succeeding! 

Let us read your mind right now – you’re probably thinking: “What the heck? I do great science, and am well-respected in my community – anyone who gets their hands on my Curriculum Vitae will instantly see that! – Why should I bother with (something as trivial as) the visual appearance of my CV?” And to this we say: Your scientific achievements, credentials, and research experiences are of course the foundation to succeed in academia, but the visual appearance of your CV is more important than you may think. Even the most impressive achievements can be hidden from view, if you present them in a sloppy and disorganised way. 

We see many academic CVs coming our way. In our courses ‘How to apply for academic positions’,  we teach candidates the ins and outs of compiling great application material. We often have high achieving academics among our participants, with degrees from top universities, and amazing track-records. However, their achievements often don’t come across – because there is too little focus on the way the information is presented and visually communicated. 

Often underrated but extremely important – the visual appearance of an academic CV will be the focus of this post.

Why is a well-designed CV important?

1. A well-designed CV communicates better

No matter how good your scientific achievements are, a visually appealing design greatly enhances the communicative aspects of your CV. You have a much better chance of getting your key points across if your content is presented well. In a CV with a clear and uncluttered design, information is always quicker to grasp. A well-designed CV helps to put your scientific achievements at the forefront and always help to advance your case!

2. Reflects better on you as a person

Your CV is your introduction and the way it looks is often the first impression you’ll leave on someone else (read: another scientist and decision-maker). Remember, this person will make a judgement of you based on your CV; you have to impress this academic decision-maker who has the power to decide if you’re in or out! The style of your CV does reflect on you as a person. A super polished and clear design makes a great entrance!

3. You’ll increase your chances for success in competitive situations 

You’ll need a Curriculum Vitae in many situations: potential collaborators may ask you to send your CV, conference organisers will request yours before inviting you to give an opening address. You’ll need one when you want to publish a book with a publishing house, or when your institute asks for it for their website. You’ll always be better off with a well-designed CV at hand. 

Moreover, there are also some key situations in an academic life that are immensely important and highly competitive, such as when you apply for an academic position, or when you submit a grant proposal to a national or international funding agency.  In these instances, your documents land on a stack of 30, 50, or 100+ CVs.  A member of a selection committee or a reviewer for the funding agency will get a first impression in a split second and make a subsequent decision. A great design will make your CV stand out from the crowd and get you ahead of the competition. 

Scrutinise yours – does it stand up to the test?

Ok, why don’t you dig out your CV right now and have a closer look at it.Imagine you are a member of a selection committee, or of a scientific board, a conference organiser, or a reviewer for a funding agency with the task of selecting the best candidate: You have that big stack of academic CVs to go through and make a decision of whom to select. When you come across your own – would it be the one that stands out? Does it look better than the rest? And can the information of your prime experiences and achievements be extracted in split-seconds?  

Hmm. You probably see a bit of room for improvement, right? Great then – we can help you work through it, with our “Quick Guide to a great looking CV  below, plus the free bonus download QUICK GUIDE ‘Revamp the design of your CV’ to have it all at hand when you are working on yours. 

Quick guide to a great looking CV: 

1. Set large margins

Academic CVs tend to be rather long, because they give a full record of our experiences and achievements. This is one of the key differences between an academic CV, and a Résumé or CV that is used for a non-academic application. For more information, see e.g. Passage2Pro, or University of Minnesota Career Services

Due to the fact that the academic CVs give a full record, they are also not restricted to a fixed number of pages unless stated otherwise. In either case it does not help then, if you try to keep yours short by stuffing as much content as possible onto a single page. This results in a CV that appears overstuffed and crowded. The usual first reaction of someone who has to read it is (us included) one of desperation: “Oh no – I don’t want’t to read all that!” That’s not the reaction you want to provoke in a situation where you’re fighting to be selected by a decision-maker based on your CV!

A good strategy is to work with wider/broader margins. Set them to at least 3 cm on top/bottom, and 2.5cm on either side. Try with even more and see how it looks. 

2. Go for a clear and uncluttered layout

If you have no clear layout for your CV that is kept throughout, it is difficult for a reader to grasp how the information is organised. The layout is the backbone of your design. You’ve got to decide on your layout before working on the details. Opt for a layout that is well-established and common, because it will also be easily understood by the decision-makers. You do not have to reinvent the wheel  here.  

A common design that works perfectly is to organise the information into two columns: a smaller one with the dates on the left, and a wider one with the content and specifics on the right. In both columns the text can be left-aligned and should be exactly underneath each other. Having the dates on the left is crucial, so the information is received in the right order.  

3. Use an easy to read format for date entries

Dates in your CV indicate when you did what and for how long. They consist of combinations of numbers, and can be a headache to read. They are also read bottom to top, because your CV is organised in reverse chronological order (starting with the present). 

The problem is that no selection committee will take the time to reconstruct your biography like an archaeologist trying to reconstruct an ancient amphora from a few shards. The dates have to be understandable at first sight. In short, don’t use version a) below, it is rather difficult to read (as well as getting you in trouble because Europe vs. North America put the months and days in reverse order). Instead use version b) which is much easier to read and process for everyone. 

a) 03/01/15 – 08/10/18 or  01.03.15 – 10.08.18

b) March 2015 – October 2018 or Mar. 2015 – Oct. 2018 

4. Use a hierarchical system of headings

We often see CVs where the heading is not big or bold enough in comparison to the body text. They’re just slightly bigger in font size (probably trying to save space again), which means whoever reads your CV has to search for the headings. This completely misses the point of having them. Headings are like the sign-posts: The reader will use them for orientation, and to access the information that is written in a particular section.

Try using a hierarchical order for the headings in your CV. The main headings are very standardised (e.g. education, employment history, research experiences etc.) and should really stick out, so everyone knows where they are and what to expect to see underneath. Keep them short and sweet. You can introduce a second, and if necessary third, layer of subheadings or sub-subheadings, in smaller font sizes. Subheadings organise the information within one section. They should still be big or bold enough to be distinguished from the body text. Now, look at the headings in your CV – do your headings stick out?

5. Use bullet points to structure

An academic CV conveys a lot of information and it is never read from beginning to end, like a novel. Rather, a reviewer, scientific board, or selection committee has to quickly access key information without the long read. If you write big blocks of text in full sentences, you make it more difficult for them to find what they are looking for. 

Instead, try to use bullet points. They are a great way to structure information in each section or sub-section. They clearly indicate where one bit of information ends and the next one starts. They also help to organise every entry according to the same pattern. Plus – they actually save space in a meaningful way, because you can communicate the key points without all the filler words. 

6. Add space

We know, you probably deleted all the space to cram everything onto 3 pages, but you’re not doing anyone any favours with that. We repeat: you’ll end up with a stuffed, cluttered and difficult to follow CV that no one enjoys reading. Like bullet points, space also gives direction. It signals that one bit of information is ending and a new bit of information will start. Those transitions  are essential for your readers to grasp your content. Adding space can do wonders to increase the accessibility of your CV. A big heading is of no value if the content that comes right afterwards crowds it.

Working with a hierarchical system – like for the size of your headings. You leave more space before and after big headings, and a bit less before and after subheadings. Decide on the exact number of spaces you use and stick with that throughout your CV. There should always be slightly more distance before a heading than afterwards. Go through your entire CV and check that. 

7. Pick a suitable font

Most of the CVs we receive use the same standard fonts that will have the exact effect of your CV blending in nicely with the others but will never stand out from the crowd in a competitive way. You’re not doing yourself a favour by using ‘Times New Roman’ or ‘Arial’ just because they have been on all computers for decades.  

A great font adds a touch of style to your CV and helps the search committee or selection board remember you! A good looking font adds individuality – there are so many great fonts in existence, so you’ll definitely find something that fits the purpose and your personality (and no, Comic Sans does neither of those). Stick with a good size that can easily be read – don’t go smaller than 11 points. 

Readability, both online and in print is still key, but you can be a tiny bit creative here – after all, this is not a 250 page dissertation. Did you know that there’s a wealth of free fonts available free to download online? One we love is the great selection at https://www.fontsquirrel.com!

8. Introduce colour

The problem here is most people don’t use any colour. Again, this will be a failsafe strategy to blend in with the rest. The bulk of academic CVs we see are black and white. If you’re a decision maker and you’ve got the aforementioned 30, 50, 100+ CVs in front of you, you have an endless sea of B/W information to digest – no fun! It also does not reflect the fact that many CVs today are read or opened online, and when they are printed they may very well be printed in colour. So there’s no need to stick to B/W anymore. 

Introduce a bit colour to your CV! We suggest picking just a single colour and use it sparingly for emphasis (e.g. main headings or a thin vertical line between your left side dates and the right side entries, or after headings). You can choose a particular colour simply because you like it – or you can choose one that is typical for your subject area (think of green if you work with ecology, blue with hydrology …). If you are uncertain, check which colours are used by the academic associations in your field or university. 

Like the font, choosing to add colour will help you to personalise your CV. Make sure the one colour you use always has the exact same function throughout the CV, otherwise it will not communicate well. Try out a few and see what works best. You do not have to use the brightest green or red, make sure it’s readable above all! Neutral colours may work better than bold ones, so tune it down a bit, or work with transparency to find the perfect shade.

9. Start with a clear opening-section

If you don’t have a clear and bold opening section of your CV, it is like you are sneaking in through the backdoor. Your CV needs a bold beginning that lets people know they’ve come to the main show.  This is because CVs are often submitted in conjunction with other documents. For a grant or a job application, all documents are compiled into a single PDF-file that is uploaded online. For a job application, the CV typically comes second after the cover letter and before the teaching or research statements. Therefore, the first page has to stick out to make itself seen! A decision maker won’t browse through every page of your submitted material to figure out where you CV starts. It’s got to pop out right away!

You can use roughly the top quarter of your first page for the opening-section. It should start with a big title heading that tells everyone what this document is: CV or Curriculum Vitae, plus your title and name. Then, you can follow up with your contact details or personal information (if required) underneath. This part can be different from the standard design of the rest of the CV, because it’s the opening and it’s looking to catch attention. 

10. Add page numbers and headers

Imagine yourself again as the decision-maker with a big stack of academic CVs to read. You’ve printed them, they’re in front of you’, and you’re going through a few at the same time to compare their experiences or achievements. It’s getting a bit messy, and you’ve got to reorganise them back into their respective CVs again. Without clear headers and proper page numbers, this is mission impossible! 

Make it easy and pleasant for everyone to work with your CV. First, use page numbers throughout in the following format: “page x of y” so everyone knows if they have your entire CV or not. Second, use a header line in a smaller font size on all pages apart from the first opening page. It states ‘CV’ or ‘Curriculum Vitae’ plus your title and name and can include a date (‘July 2019’). 


Have you realised just how easily you can score points by re-vamping the design of your CV? We know that your scientific achievements are key, but even the most excellent achievement won’t sell itself if you put them in a less-than-perfect format! 

A great design can make a huge difference in a competitive situation and put you ahead of everyone else. It will give the impression that you are on top of your game as a person and as a professional! 

Download our free QUICK GUIDE ‘Revamp the design of your CV , work through your CV and give yourself a much bigger chance to be the one who gets that prestigious grant or awesome new position! Best of success!

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