The Ultimate Guide to CV Formatting

The Ultimate Guide to CV Formatting

Ben TemplePublished on: August 12, 2020
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In many job markets, employers say they aren’t getting enough good applicants for their roles. While this is great news for you, you might still be going up against dozens (if not hundreds) of equally qualified competitors for one role.

With such strong competition, it’s important to set yourself apart right from the start. That’s where your CV comes in. No matter how amazing you are in person, a potential employer could throw your application in the ‘no’ pile if you don’t meet their criteria on paper.

Whether you’re switching companies, changing careers or applying for your first job, knowing what employers expect (and don’t expect) from your CV can give you a leg up on the competition.

In a nutshell, this is why proper formatting is key to getting noticed:

  • Employers are more likely to read something that’s easy on the eyes.
  • You can highlight relevant experience in a logical order.
  • If your formatting aligns with the industry or company you’re applying for, it’ll be clear that you did your research and really want the job.
  • Employers get a better sense of your personality--not just your technical skills--when they see how you’ve organized your CV.

You can jump to a section here:

How to Choose a CV Format and Design

Today, most employers will ask you to submit your CV by email via an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), or through company websites and job boards. Instead of manually completing a lengthy application and copy-pasting your resume line by line, there’s usually an ‘attach’ button.

For every application, it’s important to customize your CV in advance. Some applicants are getting creative and moving away from the traditional document format. Posting a video of your CV in song form isn’t the most effective approach for most roles, but you can still find creative ways to set yourself apart and cater to your dream job.

Take the time to research your industry and the company who posted the role. Don’t underestimate the impact you can make if your CV is customized for the employer. Highlighting your abilities and how they will benefit the company’s mission, for example, shows hiring managers you have done the groundwork and that your values are aligned with theirs (and that you aren’t applying just because you like money).

There are three types of CV formats:

  1. Reverse-Chronological
  2. Often called ‘chronological’, these CVs list your most recent employment history first and work backwards
  3. Best for someone with few gaps in employment
  4. Ideally shows your progression within one industry
  5. Functional
  6. Prioritizes skills and achievements over specific jobs
  7. Features are in order of most applicable to least applicable to the job opening
  8. Best for a new grad or someone without much work experience
  9. Combination
  10. Includes chronological work experience but also highlights skills and abilities in each role
  11. Great for someone who’s switching industries
  12. Shows off transferable skills

If you still aren’t sure which format is best for you, choose reverse-chronological. This has long been the standard across all industries and is the easiest to follow.

In order to get noticed, first fit your CV into the guidelines set by your target industry, and then make it ‘you’. Check out some of VisualCV’s CV templates for inspiration.

If you’re hoping to work at a large banking institution, you’re more likely to run into a traditional culture. For these types of environments, you should opt for a more conservative layout (especially if it’s a role in Finance or Accounting). On the other hand, a creative vibe can go a long way with Marketing and Design roles.

If you’re keeping your design classic, use a simple layout like our Monte or Standard CV template. While they may look stripped-down, they’re easy to read and keep distractions to a minimum.

If they seem to be at odds, prioritize the company over the industry. Sometimes fun, ‘millennial-friendly’ brands show up in unexpected places. You don’t want to misread a ‘cool’ credit union and send them a traditional CV if that’s not what they’re looking for.

Choose a design that reflects your personal brand (and has room for you to include your relevant experience). This is about more than just highlighting competencies and qualifications. Organization and design can show off your personality and culture fit. It can also show that you’ve done your research, which says a lot about how badly you want the role.

CV Length, Page Margins and Fonts

Readability is everything. Make sure the hiring manager doesn’t have to work hard to interpret your CV. Studies have shown that you only have six seconds to make an impression on a hiring manager or recruiter. If someone has to squint to read your CV, it might end up in the ‘no’ pile.

Your CV should be one to two pages long, depending on your experience level. If you are a recent graduate or have recently entered the workforce, you can likely fit the information you need onto a single page. If you have a decade or more of experience, however, you may need a full two pages.

Any more than that is unnecessary. If your CV reaches a third page, it is likely time to start trimming the fat and removing irrelevant experience.

Make sure your sections are clear and visually separated. Your section headers should be bold or in a larger font than the section content. This will help the hiring manager quickly scroll down and refer to different areas during an interview or while comparing your CV to other applications.

Include no more than two fonts in your CV. Using one font for headings and the other for the details is acceptable--as long as you have a keen eye for design--but one font will look better than three no matter how visually adept you think you are.

When choosing a font for a digital CV, a sans serif is usually your best choice. A font without the little lines at the end of each stroke is modern and easy to read.

You won’t have to worry about this level of formatting if you’re using VisualCV, but here are some guidelines for your reference.

The best:

Font for CVs: Calibri (modern), Arial (a happy medium), Times New Roman (traditional)

Font size for your title: 24 pt

Font size for section headers: 14 pt

Font size for section content: 11 pt

Page margin width for CVs: 2.5 cm (1 inch)

The Standard CV Format

We’re going to give you an overview of the reverse-chronological format, but you can apply most of these tips to a Combination CV. If you’re creating a functional CV, you’ll substitute the Career Summary section with a ‘Skills’ section, and shorten the ‘Work Experience’ section or remove it altogether. But the functional CV format is rarely the best one, as hiring managers or recruiters might think you’re hiding something by omitting your experience. If you want to highlight your skills, go with a combination CV.

Now let’s go over the structure most employers expect from a reverse-chronological CV, the most common format.

Every CV should include at least four components:

1. Your Contact Information

Start with your name. There’s no need to waste space with ‘CV’ or ‘Curriculum Vitae’--the employer knows what they’re looking at. The title should be your full name, followed by your contact information.

Always launch into your CV with the best way to get in touch with you. Under the title, include your phone number, email and city. Make sure your email address sounds professional.

Do: [email protected], [email protected]

Don’t: [email protected], [email protected]

Job-seekers no longer need to include a date of birth or full address. Consider mentioning your current job title (‘Marketing Manager’, for example) if it’s similar to the role you’re applying for.

If you have a personal website and portfolio, or if social media is part of the job, include links and handles. Make sure your social channels represent you well and won’t make an employer second-guess your capabilities. Don’t copy-and-paste long links: many PDF readers make links unclickable and the employer doesn’t have time to manually type a long URL into the address bar. It’s also not a bad idea to include a link to your LinkedIn profile--just make sure it’s up to date!

2. Your Career Summary

An overview of your career to date, you should include high level accomplishments or success stories at the top of your CV. You’ll either pull in the reader immediately, or end up at the bottom of the pile.

Not every CV needs a summary, but if your career journey has been long or complicated it can really bring your story together.

Take the time to match your summary to the role you’re applying for. Talk about how your skills and attitude support the duties listed in the job description. Explicitly mention the company and job title if it makes sense to do so. This is your chance to make a huge first impression.

If you’re a recent grad or don’t have much experience in your field, you can summarize the skills and experience you gained during internships or when volunteering, and emphasize how you’ll bring value to the company.

Click here for some good (and not so good) examples of summary statements.

3. Your Relevant Work Experience

Hiring managers and recruiters will focus primarily on your previous work experience. Highlight this after your summary. A standard CV covers the information most important to the employer, which means your work history should include your most recent experience and descriptions of key projects or responsibilities in each role.

List your experience in reverse chronological order, with the most recent first. Keep this in mind: how did your work set you apart from others in a similar role, or from your colleagues?

Break up paragraphs with bullet points. Shorter sentences are easier to read, especially for someone who might only have time to scan your CV during the initial screening. Long, convoluted sentences won’t make you sound more intelligent or more professional. They’ll only slow down the reader and make you harder to understand.

Be consistent from one section to the next. Every job and description should follow the same format. If you include a title, employer, date and description in that order, make sure you do it this way throughout your CV.

Here’s a typical employment history structure for a reverse-chronological or combination CV:

  • YOUR TITLE - THE COMPANY - DATES WORKED
  • Responsibilities
  • Accomplishments
  • Skills gained

Use facts and figures when possible. Did you help the company increase their sales by 46% in three months? Did you solve 1000+ database issues and improve team efficiency by 20%? Were you responsible for bringing in an additional $50,000 from an email campaign? It’s easy to say you were successful in your previous role, but if you can quantify this success, you have a better chance of impressing the employer.

If you’ve been in the workforce for a while and want to keep your CV short and strong, only include relevant experience. Take out extraneous roles, especially if they’re over 10 years old. The only exception is if it’s with a recognizable brand (for example, working at Google says a lot about your skills and personality).

If you’re worried about a super-long CV but you want to offer additional information, you can always create a simple one-page website and link to it. However, designing a professional-looking site takes skill and time, so unless you’re feeling extra confident, your best bet is to link to your up-to-date LinkedIn profile.

Click here for some good (and not so good) examples of work experience and accomplishments.

4. Your Education

Hiring managers want to see how your education supports your application, especially if it’s for a role where you’re working with numbers, money or safety. A standard CV should include your educational background in reverse-chronological order (where you mention your most recent studies first).

This includes courses (online or offline), certificates, and degrees relevant to your ideal position and industry. If your education is in a different field, highlight how it supports what you do now.

Many career coaches and industry experts recommend carefully reviewing the job posting and customizing your CV to mirror the language and keywords the employer uses, as well as the requirements of the position.

Are you fluent in other languages? Highlight those and be honest about your speaking level: basic, intermediate, advanced, or native.

Some people also include a line about their hobbies and passions, which gives the employer a more holistic idea of who you are. An accountant who goes skydiving every weekend? That’s definitely a way to break the ice during an interview.

Do you Need to Include References?

The short answer is no.

Years ago, a list of references was an expected component of the standard CV. This is no longer the case. Instead, job seekers will provide a list of references when an employer asks for them, typically after an interview has taken place.

Always get permission before sharing someone’s contact information. Include the name, company and title, and make sure your reference knows when to expect a call or email asking about you.

Some companies won’t provide references at all, often to avoid taking responsibility if that employee causes problems for another company in the future, and many employers no longer ask for references because job-seekers are likely to only include former employers who will rave about their work, rather than be honest about any shortcomings. Some people leave a note at the bottom of their CV that says ‘References Available Upon Request’--and there’s no harm in that. But this is valuable space that could be better used elsewhere.

Here’s our best recommendation: only provide references when the employer has asked for them.

Why CVs are Best Sent as PDFs

Before you hit that ‘send’ button, make sure you’re sending your CV in the right file format. The key is to upload it so it’s readable by any computer.

Of course, you won’t know what operating system the employer is using. Avoid sending your CV as a Word document (in case they have a Mac) or as a Pages document (in case they have a PC). Frustrating the recipient with an unreadable file won’t help your cause. Your best bet is to convert to a PDF, which should work on any computer.

Give your file a name that makes it easy to find. Here’s an example (and feel free to omit the underscores):

FIRST-NAME—LAST-NAME—CV—EMPLOYER-NAME—JOB-TITLE.pdf

However, a PDF may not be what the employer wants. If the job posting specifically asks for a certain file type, follow the instructions. If the company uses PCs, has an old ATS, or just does things the traditional way, they might want a .doc after all. Only send a PDF if the employer hasn’t specified another file type.

CV Formatting Cheat Sheet

If you don’t have time to read this whole guide, here’s a quick summary:

There are three CV formats:

  1. Reverse-Chronological: List jobs with the most recent experience first (the most popular format)
  2. Functional: Prioritize skills over work. Only recommended for new grads with minimal experience
  3. Combination: A blend of the chronological and functional formats. Best when switching industries

Fonts, sizes and spacing:

  • Choose a sans serif font like Calibri or Arial
  • Your page margins shouldn’t be less than 2.5 cm (1 inch)
  • Make your title 24 pt
  • Make your section headers 14 pt
  • Make your content 11 pt

The standard reverse-chronological CV format looks like this:

  1. Title: Your name
  2. Contact information: Phone number, email address, city (optional: a link to your LinkedIn profile)
  3. Career Summary: An overview of your career so far, and what value you can bring to your potential employer
  4. Work Experience: Where you worked, when you worked there, your title, your responsibilities, and your accomplishments or impacts
  5. Education: Where and when you went to school (including courses or certificates when applicable)

Do you need to include references?

No, unless the employer explicitly asks for them.

How long should the CV be?

1-2 pages. Don’t crowd the page just to fit more content on it.

Which file format is best for saving CVs?

Save your file as a PDF unless the employer asks for a different format.

The Bottom Line

Do your homework. It’ll help you snag that interview. If you’re applying to a startup that employs cool hipsters and uses funky technology, use a format that’ll resonate with them--not a design from the ‘90s.

You might not have a good eye for design, and that’s okay. The beauty of the digital world is it’s full of templates that make CVs look amazing.

Classic designs--ones that feature plenty of white space and no images--are great for traditional industries like Finance, Accounting, and Engineering. Modern designs--paired with colors and creativity--match with creative fields like Marketing, Social Media, and Technology.

Regardless of the industry, we suggest using a format that best suits the company you’re applying for. Meeting their expectations on paper means a better chance of getting an interview in person. While some trendy companies might accept video applications, the PDF reverse-chronological CV format remains the most common form for submission. Take the time to make yours a star in its own right. For more inspiration, check out these layout tips here.

Luckily, VisualCV takes care of CV formatting from start to finish. Once you’ve chosen a template that suits your industry, you’ll see that the spacing, fonts, font sizes and sections are ready to go.

Instead of worrying about the format and layout, focus on writing a great CV and how to best include your recent and relevant experience. You’re going to make a massive impact before you know it.

Ben Temple

Ben is a writer and customer support specialist with 5 years of experience helping job-seekers create their careers. He believes in the importance of a great resume and the power of coffee.

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