Several readers asked about CV layout in recent weeks so here is a version of my “picky details” worksheet: 12 Ways to Fine-tune Your CV. The idea is to make your CV as reader friendly as possible. How about expert formatting and layout tips to put to use immediately.
And yes, there are any number of ways to format a CV. 12 experts will give you 12 different formats, and each one will say, “Do what I tell you: I’m right!”
I will, too. But I’ll also tell you the why. My views are based on:
A. what I’ve seen work well for musicians over the past 25 years (OMG!)
B. basic principles of graphic design: what slows the eye down, and what helps readers quickly get at your most important material
C. the fact that the search committee is going to see 200 CVs—so they don’t have time to waste trying to locate your most relevant credits
That said, while layout and formatting helps, what matters most is the content. So whatever yours is, make sure it’s presented well. Follow these tips to polish your CV so that’s it’s truly employer-friendly:
1. Check your margins: adjust under format > document to 1 inch on all sides. Whatever you do, don’t use margins smaller than .75″. And make sure your margins and your letterhead are identical on your CV, cover letter, and any other application materials (teaching philosophy statement, references sheet, bio, etc.) Cramped margins look unprofessional and make your text look crowded.
2. Place your categories in bold at the left hand margin. Then Indent ➡️the text under each category header: indent to the left ➡️using .5” TAB. This makes it easy for readers to quickly see the category headers and jump to whatever they’re most interested in.
3. Think carefully about the order of your categories. These should reflect the employer’s priorities: this big bucket priority order is generally Teaching Experience first, then Performance and/or Composition, with Education towards the end.
Many grad advisors will say lead with your own education credits, that you should first show your degree and school. My view is that the 200 other applicants have also gone to excellent schools and have competitive degrees, so the real differentiation is going to be your work experience—start with that. If you have very little teaching experience you may feel you need to start with your own education. But don’t automatically start with Education: make an informed choice.
4. Check the order of your listings: within a category, items with dates should be listed in reverse chronological order. Begin with the most recent and work backwards chronologically to the least recent. In the US, this is what employers expect and they are most interested in what’s current so put that first.
5. Add dates only where needed: for awards, recordings, orchestral work, your degrees, singers’ roles, plus any extended teaching jobs, church jobs, etc. Place dates at the end of the text line, after a comma. Simplify date ranges as 2016-18 (instead of 2016-2018).
Composers often include the year a work was completed or premiered. No dates please for single workshops, clinics, recitals or other one-off performances. In categories without dates, place items in order of most impressive first and then vary the listings to emphasize the diversity of your experience and locations.
6. Bullet like a pro. For your bulleted teaching details: No full sentences, No paragraphs, No first person “I”. Keep bullets concise: No longer than 2 lines each. Use active impressive verbs to start each bullet (taught, directed, designed, created, etc.). Avoid using the words “Duties” or “Responsibilities” as these simply convey what the position required. Instead, focus on what you accomplished and what the actual results were. Make your bullets count.
7. Beware of overwhelm. Aim for no more than 7 listings under any category. If you have more, consider using multiple category headers. For example, if you have the category “Solo Recitals” and have 20 venues listed under it, consider dividing these up into “Solo recitals, US” and “Solo recitals, International” (or some other geographic distinction to make 2 smaller categories).
Similarly, aim for no more than 7 bullets under a category. If you have many more, consider whether each one is relevant to the specific job you’re applying for, because less is often more.
8. Check your typeface (the font) for the text. Below your letterhead the text should be in an easy-to-read conservative font such as Times New Roman or Palatino. Use the same font and point size for headers and text.
9. Keep eye distractions to a minimum. Don’t use all capital letters: THEY HAVE THE EFFECT OF SCREAMING. And avoid using underline or unnecessary italics or bold. These extra eye distractions steal from your precious 6.25 seconds—the average time employers spend on each résumé. Use italics for titles of works only. Use bold for category titles only. Make your CV easy to graze.
10. Fix your page numbers: none on the first page. Then on all subsequent pages, instead of your letterhead, put in the upper right hand corner your “last name, CV pg 2 of 4” and on the next page, “last name, CV pg 3 of 4” etc. This makes it easy for search committees when paper copies of materials inevitably get separated.
11. Don’t write “CV” or “Curriculum Vitae” at the top of your document. It’s unnecessary. What should be at the top is YOUR letterhead. Not the letterhead of the institution where you are working now or where you went to school. (Any employer who is hiring would be considering you as a free agent, right?)
12. Avoid using CV templates
Instead, I recommend using Microsoft Word and simply using the automatic tab for indents and for making columns—keep it simple. To see if you’ve got extra spaces or what’s not lining up, I keep the “show all nonprinting characters” function turned on when I’m working on a CV. In Microsoft Word, this icon is up in the ruler:
Bonus: what to leave OUT of your CV
High school degree
Your pre-college music program
Dollar amounts of awards or grants
Titles (no “Ms.” “Professor” or “Dr.”—just the name)
All generalizations, clichés
Any hyperbole, exaggerations, or stretching of the truth
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