How to Write a Strong CV

Sarah Bannon and Meaghan Rowe-Johnson

University of Iowa


Writing a CV is one of the first steps to take in the process of applying to graduate programs.  For Undergraduates, it is one of the necessary components in the admissions process, and an opportunity to showcase all of your academic accomplishments. For many, the most difficult part is figuring out what to include, and how to present the information effectively.  This article will give you all the tools needed to start and revise an attention-grabbing CV.

So…What Exactly is a CV?

A Curriculum Vitae (CV) is a detail of your professional and academic accomplishments that is used continuously in the realm of academia.  Undergraduate students and post-bacs use them in the graduate application process, as well as graduates for postdocs, faculty positions, grants, and so on.  If you weren’t sure before what exactly a CV entailed – no need to worry! There are plenty of graduate students and professors who are unclear on the specifics of a CV, and how to present themselves on paper.  A CV should highlight your teaching and research experience, academic accomplishments and awards, grants and funding received, as well as other professional information that will set you apart from competing applicants (Pious, 1998).

What’s the Difference between a Resume and a CV?

While a resume is usually confined to 1-2 pages, a CV is without page limits, and will continually expand as your career progresses.  Additionally, the CV allows for inclusion of your accomplishments and professional life, whereas, the resume is a brief summary of closely relevant work experiences and skills. The CV and resume should also be formatted differently, as the CV should emphasize the students’ unique qualities in a specific and expansive manner.

The Basics

  • Personal Information – These things should be included in the header of your CV, and displayed in a way that is noticeable and easy to read.  Include your name, email, and a reliable phone number (make sure your voicemail is appropriate!).  Other potential things to include in this section are a work-related address or a personal website.
  • Education – Most recommend including this section immediately after your personal information.  Education should be listed in reverse chronological order (most recent first) and displayed to place emphasis on your academic institution.
  • Relevant Research Experience/Skills – Be sure to pay special attention to what you highlight as well as how you describe your experiences and skills.  Many students choose to title each section with specific project titles, years in which the experience was gained, their role in the project, as well as relevant skills that were utilized during the session.  Some examples include experience with software programs and clinical interviewing skills obtained in training sessions or in a laboratory setting.
  • Presentations/Publications  – Formal presentations, invited talks, outreach workshops, and publications can be extremely influential in the application progress, and it is important that they are highlighted.  This section should appear in reverse chronological order, and in APA format for publications and poster presentations that accompany published abstracts.  You can also include a separate section for unpublished projects that were presented in smaller settings, like local and regional events.
  • Additional Experience (Teaching, Volunteering, Work-Related) – Use this section for any related experiences that contribute to your professional goals that were not included in previous sections.  Additional experience can include supplemental instruction provision, volunteering at a related organization, or any occupation that you feel will better prepare you for graduate school.
  • Professional Affiliations – This section would include any psychology-related organizations and groups (such as APSCC) that would enhance your professional network.  Other examples to note are school affiliated interest groups, honor societies, and national organizations.  Non-psychology organizations that fit these criteria can also be included, but remember to put the most relevant information first.
  • Honors and Awards – This section can include merits like being elected to an honor society, or making the Dean’s list. If you received significant funding to conduct an independent project, or were given a merit-based award, you should make sure to highlight the year of the achievement and the amount provided.  Travel scholarships and fellowships, as well as scholarships applied to your education can also be included in this section.
  • References – Advisors may instruct you not to include references, unless you have a notable mentor, or a professional relation that would be helpful in the admissions process.  As with other reference inclusions, it is essential to ask first before you include anyone on your CV.  If you think that including this section will benefit you, or if you are not asked for letters of support in addition to sending a CV, you should include this section last.


Helpful Tips and Suggestions

  1. Use Your Resources – Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Most schools have a career advisor or office that will work with students to brainstorm, create their first draft, and find the best way to organize their CV.  If this resource is available to you, we recommend that you use it as early and extensively as possible.  If these resources are not available to you, talk to an instructor from class or academic advisor, but make sure to talk to someone before submitting to institutions.
  2.  Start Early – For any student considering graduate programs, a CV is an essential component in making the step from application to interview.  While it may be easy to remember your accomplishments and write them down, making a list is not the only step to creating a memorable document.  A CV is not only judged by its credentials, but also the manner and finesse in which they are provided.  
  3. Revise and Review – Finding a small mistake or typo can typically be overlooked, but if it appears on your CV, it can considerably damage your credibility as a student and professional.  Mistakes send a message of carelessness and lack of time spent on your document, and you should avoid them at all costs.  Before you submit your CV, it is helpful to have multiple people look it over – be it your advisor, your friends, a graduate student, or your grandma. An extra pair of eyes doubles your odds of catching mistakes. 
  4. Save Space – The individual reviewing your CV will likely be considering many other qualified applicants, and may be scanning for important details that stand out. Highlight and include all of your accomplishments, but be concise whenever possible. It might be a good idea to pull out and dust off your thesaurus! Part of drafting an effective CV is being able to describe yourself in a way that is memorable and to the point. 
  5. DON’T Use a Template – Competitive psychology programs receive hundreds of applications each year, and it is important to make sure that you stand out in the pile.  Use at least a 12-point font, so that individuals with vision difficulties won’t have to strain to read your CV. 
  6. Submit your CV – Include your CV in the supplemental materials of your application, even if you are not explicitly told to do so.  Many advisors will ask for a copy of your Vita anyway, so it will save you the extra step.










Additional Resources


Landrum, R. (2005). The curriculum vita: a student’s guide to preparation. Psi Chi. 9 (2)   28-29.

Plous, S. (1998). Sample template for creating a vita. Retrieved March 13, 2013, at   


Author Note

Sarah Bannon is an undergraduate junior from the University of Iowa who will graduate with honors in psychology.  She plans to apply for graduate programs in the fall and pursue a career in clinical psychology.  Her professional interests include the causes and prevention of intimate partner violence, and the eating behaviors and health consequences of affected couples.

Meaghan Rowe-Johnson is a first-year Counseling Psychology doctoral student in the Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations at the University of Iowa. She graduated with her Community Counseling Master’s degree from Loyola University Chicago and has provided clinical counseling services to adults, adolescents, and children in a variety of settings. Her research interests include career development and vocational aspirations, issues regarding cross-cultural diversity, and the effects of trauma.