What is the Difference Between a CV and a Resume?

Is there a difference?

I imagine that many people, on reading the title of this article, laughed smugly to themselves, then wandered off thinking vague thoughts about the English and Americans having different names for the same thing. If you were one of these people, then don’t worry – you’re right! Or at least you’re partially right. In general, CVs are used throughout most of the world, while resumes are the common format in America. However, there are significant differences between the two documents, and if you plan to succeed in the employment market it is important that you are familiar with the features and uses of both. Let’s go through them one at a time.

The differences in brief

At first glance, the differences between the two seem slight. Both consist of a structured list of facts that allows you to impart relevant information about your skills and achievements to an employer as quickly and simply as possible.

Although in essence they both serve the same purpose, the main difference between a CV and a resume is that a CV acts as a complete record of your professional history, while a resume is a short, targeted list of transferable skills and accomplishments, intended to show how you can be of specific benefit to the particular company to which you are applying.

As I mentioned earlier, throughout most of the world, the CV is the standard format for job applications. However, in the US, resumes are more common, and CVs are reserved almost completely for jobs in academia or when applying for grants. As a result, many international workers possess both a CV and a resume and choose between them as necessary.

In the following sections, I shall discuss the features of each type of document in more detail, and close with a brief look at how to decide which one is best for you.

Features of a CV

A CV, or Curriculum Vitae, to give it its Latin name, is an account of your entire education and employment history. The term translates as ‘course of life’, and it really is that – a record of your working life so far. It is far more detailed than a resume, from which elements are often excluded if they are considered irrelevant. A CV should include everything you’ve ever done, listed in reverse chronological order, to make it easier to prioritise more recent information. As a result, a CV is longer than a resume, although two pages is the recommended length.

Information in a CV is arranged according to subheadings, to make it easier for the reader to quickly skim through and find the information he or she needs. Remember, your CV is intended to let prospective employers find out about you in the hope that they will offer you a job, so it’s in your interest to make it easy to understand!

The sections of a CV may include the following, although many sections can be moved up or down depending on what information is relevant for the specific job.

  1. Profile/Objectives – a short statement, tailored to fit the requirements of the prospective employer;
  2. Education/Qualifications – a list of institutions and courses, with grades awarded and dates attended;
  3. Skills/Competencies – any skills or achievements that are relevant to the job. You can include most things, but be sensible – there is no need to mention the 10m swimming badge you got when you were six!
  4. Career Summary – this should be the most detailed part, it can be moved higher up the document if necessary. Each job should have a short description of the skills you used and your achievements within the role. A few bullet points are sufficient, with more detailed accounts of more recent/relevant positions.

Features of a resume

A resume should be a shorter, more focused account of your relevant skills and achievements. Although the exact length of a resume is open to debate, in general it should not exceed one page in length, and it’s safer to be conventional; after all, you want to get the job. It’s fine to miss things out of a resume to keep the length down; you should only include the things that are most relevant to the position you are targeting. Resumes also often miss out some of the more personal details that CVs include, such as hobbies and interests.

As with CVs, resumes are usually organised into a few essential sections. However, one key difference between a CV and a resume is that resumes are focused on your skills and accomplishments, rather than providing an objective account of your history. As a result, resumes often feature aggrandising language, and tend to be more obviously self-promoting than CVs.

You can afford to be a bit less formal with the structure of a resume than with a CV, and there is a wider scope for creative presentation. That said, there are three main formats that are generally used:

  1. Chronological – this is the most common format, and is very similar in organisation to a CV;
  2. Functional – your skills/qualifications act as a backbone, around which the rest of the resume is structured;
  3. Focused – as above, but with the content organised in relation to the targeted position.

It is often better to stick to one of these tried and tested formats than to attempt to wow an employer with your own unique design. These have a chance of backfiring if your reader doesn’t like them, so why take the risk? The only time I could see the point of designing your own format is if you are entering a creative field, such as design.

What to use, and when to use it

The general rule to go by here is that if you are in America, use a resume, and if you are anywhere else in the world, use a CV. However, if you are applying for an academic position, or for a grant, it is better to send a CV, regardless of where you are. Things are further complicated by the rising popularity in the UK of short CVs, which, at less than two pages, are confusingly similar to a resume.

One of the main reasons to have a short CV was to stand out from the crowd, but almost everybody follows this model and it no longer has the same impact as it used to. As a result, the old style of CV is making a comeback, for the same reasons that it disappeared in the first place. Whether you choose to follow the trend, or stick with convention is up to you. Personally, I have both kinds, and I decide which version to send out on a per-company basis.

In fact, it is safer to make two versions anyway. Set aside some time and write yourself both a CV and a resume; it doesn’t take much effort, and it means that you’ll always have the correct document to hand, whatever you are asked for. You can even hire a copywriting agency to do it for you. Copywriters write both CVs and resumes on a regular basis, and will be familiar with the conventions of each. If you don’t want to pay for a copywriter, have a look at some CV and resume samples and use them to help you write your own.

You’d be surprised how many people don’t know the difference between a CV and a resume. Whichever one you decide to go for, follow the conventions and write to the strengths of your chosen format, and the interviews should come flooding in. You’ll soon be on your way to that dream job.


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