How to Write a CV for Grad School: Insider Tips

Philippe Barr, PhD
9 min readFeb 4, 2023
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The path to graduate school is often paved with rigorous coursework, standardized tests, and arduous application processes. At the heart of every grad school application lies a critical document — your curriculum vitae. Known as a CV for short, this document is vastly different from a resume. It requires a unique approach when it comes to crafting one for your pursuit of higher education. If you’re looking to stand out in a sea of applicant profiles, this comprehensive guide will help you understand how to write a CV for grad school and how to make it great!

Understanding the Importance of Your Grad School CV

Your CV is a powerful representation that goes beyond mere achievements and experiences. It serves as a unique personal story showcasing your academic and professional evolution. Graduate admissions committees place significant importance on the CV as it provides context to your application, aiding in assessing your compatibility with a particular program. Having the right tools in hand to write a CV for grad school can significantly enhance your application. I can also ensure a memorable impact on the evaluating committee.

Key Factors in Evaluating CVs for Master’s and PhD Programs

When evaluating CVs for both Master’s and PhD programs, graduate admissions committees meticulously search for evidence of academic excellence, research experience, and a demonstrated commitment to the field. For master’s programs, committees often seek applicants who have consistently excelled in their undergraduate studies, indicated by high GPAs and a track record of relevant coursework.

Additionally, any internships, projects, or extracurricular activities that showcase leadership and discipline-specific skills can be particularly persuasive. In contrast, CVs for PhD programs are closely scrutinized for robust research experience and potential for scholarly contributions. This includes detailed accounts of undergraduate and, if applicable, master’s level research, publications, presentations at conferences. It also includes any active engagement with academic or professional research communities. The explicit mention of methodologies mastered, software proficiencies, and laboratory techniques, along with references from academic mentors or research supervisors, can greatly strengthen an application.

In essence, while master’s admissions may focus more on academic prowess and relevant skills, PhD committees are looking for a proven capacity for independent research and a deep engagement with academic inquiry.

Navigating the CV vs. Resume Debate

Learning how to write a CV for grad school is all about understanding the distinction between a CV and a resume. A resume is typically a one-page summary of your work experience and skills. A CV is a comprehensive document that incorporates education, research, presentations, publications, honors, and community involvement. For advanced academic applications like grad school, the CV offers a holistic view of your academic persona. It also makes a strong case for your candidacy.

Deciding whether to submit a CV or a resume for grad school applications hinges largely on the request of the institution and the nature of the program. Typically, CVs are preferential for academic, research-oriented, and scholarly programs, given their extensive detail on educational background, research experience, publications, and academic achievements. These programs value the depth of candidates’ academic and research engagements.

Conversely, professional programs that prioritize practical skills and work experience, such as MBA or certain applied sciences programs, might request a resume instead. In these cases, concise overviews of professional experiences, achievements, and specific skills relevant to the field play a critical role in the application. Always consult the specific requirements of each program to guide your decision. You should tailor your document to highlight your most relevant qualifications and experiences.

Differences Between Employment-Oriented CVs and CVs for Grad School Applications

When transitioning from drafting a CV for employment to crafting one for grad school applications, the focus and structure of the document undergo significant shifts. Employment-oriented CVs are typically streamlined to emphasize professional experiences, tangible skills, and achievements that directly correspond to the job at hand. They are crafted to catch the eye of recruiters by highlighting career progressions, leadership roles, and industry-specific competencies.

On the other hand, a CV for grad school applications is meticulously tailored to showcase academic prowess and intellectual contributions. This variant underscores educational backgrounds, research endeavors, scholarly publications, presentations at conferences, and any academic awards or honors. It prioritizes depth over breadth. It also aims to portray the applicant as a committed and passionate scholar. Someone who is ready to contribute to and benefit from the rigorous academic environment.

This stark difference underlines the necessity of understanding the purpose behind each application — whether the goal is to enter the workforce or advance in academia — and learning how to write a CV for grad school is all about aligning with those expectations, emphasizing the most relevant aspects of one’s background and aspirations.

Structuring Your Graduate School CV

The key to learning how to write a CV for grad school is having a strong structure. The structure of your CV should be clear and logical, presenting your information in a way that’s easy to follow and comprehensive. Here’s how to organize it effectively:

1. Personal Information

Include your full name, contact details, and a brief personal statement. This statement should succinctly outline your academic interests and career goals, providing a framework for the subsequent sections.

2. Education

Detail your academic background, including institutions attended, degree programs, graduation dates, and relevant coursework. You should also include your GPA if it’s competitive and note if you achieved any academic distinctions, such as being on the Dean’s List or receiving honors.

3. Research Experience

Whether you’ve participated in undergraduate research or have relevant professional experience, flesh out the details. List the projects you contributed to, your roles, teams you worked with, and any outcomes, such as publications or presentations.

4. Work Experience

If you’ve had internships or jobs that are academically relevant, showcase these experiences. Explain your roles, what you accomplished, and any skills or insights gained that could benefit your graduate studies.

5. Publications

List any articles, papers, or academic journal contributions under this section. Provide full citations, including the names of co-authors, publication year, and where your work has been featured.

6. Presentations

For any talks, seminars, or workshops you’ve presented at, detail the event, topic, and any significant impact or relevance to your field of study.

7. Honors and Awards

Include any scholarships, fellowships, academic awards, or grants you’ve received. These serve as indicators of your academic excellence and dedication.

8. Extracurricular Activities

Participation in relevant clubs, organizations, or community groups can complement your academic profile. Highlight leadership roles or any projects that reflect your skills outside the classroom.

9. Skills

In a brief section, mention any specialized skills or knowledge that could be valuable in your prospective program, such as languages, computer software proficiency, or statistical analysis methods.

10. References

End your CV with a section that lists potential references, like academic mentors, research supervisors, or previous employers. Always secure their consent before including their details and note that some programs require specific reference formats.

Tailoring Your CV for Specific Graduate Programs

Learning how to write a CV for grad school requires a bit or preparation. Instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach, you should tailor your CV for each grad school application. Research the program’s website, mission, and faculty to understand their priorities and tailor your CV to highlight the most relevant experiences for that program. This nuance shows the admissions committee that you are genuinely interested and qualified for their specific offerings.

Addressing Gaps or Less-Relevant Experiences

If you have any gaps in your educational or professional history, this is the time to explain them. If applicable, turn them into positive learning experiences or discuss how said gaps have motivated you to pursue graduate studies. For experiences that might seem less relevant at first glance, provide context and explain the skills or perspectives that they’ve furnished you with, reinforcing their relevancy to your application.

The Visual Aspect of Your CV

An essential part of knowing how to write a CV for grad school is understanding the importance of visuals. A visually appealing CV can enhance your application package. Use a clear and professional font, consistent formatting, and white space to make your content easy to read. Utilize bold or italics wisely to draw attention to section headers or significant achievements. However, avoid using colors or elaborate designs that may detract from the content or could be lost in printing or digital scanning processes.

Proofreading and Final Touches

Your grad school CV must be flawless in terms of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. After you’ve completed your document, proofread it thoroughly, and consider asking peers, professors, or professional editors to review and provide feedback. A fresh set of eyes may catch errors you’d otherwise miss. Remember, your CV is a reflection of your professional polish and attention to detail and learning how to write a CV for grad school is also learning that every little detail matters.

Overcoming Common Pitfalls

Many applicants fall into common pitfalls that can detract from their CV’s effectiveness. A great way to make sure you know how to write a CV for grad school is making sure to avoid these mistakes:

1. Overloading Content

While comprehensiveness is crucial, including every minute detail can be overwhelming. Be selective about what you include, focusing on significance and relevancy to your application.

2. Using Jargon Without Context

If you refer to specific research or academic terms, ensure you explain their significance in layman’s terms so that any reader can understand the impact of your work clearly.

3. Underestimating Formatting

How you organize your CV can be as important as the content you include. Prioritize logical order and readability to guide the admissions committee through your achievements smoothly.

4. Neglecting Updates

Your CV should be a living document that evolves with your experiences. Regularly update it with new accomplishments and tailor its focus as your academic interests or career goals shift.

Conclusion

In summing up, the meticulous compilation of research, work experience, honors, and extracurricular activities serves as a testament to the hard work and dedication required to build a compelling academic and professional profile. Knowing how to write a CV for grad school is crucial for making a strong impression on graduate school admissions committees, showcasing not just your achievements but your potential for future contributions to your field. To further aid in your grad school application process, don’t hesitate to sign up for a free consultation with our expert team. Additionally, make sure to check out our graduate school application services, designed to streamline your application efforts and set you on the path to success.

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Dr. Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Dr. Barr spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Dr. Barr has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

Follow me on Instagram and TikTok for tips and tricks on navigating the grad school application process and weekly live Q&A sessions!

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on February 4, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/