Criteria for Success

  1. Convincing. Quickly convince them that you are qualified for the target job. Showcase selected skills and experiences that match those required for the job.
  2. Brief. Typically, a recruiter spends less than 60 seconds skimming a résumé or CV. A résumé is no more than 2 pages (1 sheet of paper).
  3. Visually Clear. The organization and formatting help the reader find the information that shows you are qualified and driven.
  4. Your experiences are Concrete and Quantified.
  5. Error-Free. There are no typos or errors, and formatting is consistent.

Purpose

Résumés must quickly convince readers that you are qualified.

Your résumé and cover letter are the first parts of your application that your potential employers will read. Your résumé is designed to make the person reading it move your application forward in the recruiting process by, for example, inviting you for an interview. Your résumé should quickly convince your potential employer that you are a well-qualified candidate for the specific job to which you applied. Additionally, it should provide a few interesting talking points for you as a candidate and person, so an interviewer has an entry point to engage in a meaningful conversation.

Just to clarify: A CV is a kind of résumé

A curriculum vitae (CV) is a special kind of résumé intended for academic or research positions. In this article, we say “résumé” to mean “résumé or CV,” except when we contrast the two.

Resume CV
Goal Shows how your experiences and skills qualify you for the target job Shows your academic achievements and research qualifications for the position
Length Strict 2-page (1 sheet of paper) limit; Preferably 1 page 2-3 pages for a graduate student; gets longer through a career
Typical sections include…
  • Name & contact information
  • Education
    • Degrees & GPAs
  • Work experience
  • Skills
  • Leadership & Service
  • Honors & Awards
  • Name & contact information
  • Education
  • Awards & grants
  • Research experience
  • Teaching experience
  • Outreach
  • Career objectives/research interests
  • Publications & presentations
  • Patents (if applicable)
  • Professional societies

Analyze your audience

Your résumé should be tailored to the job for which you’re applying and – if possible – to the specific people who will be reading it. Research who will be reading your résumé and what they hope to see in it. If the job has explicit requirements, make sure your résumé makes it obvious that you meet all those requirements. Customize the content so it will excite your specific readers.

Your résumé shouldn’t tell your whole story; it should make you memorable and leave them with questions. In many cases, the people who read your résumé will be reading a whole pile of them. Make it easy for them to put your résumé in the “yes” pile. You can share your life story during the interview.

Skills

Make a custom resume for every application

First, read each job posting carefully. Make a list of what qualifications are required for the specific role you are applying for. For example, a job posting that says you will “drive independent research” might require very different skills from one that says you will “work closely with an interdisciplinary team”.

Next, highlight the skills and accomplishments that demonstrate that you have those qualifications. To do this, you can

  • include different experiences in your resume
  • put more bullet points under the most relevant experiences
  • move important experiences earlier in the document.

Resumes in particular have limited space, so you should be critical about what experiences you should include and which you should leave out.

Concretize, Quantify, and Demonstrate Impact

Give concrete – preferably quantitative – evidence that you are a qualified match for the organization you to work in and the specific role to which you’re applying. If possible, also showcase the impact of your work.

A general formula for highlighting your experiences is:

(Appropriate-tense action verb) + (Concrete, quantitative object) + (Outcome or impact)

Vaguely-worded experience Concrete, quantified experience
Researched Hydrodynamics in the Laboratory for Ship and Platform Flows
  • Developed stochastic ocean wave model for numerically-efficient nonlinear wave-interaction simulations
  • Contributing author on two papers
Teaching Assistant for Hydrofoils, Propellers and Turbines (2.23)
  • Developed content for weekly recitations on hydrofoil theory
  • Provided one-on-one instruction for 15 graduate students
GAME Muddy Monday Co-Chair
  • Organized monthly social events for mechanical engineering graduate students
Mentor for Engineering Systems Design (2.013/014)
  • Mentored a team of 6 undergraduate students designing an autonomous ocean vehicle
  • Provided technical and communication feedback to enhance presentations to external sponsors
Helped sailing team on weekends
  • Coached a team of 4 undergraduate sailors to a top 5 finish at a New England championship

When it’s accurate, use verbs that illustrate impact over verbs that make you sound passive. Aim for verbs that are more specific to the actual contribution you made. For examples of strong verbs to describe different responsibilities, check out this page from MIT GECD, and this page from The Muse.

Weak verbs Action verbs
  • Participated
  • Researched
  • Designed
  • Managed
  • Led
  • Developed

When describing research experiences, it’s OK to include a brief overview of the lab, but it’s critical to characterize your individual contributions. Also, be careful to limit the use of jargon.

If you are applying for a research position, include your PI’s name. Your academic pedigree is important currency in the scientific community.

Make your document easy to skim

Recruiters will skim your résumé in 30 to 60 seconds. You need to use formatting they’ll expect, and make relevant information jump out.

  • Use headers that package your experiences in a way that best shows you are qualified for the job. For example, if the job involves teaching or entrepreneurship, make sure to include the relevant header to highlight your experience in these areas.
  • Order your headers: the sections that have the experiences that are most relevant to this job should go first.
  • Use whitespace to make it easy for a hiring manager to read your résumé. Use indentation and bullet points to partition information. A dense résumé has more information, but is hard to read. A spacious résumé might have less information, but the reader will understand more of it.
  • Bold important words so the reader can quickly finds the important content.
  • Use numbers to make quantitative deliverables stand out

Standard Formatting Tips

  • Don’t use fonts smaller than 11 point to try to fit more info into your resume. Curate your skills and experience instead.
  • Stick to a standard font — e.g. Times New Roman for serif, or Helvetica for sans-serif.
  • Don’t make headers too much larger than the content font size. Bold and a few points larger will be enough to distinguish headers.

Proofread! Spell check!

A single mistake can be enough to get you put in the “no” pile. Have a detail-oriented friend help you catch spelling, grammar, and phrasing errors you missed.

Download Annotated Examples

Annotated Example 1
Annotated Example 1

This PhD student’s CV resulted in a faculty position at a leading university. 3 MB

Annotated Example 2
Annotated Example 2

Examples of formatting details 303 KB