Your CV layout matters more than you may think.
There are hundreds of guides about what content to include in your CV when applying for a job, but what does a perfect CV look like? Whilst there is no single answer that applies to every individual or role, these tips will show you how to lay out a CV suitable for any job you're applying for.
Why your CV layout is important
Before you can wow a recruiter with your skills, experience and achievements, you need to catch their eye. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who sees your CV for the first time. What will they notice? Enormous blocks of text, poor spacing and distracting images? Or well-laid-out and easy-to read-sections, logically organised under clear headings?
Making a first impression
The presentation of your CV is the first impression a recruiter will form of you. Before someone even reads your name, they will start to form an opinion based on the appearance of your CV. If they see an unorganized, messy, inconsistent layout, they will assume you have those qualities too. Similarly, if they see a smart, professional and clean document, that's an immediate point in your favour. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression – so make it count!
Passing the ATS
An applicant tracking system, or ATS, is a type of software used by HR managers to help them manage large volumes of applications. The programs are used to scan and evaluate CVs by looking for keywords relevant to the vacancy. For a job hunter, it's important to understand the limitations of these systems as they can transform your perfectly presented CV into nonsense if you don't stick to a few simple formatting rules.
An ATS-friendly CV should use a simple font, standard bullets, clearly labelled section headers, and no graphics or columns. Additionally, you'll also want to ensure that there's no important information contained in the headers and footers and that you haven't included any special characters such as ©, ½ and so on.
It may sound like a boring-looking CV, but there's still scope for creativity within these boundaries. The alternative is that your CV isn't interpreted as you'd intended or hoped.
Tips for a good CV layout
So what should a CV look like? We've written the following guidelines to follow to make sure that you produce a professional-looking CV that helps you to land the job, whilst still leaving some scope for your individuality to shine through.
1. Start with your name and job title
It may seem obvious, but the first thing on your CV should be your name. Don't use the header 'CV' or 'curriculum vitae' ‒ there are no points for stating the obvious. You should also include your current or target job title, but that's all. This header can be larger than the others on your CV (or stand out in some other way such as a different but simple font), but really there is no alternative to this beginning.
2. Keep it simple
You may want your CV to stand out from the rest, but this doesn't mean it should be over the top. Avoid a busy CV with excessively bright colours and non-standard fonts. A recruiter or HR manager is likely to just skip over it if it's too overwhelming because stylistic formatting can easily appear unprofessional if not done tastefully.
Stick to the classic sans-serif fonts, like Arial or Calibri, which are both easy to read on a screen and look smart when printed.
The same applies to your use of colour. You should be restrained and professional. As with fonts, it can be tempting to use loud colours to create an eye-catching CV ‒ but that can just end up being distracting. At the most, use one muted colour for emphasis, plus black for the main text if you want the best CV layout.
3. Stay consistent and organised
Content may be king in CVs, but how it's organised is queen. When done well, the layout of your CV can make your content more accessible and give it a well-ordered and structured appearance. Knowing what to put in your CV is one thing, but without a solid CV layout, you risk your valuable content being lost.
Start with clear section headings, which will keep the content of your CV in order and make it easy to navigate and pick out key information. Clearly identify each section of your CV: contact details, professional profile, key skills, career history, education and maybe a further details section, if necessary. Even before a recruiter starts reading the CV, they should know where to go to find what they are looking for.
When adding your headings and formatting text within your CV, take care to maintain consistency. If one header is in capitals, they should all be. If one paragraph is right-justified, they should all be. Doing otherwise shows a lack of attention to detail and makes you come across as sloppy. It can also be distracting for the reader if the CV is jumping about all over the place. You don't want anyone to miss critical information because of poor presentation.
When laying out your CV, you may find yourself with empty areas between headings and sections. You might feel tempted to fill in those blank spaces. However, leaving proportionate empty white space in margins and between sections can make your CV easier to read and navigate. Don't shy away from this space, especially when the alternative is a cluttered CV with text crammed from edge to edge.
4. Format your paragraphs and choose words with care
A wall of text is a barrier. Just knowing a big paragraph lies ahead can wear a reader down before they even reach it. Employers are only human, after all, and like anyone, if they see huge walls of text, their eyes may glaze over. The bigger the wall, the harder it will be for a person to wade through it. Instead, use short paragraphs and bullet points to lead your reader from one section to the next. Don't forget that, when reading on a screen, it's even harder to read long paragraphs without losing your place. Therefore, three to four sentences should be the maximum you aim for at a time.
The same applies to the words you use. At first, this might not seem like visual advice, but remember ‒ the first person to see your CV may be from the HR team, rather than the team you'll be working in. The language must be accessible to both experts in your field and 'lay' people. Seeing too many long, complex and specialist words can be overwhelming, so you need to balance the need to show your industry expertise with the need to not alienate your readers.
5. Don't split sections across pages
For a polished CV layout, aim to have sections end at the bottom of the page, rather than carry over onto the next page. It usually is not hard to achieve this if you make the most of the formatting options on Word – try changing the margins, font size, header layout, spacing and so on.
Red flags of a bad CV layout
We've covered what a CV should look like, but what shouldn't it look like? There are some CV visuals that scream 'unprofessional,' so make sure that you're not making these mistakes.
Your CV should not contain graphics. With everyone now able to produce graphics with a few clicks, it's tempting to try increasing the visual appeal of your CV using devices such as skills bars to visually represent your level of expertise or logos to show which companies you've worked for.
Try to resist this temptation! The logos move the attention away from you and onto your employers, and the skills bars are essentially meaningless without a standard reference across all CVs. Most importantly, the ATS can't process images, so your CV should contain text only.
Many of the CV templates that you'll find online include space for a photo. Not only will this image confuse the ATS, as previously explained, but it also says nothing about your ability to do the job. Additionally, a headshot contradicts anti-discrimination efforts.
Recruiters can gain potentially discriminatory details from your photo, including your gender, age and race. Therefore, they will ignore any photos they receive. Use the space instead to convince them why they should hire you.
Large blocks of text
Tightly packed blocks of text can be very off-putting and are difficult to read on-screen. As stated, eliminate large blocks of text on your CV by keeping paragraphs short and using bullet points to highlight key details. This also helps you keep your writing concise and to the point, thereby minimising the amount of fluff the recruiter has to wade through.
Everyone has their preferred font. That said, don't go off-piste with a wild font that will have recruiters screwing up their eyes as they try to decipher it. Typefaces such as Jokerman, Brush Script and Algerian are to be avoided if you expect your CV to be taken seriously.
There are many professional-looking, easily readable sans serif fonts to choose from, so there's plenty of scope to show your individuality.
Similarly, don't try to cram in more information by using a font so tiny that the recruiter is reaching for a magnifying glass, or so large that it looks like you don't have enough to say. A 10- to 12-point front, depending on the typeface, is acceptable.
A full LinkedIn URL
Every recruiter worth their salt will do some due diligence before making a hire – and that includes checking out your online presence. Direct them to the information you want them to see by including your LinkedIn profile on your CV. However, a full LinkedIn URL looks messy and often takes up a disproportionate amount of space in your contact details. Avoid this issue by simply typing 'LinkedIn Profile' and hyperlinking the text to your profile.
An inappropriate file type
Unless otherwise directed in the application instructions, always send your CV as a Word document. Although PDFs retain formatting to human viewers, they are not always scanned correctly by the ATS. Meanwhile, HTML and plain-text documents are uncommon and will likely raise eyebrows for the wrong reasons.
Designing the best CV layout
Your main formatting objective is to make your CV as appealing and easy to read as you can. Don't make a recruiter's job harder. The quicker and easier it is to scan your CV for your main selling points, the easier it is for them to gain a solid overview of your skills and achievements and progress your application to the next stage.
How is your CV format? We'll give you feedback through our free CV critique. Submit yours here.
This article was updated in April 2021. It contains work written by Joshua Coller.