What the heck is a CV?

Executive CV Writing

Many of the clients I work with aren’t sure what a CV is, or aren’t sure of the difference between an executive resume (or any resume) and a CV. It can be a thorny issue, so let’s delve in!

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: a CV is not a cover letter! I’ve had people reach out to me in writing saying they want a ” resume and CV,” and I soon learned that they meant a resume and cover letter. (They got confused after seeing countless websites promoting “resumes and CVs,” and assumed it was an abbreviation for “cover letter!”)

A CV is a document similar to a resume that describes your professional qualifications. “CV” is an abbreviation for “curriculum vitae,” which comes from Latin and roughly translates to “course of life.” In other words, it’s a summary of your life’s work.

Two flavors of CV

After more than a decade of working with people on their resumes and CVs, I’ve found that the term “CV” is used in these two situations:

  • A document that is longer and more detailed than a resume.
  • A document that’s not really different from a resume, but is referred to as a CV for reasons I’ll discuss more in a bit.

Use of CVs in the United States

In the US, CVs are often required for job seekers in the fields of academia, medicine, and science. On the shorter side, a CV could be 3-7 pages long, but distinguished scientists and professors who have many scholarly publications to list might need 10 or 20 pages. There are also some senior-level attorneys who use CVs, although most attorneys only need a resume.

Use of CVs outside the United States

In countries outside the US, I’ve found it’s more common for the document a job seeker uses to be called a CV rather than a resume. In some countries, such as Ireland and the UK, it ends up being pretty much the same as what a resume would be in the US.

Meanwhile, in some countries, CVs are expected to be slightly longer, like 3-5 pages, and they might be expected to include a personal photo, marital status, place of birth, citizenship, languages spoken, and date of birth.

When I create a CV for a client who is seeking jobs in countries with different requirements, I simply create different versions. You don’t want to put your marital status and photo on a document for the US or UK, but you’ll want it on there for many other European countries.

CV confusion

Sometimes an American will talk about a “CV” when they’re really just talking about a resume. For example, I knew someone who was interested in an internal opportunity, and the hiring manager was encouraging anyone interested to submit a CV. I questioned whether a CV was truly needed since this wasn’t a scientific, medical, or academic position. She followed up with the hiring manager and sure enough, the hiring manager was just using the term indiscriminately and merely wanted a resume.

I suspect this type of confusion can occur when people hear foreigners, physicians, scientists, and professors using the term “CV” and they start using it synonymously with “resume.” Then other people might pick it up from them.

Using a resume and CV

Depending on the nature of your career, you might benefit from BOTH a resume AND a CV, or you might need one or the other. Having both can be a good idea for some professionals, like physician executives and nursing leaders, who might be asked for either one or both.