Zen and the Art of CV Writing

Or the importance of clarity, simplicity and economy in your CV


That’s been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

Steve Jobs

Research by recruitment consultants TheLadders research found that selectors take about 6 seconds before they make an initial 'fit or no fit' decision" on candidates.

The research tracked eye movements of 30 recruiters over ten weeks to record and analyse where and how long they focused.

In the limited time spent studying the CVs recruiters looked at your name, current title and company, current position start and end dates, previous title and company, previous position and education.

They found that it was important for CVs to have a clear visual hierarchy and no distracting visual elements since these "reduced recruiters’ analytical capability and hampered decision-making" and stopped them "locating the most relevant information, like skills and experience." 

For competitive jobs with many applicants, a selector may only read your CV for one minute before deciding to reject, or to shortlist for detailed consideration. Here an economical CV can help greatly. The candidate has already done much of the work for the selector by removing all redundant and unnecessary information and ordering the CV in a way that makes it easy to focus on important content.

An economical CV is not the same as a simplistic CV. A simplistic CV is one where the applicant can't be bothered to get things right, whereas an economical CV takes much time and effort.

The very best CVs tend to have a lean, mean, clean, crafted look with the use of every inch of space carefully considered, so don't make your CV too busy: if in doubt, leave it out!

Use font, font size, straight lines and alignment to organise your CV to be as clear and simple as possible.

Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention. You must be ruthless in your efforts to simplify—not dumb down—your message to its absolute core.

The kind of simplicity I am talking about does not come from a place of laziness or ignorance, rather it comes from an intelligent desire for clarity that gets to the essence of an issue, something which is not easy to do. Simplicity is not easy, in fact, it is hard. When I use the word simple (or simplicity), I am referring to the term as being essentially synonymous with clarity, directness, subtlety, essentialness, and minimalism. Designers .... are constantly looking for the simplest solution to complex problems.

Daniel Garr - Presentation Zen

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Robert Olson

Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.


The simplest things are often the truest.

Richard Bach

Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.


Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Our life is frittered away by detail ... Simplify, Simplify.

Henry David Thoreau

Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means.

Koichi Kawana

NASA spent millions of dollars developing a special pen which could write in the zero gravity environment of space. The Russians used a pencil .....


The Presenter's Paradox

According to a recent study by researchers at Virginia Tech. when a large item and a small one are packaged together, consumers often perceive the overall value to be less than that of the large item. For example, consumers percieved an mp3 player sold alone to be of higher value than the same item packaged with spare batteries and a case at the same price.

This applies to information as well as products and gifts. “People who evaluate a bundle follow an averaging strategy, which leads to less favorable judgments when mildly favorable pieces are added to highly favorable pieces,” write the authors. The findings are counterintuitive. “What we think is happening, is that the presenter, who’s creating the bundle, and the evaluator play different cognitive roles. The evaluator is looking at the big picture, asking ‘How do I like this group of items?’ and looking at the components and blending them in a holistic way. In buying, say, a bedroom set, the bed is nice, the dresser is OK, and the set is somewhere in the middle. The whole is being considered and averaged. To the presenter, things are independent and they each add up in value.”

Similarly when you put absolutely everything that you think might sell you on your CV it will be less appealing than one that just focuses on your stronger selling points.

A study by BI Business School in Oslo presented a group of recruitment professionals with the same CV content in three different versions:


All deviations from the formal format reduced the chances of an interview. Coloured paper had a clearly negative effect, while the “creative” format was worst of all: the same candidate had almost twice the chances of being offered an interview with a formal CV as with a “creative” one.

"Employers often don’t use a clear, systematic method, and may be vague in specifying success criteria for the job. Recruitment professionals are only a bit better at telling good and bad candidates apart than amateurs. When many candidates are competing for a job, an employer will often emphasise negative information – they are worried about being ”tricked” by candidates and look for reasons to sift candidates out of the ”of interest” pile,”



The two CVs below are far too narrow, but placing them side by side allows styles to be easily compared.


Old fashioned CV


Economical CV


Curriculum Vitae

Name: Sherlock Holmes



Sherlock Holmes

  Tasteful use of colour just for headings and sub headings makes a CV look more classy and helps to draw the eye to key sections. Use a dark colour such as dark blue or burgundy as light colours may not photocopy well.

6 Farthings Court, Parkwood

Nationality: British

Email: jma5@kent.ac.uk


6 Farthings Court, Parkwood, Canterbury CT2 8NP

  Nationality: British

Email: jma5@kent.ac.uk

  You don't need words such as curriculum vitae, name and address. It's obvious that the document is a CV


  Underlining belongs to typewriters where no other way of emphasising words existed. Don't use it on CVs as the line under the word reduces readability.
BLAH, BLAH, BLAH   Blah blah blah   Capital letters should only be used for subheadings: they are less easy to read as they lack ascenders (b,d, k) and descenders (p, q, y)



2015 to date The University of Kent

2007 - 2015 Casubon High School, Middlemarch

1996 -2001 Hill Primary School

2015 to date

The University of Kent
BA History: expect to graduate June 2018

  By separating education and qualifications you make the selector have to work harder to work out where you did each qualification. Here is is relatively simple but it can become confusing if the candidate has been to a number of schools.

BA History - expect to graduate June 2018

2015: A-levels: English (A); French (B); History (C)


  Casubon High School, Middlemarch
2015 A-levels: English (A); French (B); History (C)






  Use of bold for sub, sub headings makes them stand out and makes it easier for the selector to identify different sections of the CV
English Language (B) 2013 English Literature (B) 2013
French (B) 2013 German (C) 2013
Mathematics (A) 2013 History (C) 2013
Geography (C) 2013 Biology (B) 2013
Music (A) 2013  





  2013 8 GCSEs including Mathematics (A), English (B) and French (B).  

Summarising GCSEs can remove clutter, however is your grades were all at A and B you could consider leaving these in as this will make a positive impression.

Degradation to the visual message can occur in many ways, such as .... unnecessarily emphasizing items such as lines, shapes, symbols, and logos. For example, lines in grids or tables can often be made quite thin, lightened, or even removed.

Daniel Garr - Presentation Zen (p122)

Repeating the date for each GCSE just clutters the CV

Work Experience  


2011 - 2013 Flora Motley Ltd, High Street, Middlemarch

Saturday Sales Assistant in fashion store: customer service, stock control, cash handling
This involved me in advising and assisting customers, coping with problems and unexpected situations (such as a fire alarm) and taking responsibility for counting up and banking money

2011 - 2013 Flora Motley Ltd, High Street, Middlemarch

Saturday Sales Assistant in fashion store: customer service, stock control, cash handling
This involved me in advising and assisting customers, coping with problems and unexpected situations (such as a fire alarm) and taking responsibility for counting up and banking money




*I play the violin in the University orchestra and was leader of the school orchestra.
*Badminton: member of the University badminton club
*Tennis: played for the school team
*I own and maintain a twenty-year-old Mini and enjoy meeting other Mini owners at rallies

  • Music : I play the violin in the University orchestra and was leader of the school orchestra.
  • Sport:
    Badminton: member of the University badminton club
    Tennis: played for the school team
  • Car Maintenance: I own and maintain a twenty-year-old Mini and enjoy meeting other Mini owners at rallies

Use of dashes or asterisks for bullets makes the CV look unprofessional and here, there isn't even a gap between the bullet and the text

Simple round or square bullets look best.

Also here the subject of the bullet is in bold allowing the selector to skim read it more easily

_______________________________       Lines between sections take up space and make the CV more cluttered. It's better to signify different sections of the CV by clear subheadings in a larger font size.



Dr T. Lydgate,
Kent Law School,
Eliot College
University of Kent
Kent, CT2 7NS

Miss R. Vincy,
Flora Motley Ltd
65 High Street
Loamshire, MM1 0FF


Unless you are specifically asked to provide referees you can leave these out as references should not be taken up until you have been shortlisted for interview.

You can put "I will be happy to supply these on request", but even this is not necessary as it's obvious that you will do this if you want the job!



Japanese Garden