On applying for jobs — because it’s hard and frustrating and the silence is deafening

Let me preface this post by saying one thing: I feel very lucky to have found a job given the current job market in Brussels. Not only did I find a job, but it’s one that I like, that challenges me to grow, and is with people who are friendly and easy to work with. I really lucked out and I am very grateful for the opportunity I received.

That said, now that I’m on the other side of the hiring process — in that I’m the main contact for all the applications we receive for people wanting to intern with us — I find it intriguing, and at times mystifying, how certain cover letters and CVs made it into my inbox. I also know that most hiring managers don’t provide any feedback whatsoever to poorly written cover letters — myself included — so I wanted to address that in my little corner of the Internet.

While I was searching for a job/paid internship, I wrote hundreds of cover letters. Many followed a basic structure, which was to a certain extent copy+pasted from previous letters. In every letter I tried to include something specific about why I wanted to work for this particular organization doing this particular job and why I would be a good candidate for said job. For the jobs/internships I was most interested in, I spent a good amount of time going through the organization’s website and completely tailoring my cover letter and CV to highlight what I thought was most appropriate for them. I was invited for four interviews before finding the position I currently have. All of these interviews were for positions where I used tailored letters/resumes.

I’m not an expert on writing cover letters or formatting your CV. But over the past few months, while sifting through hundreds of applications, I collected a few observations, both from personal experience and from talking with friends/colleagues, about what makes a good presentation and what does not.

Without further ado:

1) If the job ad is in English, send a cover letter that is in English. I’m not going to take the time to run it through a translation program just to find out what your major was. If another language is mentioned in the ad, it’s ok to use that one for either the cover letter or CV, particularly if you use your cover letter to show fluency in one and the CV to show fluency in the other. But sending a CV in a language that not is used by the organization is a guarantee I won’t spend time reviewing your materials.

2) If the job ad says send a CV and a cover letter, send both. A cover letter is not, “Dear sir/madame, As requested in the job ad I saw on ____ website, I have attached my CV for your review.” Rather, it’s a chance to not only show your writing skills, but also to provide context to the information presented in your CV. Not taking the opportunity to do this — particularly when it’s specifically requested by the organization — is a missed opportunity.

3) The art of writing a cover letter is definitely key. Some tips:

  • Spell check is your friend. Even if English is not the main language you use in Word, it only takes a second to change the language to catch all your mistakes. If you’re applying for a communication position, advertise that you speak fluent English, but your cover letter is riddled with spelling mistakes I’m going to question how fluent you actually are.
  • If the name of the person the cover letter should be addressed to is on the ad, use it. Do not say “Dear sir or madame.” Our ads always state that the cover letter should be addressed to our director. The majority of the letters that aren’t are put in the “No” pile.
  • Use the cover letter to confirm the requirements of the internship. For instance, for our interns we require a contract to be signed through the university (for insurance purposes). If it’s not clear in your CV that this is possible (for instance, some universities allow such a contract to be signed by students up to a year post-graduation), make sure it’s clear in your cover letter. You don’t want your application to be put in the disqualified pile just because you didn’t add a sentence that reaffirms your eligibility (and don’t assume it’s applied. I put this requirement in bold, red letters on our ad and that didn’t prevent people from applying who didn’t fulfill this qualification).
  • The cover letter is your chance to show your writing skills. Be concise and thorough. If you write in three pages what could easily be said in one, it doesn’t make a good case that you’re able to write a one-page press release. Also, superfluous information — date of birth, favorite hobbies, etc. — is better left out.  A good rule of thumb is: unless you are able to connect the information to what makes you a good candidate, don’t include it.
  • Format, format, format. If I receive a letter that’s written in 9-pt. font with no spaces between the paragraphs, chances are I’m not going to read the whole thing. Maybe I’ll scan it. In all, a letter that isn’t pleasing to look at will not be looked at for long.
  • Be honest (of course) but only to a certain extent. There is a line and you should not cross it. Example: Saying you’re planning to spend the summer in Brussels and would like to use this opportunity to gain work experience is positive honesty. Saying you’re planning to spend the summer visiting your boyfriend in Brussels and therefore are looking for a job is negative honesty. Know where the line is and when you crossed it.

4) Also regarding the cover letter but important enough to have it’s own number: the cover letter should not just be about what you can get out of the internship. It should also include how your specific skill set can be utilized by the organization. I would estimate that 80% of the cover letters I receive say things such as “This position is perfect for me because x, y and z” or “This position will provide me with a great opportunity” or “I would like to gain experience in this field and this position allows me to do that” etc. etc. without following up with why the candidate is good for the position. If you can include a paragraph about why this is your dream job but can’t include a sentence about why you think you are our dream candidate, something is wrong. Sidenote: when saying the position is perfect, link it to your specific experience/interests that are relevant to the advertised position. Don’t have it be some generic sentence that can be applied to any and every job.

5) Save writing the application e-mail for a time when you are able to really focus. Unless the deadline is right now, wait until you are able to re-check everything before sending it. If you spell someone’s name wrong because you were in a rush, that’s not a good first impression. I had a poor girl send me three e-mails because her first e-mail had nothing attached, in her second e-mail my name was spelled wrong, and her third e-mail was to correct her second e-mail. Not the best first impression.

6) If you include a photo on your CV — which is relatively common in Europe — make it a professional one. If you are wearing sunglasses, in a bar, or obviously have cut someone out of the picture, pick another one. Or have a friend take one. Or just leave it out. A picture is not a requirement and if there’s any possibility of it being misinterpreted it’s better to omit it. Passport photos are usually a good bet.

7) Formatting is important. I hate the Europass CV format because it can be very confusing to find specific information due to the way it’s structured. But I understand that it’s widely used and required by many organizations, so using it isn’t necessarily a strike. However, if you have time, it’s a good idea to download a template from Word and have your CV available in another format. Something that’s aesthetically pleasing is always more pleasant to read. Proof: I spent hours designing and formatting my CV in InDesign (as I work in communications, I thought it would be best to use my CV as a way to showcase my design skills). All of the people who interviewed me mentioned how they appreciated how easy my CV was to read and that it “stuck out” from the piles of Europass CVs precisely because it was aesthetically pleasing.

8) If you receive an e-mail requesting an interview, do not let more than 24-hours pass before responding. Doing so not only shows a lack of interest, but it prolongs the hiring process for the organization unnecessarily. If the request includes providing specific information and it will take a while to get it, write back and say that you are interested and that you will do what needs to be done to answer the questions and will get back as soon as possible. If it takes more than a day or two, follow up with your progress. This will show you are not only motivated about the position, but that you are considerate of the hiring individual’s time.

On a related note: When you get a request for the interview, don’t respond with “for your information” remarks about when you are planning your next vacation. Wait until after you get the job offer to sort it out. Also, if the position is advertised as full-time, don’t suddenly say you are only available for part-time work. Or that you can’t start until two months after the advertised start-date. (This may be ok for a job, but for a 3-6 month internship, starting two months late is a big deal).

9) Be careful when adding a subject line to an e-mail and naming your documents. In our ad, I ask candidates to have the subject line state “Application Intern (position name): last name, first name”. You would be surprised how many e-mails I receive that just say “Intern Application” — no position, no name. It’s another attention to detail point. Also, it comes off as more put-together if your documents are named “CV_yourname” and “CoverLetter_yourname” — you thought ahead about how to make life a tiny bit easier for the hiring individual. When you get a ton of CVs and cover letters, you don’t want to spend time renaming them because half of the candidates also chose “CV01” or “CoverLetterPublishing” as the title. Having a candidate’s name in the title of the document makes it easier to save and easier to find later.

10) This may be a bit picky, but always send your CV and cover letter as pdfs. I always prefer receiving pdfs for two reasons: 1) they are always formatted correctly and I don’t have to worry about problems associated with having an older version of Word or the like; and 2) I can right-click a pdf in Outlook and print it automatically without opening the file. I also think that a pdf is always better when it comes to any sensitive or professional document because it indicates a final, clean version. A Word document, in my mind, is still a draft, since there’s the possibility to edit it and change things. Also, you don’t want me to open up your cover letter/CV as a Word document and have any grammatical/spelling mistakes automatically highlighted.

Those are my tips. Some may sound incredibly picky and a little bit obsessive-compulsive, but these days I receive a hundred applications or more for unpaid internship positions. I have multiple qualified candidates for every open position and in the end only one can be hired. The responsibility/burden as an applicant is to use your materials to show why you are the one.

So to sum up: no one wants to read a copy+pasted letter that was sent en masse to every opening on EurActiv. No employer wants to know more about what the position can do for the candidate than what the candidate can do for them. No one wants to weed through a hundred applications, half of which are modeled after the same cover letter pulled off of a basic Google search. Rather, your CV and cover letter — and the e-mail that accompanies it — will be the first impression you make on the organization where you wish to work. Take the time to be sure it’s a good one.


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