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.


Stuck on you.

My contact is stuck in my eye.

I know, this is a ridiculous situation and I feel stupid. Who gets a contact stuck? Where can it go? And, most importantly, how the hell do you get it out?

I have been wearing contacts for around eight years now and, on occasion, I’ve experienced the awfulness that is having the contact fold up under my upper lash and get stuck. But a few blinks or a good panic-induced rub later and it usually pops back out.

This time, that didn’t happen. In fact, I think it made it worse.

I have no idea how it got lodged back there, but I am freaking out. I’m already paranoid about having things in my eye, I do not need this. It’s already been two days, so I arranged to go to a doctor to have a professional try their luck. Unfortunately, now I’m having visions of anonymous men in white lab coats and surgical masks holding my eye open with scary spider-like steel clamps coming at me with giant tweezers.

In this scenario, I — necessarily — am strapped to the chair. In real life, that may be necessary.

** update **

Ok, so it wasn’t my entire contact. In fact, the doctor may or may not have characterized whatever was stuck back there as “miniscule”. Miniscule. I don’t know if he ever had anything stuck in his eye but even miniscule things hurt like a bitch. And cause, apparently, a gigantic overreaction.

But I did learn something today: when things are lost in translation at the doctor’s office, it’s terrifying.

I went to an open consultation hour at a local doctor’s office, so before going to see the doctor a technician screens you. This included a test where they blow a puff of air into your eye. But when the technician was talking to me, she described it as “pressure” and not a “puff of air” (though, let’s be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled about the “puff” either). So here I am, chin and forehead pressed up against some scary-looking, complicated device expecting something to apply pressure to my eyeball. I panicked, a bit.

Granted, there was no running out of the room screaming, or crying, but I did close my eyes at least the first three times she tried to puff the air into my eyeball and, even after I knew it was just a puff of air, at least two or three times afterwards. After all, for me “pressure” means that something is touching your eyeball. I kept thinking (even after the puff of air) that something was going to protrude out of the machine and poke me in the eye.

I know, I’m ridiculous.

Also, did I mention I made my wonderful boyfriend come home from work early just to escort me to the doctor? And hold my hand?

As my sister put it, “I have no idea how he puts up with you.”

I responded that it doesn’t happen often, to which she said, “said the girl who cut off part of her finger a little while ago.”

Touché, touché.

In my defense, it was almost a year ago. A girl can have a freakout (or two) a year.


I haven’t really written much since I got back to Belgium. I could lie and say I’ve been busy, but that’s not really the case. My days consist of going to my Dutch classes in the morning and then sitting around my apartment (or walking around Ghent, if the weather is nice) in the afternoon.

Adjusting to being back in Belgium was a bit more difficult than I thought it would be, for a few reasons. First, I came here on a tourist visa this time — Joery and I are working on getting a visa based on our relationship, but so far we’ve only managed to register as a cohabitating couple and have the police check to make sure I really live where I say I live — so my legal status here is different. Legally, I can’t work,  since tourists can’t get a work permit, so I can’t look for a job or anything to do to fill my time. And since I don’t know when my visa will finally be processed, I can’t really even start looking for work yet. Also, while the Dutch classes are pretty intensive, it’s different from being a full-time student working on a degree. At this point, I still can’t speak Dutch so well (I’ll admit, a lot of my problems lie with my need to say everything perfectly the first time and getting embarrassed when I mess up), making it hard to see how useful the courses have been so far.

So while in my mind I know learning Dutch is a worthwhile way to spend my time — after all, I’ve been here long enough and, frankly, what else can I do? — I’m at the point in my life where I want to move forward, find a job, and make a little bit of money. Since I’m not able to do that at this point in time, I kind of feel stuck in a kind of limbo of sorts.

Also, being home for such a long time makes you realize how much of the day-to-day life of family and friends you’re missing by being so far away. In my mind I know I wouldn’t be very happy moving back to my hometown — the main employers there are resorts and casinos, not really my dream career path — but the sting of missing friends and family is still strong. Particularly when it comes to my nephews, who are still quite young and changing quite a bit on a daily basis. The most heartbreaking moment since I’ve been back is trying to explain to my 3-year-old nephew via webcam why I can’t come home any time soon.

And while I love the city of Ghent, for the last two years the majority of my friends and social life was in Leuven. Getting used to a new city, establishing a solid social life here, takes time.

So I’ve been struggling with a bit of homesickness and the ever-present question of what-am-I-doing-with-my-life? But things are looking up. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I figure I’m only 25, after all, and there’s still time.

Hopefully, though, I’ll be writing on a more regular basis. Now that the weather is warming up (a bit), I plan on filling my days with more than class and lounging around the apartment.

Virus of the mind

I was having coffee with a friend a few weeks ago when the subject turned to viruses of the mind.

I won’t pretend I’m holier than thou and don’t pass judgment (at times) on friends or family or the random person walking down the street pushing her dog in a stroller…

Anyway, the gist of the conversation was that it’s annoying and frustrating to get asked questions like “so when are you two getting married?” or “studying for another year? How many degrees do you need?” or “woah, eat a little too much over the holidays, did we?” (ok, the last one has never happened to us, though I did just about strangle my boyfriend the other day when he rubbed my stomach and asked me if I was feeling bloated. I wasn’t. I just enjoy Belgium’s chocolate delicacies a bit too often).

Besides these questions being quite personal, they also imply that the questioner has already made up his mind that his (or her) plan for you is better than your own. The subtext remains: why aren’t you doing x, y, or z when clearly you should be?

People get married for many reasons, some good, some not-so-good. They continue to study or plan for the future in different ways. And yes, sometimes they eat one too many pastries and gain a little padding. But these types of questions indicate that there is one way of doing things and you’re not doing it right.

And how do you respond? I have many reasons for not wanting to get married in the near future and many more for continuing to study, none of which are any of your business. Of course, I never say that. I just laugh and say “I’m just 25, why rush things?”, though I’ve learned that this can be met with resistance (particularly if the person I’m speaking to is also 25 and has made very different life choices). So it’s safer to change the subject. Because what’s right for me may not be right for you and vice versa. You’re not going to change my mind about my life choices just like I’m not going to change your mind about yours.

I guess the point of this post is to let people decide what’s best for themselves and if your advice is unsolicited, it’s also probably unwanted. And it’s ok to judge people who buy a special stroller for their dogs.

And the craziness continues…

I’m starting to get adjusted to my temporary move to the states. The last two weeks have been rather hectic, what with my good friend’s wedding, the boyfriend’s visit, finding a job (which I did!), visiting friends and relatives I hadn’t seen in the last year, celebrated turning 25 (apparently the age where they stop asking to see your ID when you order a drink…) and starting to get the ball rolling on my visa application materials (which is more frustrating than anything else), but things are finally starting to calm down.

Yesterday I had to drive Joery back to the airport to catch his flight home, which doesn’t get any easier even though I’ve had to do it many times before. He’ll be back to celebrate Christmas with the family America-style, but it’s still a solid two-and-a-half months before I’ll see him again. We’ve had to do the long distance thing in the past, but it’s still not fun. I’m just hoping the time will fly for both of us. Plus, my being here means that he gets to pick out the paint colors for our bedroom (not to mention our dining room table and chairs and any other assorted furniture he decides we need) solo, which is more than a little nerve-racking.

It’s a little hard to get used to the idea of being here for so long, not only because it means that life will continue on in Belgium without me, but also because I’m kind of betwixt and between (to use an anthropology reference) things here. I can’t find a steady job, since I’m only here for a couple of months, so I have to settle with an 8-dollar-an-hour position as a front desk clerk at a “historic” (we’re not allowed to say old) hotel in the area. I just feel like to a certain extent that I’m just wasting time until I go back to Belgium and resume my life. I’m in limbo.

This isn’t to say that I don’t love being here and seeing all my family and friends who I’ve been missing for the past two years. It’s just that everyone around me are doing things that are furthering their careers or to pursuing future goals, whereas I’m just checking people into rooms that may or may not suffer from severe water damage. It just seems like everything life-wise is being put on hold for a bit.

Anyway, now that things have slowed down a bit, I promise to be back writing on a (semi) regular basis. I definitely have more, as my friend Francesca would say, Karin-stories to tell. :)


Back in the U.S.A

Made it back to the U.S. safely. It was a long trip — I had a three-hour layover in London, which was mighty boring. However, we did pick up a new passenger: Paul McCartney! I saw him when I got off the plane. He was waiting for his luggage, along with everyone else. I actually probably wouldn’t have noticed if the guy standing next to me hadn’t pointed him out.

So there you go. Probably the closest I’ve (knowingly) been to a famous person.

I didn’t get back to my parent’s house in Pennsylvania until about 2:00 in the morning. My dad decided since we were so close to Manhatten (I flew in to JFK) that he would take a quick detour to check out the Ground Zero memorial. This detour included: lots of traffic, being chastised by a NYC cop, more traffic, getting lost, seeing the outside of the new building on the site, and then deciding to go home.

Now I’m off to find a job (I have an interview this afternoon for a position as a hotel front desk clerk) and figure out what I need to do visa-wise to get back into Belgium.

Homecoming and good-byes

Today was the last day of my internship in Brussels and tomorrow is the graduation ceremony for my master program. It’s definitely the end of an era. I’m heading back to the U.S. for the next couple of months before my Dutch lessons start. It was so sweet; my colleagues at my internship gave me a recipe book (in Dutch) so I can not only impress my family with delicious desserts, I can practice my Dutch as well. The good thing is that each recipe should only take between 5 and 30 minutes, so I’ll know relatively quickly if my translations aren’t working.

These kinds of trips are always emotional; while I’m excited to be home and catch up with family and friends, I’m going to miss the friends and family I’ve made here. I know once I’m home the time will fly, but it’s tough to leave.

There are the little joys that I’m looking forward to when it comes to being back in the good ‘ole U.S.A. My mom’s seven-layer cookies, being able to go grocery shopping at midnight, reading the entire menu at a restaurant and understanding everything on it, reuniting with friends and family, needing something random and knowing exactly where I can find it, 24/hour diners…  the list goes on.

Last summer — the last time I visited home — my mom made two batches of her seven-layer cookies for me, since I had mentioned how much I missed them and how I couldn’t find the ingredients here. I think I arrived home within 48 hours of them being made and my family (ahem, my Dad and brother) ate nearly all of them. My mom had to wrap a couple up and stick them in my room to make sure I got some.

It was ok. It just provided me with the proof I needed to justify to Joery why whenever I buy a box of cookies they’re gone within a couple of days. I come from a household where it’s eat-or-miss-out. So now Joery and I have a deal that whenever I buy cookies I have to make sure he gets at least one. It’s really done wonders for my self-control (actually, more like I just wave a cookie under Joery’s nose until he eats one and then I devour the rest).

Ah, whatever. While my metabolism lasts, right?

A decade later.

Friday, on my train back from Brussels, I was sitting next to an elderly man who had just gotten a new cell phone. Just a few minutes after the train departed towards Ghent, the man turned to me.

(first in Dutch and then English when I indicated I couldn’t understand the question) “Do you know if this symbol [pointing to the phone] means that I can listen to the radio?”

I had no idea (my phone can just make phone calls. And it has the game snake on it). But he struck up the usual train conversation: “so you speak English, where are you from? Ah! America, so far! What are you doing in Belgium?” etc. etc. etc.

After talking about the U.S. for a bit, the man asked me if I had ever been to NYC. This isn’t a very rare question and since I grew up in a town a couple of hours outside the city, I’ve been quite often. The metro newspaper lay on the table next to us, a picture of the Trade Towers on the front page. The man motioned to it: “Were you there when it happened?”

I wasn’t, nor was I close to anyone who was. I watched the events unfold as if it were a movie — from the relative safety of my living room. But seeing the images of that day crop up again in newspapers and on TV… that initial terror I felt all those years ago comes back. It’s an instant reminder of how a single event can change your world — the world — forever.

It’s amazing to think that there are kids that are sitting in school, just a few years younger than I was when I saw the events initially unfolding on the TV in my Algebra classroom, who don’t know a world pre-9/11, except for what is read from their history books.

Ten years. Ten years ago today my country was united as one; together we stand. Today we’re more divided than ever.

The New York Times has an interesting and moving special section, “The Reckoning“, on the events that occurred that day. Going through the testimonials, looking at the photographs and reading the analysis of the past decade poked and prodded at emotions I had packed into a special box in the corner of my mind. But it’s good to be reminded; the interesting thing about memory is that it is inherently tied to the present.

Pukkelpop ’11

I’m not sure how widespread the coverage of this has been in other countries, but a crazy storm hit a music festival, Pukkelpop, in Belgium on Thursday. The high winds, rain and hail caused a couple of the stages at the festival to collapse. Five people were killed either at the festival site or on the camping grounds from falling debris (the winds were so strong the huge trees around the festival site snapped in two).

My boyfriend was at the festival at the time the storm hit, while I was in another city that was hit by a milder version of the storm. I had called my boyfriend to make sure he was alright — the winds and rain where I was were scary and I was inside — and he said the weather there was great and he was enjoying Skunk Anansie’s performance. Just 15 minutes after I called, the storm hit him. He was in probably the best possible location — at the front by the main stage, near an emergency exit — and was able to get under cover quickly.

It’s such a tragic event. I was going to join him on Friday for the festival, but it ended up being cancelled (and rightfully so). My heart goes out to the victims and their family and friends. I can’t even comprehend what they must be going through. Because the cell network was overloaded, for a while I had a lot of trouble getting in touch with my boyfriend. When he finally called, I was so relieved. Luckily everyone we know who were there are alright. For those who were injured or who are still in the hospital, I wish a speedy recovery.

Welcome to my life[adjusted].

For a while now I’ve been a dedicated viewer of a number of style/design/food blogs and have been thinking about starting one myself. I’m in the midst of a few big transitions (though I’m only now really appreciating how big they are…putting pen to paper really makes things legit) — finishing grad school, moving to another city, buying an apartment with my beau (and figuring out interior design as we go along) — and some little ones, mainly learning to cook and stretching my meager income to update and ‘adultify’ my wardrobe.

Writing has always been something I loved, but in the past few years I’ve become immersed in the academic world and have lost touch with the side of myself that wrote the reflective ramblings that have filled many journals. I want to use this blog to re-connect with that side of myself — albeit, in a more public way.

So, that is my ambition. I hope you can find it useful, even if only just to find inspiration in my inspiration. Wish me luck!