Given the response to F's post about cover letters the other day, I thought I'd post something that I've been messing about with for a while about applying for jobs (born out of frustration with bad job applications). Other recruiters will probably disagree with me on some aspects, but maybe if we have an open discussion about these things it will mean that:
- People applying for jobs will be more likely to get them.
- Recruiters will have an easier job.
Here's my ten-step process for writing a job application.
Step one: Read the job advert.
Decide, do you want to apply for this job?
Step two: Read the job advert.
Take another look, do you really want to apply for this job? Or do you want to apply for a different job that you imagine this job to be? Really read the list of duties involved and qualifications required, and check for any misconceptions you may have formed.
The recruitment I am involved with is at a bioinformatics institute, but we’re not actually looking for a bioinformatician, yet we get loads of applications from people clearly looking for a bioinformatics job. A friend of mine works for a biological archive with the word “Bank” in the title, and gets inundated by applicants with an accountancy background.
Step three: Read the instructions.
You’ve decided to apply for the job, how do you do that? It usually says so on the advert. If the advert tells you to email your CV and cover letter to a particular address, do that. If the advert tells you to go via an online application system, do that. If it asks for all your qualification certificates, include them. If it asks you to include references, do that. If it doesn’t ask for any of those things, do not do that – the recruiter does not want to sift through extraneous documents to find what they need. Edit: If there's an application portal with different sections, fill in the sections – try to get into the application portal and take a note of all the sections before you start writing, this allows you to spend a decent amount of time looking over the sections and editing them.
Finding the person who is likely in charge of recruitment and emailing them your CV, when the advert clearly asks you to fill in a form does not make you look proactive, it makes you look like you don’t know how to follow instructions, especially if you get the wrong person. Email them to ask questions, by all means, but the actual application should follow the instructions. Never phone, as phoning people requires them to talk to you at your convenience, not theirs, and can be considered an intrusion; an email allows them to respond when they have time.
Step four: Write your CV.
If you’re job hunting, you probably have a CV written and ready. That is not your CV, that is your CV template. Reorder items on your CV to put the things that you think the recruiters for this particular job will find the most useful first. People reading job applications get bored, and may trail off reading if they don’t see the most relevant stuff first.
A CV should be no longer than two sides of A4, so use that space well. Instead of listing all the responsibilities you had in a previous job, list the main ones, plus the few that are the most relevant to the job you’re applying for. List specifics of skills that are relevant to the job, be vague about skills that are less relevant. Rather than list all publications, conferences etc, point out the most relevant to this job, then link to LinkedIn or ORCID for the rest. If you're a coder, link to your GitHub. Always have full links to things the recruiter might find useful (your blog, your ORCID, your GitHub) rather than just usernames, they're more likely to visit them if they can do so in a click rather than having to search, and all of these provide evidence of your ability, which is much more useful than you just describing it.
Edit: (Thanks genomax) If there's a portal with different sections to fill in instead of a straight CV, use that. This may mean pulling out sections from your standard CV template and pasting it into their boxes. It's still a lot of effort for a recruiter to go through everything, so you should still make sure you're putting relevant skills first and expand upon them.
Step five: Read the job advert.
Does the CV you just wrote address the advert? If not, go back to it. If it does, move on to the cover letter.
Step six: Write your cover letter.
This is not a copy/paste job like the CV, this should be written fresh each time. Here’s a standard structure for a cover letter:
- Paragraph one: why you’re applying for the job. Make sure you state the job title and the name of the organisation, and check them. This tells the recruiter that you really did write this letter specifically for this job, because you really are interested in this specific job. Make positive and specific statements about the job and/or organisation to show how enthusiastic you are and that, as a person knowledgeable about what they do, you’d be ready to hit the ground running.
- Middle paragraphs: Go through the advert and pick out all of the skills and responsibilities listed. Explain how, through all of the jobs you’ve had and extracurricular activities you’ve done, you have learned or demonstrated these skills or held these responsibilities. Do not write about skills that are not necessary for the job. All activities should be cross-referenced to aspects of your CV, ie “I had this responsibility as part of this extracurricular activity” means that you need to list extracurricular stuff in your CV. Be specific. Don't just say "I am good at presentations" say "I have delivered presentations to a variety of audiences, including academics, clinicians and patient groups, as part of my job at place".
- Final paragraph: Assure the reader that you really are enthusiastic about this job (again job title and/or organisation) and that you really think you’d be an asset, based on everything in the preceding paragraphs.
A cover letter should be no longer than one side of A4. You can fiddle with font size and margins a little, but not too much or it will be unreadable.
If you know the name of the hiring manger, it is fine to address the letter to their name. If you do not know their name, use a gender neutral address such as "Dear Sir/Madam", "To whom it may concern" or "Dear hiring manager". Addressing your letter to "Sir" when you do not know their gender is a surefire way to get yourself marked as a misogynist and have your application thrown in the bin by half the population.
Step seven: Read everything.
Does the cover letter you just wrote match the advert? Does it match the CV? If not, go back and adjust.
Proof-read for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Poor spelling and grammar or typos make you look sloppy. Also check your CV for formatting and layout to ensure that it is easy to read.
Step eight: Wait 24 hours.
Unless you have a tight deadline. But if you can, wait. If you can't wait, get a friend to read your application.
Step nine: Read it all again.
This is your final proof-read. You will spot far more mistakes if you wait than if you proof-read right away. This is because immediately after writing, you read what you think you wrote, not what you did write.
Consider your file names. The recruiter is going to receive many CVs and cover letters for this job, so calling them CV.doc or jobtitleCV.doc will give them a computer full of files with the same name. Call the files something like yourname_jobtitle_CV.doc, so that they can be easily filed by both you and the recruiter. You’ve just saved the recruiter the 30 s job of changing your filenames (which, if they receive 100 applications, is nearly an hour overall) and now they look upon you favourably.
Step ten: Hit send.
Send the application by the method specified in the advert.