Be your best

After graduation, most graduates find themselves in a similar situation – they have a more or less clear idea of what they want to do, but there are still a variety of different positions to choose from, and in many different companies. So what position to apply for?

Faced with this decision, and with the knowledge that numerous other graduates are also entering a precarious job market,  many job-seeking graduates are doing what I like to call ‘lighting the application-bomb’. They shoot out applications like a machine gun, hoping that one will hit the target. Their application letters will usually highlight all of their positive aspects, and purport that they are the best candidate applying for the job – a general mass-marketing approach.

My view is that this approach is wrong. I argue that an application form that illustrates great flexibility, adaptability, and a general qualification for a job, has a fairly low probability of success. However, some of you might say that numerous applications with a small likelihood of success will add up to a high likelihood to receive an offer. I see the logic there, but if one of your general applications gets rejected, isn’t it unlikely the application will be successful for any other position? You have to evolve to improve.

Thus, in my mind, being more selective and adaptive in your applications, will increase the probability you’ll get the job.

The key doesn’t lie in saying why you are a genius and ‘the best’ in general, but rather in emphasizing why you are ‘the best’ for this certain position. The expectations for high quality in job applicants already exist, but you need to explain why you are better qualified than your competitors.

It isn’t always easy to stick out from the crowd, especially when everybody has had some sort of studying abroad experience, they’ve studied a high-calibre degree at a high-calibre institution, and they all have interesting internship experiences. So don’t concentrate on all of that. I wouldn’t get how your semester in Tijuana improved your Swedish language skills or how your internship at HSBC gave you the necessary skills to design a skyscraper… Basically, don’t focus on an experience if you can’t explain how and why that particular part of your life helped you develop a certain skill that you could utilise in this role you are applying for. It’s not just about what you did, but what you actually took away from it and why this enhances your value to your prospective employer.

I admit that this style of application takes a lot more effort, but it’s definitely worth the payoff.

What are your experiences with different styles of applications?
What worked best for you?
What didn’t?


  1. Manuel
    December 16, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I support the Seb’s approach. First, I think that probabilities of getting a job do not simply add up with the mass of applications and finally give you a high probability of being successful at all. Of course, you can argue that one more application increases the probability, but does it really increase that much that it is worth not focussing your efforts on screening for fitting jobs and write applications for these thouroughly? I doubt that. The odds of success of each application are correlated in my eyes and also every unsuccessful application lowers your success ratio in the end. So avoid putting effort in those that are flawed from the beginning.

    A point you seem to ignore here is the life after a successful application. How long are you really going to stay in a job that is not a good fit? I have seen people dropping out of jobs only short after they started to work because they were following the machine gun approach. Especially for people who have put effort in doing certain things in the past because they enjoyed them, it will be frustrating to do just any job for the sake of having any job if it makes your past efforts worthless. I know that there are people who want to do totally different things than they did in the past. For these folks, my argument does not count of course. All others, however, should consider whether they want to bend their profile in an application until it fits the requirements ignoring that it will affect the utility of the skills they have developed already.

    I’m not with you on your view that it takes a lot more effort to follow the approach you suggest. I think it is way easier to write well-fitting applications than to construct ramshackle bridges between your internships in a bank and your engineering skills.

    Also an applicant should not think that recruiters take the lines drawn in your application for granted. When someone tells me that he is a great fit in my research team because of his selling abilities in the operating business of a bank (however he may explain this in his application), I ignore is creative connection and look at the blank fact whether he is a fit or not. And as I already argued his efforts to make his profile meeting my requirements although it doesn’t really will be made worthless by my decision about hiring him or not.

    I was selective and focussed when applying after graduation and I got a pretty nice job which I only quit after a short time (almost :-)) only because I got another one which is fitting even better and is even more enjoyable. Look for a job that fits and where you can make a contribution!!!

    I may have drifted away from the topic, so conclusion: Don’t apply for a job because you are great, apply for it because you are great for this job in particular. You risk being unsuccessful first or frustrated afterwards (the latter is type-dependent)

  2. December 16, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for your comment Manuel.

    You are totally right about the importance of personal and professional fit of an applicant.

    However, I would like to expand on the issue of changing your specialisation or profession in a new position. In my opinion it doesn’t really make a huge difference whether someone wants to do new things or wants to continue what he already did before. It might even be more important to customise your application in this case, because you should answer the questions of why you don’t want to work in your former field anymore and why you are passionate for the new position you are applying for. It might be hard to express that in an one-page-application-letter, but you should definitely try.

  3. December 16, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    First off, thank you for your comment Manuel. I also find your second point about the culture in the workplace quite interesting. We had a post about similar topic called “A job with the right culture” couple weeks back. So it’s definitely something, I believe, new graduates don’t think much about, they just want a job.

    Additionally let me point out another dimension in getting a job that is very useful apart from application tailoring. I think actually going to all those career fairs, company events and alike is a very good way to meet your potential recruiters and people in the company, plus a great way to get some information for your cover letter. After you had a chat with a recruiter or an employee, then you submit your tailored application which mentions that you spoke to John Smith, and you really liked the spirit of innovation that the company has (just an example). When recruiter looks at your application three things happen, first, he/she sees that you are more interested in the company then people who didn’t go to events, secondly, she probably knows John and has a good relationship with him so it automatically transfers to you, lastly, your cover letter will not sound like a copy/paste from company’s website because you’ll get much better idea of what company is about from the actual people.

    More effort and time? Sure! But better likely hood of success and a culture you can like.

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