No Job Applications any more!

Why writing job applications is not particularly promising, and what you can do instead.

Christine G., proud holder of an honors degree from a reputable university, is looking for a job. We can vividly imagine what that means for her. Picture her sitting in front of her computer with her application's guide, meticulously adapting each cover letter to the respective job posting, finely chiseling each sentence, and checking each formulation for undesirable room for interpretation and possible pitfalls. The desk is overflowing with cut-out job advertisements, the obligatory application folders, printouts of resumes, copies of certificates and envelopes.


Every week, she makes several trips to the nearest post office, where the now-familiar counter staff member sympathetically picks up the next stack of envelopes. At least as often, she presses the "submit" button on her e-mail program to send another application e-mail into the ether. She acknowledges the "sent" sound with a hopeful sigh.

Unfortunately, the responses to her efforts are fewer in number. If she receives any feedback at all, it usually consists of politely worded standardized acknowledgements of receipt and rejections. It is becoming increasingly rare for a complete application package in an envelope to find its way back into her mailbox. In most cases, the employers find returning the application too costly, which of course was correctly pointed out in the advertisement. Christine's frustration grows with each passing week. She finds it all the more difficult to maintain the optimistically motivated basic tone in the letters of application.

Who hasn't been through this nerve-wracking scenario? One would almost like to encourage the graduate: "Hang in there! That's just how it goes, it's just a phase. With your great degree, with patience and diligence, you'll make it to a good job in the end!"


Why do we seem to know so well what Christine G.'s everyday life is like? How do we get this idea? For most of us, job hunting is virtually synonymous with writing applications, a "sine qua non" to the job, so to speak. But is that really the case? Does the best way to the job of your dreams really lead down the rocky path of the formal application? My conviction is: No! And there are a number of good reasons for this.


The Problem with Job Applications


Let's start with the numerical ratios. Hardly any job seekers do not write applications. Those who are registered with the employment agency are usually even obliged to do so. But what proportion of jobs are actually awarded to previously unknown applicants through an open application process?


To be successful in an application process, a position must get publically advertised in the first place. However, a huge proportion of all jobs never get published. It is true that in some sectors (e.g. the public sector) an open advertisement procedure is mandatory for recruitment. In the private sector, however, the situation is significantly different. It is difficult to determine exact figures here - after all, how can one ascertain whether a company has vacancies if it does not make them public? Especially in smaller companies, there are often good reasons for not advertising open positions. The need for extra personnel becomes apparent only gradually and the need is initially compensated by overtime work by existing staff. In addition, the company leadership may not be sure yet on how the new position should be defined. Or there are simply no human resources available at the moment to manage the  application process. Some companies deliberately rely on alternative recruiting strategies instead of advertisements. For example, they use headhunters, or they give their own employees incentives to recommend acquaintances from their networks as new employees. Some estimate that 70 to 75 percent of jobs are no longer publicly advertised today for these reasons. Applicants then have to compete for the remaining 25 to 30 percent.


Even if a position gets advertised, a number of factors play a role in how it is ultimately awarded. Particularly in high-ranking positions or in the public sector, for example, the selection of applicants is often in the hands of committees. Everyone who ever sat on a committee knows the subtle mechanisms that play a role in the decision-making process. Everyone feels obliged to make their (unfortunately all too often unfounded) opinion known, the discussion is diverted in erratic directions by group dynamics, competing alliances are forged that block each other - in short, political life in full bloom. The decisions made then come out accordingly. They often represent the solution of least resistance rather than the objectively best possible choice.


What's more, in very few cases can a completely unknown applicant prevail. Who hasn't experienced a situation where a position was formally advertised (perhaps because the employer was obliged to do so), but was then awarded to an internal employee or a relevant acquaintance? Some job ad texts are so specifically worded that it is hard to believe how one could come up with such a profile without having a specific person in mind. I even know of cases in which the desired applicant was invited to help shape the advertisement for the position in question...


And finally, allow me one last heretical question: Which skill do you train in the usual job application procedure? It is the formulation of applications, and not the actual activity that is at stake. A critical observer may therefore take the position that applications are actually completely irrelevant - unless you are applying for a job as an application ghostwriter...


What to do instead?


But enough of the heresy: What can you do instead to find suitable employment? Back to our graduate Christine G. In fact, Christine decided to choose a completely different path than we imagined at the beginning. She doesn't read job application guides, and she only visits the post office when she picks up the parcel with her next favorite pair of shoes. Instead, she simply flips the process.

Instead of competing with a large number of competitors in a non-transparent process for a small number of predefined jobs that only halfway match her training, she takes the opposite approach. She simply creates her own dream job (not necessarily by founding her own company)! How does she do that?


Christine's Story


Christine started by analyzing what she is actually really good at. She takes into account not only her formal education (a physics degree followed by a doctorate in data analysis and modeling), but also the skills that she uses in her private life. For example, she is a paramedic and has often volunteered at events in that capacity. She also participated in science slams where she has presented her research and won several awards.


She enjoys reducing complicated issues to the essentials and communicating them to people in a comprehensive and entertaining way.

Christine likes to travel and already visited several countries, especially in Africa. As a paramedic, she always noticed the many infectious diseases that are rampant there, claim many victims, and are also spread by tourists and business travelers in modern industrialized countries. Christine often felt the desire to contribute to getting this problem under control.

On LinkedIn, Christine read that 50% of jobs are placed through contacts. However, she herself does not know anyone who would be involved in fighting infectious diseases in developing countries, nor does she know if her qualifications would squalify her to work in this field. But in the local newspaper, she becomes aware of an event on the subject. Speakers from various organizations are giving talks there, followed by a discussion. Christine attends the event. After the presentations and during the coffee break, she gets to talk with other participants and even some of the speakers.


She leaves the event with a first impression of the current challenges in epidemiology and a handful of business cards. As a follow-up, she asks some of these people to meet briefly for coffee. At these meetings, she finds out details about what exactly the work of her interviewees looks like. And she always asks for additional people she could contact along her research. After a few weeks, Christine has gained a good overview of the topic. In addition, she created a remarkable network of personal contacts in the thematic environment.


She also now knows how to apply her skills in this field and who potential employers could be might be. A medical aid organization definitely needs help in interpreting and processing epidemiological data and communicating them to the general public and policy makers, both in Europe and in the developing countries themselves. Christine could very well see herself doing this. She could even combine this work with her love of travel and work partly in Africa!


Fast forward.

A few months later, Christine boards the plane for her first stay in Tanzania. The employment contract with the NGO is signed and sealed, without her ever having written an application. Instead, she has learned a lot in the last few months, while preparing herself optimally for her new job. Her employers are happy to have found such a capable and dedicated employee who solves their problems in a way they themselves could never have imagined. That is why they would never have thought of advertising a corresponding position.


Admittedly, this particular case is completely made up. What is not invented, however, is the fact that this strategy is far more promising than waiting for the optimal job posting and then competing for it with a large number of other applicants. And that I personally know many happy people whose job hunt went in a very similar way.


Step-by-step Recipe


Step 1:

Design their own career vision based on individual knowledge, skills, values and needs.


Step 2:

Systematic research and targeted networking using proven methods such as:

  •     Informal interviews (aka "systematically taking people for coffee"),
  •     Establishment of personal contacts,
  •     Mentoring through a personal support group,
  •     Increasing your own visibility.

Step 3:

Interacting with potential employers to design a job where you can use your skills to solve the employer's challenges and work in a way that really suits you. The classical win-win situation.


Conclusion: Get going!


The good thing is that this process can be started at your own pace, in parallel to your old job or studies, and in a self-paced way. No rush, no time pressure, no (application) deadlines. Instead, you can pursue your own interests with fun and enjoyment, meet lots of interesting people, get to know yourself better, and tinker with your professional future along the way. No step is lost, all the experience gained along the way is valuable. And best of all, once you get the hang of it, the same process can be applied many times over the course of a lifetime, not only for paid jobs, but also, for example, to design and build up your own business.

Do you feel like taking the professional helm into your own hands? Go ahead, take the first step today. Everything else will follow ... To say it with Erich Kästner:

"There is nothing good, unless you do it!"