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Advice for all but with some specific advice aimed at new graduates.

I’m sure everyone has received a letter like this at some point in their lives:

Dear Ms Smith

Thank you for your application to the post of XXX. I’m afraid you have not been selected for interview at this time. We had a total of 84 applicants for the post of XXX which we have selected 6 for interview….

I’ve received my fair share, but I have also written that very same letter and sent it out to innumerable applicants.

There are hundreds of ‘how to’ articles on the web, how to apply to a job, how to do your best at interview and on and on, most of the advice is very sensible and I wish more people paid attention to it. But as the hundreds of cover letters and CVs I wade through each year attest, an astonishing number of people don’t follow best practice. I therefore thought I’d address some of the most common mistakes I see. Who knows, some of my future applicants may just read this and turn in an application that pushes all the correct buttons to get me to give them an interview.

An important caveat – different professions frequently have wildly different criteria for what they see as appropriate for cover letters and CVs (or application forms). My experience is within the conservation sector, so if you’re applying for anything else, a role as a lawyer, a plumber or an IT wizz, make sure you know their particular requirements.

Your cover letter is your most effective advocate

Use it well. I ask candidates to send in a cover letter detailing why they are suitable for the role. I usually have a list of six to ten criteria I am judging applications on. As I’ve take the trouble to make an easy to follow list, I really appreciate if applicants reciprocate and make an effort to match up job criteria to achievements to demonstrate abilities. I have spent hours reading through hundreds of cover letters and CVs over the years and love it when people have clearly laid out how they meet the job specifications rather than making me work hard to figure it out for myself. Because, honestly, if you have 400 applicants for an admin job (yes I have had that), you stop reading anything in depth and just skim the letters. If nothing stands out immediately, they go into the rejection pile.

Give concrete examples of how you meet the criteria

If the criteria is, must have experience in carrying out surveys, don’t just say ‘I have experience with surveys’ explain which surveys and where, how many species did you cover, how many month or years were you involved with the project. In other words back up your assertions with evidence, and if possible add something about successes within the project and what you learned from them.

Brevity is good

Remember that the recruiters have a lot of applications to go through. My heart sinks when I receive a cover letter of more than two pages. Never go over two pages of text, never shrink text to fit more onto the page, and if you can, give over all the necessary information on a single page. Recruiters will love you for it.

Tailor your CV to the job

Nothing says you really want the job more than a CV that clearly addresses the needs of the advertised post.

Nothing says, I really can’t be bothered about this job, than a stock CV that is clearly being wheeled out to hundreds of employers. If I have to wade through a CV with nothing relevant to the post in terms of employment or education till the last paragraph of the last page I will wonder about your interest in the post.

Believe me, you really can see the difference when you are going through applications. If it feels like the CV has been drawn up specifically for the purpose of applying for the job, it shows, and gives the recruiters the warm fuzzy feeling that this person is genuinely interested in the job. All employers want people who genuinely want to be in their organisation.

The CV doesn’t have to be chronological

I ask for CVs to get an understanding of a person’s work and academic achievements but I also want to get to the stuff that’s relevant to the job first. Don’t worry about having a CV in a strict chronological order, put most relevant experience first where the short listers are most likely to see it – by page two of a CV I am already skimming and am less likely to pick up relevant details.

Qualifications aren’t wildly interesting

Whilst many organisations have a fetish about only employing graduates, my experience has been that time on a relevant job is far more valuable than any academic qualification. If someone can demonstrate good/ relevant work experience I’m far more interested in that than in whether they have a relevant degree. This may be very different with other recruiters but I often only look at qualifications if I can’t see anything else of relevance in the CV and by this point I’m only doing that to try and work out why on earth the person has applied for the post. Sorry new graduates, I know this presents a special problem for you.

All new graduates have the same skill set, so what makes you stand out?

I feel for new graduates, I really do. I can still remember the catch 22 of needing work experience to land a job and trying to figure out how I got the experience if I couldn’t get my first job. So new graduates are at a special disadvantage especially in a job where most applicants have a degree.

As your degree is your greatest achievement thus far, you are bound to use it as an example of how you meet all the criteria of the job. The problem is that every other new graduate will be doing exactly the same, and you all sound the same.

Telling me that through your degree you gained skills in communication (I wrote up my dissertation and delivered a talk on the same), project management (I designed and delivered my final project) and working with people (I got on with my lecturers and fellow students) does nothing to make you seem like a better candidate over any other new graduate. The same goes for a couple of months spent in another country on a field expedition, most of the applicant have also done that.

Graduates, try to emphasis extra outside activities

This may be a bit late for students who have already completed their degree, but if you are still a student try to get involved in extracurricular activities. Being an active member of a student conservation group, or helping to organise a fundraiser or pop concert are all worth their weight in gold when demonstrating experience. Actually it’s not too late to do those things whilst working, and makes you look like a well rounded individual.

Volunteering gets you work experience

Yes I know it’s unpaid and that is hard. I volunteered for a year before I finally landed my first paid job. Most charities recognise that people still need to earn money so will take on volunteers who can only give two or three days a week to the charity whilst they do less glamorous jobs like bar work or selling sandwiches. The bar work etc. is also hugely valuable as you’re gaining experience in dealing with people and learning all about working life in general. I prefer to see any employment an a CV, no matter what it is, rather than only a degree especially if you can use that work experience to demonstrate how you meet one or two of the criteria in the job spec.

Long periods of volunteering are more valuable

It’s great if you manage to land a job after only a few months of volunteering, congratulations. If you don’t manage that then bear in mind that a couple of months volunteered in a single organisation, with months of inactivity between that looks like someone who gave it a go but didn’t have much in the way of dedication to an organisation or a genuine interest. I am more impressed by somebody who volunteered at their local wildlife trust, TCV or local reserve for a day a week for a year, than I am by somebody who did a couple of months somewhere exotic and nothing else. You can gain good skills in a short sharp shock of volunteering, but you get deeper, more embedded and more varied skills if you dedicate a decent amount of time to a single venture.

Volunteering is your low risk way of testing out the job market

If you volunteer with two or three organisations it gives you an opportunity to try out the organisations that interest you to find out whether you would actually enjoy working for them. You’re testing them out as much as they are getting work out of you. The added advantage is that the organisation you are volunteering with gets to know you and your abilities and believe me, if you already know someone, you know they work well with your team and do a good job, you are low risk, and they will be keen to employ you when a post comes up. You will also know a lot about the organisation and frequently about the job they are advertising, which gives you an automatic edge when a job does crop up.

Make sure your referees aren’t all academics

Wherever possible have at least one referee who wasn’t your lecturer. Any manager from a part time job or organisation you have volunteered with will be infinitely preferable to having two academic referees who will also be listed by all the other students on your course. I rarely follow up academic referees, for one thing because they have a vested interest in getting their students into employment.

I hope this is of some use to job applicants. I’ll count it as a success if I receive more applications that meet the criteria outlined above! If you have experience of recruitment please do add additional advice in the comments section.