I wish I could give you THE answer, tell you how to write THE application that will land you THE job. Unfortunately, I can’t. What I can do, is tell you how I approach applications – which thus far has been quite successful.
Don’t be afraid of applying for positions where you might not be a perfect fit. The vacancy description states what candidates should ideally have, but in some cases this might be utopic. Like the position open for fresh graduates – ideally with years of experience. Applying for jobs that might not sound all that interesting at first, might be a good idea too. Maybe you discover during the interview that certain job aspects are more flexible than they seemed, or maybe they are looking for someone who takes the initiative to reshape the position.
If anything, I think it’s good to apply for application’s sake. You build up a basic set of material like CV, cover letter ideas, you know who you can rely on to write letters of support. Once you start getting invited for interviews, you learn how to handle those, recognise the ever-returning questions.
Maybe I’m not the one to preach this by the way – I’ve only applied once for a teaching position, where I in the end pulled out. Other than that, I landed my PhD position and postdoc position by approaching labs that didn’t have open positions. I got in touch with both of them because I was interested in their research and asked them whether we could talk about possibilities for me in their lab.
Back to the topic – how do you write a good application?
First, look at the job description again. What are they looking for? Look at the company’s website, what are the things important to them?
Next, sit down and look at your master CV. This is a list of everything you ever did. All jobs you did as student, all the voluntary causes you supported. Take a look at the job description. And start shaping your CV. Applying for a teaching position? Drag your teaching experiences to the top and include everything that makes you look like an absolute expert. Include everything important – your education, relevant work experience. Don’t swamp them with irrelevant stuff, take out the things that couldn’t possibly make you a better candidate for the job you are applying for.
With a draft CV in hand, start thinking about your cover letter. As with the CV, a standard letter never does. In the first paragraph, mention why you are writing a letter, where you stumbled across the vacancy and briefly who you are. Then, DO NOT merely list everything that’s in your CV already. No, convince them. Take one paragraph to convince them you have a lot of qualities that make you an excellent candidate for this job, highlight your most valuable assets. Also, spend a paragraph describing why you want this job, how it will help you in the grand scheme of things. If you can convince them you have the necessary skill and are motivated to do the job, I guess you’re halfway in.
Add a brief summarising paragraph, to once more take the message home that you are an excellent candidate for the position. Finalise by stating that you’d be grateful for the opportunity to further talk about this in an interview, offer to send them any additional information if required. Remember, the goal of your application is to get that interview, not necessarily the job yet.
Something which is less easy to control, are the letters of support. First, you have to decide whom to ask. In academia, you often can’t exclude your PhD supervisor so that’s easy. Should you need more referees, always consider what you are applying for and who can support this. For my long-term research fellowship, I asked a prof at another university whom we often collaborated and published together with, as I felt he could make my scientific potential appear stronger. However, for the teaching position I’d like to have, I have asked the coordinator of the courses I taught in. He might not be the big shot the other prof was, but he can comment on (and hopefully praise!) my teaching skills. Finally, if you aren’t sure about the writing skills your referees possess, you might offer them to write a draft letter. Include precisely the skills you want them to highlight, praise yourself. They can always cut it down if they think it’s too much, but this way you are more likely to end up with a letter supporting you in the way you’d like it to.
For my teaching application, I have just finished the cover letter and CV. I’ve sent them to a British colleague to check whether there’s some no-go in there, such as including too much personal information. I’ll leave them a couple of days to rest, then look at them again with a fresh mind. If I’m still happy with them, I’ll send them off and start crossing my fingers!!