Recent Graduates Must Learn How to Apply for Jobs
Tl;dr: it’s not about you, but about the person that may hire you.
As a recent graduate, it took me two weeks to find my first job ever, in the middle of a pandemic. At the time, I thought my success was due to the fact that I had escaped competition to work where my profile was rare (I’m from Belgium and went to work in Poland). I was partly right. Being in Poland did help me, but the real reason I found a job so quickly was not because I was a rare catch.
It was because I was valuable to the company that hired me.
Students fail to get a job because they’re not communicating that they are valuable to the companies they are applying to. And that is because university never taught them to.
The Most Brutal Mindset Shift of Your Entire Life
Students go to school to prepare for the real world. Or at least, this is how it is supposed to be. The truth though, is that most students get out of school without being prepared. The irony is such that students that succeed at school are students that quit it. They are the students that understand that school is different from life. They understand that the school system trains students to think about themselves. They leave it because they know that the real world is all about others.
At school, students are asked to study, understand, and subsequently demonstrate what they have understood. They must explain what is in their mind. They write about their understanding of a problem and prove they have acquired the skills to solve it.
Students go to school to answer one question and one question only: “do you understand the knowledge”?
If the answer is positive, the student moves to the next year. If the answer is negative, the student must stay and study again.
The real world does not work this way.
No one cares whether students understand the knowledge or not. This is why there are no tests and no grades. Graduates’ knowledge is irrelevant to employers in the real world. Skills students trained for do not matter to the HR department. Students won’t get a job because they won the public-speaking competition in 5th grade.
As such, employees are not hired because they were good at school. It’s a myth. They are not hired because they need a job. In fact, an employee is thought of by his employer as “a problem whose size is inversely proportional to the size of the salary”. True story.
Employees are not naturally desired by employers.
Employees are hired for one reason and one reason only: they are valuable to the company. And this value depends on their capacity to fix the company’s problems.
Employees get hired when they can fix the problems the company has.
Problem-Solving Is the Only Skill That Matters
Why don’t students get paid to study?
After all, they wake up every day, work hard, must attend the classes, and produce some work.
There is no difference between an employee and a student, right? Right?
There is a difference. What students produce (homework and exams) has no value.
Students don’t provide valuable work. In fact, they are not trained to do so. Students are trained to prove they know what they are taught. They are not trained to fix problems that matter (and when they do, they get paid, such as in competitions).
You think an exam or a dissertation is valuable? It’s not. Because what students are asked to do in these contexts is to prove that they understand what they were taught. In the real world, no one cares whether students have understood the knowledge or not. Or rather, one person cares. The teacher. The teacher cares because he gets paid to care.
If the teacher wasn’t paid to read what his students write, he wouldn’t, because the students’ writing is not valuable. It’s not valuable because it doesn’t solve any problems.
Getting a Job Is About Showing You Can Provide Value
The irony of the story is that students go to school for 20 years and don’t learn the one critical thing they must to become valuable to society: creating value.
Students write assignments and exams with the purpose to show their professors what they know.
The real world doesn’t care about what students know.
The real world has a problem, and it wants it fixed. He who will be hired will be he who can fix the problem the cheapest, quickest, and overall best way possible.
As such, graduates should always apply to jobs, writing from the perspective of the person that will hire them.
They seldom do so.
Most graduates write explaining what they have done: “I have studied engineering…I have won this public speaking competition…I have learned Spanish…”.
Guess what. Nobody cares.
Here’s what graduates should say instead: “Studying engineering taught me problem-solving skills in the field of aeronautics, with a focus on the issues your company is seeking to solve…I have learned public speaking in the context of a competition that I won, which enables me to motivate, lead, and foster a group of people…Learning Spanish gives me the chance to communicate with clients and colleagues to avoid misunderstandings that the English language may have…”.
It’s not about what you know, but about the problems you can solve with what you know.
Now that we have established the theory, let’s have a look at how to write a motivation letter in practice.
How to Write a Motivation Letter
Most students make the mistake to write about who they are and what they are interested in. As such, they fail. You shouldn’t write a motivation letter about yourself. Nobody cares.
You should write about who the employer is looking for.
As such, the truth about writing a motivation letter is that there is no need to do so. It has been done already and it’s called a job posting.
The job posting explains what the job entails, who the company is looking for, and what are the responsibilities.
All you need to do is to take this information and rewrite it in the form of a motivation letter. The closer the motivation letter is to the job posting, the more chances you have to obtain an interview.
A motivation letter should not outline how motivated you are. Rather, it should outline how well you will fix the specific problems of the company.
Let’s take a practical example.
A Practical Example
I randomly searched for a computer science job posting.
Here’s what is written (no need to read it, just skim through it).
- Interact and integrate as SAP SD representative within our Business teams in terms of improvements and implementations of Sales processes (Sales, Order fulfillment, Taxes, Pricing, Invoicing, GTS…)
- Qualify Business demands together with internal stakeholders (business and IT) and support them according solution design and scoping
- Consult Business in the initial phase of projects and provide rough scope and feasibility of the solution
- Use agile or even classical methodology in implementation of projects and enhancements depends on the project
- Steer the fulfillment of SAP SD demands either as enhancement or as project (incl. steering of external consultants for implementation and execution)
- Implementing enhancements independently and/or in collaboration with 3rd party supplier (Customize and set up ERP system according the functional specification)
- Actively engage in innovation and harmonization activities
- Successfully completed studies in (economic) computer science or education with a similar background
- Proven experience in SAP Sales and Distribution with business focus
- At least 2-3 years in a similar role
- Good communication and presentation skills
- Fluent in English
- Knowledge of ITIL is a plus
- Proactive and independent personality with attention to detail
- Can-do attitude, good sense of humor and a strong team player
- Analytical, enjoy technology and eager to implement SAP best practices in a B2B environment
- Ability to work in cross-functional environments with very diverse, international teams
I have no CS skills, but from the job posting, it’s clear that the company is looking for someone with a degree that can use SAP SD in a business context and that knows about one or two things related to project management and business life cycle.
That, in a nutshell, is the ideal employee the company is looking for. All you need to do now, is take each of these points, link them to a personal experience, and write about them in the motivation letter.
Your letter, therefore, should outline how you are a person with a college degree and 2-3 years of experience playing with SAP SD in an international company which enabled you to learn skills and knowledge about project management that you successfully implemented to make SAP SD work within the business process.
Also, you followed a course about ITIL.
That’s it. This is all the employer cares about.
He doesn’t care that you won the local swimming competition. He doesn’t care that your history project was published in the regional newspaper. He doesn’t care that your passion is painting.
What he cares about is that you can use SAP SD and integrates it across various parts of the company. Period.
The Bottom Line
Getting hired is not about telling your employer who you are. It’s about telling him that you can do the job – and your credentials are there to prove it.
At school, students are used to talk about what they think, what they want and what they understand. In the corporate world, you should rather talk about what others think, what others want, and what others understand.
Students don’t get paid to go to school because the work they provide is not valuable – it doesn’t interest anyone, but their teachers, which get paid to be interested because the work the students wrote is not valuable. If it was, students would make a salary.
As such, next time you are applying for a job, don’t read your motivation letter from your perspective. Read it thinking about whether you would hire that person, taking into account you want someone that can solve specific problems.
Once you shift your view from striving for what you want on one hand, to delivering what other people want on the other, you become unstoppable. The more value you produce for others, the more you will be needed by others. The more you are needed, the more money you will make.
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