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Six golden rules for creating the ideal German cover letter and résumé

Applying for jobs is never simple but it can feel even more difficult in a foreign country when you’re unfamiliar with the language and job market. In a bid to make the process easier, The Local asked recruitment experts for their best tips to successfully apply for a job in Germany.

Six golden rules for creating the ideal German cover letter and résumé
Photo: DPA

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Make every sentence count

We all know it’s important to stand out from the crowd when it comes to job hunting, but recruitment expert Chris Pyak, author of How to Win Jobs and Influence Germans, said there is very little time to win over busy HR departments in Germany.

“It’s important to know that on average surveys show that HR people will only look at your CV for 7-12 seconds before they decide if they’ll dump it or take a closer look,” Pyak tells The Local. “That means that in the first paragraph you need to give HR a really good reason why they should be interested.”

Pyak, who is based in Düsseldorf and helps expats find work, advises job-seekers to avoid repetition in their resume/CV and cover letter because it’s a “waste of time” – and instead try the stereotypical German way of being direct and getting straight to the point.

Less is more on the CV

Do your research when it comes to your Lebenslauf or resume by looking up the European standard and finding templates online. Resumes and CVs differ in every country even though many of the sections are similar throughout, such as ‘personal data’ (Persönliche Angaben),  ‘work experience’ (Berufserfahrung), ‘education’ (Ausbildung), ‘skills’ and 'extracurricular activities' (Qualifikationen und Kenntnisse) as well as ‘hobbies’ and ‘personal interests’ (Private Interessen). In Germany, it is not uncommon to sign and date your CV. 

“When it comes to CVs, less is more,” says Nick Dunnett, managing director for Germany and Switzerland at international recruitment company Robert Walters. “Nobody wants to read a 10 page CV, so keep it concise and relevant.”

You should also try to avoid gaps in your CV, says Pyak. “We have German angst, uncertainty is something we don’t handle very well so remove the fear from us by not having any gaps.”

And if you want to know if the company prefers you to include a photograph or not, just call them and ask. “The best thing to do is call the HR department and ask what they prefer. Don’t guess if you can ask,” says Pyak.

Under Germany's anti-discrimination law, photographs are not mandatory, but they are more common than they are in some countries. If you do include one, says Dunnett, the main thing is to get it done professionally. 
 
“It is better not to have a photograph at all than to have one which isn't professional,” he says. “After all, you are applying for a professional job.”
 

Target the employer's needs in your cover letter by picking up the phone first

When you’re preparing an application, Pyak advises calling the company to find out what their biggest problems are and then write about how you can provide solutions in your application. “If you find out what keeps the manager awake at night, then you can talk about that in your cover letter,” Pyak says.

Think about starting your letter by thanking the company for the conversation and mentioning the problems you discussed on the phone. You can then explain how you helped someone else solve a similar problem and what the outcome of this was. And in the last part you should thank the company and express your hope for an interview. “That’s your covering letter there, you don't really need anything else” adds Pyak.

Striking the right tone can often be difficult in written German, so if in doubt, you should go for the traditional greetings such as “Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren” and “Mit freundlichen Grüßen”.

“Parts of the market are still quite traditional and some employers will like to be addressed in a formal manner,” says Dunnett. 

Look for jobs with smaller companies

It’s not easy to bypass HR and get through to the manager, but Pyak says you should try and speak to your potential future supervisor if possible. In some companies, though, this may not be possible. Job hunters should look to the less well-known companies for more success, according to Pyak.

“Companies like Trivago get 40,000 applications every month so they don’t have time to talk to every person on the phone,” he says. “Move away from the top 40 companies. There are 350,000 great companies in Germany and they all have difficulties hiring staff, so there are jobs out there.”

Don’t think of yourself as just a job-seeker

It’s easy to feel like employers have all the power, but why not think of yourself as an asset? You are someone who can make a difference to these workplaces and you could be a valuable member of the team.

“Think of yourself as a consultant who wants to help another person solve his problems,” says Pyak. “That’s the way you interact with the employer. You spend a lot of time on the research, then based on this diagnosis you prescribe a solution.”

Be honest about your language skills

When it comes to finding jobs in Germany, it is, of course, easier and beneficial when you know the language. But if you’re still learning or aren’t so confident then Pyak suggests mixing it up. “Some of my coaching clients had really good results by writing the cover letter in English and writing the CV in German,” he says. “Here you are being open about your language skills but you still make it easy to understand what you can do.”

Openness is crucial – you should be careful not to oversell your language skills. The proof, after all, will always be in the pudding.

“If you overstate your fluency, you will very quickly be found out,” says Dunnett. “If you say you are at C1 level, then the next step would always be to ask you to conduct a business interview in German.”

Find English-language roles in Germany on The Local Jobs

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?

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