The dos and don’ts of covering letters

At this time of year many students and soon-to-be graduates will be thinking about applying for jobs and summer internships. We’ve recently blogged about CV writing, but it’s just as important to get your covering letter right. (Some busy recruiters won’t bother looking at your CV if your covering letter is full of mistakes). In the spirit of research we’ve looked over some of the letters gradireland has received in the past to shortlist some tips on the dos – and don’ts – of covering letters.

  • When applying by email (the norm nowadays) attach the CV AND covering letter to the email, and make clear in the subject line that it’s a job application. (This may sound blindingly obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t get this right.)
  • Where possible, always address the recruiter by name. This will normally be given on the advert, but if it isn’t, give the company a call to get the right contact details. ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ usually looks lazy.
  • If you’re unsure of the best way to address the recruiter once you’ve got their name, err on the side of polite formality: ‘Dear Mr/Ms Bloggs’ or ‘Dear Joe Bloggs’ is better than simply: ‘Mr Bloggs’; but avoid addressing them by their first name only. If the recruiter writes back and greets you informally then you can respond in kind, but always take your cue from them.
  • Keep the content simple and don’t feel you have to write an essay. Clear and concise always beats long and flowery. Covering letters shouldn’t be more than a page long, and keep your CV at two pages maximum.
  • Don’t just list all the experience you’ve ever had: instead, choose considered examples that correspond with the requirements given in the ad.
  • Avoid adjectival clichés such as ‘challenging’ and ‘rewarding’ (yawn). Similarly, steer clear of annoying jargon like ‘leverage’, ‘implement’ and ‘solution’ (unless they are used in the ad)!
  • Back up your skills with concise examples of how you’ve demonstrated them.
  • Sign off correctly: it’s always ‘Yours sincerely’ if you’ve addressed the person by name; ‘Yours faithfully’ if you’ve written to ‘Sir/Madam’.

Dealing with deadline dread

Summer might be round the corner, but for students across the country this time of year can be overshadowed by looming deadlines: coursework; dissertations; exams; job applications; interviews. School and college life is largely defined by deadlines of one sort or another, but somehow they always have a tendency to creep up on you.

Deadlines can be stressful, but they can also keep you focused. Many professionals freely admit that without fixed deadlines they can be prone to procrastination; conversely the knowledge that there is only a certain amount of time available to complete a given task is often all that’s needed to concentrate the mind and increase productivity.

Although some people produce their best work under time pressure (journalists and writers habitually work to tight deadlines in order to get publications to print on time), countless others don’t, and the stress of an approaching deadline can strike fear into the heart of the most capable of students and graduates.

If this sounds like you, you are not alone. Here are some tips to help you cope with – and conquer – deadline stress.

  • Set yourself smaller, manageable deadlines before the big day: a chapter a week on a dissertation, for example. Working toward and achieving these goals will make the final deadline appear less daunting; plus it’s a great way of measuring your progress.
  • Devise yourself a work/revision timetable, and stick to it. If you are more productive in the morning, set yourself a few hours before lunch to work on the task at hand. You’re more likely to achieve your goals if you develop a manageable routine, and less likely to feel overwhelmed by your workload.
  • Get stuck in! Usually the thought of the work or preparation that lies ahead is more terrifying than the work itself once you’re immersed in it, so the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel.
  • If you are genuinely struggling to meet a deadline, don’t be afraid to ask for support if you need it. Talk to your tutor/mentor/careers adviser – they will do their best to help you.

Why Ireland needs arts graduates too

Three things which are less popular in a recession:

  • expensive holidays
  • eating out
  • studying for an arts degree.

It seems that today’s school pupils, no doubt heavily influenced by their parents, are shunning arts degrees in favour of ‘safer’ alternatives. The thinking behind this decision is, on the face of it, relentlessly logical. We’re in a recession, jobs are scarce, third-level education is expensive so let’s choose a degree course that is more likely to result in a job.

But the logic is flawed – for three very good reasons: one, there is no way to know how ‘vocational’ a course really is, three or four years into the future. If, for example, you’d enrolled on an IT degree in good times and graduated into the post dotcom era, then you wouldn’t be all that chuffed; two, around half the graduate jobs advertised in Ireland each year are open to students from any degree course – yes that includes arts; three, the only way that you will find three or four years of degree study enriching is if you actually love the subject. Being influenced to choose a degree based on its perceived value in the market might just lead to a miserable undergraduate life.

What all this rather negative thinking means is that generations of arts undergraduates suffer from a nebulous feeling that they are doing a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree and that no employer is going to be interested in them. In contrast, a science or engineering student is going to waltz into work. Well that depends. If the scientist or engineer doesn’t have anything to offer except their degree, then they will struggle every bit as much as anybody else. Arts students who can demonstrate imagination, confidence and ambition and who are naturally good communicators are attractive to most recruiters. Often what holds them back is a false sense of their own lack of worth in the graduate job market.

We can’t pretend that it’s going to be an easy year but the eternal truth about recruitment is this: employers are interested in the person first and the degree second. And arts degrees, it can be argued, develop a whole range of personal skills that will be in demand whatever the economic conditions in the country.

Graduate interviews and how to approach them

So, you’ve spotted your ideal job, written the perfect application, and – wahey! – you’ve been invited for interview. Well done for getting this far, but now the hard work starts. If you haven’t had much in the way of interview experience, read on.

An interview can be a daunting prospect – and seasoned professionals will tell you that they never get any easier – but, with careful preparation and the right attitude, you can talk yourself into a job, and you might even enjoy the process.

The first thing to remember is that interviews aren’t designed to catch you out or intimidate you; rather they are opportunities for you to sell yourself. The interviewers are only human and will have been in your position themselves once upon a time, so this is worth bearing in mind if you’re nervous. They want you to do well – they’re looking for the best candidate for the role, after all.

The second thing to remember is that an interview is a two-way process: it’s your chance to appraise the organisation, role and staff, just as they are assessing you. To this end make sure you have questions to ask them: this shows you have done your research, that you’re taking the process seriously and it’s an impressive way to sign off an interview.

Give yourself plenty of time to research the job and the organisation – read company literature, search online for any recent news items relating to the organisation, and be ready to answer the questions: why do you want to work for us? What makes you perfect for this job? Make sure you know your CV and covering letter back-to-front.

And finally, first impressions count! According to the boffins who research these statistics, the impression you make on any first encounter is 55 per cent decided by how you present yourself and your body language (so dress smartly, arrive promptly and bring a few copies of your CV with you); 38 per cent governed by your tone of voice; and 7 per cent generated by what you actually say.

The mistake that annoys graduate recruiters the most

dictionary showing the word 'spellcheck'Within the gradireland team, we spend a lot of time meeting and talking to graduate employers. Because our job is to help make their recruitment easier, we get to hear some of the problems that they have when filling their graduate jobs. And over and over again, the biggest complaint is the quality of applications.

It seems very basic: if you don’t present your application in a professional way, your potential employer will not view you as a potential professional.

You don’t expect a business letter to have spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, but recruiters report that they often find these in job applications. We can vouch for this too: over the years we’ve seen applications for jobs with us that have basic grammatical mistakes, and in some cases even spell ‘gradireland’ incorrectly!

It could be because applicants are used to writing ‘text speak’, or perhaps it’s because they are writing their applications in a rush. Whatever the reason, there are easy ways to avoid this:
1. Use the spell check.
2. But don’t rely on the spell check.
3. Print out your application and proofread it. It’s easy to miss things when reading on screen.
4. Ask someone else to read through your application. This could be a friend who is good at English or a careers adviser at your university.
5. Take your time.

The graduate jobs market: Labour market information for February 2011

Much has been said about the new Enda Kenny-led government picking up a poisoned chalice, and certainly they will need luck and a fair wind behind them in their negotiations with Brussels to bring down the repayment rates for the massive borrowings taken out to cover the banking crisis. However, there are signs that in the jobs market, they may be coming into a situation that, while still bleak, is showing signs of brightening, at least in terms of graduate recruitment.

The continuing trend on is for a rise in the number of graduate jobs being advertised. In February, the average number of jobs on the site was 165 per day, up by 10 from the January average and, more significantly, an increase of 29 per cent on the same month one year ago.

IT continues to be the sector showing the largest demand, particularly for programmers and developers, although there were slightly fewer jobs in this sector than in January, which would suggest that these vacancies are being filled quite quickly. There was a wider spread of jobs across all sectors on the site during February: in January, 42 per cent of the jobs were in the top three sectors (IT; accountancy & financial management; and engineering) but this has reduced to 36 per cent this month so both the total number and the sector spread of the jobs has grown. Marketing, advertising and PR showed good growth this month, with the number of jobs here up 20 per cent month-on-month.

Most of the jobs on are located in Ireland (north and south), although 13 per cent are UK-based or further afield (a decline of 6 per cent). 16 per cent of the jobs on the site are classed as graduate work placements or internships, which is unchanged since January.

One of the biggest challenges that gradireland faces is conveying to students and graduates that all hope is not gone and that there are jobs in Ireland for the graduating class of 2011, despite the unrelenting negativity in the press which would suggest that your only option is to emigrate. This is not true, as the figures above would indicate. We will be rolling out a Careers Roadshow ‘Help is Here’ Tour over the next few weeks, so watch out for news on that. We will be travelling the country supporting students with careers information, giveaways and most importantly a positive message that you have more options than a one-way ticket abroad.

The outlook for women in the workplace

Today is the centenary of International Women’s Day. Not surprisingly, many commentators point out that women throughout the world still don’t enjoy equality. So how does the picture look in Ireland?

The think-tank TASC has carried out research showing that women still earn substantially less than men. In 2008, just over half of women – 50.3 per cent – had an annual income of less than €20,000. The corresponding figure for men was 37.7 per cent. In contrast, nearly one in five men – or 19.6 per cent – earned over €50,000; the corresponding figure for women was just 10.7 per cent.

The picture for graduates also shows gender disparity. The most recent HEA report on graduate destination statistics What do Graduates do? The Class of 2008 states: ‘Despite higher academic achievement by females entering the workplace, a gender bias in salary awards in favour of males persists.’ They report that women graduates are more likely than men to earn lower initial salaries, and that men dominate the higher salary brackets.

But is this reflected in the aspirations of current undergraduates? The most recent data is available in a survey of undergraduates carried out for gradireland by German research institute trendence. And there are some interesting gender differences.

  • The most popular choice of employer for men is Google; for women the most popular destination is teaching.
  • 26 per cent of men surveyed expected to earn more than €34,000 in their first job after graduation, compared to only 17 per cent of women.
  • When asked ‘What is important for your first professional position after graduation?’, women ranked work/life balance and job security highest; men were more interested in training. Men were also prepared to work longer hours.

But the really interesting question is how respondents view their own abilities. In answer to the question: ‘How would you describe your academic achievements?’ 70 per cent of males answered ‘outstanding’ or ‘above average’; compared to only 63 per cent of women . Compare this to the HEA report of ‘higher academic achievement by females’!
This lack of confidence in women is reflected in research published today by Accenture. In an international survey of business professionals, they found that women were less likely than men to have asked for pay raises (44 per cent versus 48 per cent) and promotions (28 per cent versus 39 per cent). And – possibly as a result – more women report that their careers are not fast tracked (63 per cent of women versus 55 per cent of men).