Innumerable books, articles, and other resources are available on making a good first impression when applying for a job. Many offer views on the tone, order, and content of the perfect cover letter and curriculum vitae (CV) that are often contradictory. Does this mean that writing them is merely personal, and that no general rules apply?
It is partly a question of preference, but many of the differences transcend the personal; tastes in written applications vary by sector?academia vs. industry?and from one country to the next.
Does the Netherlands have its own unique application culture compared to, say, the rest of Europe and America? Differences among the European countries are subtle, but trans-Atlantic differences are profound. In America, the equivalent of the Dutch (and European) CV is known by (go figure) the French word résumé. In America, a CV?which is used almost exclusively in academia?is an exhaustive record of professional accomplishments that can go on for many pages.
Just because the differences among European CV styles are subtle, that doesn't mean they aren't important. So to find out more about Dutch cover letter and CV-writing expectations, Science's Next Wave-Netherlands brought together a panel of specialists seeking tips and advice. The information they provided is likely to be useful not only for those who are unfamiliar with the Dutch scientific culture; Dutch scientists, too, are likely to learn something that will help them make that perfect first impression.
Nannette Ripmeester is managing director of Expertise in Labour Mobility, a Dutch consultancy agency on labour mobility. She is an expert on international graduate recruitment and mobility on the European labour market. She has trained more than 450 career consultants and lectures at business schools and universities around Europe.
Ron van Eijsden is country manager of Kelly Scientific Resources in the Netherlands. After his Ph.D., he worked in R&D and management positions in industry and academia for 13 years. Now, he tries to bring employers and employees together by pointing his clients to the right candidates and by giving workshops on applying and finding a job in science.
Madelon Janssen is a corporate recruiter at DSM, a large Netherlands-based producer of life science products, performance materials and industrial chemicals. Janssen has worked in the R&D department for 4 1/2 years, and the last 3 years she has been responsible for vetting CVs and conducting first-round interviews.
"Feigned modesty," "concrete," "an inward view"?these are some of the terms used by the panel to describe the Dutch application culture. All experts agree on the importance of selling yourself, but all agree that you should do so with a touch of modesty. Your cover letter and CV should represent who you are, what you've done, and what you want to do in a neutral, down-to-earth way.
Enough about style; what about substance? Our panel of experts agreed that one thing the CV needs to communicate?but often doesn't?is your motivation. Dutch employers, according to these experts, value motivation as much as they value experience. And the more specific your motivation, the better; don't just describe how passionate you are about genetics, nanotechnology, or psychology in general. Instead, the panel advises, indicate clearly what attracts you to the particular job you're applying for. Even if you are sending an unsolicited application, make sure that it displays your specific interests. These two features?presentation and motivation?are most important to keep in mind when applying for a job in the Netherlands. Now let's go deeper.
Letter of Motivation
The best place to describe your motivation is not the CV per se?although it's great if your CV demonstrates your motivation?but in the cover letter. "The letter and CV serve distinctive functions," says Janssen. While your CV mainly describes your history, the letter tells what you want. Past and future. Van Eijsden agrees. "Be original in your opening," he says, and "try to draw the attention of the reader." Instead of starting with where you saw the job ad, he suggests, you could say why you find the company so interesting. "Still," Ripmeester says, "you should always mention where you saw the ad in the first paragraph."
The body of your letter should contain two subjects?experience and motivation?which are best separated into two or more paragraphs. Make sure that the body is not a repetition of your CV but that it contains the relevant highlights and makes particular reference to the job you're applying for, drawing attention to those aspects of your experience that are specifically relevant.
The experts all advise that you close by suggesting an interview. Be careful how you say it, though. "Some people end with 'I'm looking forward to our collaboration,' " says Ripmeester. Such statements don't make any sense, because your future employer will probably be your boss, not your partner.
Job ads in the Netherlands are published generally in either English or Dutch. Always adapt your letter (and CV) to the language of the ad, even if you are a Dutch speaker applying for a job offered in English. If neither Dutch nor English is your mother tongue, have your letter checked by a native speaker or?if none are available?by someone who speaks the language at least at the same level that you do.
But you should go much further than this in adapting your letter to fit the opening and the ad. Ripmeester advises you always to refer to the qualities and skills the employer is looking for. "Put them in the same order and use the same words, so the employer recognises what he asked for," she says.
"Description of life path" is the literal translation from Latin, and that, in a professional context, is exactly what your CV is. A CV describes the main route you've taken, leaving out all the little side roads. And just like the cover letter, your CV should be adapted to the job you're applying for. Mention only features that are directly or indirectly relevant, and leave the rest out. But how do you do that precisely? And what is the correct order? Let's see what our experts have to say.
In general your CV starts with your name, address, contact details, and nationality. But should you also add:
Date of birth? It is not obligatory, say both Ripmeester and Van Eijsden. In the Netherlands, employers are not allowed to ask your age. Yet, both of these experts agree that mentioning your age?if you are quite young but already have a lot of experience, for example?could be beneficial. If you are older than most people at your career stage, leave it out.
Civil state? The same applies here as to date of birth; you're not obliged to mention whether you are married, single, or other, but it can help you in certain situations. Ripmeester explains that single and childless women can benefit from mentioning this information if they are in a "children-sensitive" age category (30-35).
Photo? None of our experts believe that a photo is required; in fact, most employers are indifferent about it. For high-level positions, some even consider it bad form. So in general people don't add a photo.
Objective and summary statements may be quite common in other countries, but they are not often added to Dutch CVs. Still, it might be a good idea. Janssen really likes a short statement on top of CVs, even above the personal details. "Something like 'Medical biologist is looking for a challenging R&D position,' " she says, really draws her attention. Ripmeester adds that a statement is a good way to put yourself in the spotlight. However, "two statements is too much," she says, "I prefer a combination [of an objective and a summary statement]."
There is some disagreement about what to put first: education or work experience. Private companies generally find work experience more important, says Van Eijsden. However, if you're fairly early in your academic career?before your second postdoc, more or less?Ripmeester argues that your training is the most relevant part of your CV, so it should be listed first. Generally, you could say that for an academic job early in your career you should mention your education first; otherwise, work experience should come first.
So how should it be listed? Here are some details:
Reverse chronological order Do not start with the high school diploma you received 10 or 15 years ago. The panel members agree that you should start with your most recent degree and work down from there.
High school How far you go back really depends on how much you've achieved. Still, it can't hurt to show that you attended a good-quality high school, if that's the case, and did well there. With that information, the employer gets a good impression of your background. Foreigners especially should mention this, and preferably give a Dutch equivalent, to demonstrate that they've taken the time to learn about the Netherlands.
Training periods, projects, and courses Mention only the most relevant ones. If you're applying for an R&D position, Janssen says, companies would like to know which experimental techniques you have mastered. So don't make a whole summary of each small project or course you've ever done, but point out how and when you've used relevant techniques.
Both Van Eijsden and Janssen see this as the most important part of your CV. But what should you mention and what should you exclude? Here are some tips:
Reverse chronological order Here too the general rule is to put your work experience in reverse chronological order, unless there's a real reason to do it differently. A "real reason" could be a distinctive relevance of previous jobs to the one you're applying for.
Position, company, tasks "Don't forget your responsibilities," and focus on the progress you've made, says Van Eijsden.
References It is not required, but Dutch employers generally like to know who has been your supervisor or project leader, says Ripmeester. Yet they will usually approach references only after a first round of interviews, so don?t bother giving full contact details right away. ?Mention that ?references are available upon request? at the bottom of your CV,? is Van Eijsden?s advice. After the first interview you can get a feeling for what the employer is looking for, he says, and you can give references accordingly.
Even though it is less relevant than the first part of your CV, it is worth mentioning what else you've done or are able to do. Especially when applying for a non-R&D position, Janssen says, additional skills are just as important as technical ones, if not more important. Even in research environments, additional skills and activities can give employers a better picture of you. Therefore the panel jointly advised to add the following to your CV:
Languages Especially for those coming from outside the Netherlands or even outside Europe, Janssen says, it is good to show your interest and experience in other cultures. Try to show that you've had some experience with other languages, even if you don't speak them fluently.
Computer skills Only mention uncommon software skills, not the typical office software. If you can handle a MacIntosh (which is not very common in the overall Dutch scientific community), you could be a step ahead. Special techniques such as computer modelling should definitely be mentioned if they're relevant to the position being applied for.
Extracurricular activities Again, "relevance" is the key word, say all experts. Both Ripmeester and Van Eijsden think that hobbies should be mentioned only if they really are relevant to the job. Van Eijsden says to watch out for extreme contrasts; if your letter says that you're a team player, it is not wise to list too many individual hobbies.
Of course, your papers and other publications should be listed. Yet the panel advises you not to put them directly in your CV but to add them as an appendix. This appendix is also the right place for a short summary of your Ph.D. project, say Van Eijsden and Janssen.
Even when you think you've bypassed all traps and thought of everything, it could not hurt to look over your piece of art again. You might pick up things you hadn't noticed before. Only then are you ready to send it, by e-mail most of the time. If you're not sure about how to send it or to whom, call and ask, says Van Eijsden. And while you have the right person on the phone, you might as well ask whether she or he would like to receive your cover letter as a separate attachment, in one attachment with your CV, or in the e-mail itself. "This is a question of personal preference," says Van Eijsden. One thing is clear: Once you push the send button, there's nothing you can do to stop it. So before you do, says Van Eijsden, "it just has to look polished."