Making the first move

How to make an impact with speculative applications.

When students look for employment vacancies such as research opportunities, internships, and paid positions, they tend to check job postings. It’s a logical first step, but if it’s the only one an applicant takes, they are missing out on a hidden and growing job market that does not advertise vacancies.

Speculative applications attempt to tap into this market. They are proactive probes sent to organisations not actively advertising open positions.

In some industries––like journalism, broadcasting, and publishing––many employers don’t bother advertising vacancies, making the speculative application an important art to master.

The first part of any speculative application, and one of the most challenging parts, is finding out where you should send your application.

As your grandmother used to say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

This is a tiresome, hackneyed old saying, but, like most hackneyed old sayings, there’s an unfortunate glimmer of truth to it.

The most basic tool for “knowing who to know” is networking. LinkedIn, no one’s favourite social media site, is one of the best ways for students––especially students in a small, remote, northern town––to effectively network.

Stephanie Irwin, a fourth-year English student from Canada, used speculative applications to secure placements in the London fashion scene. She described LinkedIn as a student’s “best bet.”

Ms Irwin also stressed the importance of tailoring one’s profile for maximum effect; she turned to the Careers Centre for help. If Ms Irwin’s experience is anything to go by, with a professional profile and a courteous note to an alumnus, your “odds of receiving a response are incredibly high.”

Ms Irwin also noted that students with few connections would be well advised to seek the help of the Careers Centre.

“[They] helped me go from seven LinkedIn connections to almost 500 in a year,” she said.

However, don’t neglect the Careers Centre’s Saint Connect.

Though it may be smaller and somewhat less intuitive than LinkedIn, all the graduates who are members have actively made a choice to help St Andrews students find positions and experience. They’re on the the site because they want to help, so take the path of least resistance and let them.

Bold individuals might want to approach academic staff in their field of interest. These professors and tutors will have connections and may be willing to vouch for you.

There’s also the more targeted approach where you choose to actively search for an individual with hiring or referral power within an organisation. Often, your network can help with this.

Failing that, the Careers Centre suggests trawling through company social media pages for useful contacts (for instance, those in HR or managerial positions) or cold-calling the organisation and asking whom you might contact.

The second step, and the one over which you as the applicant have the least control, is actually getting your application read. Again, if this wasn’t clear, send your application to a named contact: not to the HR department, but to “Ms Doe” in HR.

Give your email a clear, arresting subject line; if someone the addressee recognises has recommended that your application be taken seriously, make sure their name is part of it.

If you’ve got a unique skill set that can be summed up in precious few words, now would be the time to highlight it. Once you’ve sent off your application, all you can do is hope that someone takes the time to open your email and give it due consideration.

Of course, it doesn’t matter who does or doesn’t read your application if it’s fatally flawed.

The Careers Centre recommends that any speculative application consist of a CV and cover letter.

The creation of the CV itself seems little different from applications for advertised positions. There is one addition, however, that applicants would be well advised to consider.

The Careers Centre recommends that the CV include a “career aim” at the top. You might think of this as being a bit like a lonely hearts ad: who are you, why are you worth loving, and whom are you looking for?

The “career aim” section consists of a brief summary of your personal profile, what your marketable skills are, and what kind of position you want.

For example, you might write, “High-achieving third-year history student with research experience looking to secure a position in law offices this summer.”

The “career aim” makes it easier for the CV to be passed around. If one section doesn’t need a summer hire, perhaps another will.

Other than that, the usual precautions about CVs apply. Keep it concise, keep it pertinent, and list achievements, not just positions. Resources abound online if you want a more thorough treatment of the subject than is appropriate here.

The cover letter for speculative applications, while not alien to those sent in response to advertised positions, does have its quirks.

Firstly, address it directly to your contact in the organisation. “Dear Sir/ Ma’am” is far too impersonal and does nothing to build rapport between you and the recipient of your unsolicited application. Where speculative applications are concerned, building rapport is crucial, so go with “Dear Ms Doe” instead.

The first paragraph of the letter should explain the type of placement you want.

This should begin with a brief introduction (year, degree, etc). Explain your window of availability and length of the placement you are seeking.

The Careers Centre recommends expressing flexibility about length, citing the tendency of placements to be extended if a shorter trial period works out well.

You should then express your interest in the field and organisation to which you are applying. The Careers Centre calls this the “why them” paragraph.

Show your enthusiasm, show your research, and be sure to carefully tailor your discussion to the organisation in question. A paragraph about why you want to work for a company will fall flat if it feels generic.

Up next is the “why me” paragraph. Here, you need to prove yourself. You’re trying to convince an organisation that you’re worth hiring even though they might not have a specific vacancy they need to fill.

Ms Irwin stressed the importance of having “a clear vision of who you are, and what you can offer the company.”

The trick here is not to reiterate your CV, but rather to expand upon it in such a way that you illustrate what you can bring to the table. Make it concrete and provide evidence.

The last paragraph is a call to action. Here, you express your openness to being contacted by the organisation in question for further discussion or an interview.

It’s also important that you express your intent to follow up on your application after a set period.

Beyond ensuring that your application is not lost in the shuffle, this illustrates your continued interest in the position and, more importantly, in the organisation.

“From my experience,” Ms Irwin said, “companies love speculative applications. It shows that you know what you want, what you have to offer, and that you want that company.”

In conclusion, it’s a lot of legwork for one uncertain application, but, if done well, it’s worth it.

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