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How to apply for the perfect job in Germany

August 2, 2019

Like every country, Germany has its own unique set of rules when it comes to applying for a job. Many companies are trying to make the process easier and fair, but a lot of HR departments still like to see a photo.

Finding a good job in Germany takes patience and a lot of work
Image: picture alliance/imagebroker

Looking and applying for a job is stressful anywhere in the world. In Germany, the process is doubly complicated with its many subtle distinctions and pitfalls. Those new to the German job market may be surprised to know that many applicants attach a headshot photo of themselves, and list their birthdate and marital status. Others will have to dig hard to find a copy of their actual high school diploma.  

There was a time when applicants had to paste their small passport-sized photos to paper CVs and send them in big envelopes to perspective employers. These days are mostly gone, not least because applying for jobs has mostly gone online.

Finding a job

But let's start at the beginning. There are a lot of different ways to find a job. As in much of Europe job portals and company websites are the best, most up-to-date sources for available open positions. There are other options though like newspapers, job fairs, recruitment agencies and most importantly networking through friends and family.

A new trend is trying to throw these traditional methods overboard. E-recruiting is when companies themselves scour online platforms or social networks looking for new talent. Katrin Hugo, team lead for active recruiting at XING, a career orientated social networking platform, is convinced that having an up-to-date profile is "indispensable," since "companies are actively going after qualified workers through social media."

Once you find something interesting — or a company finds you — invest the time to assess if you are really the qualified candidate they are looking for. In Germany, a typical application package includes a cover letter, CV (otherwise known as a resume), letters of reference, school leaving certificates, university diplomas and other documents proving additional qualifications.

Roman Dykta, head of HR marketing and recruiting at consultancy Capgemini in Germany, recommends taking your time. "An application should be individually tailored to the company. A standard application, which is used for several positions at the same time and where only the company name is changed, is usually not well received by companies." It's important to stand out and be yourself.

A German job interview
In an interview be authentic and be prepared to answer questions about salary requirements. An employer wants to get to know you. If you act differently during an interview it will come out later to the annoyance of your new bossImage: picture alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

The cover letter

In many countries a cover letter is a nicety that is usually skipped over. In Germany, it's different. Though recruiters only have three to five minutes to spend on each application, they often pay special attention to the cover letter.

These letters of introduction should be short and clearly state why you are qualified for the job. You should avoid using "I" too much and remember the company wants to know what it can get by hiring you. The letter should also be addressed to a specific person; do your homework and find the right name. "To whom it may concern" or "Dear Sir, dear Madame" just don't cut it.

And indeed, it's often the tiny things that make a big difference. "Errors happen. Yet spelling and grammar mistakes weaken strong applications," says Carolin Ludwig, HR manager at the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), a private business school based in Berlin. The problem is more widespread than you would think and she suggests having someone else proofread all your application materials.

Katrin Hugo from XING also recommends not using generic phrases with too many buzzwords like "motivated, creative, open minded or down to Earth" since they are "not very meaningful." She wants candidates to be more original.

A shortage in the skilled trades

The curriculum vitae 

Your CV is very important. It should be easy to understand and include pertinent information like personal/contact details, education, professional experience and other skills such as languages. Try to avoid gaps in your work experience, or at least have a great explanation for them.

In Germany, the order of your CV is open for debate. Most people start with their personal detail then add their work experience with the most recent positions first. After that comes education, other skills and personal interests.

"Send a cover letter and a CV tailored to the stated requirements. Wherever possible, be succinct — two or three well-written CV pages are preferable to five superfluous ones!" says Carolin Ludwig from ESMT.

Traditionally all German CVs had a small photo of the applicant in an upper corner. Today there are laws preventing companies from making this mandatory, but many recruiters still like to see one. But if you do add one, HR professionals warn against selfies or holiday photos and recommend either a professional photo or none at all.

Inking the deal

None of these rules are set in stone. It depends on the applicant, the company and level of job.

For Hugo, the CV is the heart of the application while "cover letters and certificates are 'nice to have,' but not mandatory." Whatever form it takes, a CV should be a maximum of two pages and a cover letter one. "They can also include individual, creative touches as long as it doesn't mess up the overall structure."       

This recruiting ad in the Berlin underground for Pin delivery service shows the company is clearly open to employees with tattoos
This recruiting ad for Pin delivery service shows the company is clearly open to employees with tattoos Image: DW/T. Rooks

This less formal approach to German job applications mirrors a general change in the makeup of Germany. Over the past decade an increase in the number of foreigners looking for jobs in Germany, a move away from manufacturing to digitization and a lack of highly qualified workers have made companies more open.

A great example of this is ESMT business school. It currently has around 340 students from 65 countries enrolled in its various degree programs, all of which are taught in English.

And while some companies have a strict dress code, many are copying Silicon Valley and dropping such formalities. XING's 1,700 workers now come from around 55 countries, and thought the company is based in Hamburg and has a large German user base, English is the working language. It also has a "come as you are" policy with no dress code according to Hugo, adding that "what you bring to the table is much more important than how you look."

The end stretch

Finally, after applying be patient. If the company is interested they will usually initiate a phone interview. The next step is an in-person interview, often with a small team from the company. Learn as much about the company as possible and don't be late. Prepare what you want to say and what you want to ask about the position or the company.

Now is still a great time to look for a job in Germany. Unemployment is low, the economy is still humming along at a good pace and there seems to be a shortage of qualified workers. All this might sound easy. It isn't. Finding a good job is a full time job. Don't be afraid to take chances and don't give up until you get the call that you are hired.

Germany: Foreign professionals

Timothy Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's team of business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.