Is it possible to write a letter for a job application that sounds like you? Not ‘who you want to be’ or ‘who you worry you are’, but actually bare bones basic take-’em-as-they-come you? I’ve been struggling with mine enormously over the last three or four months and I’m starting to conclude that it isn’t.
I will be graduating from Cardiff University in about two months and so am starting to think about work. A fifteen minute chat with the careers adviser and countless leaflets, handouts and pamphlets concluded that, seeing as my degree is effectively ‘professional chatting’, I’d probably be most suited to PR, advertising, journalism – ‘The Media’ is the umbrella you can simplistically group those under. ‘Sounds good’, I said to the lovely lady who seemed to be very optimistic about the amount of open positions in this industry, ‘so what, I just send people my details and I get the job, then?’
Apparently not, she said. In The Media, 85-90% of the jobs aren’t advertised; people get positions through ‘a friend of a friend of a friend’. Nepotism is the name of the game, and you can’t play it unless you’re in our gang. Once you’re in and you’ve made the right contacts, you’ll never go hungry, but until that point it’s somewhat like beating your head against a brick wall whilst being very very poor. Not a great way to spend your time.
In a conversation with my mother later on in the day I bemoaned the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to find a good job and would have to start pushing drugs and giving tramps blow-jobs for money. Although I’d been intending this as encouragement for her to tell me that she’d send me more money, my mother replied with ‘I have a friend who might be able to get you an internship…’. I was seeing the nepotism of The Media unfolding in front of my eyes, and it was benefiting me. I asked a couple of questions and found out it would be for a local literature festival, meaning I could live in a nice place rent-free whilst earning experience in advertising and public relations doing a job which would have the side effect of allowing me to read a fairly wide range of popular modern writing. The only downside would be living with my parents again which, although it’s a pretty substantial downside, is able to be coped with.
I was counting my lucky stars when Mother Dearest said ‘all you’ll have to do is send in a CV and cover letter, do you have one ready?’
‘Course I do.’
She sighed, heavily. ‘Not the one you use for getting bar jobs; one that can be used for REAL work.’
I chose not to start the argument about bar work ‘not being a real job have you any idea how difficult it is stop shouting at me I’M NOT SHOUTING’ again and promised I’d show my CV to her later. After taking a look, she suggested some revisions and a couple of things I’d left off, but said it was acceptable. All I needed to do now was write the cover letter about why I really wanted the job.
I’m a man who has written 2,000 word essays in the three hours between 2AM and 5AM fueled entirely by cans of Monster and still managed to get 2.1s for them. A cover letter? CAKEWALK.
Five hours later I held my head in my hands as I stared at the two-hundred or so platitudes on the screen in front of me, considering whether the correct form for these situations was to cry, or break something.
It’s very difficult to write about myself, I’ve found, in a way that manages to make me sound like a typical human being. I tend to vascillate hugely from ‘I’m a worthless human being who isn’t worth the mud on your shoes – I’ll be so grateful if you give me this job that you’ll never need toilet roll again because I’ll be licking your arse so much’ to ‘I am the second-born Son Of God and it’s a travesty I don’t already have this job’. There is no middle ground. I’m either the best thing since sliced bread or I’m an awful failure, and I don’t really like saying either of these, because I don’t believe either one.
I’m not hugely neurotic – people telling me I’m fugly isn’t going to send me into a spiral of self-doubt and paranoia – and I wouldn’t consider myself an arrogant person either. I find arrogance an enormously unattractive quality in people and I really hate hypocrisy, so I try not to practice the one to avoid the other. Unfortunately, CV writing doesn’t lend itself enormously to sending the message ‘I’m an alright person’; one is expected to big oneself up as hard as possible, lying, cheating and bartering in order to get an edge over other candidates for the job, especially in this job market. Every man for himself, women and children to the back of the line, etc etc. Some people seem able to do that completely happily, but not me. If I write something good about myself, my brain panics. I start wondering whether that makes me sound like an arse, and if it does, will that lose me the job? No-one wants to hire a cocky prick! So I’ll mitigate the good statement with a bit of self-effacement, to take the edge off it and show I’m a reasonable person.
But then, who’ll hire an nervous failure? So I write something about how I’m great at team-management, then something about not working hard enough at uni, then something about how I’ve never met a customer I couldn’t woo, then how my need to constantly please people eventually leads me to inevitably fail them and myself, then how I’d be the perfect person who’d fulfil the job role described brilliantly, before finishing with my ever-present paranoia that I’m never going to leave anything tangible behind me when I die. It is a deeply deeply vicious cycle. Finally, after two pages of this spiralling out of control, I’ll delete EVERYTHING apart from ‘I’m very interested in working in a customer-based environment’ (because let’s face it, that covers almost every job ever in some respect or another) and decide that I need a drink, and that bleach is looking particularly refreshing right then.
Does it get any easier? I’m hoping so; that once the first job has been got my CV will magically become a honed tool expressly for impressing big business men who will throw positions at my feet, and I shall pick and choose any employment I want. I do occasionally revisit the real world though, and I’m very aware that’s not how it works. Every time I want to apply for anything, be it the Head of the U.N. or the man who picks the dodgy gristly bits of cow they use in fast-food burger vans off the floor of the abattoir, I’m going to have to update my CV to make it more ‘targeted’ – to emphasise my previous experience in a way that makes me sound suitable for the work I’m going for. It’s all about self-presentation, and I either have to get a lot better at that, or I have to swallow my pride and start swallowing a whole bunch of other things. I hear drug-running’s pretty lucrative…at least I’ll get to see exotic places and get threatened in a variety of foreign languages. And those airport security full cavity searches look like they could be a lot of fun!