How To Apply For A Job In Berlin


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This post is an extract from my book The BreakingOut Guide To Moving To Berlin.

In this post I look at how to apply for a job in Berlin.

Check out my book The BreakingOut Guide To Moving To Berlin

How to Apply For a Job in Berlin

The process of applying for a job in Germany is not that different to other countries. But there are a number of specific differences which you need to be aware of. Mostly this concerns the application materials you will need to have available.

But before we get to that, let’s focus first of all on the initial stage of applying for a job.

For jobs with larger companies, it may be ok to apply in English. This is also more likely to be accepted practice amongst smaller IT and Web startups as well.

But whether you are writing your application in English or in German, first thing is always try to find the name of the contact person for the vacancy.

You can then email them, but keep it polite and at least fairly formal. Don’t forget Germans tend to be much more formal than Americans or British.

Mention how you meet the most important criteria they are looking for from candidates. Address the letter with the name of the person, not “Dear Sir/Madam”.

Even though it’s Berlin and you don’t necessarily have to be super formal (it depends on the type of company and the image they present in their job listing), you still should not start your first email or letter to them with “Hey” or “Hi!”.

To be on the safe side, start with “Dear Herr Schmidt” (or whoever) and not Dear Hans or Hallo Hans (or whoever) – even if the contact is mentioned in the listing with both first and last names.

This might seem rather formal to non-Germans, but it’s the way things are done in Germany at least in initial communications. Not keeping to this convention can make you come across as rude and unprofessional.

Even if you don’t like these conventions and would rather that Germany “casual up” like in the US or UK, now is not the time to try single-handedly reforming the country. You are the one who has to fit in with Germany, not the other way round.

When you’re communicating with emails back and forth with potential employers, agencies etc, you can  take your cue from how they present themselves when they write back. If they use Hi, Hallo, etc, then you may do the same. If they stick to Dear, or Sehr geehrter etc, then you should also keep to this.

The important thing to remember is that in Germany there’s much more of a distinction between the formal and the informal than in English-speaking countries. This is the reason for the whole Sie and Du distinction in German.

Jumping from formal to informal when it is considered inappropriate or when the other person does not approve or expect it is regarded as a faux pas and not done.

Otherwise, the usual rules about covering letters for job applications also apply in Germany. In particular, make sure your cover letter is tailored to the job description and company.

Bear in mind that Germans do not generally like people who overly sell themselves like some people do with applications and interviews in the US. Whilst in the US this might suggest that you are a “go-getter” and be received positively, it tends to make Germans suspicious and they back off. So do not go in for any heavy hard sell marketing with your job applications such as might work in the US.

You’ll have more success if you concentrate on presenting hard facts and data about yourself than trying to wheedle your way into an interview by using hot air hype.

How to Write a German CV

German CVs were traditionally rather different from those of the English-speaking world. But things have changed over the years and nowadays there is not that much difference anymore.

It will probably be difficult for you to create a proper German style CV in German language at this stage. So unless you are fluent in German I don’t recommend trying to write your CV in German.

Just concentrate instead on creating a relevant, to the point CV in English, without any woffle or unnecessary padding.

With IT and Web companies and international corporations it’s nowadays not a big problem to apply with an English CV and English covering letter. Many large companies in Berlin use English as their internal company language, at least officially.

As I mentioned above, Germans prefer hard facts and skills to be listed (courses and certificates also get a big thumbs up), rather than smart-ass marketing hype or hard persuasive sell resumes of the kind more usual for CVs in the US.

This may surprise you if you’re from North America, but German CVs traditionally include a photo of the candidate. And this is supposed to be a professional quality photo from a photography studio rather than from an automatic photo booth. This is probably the biggest difference between English and German CVs.

But in my experience I don’t think I’ve hardly ever presented a potential employer with a CV which included a photo. Partly because I work in the IT sector where CV convention tends to be more modern and “Anglo-Saxon” oriented than is the case with traditional German companies.

A German CV is often longer than in other countries, but should not exceed two or three pages. The golden rule is: “As little as possible – but as much as necessary”. Remember, there’s a limit to how much information people are prepared to plough through.

How to Set Out a German-Style CV

Whether your CV is in English or in German, there are some points to bear in mind when writing a CV to apply for a job in Berlin.

Traditionally German CVs were written in chronological order with the oldest first. However convention has now changed and it’s now more usual to list your employment experience in reverse date order as is usually done in English-speaking countries.

For the dates of previous employment, education, and training courses you don’t have to state exact days, the month and year is sufficient.

The first section of your CV should be:

Personal Details (Persönliche Angaben)

This includes your name, address, phone number and e-mail address.

German CVs often include the date and place of birth. If you are non-German you will probably want to include your nationality, although this might be recognizable from the other data on your CV.

Traditionally German CVs also included marital status and even the number of children. There are some Germans who still include this on their CV. To my mind this is not usually relevant and is an old-fashioned approach to writing a CV.

Many decades ago Germans even used to include the profession of their father on their CVs. This was assumed to be an indication of whether you were of “good breeding” or not!

Summary  (Zusammenfassung)

You can also include a short summary paragraph at the top of your CV just under your Personal Details. This can set out your profession, your skills and anything which might set you apart as a top candidate for the job.

For example:

Professional Web Designer with extensive experience across a range of sectors. University educated (Computer Science BSc, Cambridge), available immediately.

Professional Experience or Berufserfahrung (not “Arbeitserfahrung”)

This is where you list your previous employment to date.

This should include company name, sector, location (city) and the position you held. Specify the tasks you carried out in the job and your responsibilities. You don’t have to state a reason for leaving the position on the CV, but of course it may come up in the interview, so be prepared.

Education (Ausbildung)

Education and training are considered very important in Germany and you should make the most of this.

Begin with your most recent training or education, also mentioning your university degree.

Germans like to see a list of professional training courses relevant to the profession or trade you work in and the position you are applying for, so muster up all you can to make this an impressive list.

Even courses lasting just a week or two that you were sent on by previous employers or have done privately can be listed. You can also include online courses, seminars or webinars. It all counts!

Language skills (Sprachkenntnisse)

Your level of ability in German is particularly important for most jobs and it’s essential to mention this if you are not native German.

List all languages you speak and the level of ability you have reached: eg fluent (fließend), very good ( sehr gut), good or average (gut/durchschnittlich) or basic (Basiskenntnis).

Be honest about your knowledge of German. Don’t forget it’s very easy for the interviewer to test this out on the spot if they wish. So do not try to make out you are fluent if you are not.

Companies can often be willing to send you on language courses at their expense if necessary, so poor knowledge of German need not automatically bar you from the job if you are otherwise suitable.

Don’t try to be clever or gimmicky in the letter, nor in the CV. Remember: what counts are hard facts.

Hobbies and interests can usually be left out. They may briefly come up in an interview, but there tends to be less emphasis on this with German CVs.

Generally speaking the advice given in Germany is not to include hobbies on a CV. Some people do include a short line or two about interests or hobbies (Freizeitinteressen) but it’s not essential.

Germans tend to like to see date and signatures on pieces of paper (even also stating the city where the document was signed and dated), and traditionally this was the practice for CVs in Germany, but I do not do this as a rule.

Mention Your Availability

Your availability – in other words, when exactly you could take up the job, assuming it were to be offered to you, is an important point of interest to a potential employer in Berlin. Availability in German is called “Verfügbarkeit” or “Verfügbar ab <date> meaning “Available from..”

Most German employment contracts require lengthy periods of notice, typically up to three months, and even six months in some cases.

So if you are available right away, then this will give you an advantage over some of the other candidates.

My advice: If you are available immediately, then make a point of this fact and mention it on your CV and maybe also in your covering letter.  This can give you the edge over other candidates.

Don’t Have Any Lücken in Your Lebenslauf!

Lücken means gaps or holes. For anyone from the ordered world of Human Resources, gaps in your Lebenslauf or CV are absolutely taboo. No one has them.

No one has ever been unemployed, no one has ever travelled or dared to take any time off work for any reason, or done anything else in their life to date other than the daily 9 to 5 plod from the time they left school until they retire.

The reality for many people is of course very different.

However, you cannot single-handedly take on the rigid mentality of Human Resources at this point.

Therefore you will need to make sure you come up with some suitable items to put into the place of any gaps in the dates of your previous employment positions.

Any gaps or Lücken that the HR people find will sure as anything be compulsively poked and prodded at and could then become an issue at an interview, assuming you then even make it that far. Once they start nibbling away at any gaps they can find it will distract from the focus on your positive points which is where you want them to concentrate.

Going to an interview with a gap in your CV dates is about as sensible as going to an interview with a hole in your shirt.

You may not like these attitudes – and I certainly don’t. But the HR people and the employer are the ones with the power at that moment and you have to conform to their expectations if you want to land the job contract. Leave any attempts to re-educate and reform the HR people and their blinkered outlook until after the revolution.

My advice: Keep the Lücken out of your Lebenslauf and all will be well!

The Bewerbungsmappe

Another thing CVs in Germany traditionally include is a “Bewerbungsmappe” or “application folder”.

A Bewerbungsmappe is a folder containing copies of all your relevant testimonials and education and training diplomas and it’s the standard accepted way of presenting all your candidate materials when applying for a position.

I generally bring a Bewerbungsmappe with me when I have face to face interviews, though the employer or client hasn’t always paid much attention to them. Again, it depends on business sector and the company and their attitude.

My advice: Prepare a Bewerbungsmappe and take it with you to the interview

Testimonials or Zeugnisse

German employers do not rely on references in the way that they do in the UK. Instead, your employer hands you a written testimonial (known as a “Zeugnis”) when you leave, a bit like a school report.

The Zeugnis has the advantage that you have something physical in your hand to take away. Once it’s issued it’s yours, it can’t be changed, and you also know what your ex-employer has said about you.

At least in theory…

Testimonials in Germany  are written in a special carefully crafted German “human resources” language code which has developed over the years. This enables employers to be frank about the positive and negative traits of former employees, but without risking any legal comeback or claims for damages for alleged defamation from former employees.

Still, any testimonial is better than none. Not having any testimonials at all to put in front of a potential employer is a black mark in Germany.

My advice: If you can, get your previous employers in your home country to write you a written testimonial. But bear in mind that a testimonial from your home country will be unlikely to be written in the German style, even allowing for the fact that it is in English.

A Complete Job Application or Vollständige Bewerbung

A vollständige Bewerbung is a full or complete comprehensive application.

It includes your CV, a covering letter, and also your Bewerbungsmappe or application folder.

A Vollständige Bewerbung (or vollständige Bewerbungsunterlagen), includes the following:

  • your covering letter (Bewerbungsbrief)
  • your CV
  • copies of school, college and university diplomas or leaving certificates
  • certificates showing professional training courses completed
  • references or testimonials from previous employers

Usually these items, with the exception of the covering letter, are put into a binded folder. You do not have to use an expensive one, a simple plastic folder with a transparent front cover is adequate.

Note that if you send a Vollbewerbung, it is generally the custom for companies to return your Bewerbungsmappe if you are unsuccessful, but they don’t always do this.

My advice: Don’t use your original certificates for your Bewerbungsmappe. The convention is to use copies.

A Short Application or Kurzbewerbung

This is an application which is much briefer and shorter than the full one. Sometimes known as an Initiativbewerbung or Spekulativbewerbung (initiative or speculative application).

This is usually used when you are applying “on spec” for a vacancy which may or may not exist. In such a case you are not normally expected to send a full Bewerbungsmappe.

For this all you need it a covering letter or introductory letter, together with a CV (the CV can be a shorter version as well if you wish). You do not usually send any testimonials or certificates with a Kurzbewerbung.

The Vorstellungsgespräch or Job Interview

So, you’ve found a position to apply for. You’ve put together your CV, your Bewerbungsmappe and your covering letter and sent off your application. And you’ve now been invited to an interview.

You’ll want to find out whether the job interview be in German or English. This will be made clear from the prior communication leading up to the interview.

Whilst job interviews for non-native candidates in Belgium or Holland are often be held in English, Germans usually prefer to interview in German.

Some Web IT companies in Berlin are also more likely to interview in English.

If you’re not fluent enough in German to interview in German, then make sure you let the prospective employer know before the interview. That way they can make any necessary arrangements to ensure they have someone to conduct the interview who can speak English. Better to clarify this in advance rather than cause them problems or embarrassment at the time of the interview.

Du or Sie? – Wait and See!

Like most European languages, German has two main forms of address – formal and informal. “Sie” is the standard form for “you”. “Du” is the informal “you”, and is normally only used amongst friends or people who have agreed to “duzen” or use Du. However, more and more workplaces are adopting Du.

Some job ads also use Du rather than the conventional Sie, and some interviews may be conducted using Du. But the latter is still a minority. So it’s best to assume that for interviews in German, that Sie will be used.

My advice: Take your cue from the interviewer, if he or she suggests switching to Du, or uses Du, then it will be ok for you to do the same. Otherwise stick to Sie.

The next step in your application process will normally be an interview. Unless you’re applying for a special job in a foreign company, this will probably be conducted in German. Get practicing as soon as possible and if you speak only a little of the language, bear in mind that even a few phrases will be appreciated.

Be Punctual – This is Germany After All!

It’s true that Germans are punctual (except when they’re late). I have actually had interviews where the interviewer himself has been late. But punctuality is the norm in Germany and it’s especially important to be punctual for a job interview.

Why Have You Come To Germany?

Even though the EU has been in existence now for over 50 years and EU citizens have free movement throughout Europe, you can still expect to be asked this question. In fact I have been continually asked it all the time I have been in Germany and there seems to be no let up in sight either.

My advice: Best thing is to say that you have come to Germany because the career opportunities are so much better than back home.

Unless the job is a casual or part time one or of fixed limited duration, the prospective employer will also probably want to be assured that you are going to stick around in Germany and are not just here for a few months before travelling off somewhere else. So make an effort to assure them on this point if it comes up in the discussion.

How Old Are You?

This is a question you will probably hear. Germans tend not to have any reservation about asking outright how old you are.

Whilst in some countries asking someone’s age is considered rude and is not done, in Germany there is no such inhibition. It can be evidence of ageism, but is more to do with the fact that Germans consider age rather like some sort of industrial gauge which they can refer to in order to instantly classify and pigeon-hole you.

What to Wear to a Job Interview in Berlin

One look around the main streets of central Berlin and one of the first things you notice is how few suits there are to be seen. This is after all Berlin and not Wall Street or the City of London.

But even so, the best advice is to dress formally for the interview, or at very least semi-formally. Even though it’s Berlin, it’s still a job interview. Dress codes in many German work environments these days are informal, which means jeans and sneakers are often ok even in an office.

But turning up more formally dressed for the job interview shows you are willing to make an effort when the occasion demands. And a job interview is after all an “unnatural” and potentially tense encounter. Sticking to boring formal for the interview also means you avoid the minefield of potential prejudice and personal opinions of the interviewer.

Otherwise job interviews in Berlin run much the same as in other western countries, though Germans don’t tend to go in for much small talk, preferring to get down to the business itself. Discussing your private life, interests or hobbies is also not usually done.

My advice: try to project a calm and confident persona in the interview and stick to practical hard facts rather than hard sell.

Don’t forget to ask questions and imply that you are keen to take the job when you get to the end, that is assuming you are – but without coming over pushy about it.

Although most German employers do not like overbearing people or those who are over-confident or big-headed, they do like to employ people who are positive and confident.

My advice: Ask for the job at the end. For example: “Assuming you choose me for this position, when would you like me to start?” And say that you would like to accept the job if it is offered to you.

Salaries for Jobs in Berlin

Unlike in the UK, salaries (Gehalt or Gehälter) tend not to be explicitly stated in job listings or advertisements in Germany. The salary is usually negotiated at the conclusion of the interview process.

So you will need to find out what the going market rate is for your profession in Berlin so to make sure you do not pitch your salary request too low.

Generally, salaries in Berlin are a little lower than in Western Germany. It’s often the case that a “13th month” salary or bonus is paid at the end of the year. Salaries are quoted as monthly or yearly amounts, never weekly.

My advice: As with all price negotiations, it’s better to pitch your “Wunschgehalt” or desired salary a little higher. That gives you some bargaining room to come down a little if need be.

Good Luck with your job search in Berlin!

One more thing…

Get the Best out of Berlin by Learning German

About the best thing you can do to get the best out of your stay in Berlin is to learn to speak German as soon as you can.

And there’s one German course in particular that stands out way above the rest. It’s called GermanPod.

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german_desktop_250x250GermanPod – The Best Language Course For Expats in Berlin

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