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It is important for junior people to be eager to grow and adapt

How to apply for a junior position

Ismail Coskuner
September 30, 2020

A bad cover letter means "game over" as soon as you press the start key. It doesn't matter how skilled an applicant is if they can't deliver a good first impression and get their foot in the door to interview. That's why cover letters are arguably the most important part of any job, internship, or college application. However, I am running into poorly written cover letters every day over and over again. Sometimes I evaluate one at work, sometimes I help a friend fix theirs. Yet, I am not surprised because it is hard to write a good cover letter if a person hasn't been on the other side of the equation and evaluated many. The situation gets more complicated for junior roles, including internships and apprenticeships.

The cover letter confusion

The candidates applying to junior roles are perplexed about how they can create a strong pitch while they have only entry-level skills. Even a quick Google search reveals FAQ's like:

  • How do I write an application letter for college admission?
  • How do I write a cover letter for an internship with no experience?
  • How can I increase my chances of getting a job?

The first page results for all these high demand queries are all very shallow. You are reading this article, so there is a good chance you've already searched for something similar and followed different links. If you haven't, let me recap them all and spare you the trouble. First, they recommend writing a 3 paragraph cover letter using a template outlined:

  1. Introduce yourself
  2. Explain why this job/role is important to you (what you can get out of this)
  3. Explain why you are the best option for the position (what you can give back to the organization)

Structure-wise it looks ok, but if the candidates don't have a clear idea of what to fill the template with, the template is useless. This is the point most people get lost or demotivated. Now they are told they need to justify how they are "the best option for the position" but the fundamental problem was that they didn't even know how to showcase their entry-level skills. Thankfully these sources continue with other "useful" tips:

  • Mention awards and achievements you've received that may benefit the company.
  • Talk about educational experience and how the courses you've taken have helped prepare you for the position.
  • Say you are passionate about the role and you will put your best effort to deliver valuable work.

It is almost impossible to separate oneself from the rest as a junior talent using these tips. From an evaluator's perspective, it is very common to see four-year degrees, honor rolls, certain curriculum courses, and self-proclaimed hard-workers. Rarely a candidate would have something distinctive like a patent or a paper published in a well-known magazine as a student which is refreshing, but besides that most of the applications are just very similar and they roughly sound something like this:

I am applying to your Jedi padawan position. I am a great communicator and I work hard to deliver results. I took an "Intro to Lightsabers" course and "Dual wielding" elective in Jedi academy so I have experience with using lightsabers.

May the force be with you, but it is very challenging to understand the fabric of a person with statements like this. Probably at this point, you are asking "If not for the skills and capabilities, why are the organizations hiring junior talent?" . Let's jump right into it.

Why do companies hire for junior positions?

When a person is applying for something, really anything, the first question should always be "What is the motivation of the other party?" . Why would companies look for junior talent instead of hiring senior people who have years and years of experience to fill all their roles and solve all their problems? At the first glance that might make sense, but it is very far from the truth. There are a lot of downsides to hiring too many senior people and creating a top-heavy organization. Here are some examples:

  • First things first, it is just so hard to find senior and experienced people. Demand for skilled and experienced people beats supply in almost every area.
  • It is a waste to use a senior talent for smaller tasks. What is a chore for them can be an exciting learning opportunity for junior talent. Would you peel an apple with a surgical laser?
  • As a person gets more senior, they want to solve problems on a bigger scale. Most of the time, that entails leading a team or a task force since the problem is too big for a single person. Organizations need to have less experienced people to form these teams to support and learn from an experienced leader.
  • With seniority and experience, people also get more opinionated. Don't get me wrong, in general having different views is great for seeing behind all the corners. The problem starts when there are too many of these opinions and they are strongly held. That generally leads to discussing even the most trivial things for a long time.
  • Growing people internally is a great way to protect the values of an organization. Hiring externally for senior roles can cause a big shift in the culture of an organization.

Note that we didn't even touch the financial reasons. I hope it is now clear why the organizations need a healthy supply of junior talent coming in. All a candidate needs to do is knocking on the door — in the right way.

Tips for crafting a successful cover letter

Remember our common template from the beginning of the article? Let's recap:

  1. Introduce yourself
  2. Explain why this job/role is important to you (what you can get out of this)
  3. Explain why you are the best option for the position (what you can give back to the organization)

At the time, we were not sure about what to do with #3. Luckily in the previous section, we dove into the minds of the organizations. Now we can use the template with some guidance. Here is a list of DO 's and DO NOT 's:

  • DO show that you have a Growth mindset . Be curious and up for challenges.
  • DO NOT think you need a complete skill set. There is of course a bar for skills, but it is not as high as you think.
  • DO NOT feel insecure. Almost all the people in the organization you are applying to will be more skilled than you. That is by design. You shouldn't feel insecure, but I also know you will feel insecure anyway because of Imposter Syndrome . It is a real deal, learn about it to catch it when you are having that fallacy.
  • DO be humble. Don't be overconfident. Acknowledge that you are just at the beach, running towards a big sea of knowledge. Make sure you mention that your soles are burning and you can't wait to jump right in!
  • DO mention your other skills that could be useful in your role. Every person is full of life experiences that are not in the job definition. Have you been managing a student club at your university? Have you been volunteering to teach high schoolers? List what you have learned from those experiences and how you see yourself using those skills in your new role. Especially leadership potential and communication/collaboration skills are distinguishing indicators for a junior candidate.
  • DO NOT repeat boilerplate things. Try to make your application as unique as possible by giving examples or conveying your plans. For example, don't just say "I want to learn new things" , instead try saying "I took an ML course online and got interested in it. I follow your blog posts and it looks like you are using ML to solve X, Y, Z problems. That's why I think this role/your company is a great place for me to continue growing in this area"
  • DO NOT write a generalized cover letter and use it to apply different positions and companies. Those are easy to catch for a trained eye and it devalues the application greatly. Try to internalize the role and imagine yourself doing it for a long time. What do you like about that image? If you can't internalize it, maybe it is a sign that the job is not a good fit for you.
  • DO give examples of your persistence. Have you failed something 9 times and succeeded at 10? Did you have a bug that took you a month to figure out? What did you learn from it? How did you feel when you overcame the challenge?
  • DO care about the composition. Your cover letter shouldn't be too short and shallow, but it should still be concise and well-structured. Watch out for typos and grammatical errors. Invest some time in learning basic writing skills, even if it is 2 mins .

Final Notes

Applying to roles is hard. It is even harder and more intimidating for junior people since it is uncharted territory for them. But in the end, it is all about having a growth mindset, being hungry for learning, having a personal development plan, and healthily communicating all these.

Before we part, I want to raise a friendly warning: organizations differ . The companies I portrayed here are the ones that care about their people and invest in them. There are unfortunately other, not so proper reasons for hiring junior people like lowering labor costs, maintaining low complexity manual work, etc. Please do yourself a favor and stay away from those types of companies.