When applying for a job in Germany you need to provide two documents:
- a so-called application letter ("Bewerbungsschreiben") and
- a CV.
And copies of your qualifications of course.
Both follow local custom and German application letters as well as CVs look different than other nation's CVs. What they all face is: they need to reveal the sought for information at a glance, and, they need to stand out.
Even if you are only seeking a new team member for a very small set-up, HR receives minimum 10-15 applications and the number increases dramatically the more known the company is. Hence, it is all about making your application taking the first hurdle: make it to pile A which will get a thorough look.
In my experience, HR only reads the initial paragraph, usually 1-2 sentences, of the application letter before switching to the CV. Hence, these two sentences must hit home. Better not waste it with standard phrases. A good way to start would be "I think I am the perfect match for your vacancy because I have done ...". In Germany, experience is very, very important. "We" do prefer an applicant who has done the exact same thing over another who has proven that he/she dealt with a variety of challenges successfully, but not exactly with what the task is about. That means for those with the variety of challenges mastered, to finetune the wording in a way that makes the HR manager understand that the qualification you gathered by mastering them are exactly the qualities he is requesting. In order to do that, you best use the very own expressions of the job offer.
Now, the second look wanders to the CV. And it starts with the photo. As much as it is discriminating because no-one can validly claim he is not a victim to his very own prejudices, it is still a provincial remnant that is a requirement out of long use in Germany. Hence, pay the 40-50 EUR a good photographer charges and set your face in the best light possible. The photo is an absolutely important part, you will be shifted to the wrong pile of applications if the HR manager does not like your photo. I personally admit that I am just as "German" as many other HR managers: I like having a photo. And I admit to having shifted applicants to the "wrong" pile just because of "appearance" - a horrible thing to do. However, hiring a person is like growing a family, a work family, but still a circle of human beings who will be sitting closely together for the most of the day, the week, the year. The personality of the new team member is just as important as his qualifications and a photo reveals some of the personality - or, to put it more correctly - of the presumed personality. However, that's just as valuable as the real personality because it's what we see and expect in the applicant. I also believe that if you present yourselve with a photo with which you feel absolutely comfortable chances are good that the presumed personality is matching with your real personality and you'd be a good match with the new team. It is still somewhat discriminating and a couple of bigger employers waived the requirement especially when applying online.
So. Next is the last relevant job experience. Always. Even if you have just graduated, put your work experience first. The way people do that and like that is very individual. In USA you often use full sentences to describe your role and achievements. That is not so common for German CVs. Here you would rather work with bullet points and short phrases. Sometimes it is just nouns describing your tasks and responsibilities. Mentioning achievements is a relatively new concept to work with. In my opinion, responsibility is more important, but this all depends very much on the job you are applying for. Experience is the most important factor to employ you. Not success. Well, if you ask an HR Manager he would obviously always stress that success is very important, but I stick to my opinion: it is the experience. We Germans don't like surprises. We like to plan. Very. So we try to set-up a task in a way that minimizes risk and that's best done, in our opinion, by relying on people who've been there and done that.
And now remember that the HR manager has only 60 seconds to scan your CV to understand whether you have the experience he is looking for! That's best achievable if you are using the EXACT phrases as the job offer. Unless you are applying for a job in HR where the HR manager is very knowledgable about the qualifications and experiences are required and what they are called, he won't know the value of a technical qualification. However, if you repeat the exact words he knows instantly: yes, that's it. And whoops your application lands on the right pile.
You may ask yourselve how you should achieve that in case you simply don't have the exact experiences required. It is not so difficult. A way may be to repeat the requested qualification by using "abc (similar to XYZ)". If leadership is required, you think hard where you took leadership, irrelevant of your job title at the time. You need experience in Finance and you have only done invoicing? You write "as preparation for the finance function...". There are lots of ways to at least drop the relevant words.
If nothing can be helped and you just don't have it, you need to make your relevant experience, although not the perfect match, interesting. There are many ways to do so. One is a pure aestetics: let your CV look outstanding. Use a background colour, a frame, an unusual display of your experiences. If your CV is "fun" for the eyes to look at, it is easier to say,"ah, let's look at this again, maybe there's something in it after all". I believe it goes without saying that I don't mean "fun" in a way of "funny". We are in Germany - so we are serious! But there are also "serious" colours. The photo again plays an important role. Then it is again experience, but this time you need to make the HR manager understand that you experience qualify you to contribute new (worthwhile) information instead of just doing the same all over again and that that's something good. That means, when doing the name dropping, you need to describe the value of that experience for the experience required. Example: the invoicing again - your experience here will allow you to bring hands-on knowledge about the impact of invoicing for the cashflow/revenue/finance in general and help to optimize processes (ie. get more accurate number for the month's revenue).
Once your CV is on the right pile it will be looked at and compared with others in detail. And there is no way to know why another CV got more attention than yours. When applying myself I always put a lot of work into the application letter, but then, when I received applications I detected that I only scanned the letters and basically relied on the CV only - unless, the letter was somehow catchy. However, it is tremendously difficult to guess what the HR manager might find "catchy". The smaller the set-up is, the easier it is to find out. It may be the same living quarter, the same football club you favour or work-related stuff. There is no reason not to mention private matters if you feel they may be relevant! After all, it is fun if you have someone in the team whom you could chat with about your football club, or in my case vintage fashion. I had a lady applying who was so overly American stating how fantastic she was, that I decided to get to see her, although we Germans normally prefer understatement. In fact she was fantastic, but unfortunately she lacked a bit in the experience when compared to others. I think, I always made the mistake to "repeat" my CV and I think when I ever get into the situtation again I would probably emphasize more on non-CV matters, like personality for instance.
And - as a finishing statement - yes, a rejection is personal, always, but there is but one position! So 10 people need to be rejected by poor HR manager. And whilst it is personal that does not mean that you need to change. It just hasn't been the best match, there was just one that was a wee bit better.
Hope that's helpful!