Read on to learn about common mistakes that people make in their applications, and some things that German employers LOVE to see and that are maybe not so common in your home country.
Should You Write Your CV in German?
Let’s look first at the issue of language.
Many expats here believe that translating their CV and cover letter into German is quite important. But the HR managers and recruiters we talked with told us they all speak English, and they are happy to receive English CVs.
If the job ad is in English, it is definitely appropriate and may even be preferred to send your application in English. But of course, there are cases when it might be better to write your application in German:
if the job ad states that fluent German is a requirement
if the company has no English on their website
if the job ad itself states that applications are preferred in German
if you'll be doing casual work in customer-facing settings — where you'll most likely need at least B1-level German.
If the job is really interesting, or you think you would be the perfect candidate for it, you should apply no matter what the language requirements are for the position.
Think of the job ad as a wish list for everything the recruiters would like to see in an ideal candidate: In the real world, hardly any candidate is going to meet ALL of those requirements, so your task is being one of the best candidates they will screen. If you don’t have the desired language skills but you meet 75% of the ad’s requirements, it is still worth applying. Your aim is just to get your foot in the door with an interview and let your personality and experience take it from there.
Our HR contacts told us that for the right candidate, and for a really skilled position or a hard-to-fill position, they will absolutely talk to a candidate who doesn’t have German skills — even if they listed German as a requirement in the job ad. And remember that for professional jobs if you have all the other skills a company wants, they are usually willing to give you time to learn German once you’re in the role — many companies even sponsor employee participation in German classes.
Want to Get a Head Start? Sign up for German Classes, Online or In-Person
Make Sure Your Documents Are Complete and Error-Free
When you submit your application, it is really important that everything in the cover letter and CV is well-formatted and error-free.
German employers are very thorough and pay close attention to applicants’ documentation, so we'll easily notice formatting and spelling mistakes.
German companies truly value a clean, professional, and error-free application. So be sure that you always have your CV and cover letter proofread by someone with excellent editing skills, no matter what language it’s in.
If you choose to write your application in German, definitely make sure you have a native German speaker review it for you. If you can’t get a native German speaker to review and edit your CV and cover letter, it’s actually better to submit them in perfect English, no matter what kind of job you’re applying for. If English isn’t your native language, again, find a native speaker to review your documents before submitting them.
Another good tip is to submit your CV and cover letter in PDF format, to make sure that the layout isn’t distorted when opened on another computer. Try printing out a copy of your application to see how it will look in case the recruiter reviews it on paper: is the typeface too small, or are the colors faint and hard to read when printed?
Paying attention to these details can make a big difference in the competitive recruitment process.
What You Should Include in Your CV
In Germany, it is common to include certain pieces of information in a CV that would be unusual or even illegal, in other countries. So let’s talk about some of the special things German employers usually expect to see in your application.
The first big surprise for many international applicants is that German applicants often add their birthdate to the CV.
Even though anti-discrimination laws in some countries would forbid this, in Germany it is still quite usual to put your birth date in your personal information section.
The recruiters we spoke with said this is not meant to judge you for being too old or young for a position. Rather, they want to know: have you had an appropriate amount of professional experience in your life given your age? For instance, if you’re 40, and you’ve only had one job for five years, that might not look very impressive. But if you’re 25 and you’ve only ever had student jobs, then they would understand if this were your first application for a professional position.
Also, keep in mind that people in Germany tend to stay in university for much longer than in other countries. In the US, it’s common to be finished with an undergraduate degree by age 22 or 23, but in Germany, many people remain in higher education until they’re 25, or even 30.
Another surprising feature of German CVs is a photo.
This should be a professional headshot, ideally. Many photo studios in Germany offer Bewerbungsfotos, or application photos, for a reasonable price. If you decide to take your own photo at home, make sure you are wearing professional dress and are well-lit, standing against a neutral background. Try to take a high-resolution photo if you can, so that the image looks clear when you upload it into your digital CV. The picture should be roughly the size of a passport photo and should be placed towards the top of your CV, where your name is.
In the job applications we’ve seen, some people try to use candid pictures where they have cropped out friends, or casual photos that were taken in social settings. But this doesn’t look very professional, so we definitely recommend getting an applicant photo done in a studio, or at least staging a professional-looking photo in your home as best you can. It makes your application look more serious, and sends a signal to recruiters that you care enough about the position to put some effort into presenting yourself professionally.
As an international applicant, one crucial detail we always recommend including in your CV is your nationality and your work permit status.
If you are from outside the EU and you already have work permission, add that right at the top with your personal info. If you have dual citizenship — for example, US and Italian — include both of these so it’s clear that you can legally work in the EU. This helps recruiters understand how much time and effort the company might have to invest in hiring you.
Remember: It is helpful to already have work permission, but it is not necessarily an obstacle to getting hired if you’re applying for the right position!
One personal detail that used to be common in German CVs — but has fallen out of favor in recent years — is marital and family status.
Some applicants still include this information in their CVs, but the recruiters we talked to, told us this is no longer strictly expected. For women, in particular, this topic can be a sensitive issue, since traditionally in Germany it has been assumed that mothers stay home with their children until they reach school age. As times have changed and women’s workforce participation in Germany has grown, employers have gradually stopped expecting applicants to provide information about their family status in their CVs.
Another thing to include in your CV, which is perhaps not so unfamiliar, is an “About Me” or “Profile” section under your personal information.
You can use this section to summarize your career and highlight some key points that might be relevant for the particular job you’re applying to. This is especially helpful if you have a diverse educational and career history, and you want to emphasize parts of your background that correspond to the position you’re applying for.
Employers also appreciate it if you include a “Hobbies” section in your CV, to show that you’re well-rounded and have a life outside of work.
Any sports or intellectual hobbies, like music or art, reflect well on an applicant. Just make sure that you tell the truth here, since the interviewer might ask you about this, and you want to be convincing in case they happen to share your interests!
It is also important to have a “Languages” section in your CV.
Even if it is obvious from your work and educational history, you can include that you’re a native speaker of your particular native language(s).
And if you’re studying German or have recently studied it, include the level of the last class you’ve taken. Even if you’re only beginner level (A1) and your German is still pretty elementary, it looks good to show employers that you’re making an effort to learn.
You should also list any other foreign languages you know, including your level of proficiency for each language.
Finally, make sure you always include German contact information on your CV.
It is quite a bit harder to get interviews if you’re living overseas, so if you can show recruiters that you’re already here by listing a German address — even if temporary — and phone number, your chances of being called in for an interview grow significantly.
Remember: Make sure to get a prepaid German SIM card as soon as you can after arriving in Germany so that it's clear to recruiters you're not a tourist, and to ensure you can be easily reached by recruiters for screening calls or to schedule an interview.
Watch Our Workshop on How to Get a Job in Germany
How to Format Your CV
The best advice is to try and make it as personal as possible — don’t use Times New Roman or Arial fonts, and don't rely on the Europass CV format, they are all predictable and boring. You can be quite creative with the layout of your CV or tailor it through font, color, and a really good CV photo.
What about length? In many countries, it is strongly discouraged to have a CV longer than one page. But in Germany, your CV can definitely be two to three pages — or even more, if you have a long career history.
American candidates never put enough information about anything in their CVs.
A recruiter we've talked to stressed the importance of including a detailed description of all the jobs, volunteer experiences, educational credentials, training courses, or any other relevant professional information in your CV.
Another German recruiter told us that it’s confusing for them that international applicants often studied one subject in university, then worked in many diverse jobs that have nothing to do with their degrees. A great way to address this through layout is to highlight certain skills and experiences in your “Profile” or “About Me” section, as we mentioned before.
Try to avoid empty space in your CV: If your last page is two-thirds white space, try to include more information in the descriptions of your educational and work history, or include more items in your profile or hobbies sections. You can also adjust the size of the font and the placement of information so that you don’t end up with too much white space on the last page.
Also, make sure that you address gaps in your career history. German recruiters are suspicious of ‘missing’ information or blank spaces in your timeline. So if you do have a large gap, it’s best to mention that you were on a sabbatical, traveling the world, or doing further education, as long as you can show evidence that this is true, of course.
A Few Tips About the Cover Letter
We've learned that recruiters have strong and mixed opinions about cover letters. For some, it's an unnecessary waste of time while others do read and highly appreciate them. At Expath, we are fans of a well-written cover letter, so here are our recommendations. From our applicants, we love a full one-page cover letter (or even a good one-paragraph email) that illustrates your personal story of being an expat and why and how you are motivated to help others settle here.
Most cover letters are terrible in any language. Germans can’t write them in German, and English speakers can’t write them in English.
We found this quite encouraging actually, as it means that writing a good cover letter gives you a serious chance to stand out from the crowd — maybe even above some of the German applicants!
When you write a cover letter, it's important to include as many specific details as possible. Recruiters get hundreds of generic cover letters a month, and the ones that stand out are those who can clearly state: why are you interested in THIS job, at THIS company, and what makes YOU the best candidate for the role?
If you can address your letter to a specific person, this is even better. It might not always be possible, but if you can find the name of the HR manager or hiring manager on the company’s website, use this in your message. If you use a generic greeting like, “Dear Sir or Madam,” make sure you name the company right in your first sentence, so they immediately see that you took the time to customize your application. Also, if you found the position through an ad on a print or online jobs platform, make sure that you refer to the job ad in your letter to explain how you found the role. And then, use your letter as an opportunity to say something really distinguishing or special about yourself to stand out from the crowd. If there are particular experiences in your CV that you want to highlight as being relevant for the role, this is the chance to do it.
Finally, remember to proofread your CV and cover letter carefully! We cannot emphasize this point enough, because having a spotless application is essential for German recruiters and potentially your entry ticket to your future job. If English or German is not your native language, make sure you get a native speaker to help you review your CV and cover letter carefully.