The Art of the Speculative Application

If you write a speculative application that starts with "Dear Sir/Madam" then you might as well start it with the words "Put me through the shredder!"
The gradsingapore Team
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Did you know that nearly 70 percent of all jobs aren’t actually advertised? Even in a downturn, employers may still be open to speculative applications.

Either way, there's a good chance that many employers won't actually know that they need you until you first put your foot in the door.

So why should you submit a speculative application (i.e. "apply on spec")? There are a few good reasons why. Namely, if you are...

  • ... trying to find work in a specialised or niche sector (e.g. publishing, pet care, creative media, etc.)
  • ... looking to work with an SME. Most smaller companies typically do not allocate a lot of resources to recruitment and attraction, but may still need staff.
  • ... outside of the standard recruitment window. If, for whatever reason, you're looking for a job before or after the peak recruitment periods, it never hurts to try asking if the employers of your choice still have available positions!

Whatever your reasons for applying on spec, here are some tips on breaking into the so-called "hidden" jobs market.

Draw up a shortlist of employers

If you want to work within a specific industry, look up employers in the career sectors that interest you, such as publishing houses and law firms.

For more general roles, you might choose to start by focusing on employers within a particular region.

When it comes to finding out more information about potential employers, good sources include:

  • Newspapers
  • Specialist business and trade publications
  • Magazines and websites by professional associations
  • Local publications that target your area of interest
  • Online business directories

If you still have access to your university’s careers service, it’s worth looking through the information they have on local employers, including reports from alumni.

Remember, personal networks can be useful too! Friends, family members, and friends of family members can all be good contacts to help you get that first foot in the door.

Prepare to apply on spec

Once you have your employer shortlist, you need to do your research. Find out details about the company and get a feel for the kind of work they do. This will help you to show a genuine interest in the employer and make a convincing speculative application.

If an employer is advertising job openings, but is not offering anything that suits your level of experience, make sure you look at their current vacancies anyway; even if they are for bigger roles beyond your reach.

The reason for this is that this can give you an idea of the types of roles, areas of work and skills required for a job with this employer.

You may also pick up on keywords that are used in the organisation’s recruitment advertising to get a hint of their company culture.

Make a personal contact

Finding a named contact is the golden rule of making a speculative application! "Dear Sir/Madam" or "To whom it may concern" letters have a high probability of being ignored.

It’s easy to make a quick phone call to the company to ask for the name of the person who’s responsible for recruiting – then you’ll be able to personalise your letter.

Be tactful about it, though. It's bad form to just go "Hi, what's the name of the person who does your hiring?" at whoever answers your call. A seasoned gatekeeper might just put down the phone there and then.

Try to soften the blow by being honest, yet polite about your reason for calling. (e.g. "Hello, I would like to apply for a position at your company, and was wondering who I should leave my CV with...")   

Stay focused, but also open-minded

Be clear about what you are looking for when contacting potential employers. Remember, it's not just about selling yourself. Making a speculative approach can be a great way to...

  • ... find permanent, temporary or part-time vacancies, work experience, or work shadowing opportunities.
  • ... arrange a time for a chat on the phone, a brief visit, or the opportunity to meet a recent graduate or employee of the organisation.
  • ... learn which other employers in a similar industry may be hiring, even if the one you're contacting isn't interested in having you on board.

Follow up: it’s good to talk

To improve your chances of success, follow up your speculative application with a phone call a few days after you have sent it. Personal contact can create a good impression and make you more memorable.

Even if the employer can’t help with your main request, talking to them will be your chance to ask if there are any opportunities coming up, find out how the organisation typically recruits, and where you should look out for their job ads.