I distinctly remember being in my junior year of college and seeing people older than me start to struggle through the job application process. I, a fool, thought to myself, “That won’t be me. I’ll be qualified and apply for a bunch of jobs and definitely be employed when I graduate.” Spoiler alert: it didn’t work out that way. The past year and a half I’ve applied to jobs on and off, which is completely draining in ways I never expected.
In the US, there’s the idea, both implicitly and explicitly, that you are defined by your career. Productivity as a national value is pervasive throughout our culture, with an emphasis on doing rather than being. It can be found in the disdain for the people who cannot be “productive members of society,” the failure to acknowledge that they have value beyond what they do.
When getting to know new people, one of the first things we ask is what they do. It is the most vital piece of information about someone after their name, the door to their overall character. Children are asked from a young age, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It conflates doing with being. They learn to answer teacher or doctor or ballerina (if they’re a girl). If a career is an answer to being, then a lack of career means that you are not.
With these values pushing for attention in the back of one’s mind, the already grueling application process takes on a larger than life meaning. Being an applicant is a vulnerable position. You lay it all out and ask someone to take a chance on you, though it’s not nearly as fun as the song by ABBA.
In a cover letter, you have less than a page to declare who you are as a person and why you should be considered for the role. It is an absurd task. For me, it’s probably the hardest part. I have an easy time writing the first sentence or two, usually with some anecdote to introduce myself in a way that isn’t completely dry. The rest of the cover letter, where I actually have to sell myself, is an uphill battle.
My cycle is as follows: I find a job I am genuinely excited about and believe I would be a strong candidate for. I feel confident and excited. I begin to fill out the application and arrive at the cover letter, at which point my confidence plummets. I proofread my cover letter and recover a sliver of my lost confidence. I submit the application, don’t hear back, and then dejectedly apply to jobs that seem perfectly adequate.
No matter what parts of the process you specifically struggle with, from looking to applying to interviewing, job searching is draining. Part of what makes it so hard, in addition to proving our worth through career, is the idea that it is a completely merit-based system when it has so much to do with connections and luck. I have one friend who applied for a job for which she was well-qualified and didn’t hear back at all. A year later she applied again backed by powerful connections and was offered the job less than a month after applying.
There’s so much you can’t control when applying to a job: what positions are open, who’s reading your application, what mood that person is in. But you can actively work on how you think about it. You can put space between who you are and what you do. You can take stock of what’s good in your life as it is. You can recognize that the outcomes of your applications are not a reflection of your character and worth. No matter where in the process you are, know that you’re not alone.