I'm not going to say I'm an expert, but I have a decent record in generating interest in my work and getting hired (apparently).
Recently I was emailed by someone on Archinect, asking what my secret is. It's not a secret, so I'll just tell you here what you might be doing wrong and how to make it right.
Presuming, of course, that your work is the highest calibre possible and contains no elevations of a Sunglasses Hut kiosk proposed for a mall in the central USA... Let's begin.
1. Your CV
a. Introduce text & graphic hierarchy.
If I have problems seeing how your life is organized, and dates, places, and names of firms/educational facilities aren't standing out to me? Probably not going to hire you. Everything has the same importance if it's the same size and weight, so don't do that. On the other hand, don't get crazy with different fonts and graphic styles and colours. Just make it really simple and easy to read and don't make me hate you for choosing a super rounded or super condensed font that taxes my eyes.
b. Don't rate your skills.
Your opinion of your skills is meaningless to your potential employer, unless you are a Nobel prize winner. You think you are an expert at Photoshop, and I could show you 50 things you don't know. Just list what you have the most real experience and aptitude in and leave other things out. No one will hire you because you can operate every known software - they will hire you because what you can do great things with what you know.
Also, don't put that you're a fast learner. You're not. You process information at the same speed as everyone else in your field or you wouldn't be applying to my firm--you would be running your own.
c. Let them know you are a real person, but only slightly.
Potentially the only place you should hint at your non-architectural personality is within your CV where you list other interests outside of your chosen design field. But please, don't put 'travelling' or 'new experiences' or 'sunset walks on the beach'. If you have real skills (like playing an instrument, or playing a team sport, or volunteering with a local organization), list it under 'interests' at the end of your CV.
d. Experience first, then education.
I want to know what you have done, followed by who educated you. Include accolades at the end, as long as you can fit it within a double-sided page. Going beyond that is just pretentious assholery.
e. Your references should be available upon request.
You don't have to list them, but it's good to know that you have someone who is willing to speak for your skills and accomplishments, even if your potential employer doesn't have time to contact them.
f. You need a web presence.
Get your work onto Issuu at the very least so that when someone googles your name, they find something awesome instead of nothing. (Speaking of that, you might try googling your name to see what comes up). You could also try a free website at cargo-collective or a paid website through squarespace. It's worth it.
2. Your Cover Letter
Here is what you need to state very matter-of-factly in your cover letter:
- Who you are and what you can do - boil your entire CV down to one or two sentences.
- What you want out of your experience.
- How you know about the firm and what you admire about them.
- Sincere thank you for their time.
Things to leave out:
- travel experiences
- anything which could be construed as bragging.
- anything that takes time from a busy person and forces them to read about YOU (the person) rather than YOU (the skilled designer).
- desperation ("I REALLY NEED this job and will relocate ANYWHERE")
Your skills and design work should speak for themselves.
If your last firm liked you so much, why don't they hire you back? Simply mention your work experience and relevant skills you learned. That's it.
If you have to talk about what a likable person you are and what a team player you are, it makes me think you are not really those things. I also think that everyone is somewhat likable, after all, you had to function at a basic human level to get through post-secondary school so it's clear you're not a troll or a hermit. Being likable is not really a special feature that's unique to you; furthermore, I'm not going to hire you because you are nice, I would hire you because you have awesome skills and respected my time.
Your ability to work well with others should all be evident from your portfolio (i.e., how you represent team work within by crediting others).
3. Your Portfolio
a. Customize based on where you *REALLY* want to work.
Have you made a list of the top 5 or 10 firms you really feel like you belong at? Whose philosophy or approach you feel so in tune with, it's practically a new religion? You need to research the hell out of them. Look at their graphic style, look at how they present their work, look at what their focus is. Then make a mirror image of that, except better, within your portfolio.
Make differently focused portfolios depending on the work that the firms you like are doing and what YOU want to be doing. One firm has an emphasis on public cultural institutions? You better have a portfolio tailored showing how you're qualified for that. Another firm does health care and education? Show how you can really contribute to their practice. Every project in your portfolio must be THE BEST project you've done, ever. I mean, there can be no boring parts, no 'just okay' projects.
b. Get bored, fast.
Redesign your graphics and portfolios once every 25-50 applications. Because if it's not getting you results within 25 applications, you need to change something. Drastically.
c. Get inspired, i.e., steal other people's ideas.
You need to spend many, many, many weeks obsessing over your presentation and graphic style. Look at projects on archdaily and notice the drawings and images you think are the most compelling, then copy the style for your projects. (Copy the STYLE, not the project!) Find a magazine or book whose graphic style you think is amazing (architectural book stores are great for this) and take pictures and copy the layouts. Gather all the fruits of the overwhelming amounts of information and inspiration you have at your fingertips online and become a typographic/graphic design/layout genius. I basically just gave you permission to live on Pinterest for a week.
d. Keep it interesting and short.
Resist the temptation to show everything (every supporting drawing, diagram, model photo, or rendering). Limit yourself to your top 3-5 projects. Edit your work until only the creamiest of your crop remains that shows a wide range of your skills. Respect the fact that the person looking at your application is a very important, very busy person.
In general, your portfolio should be 95% graphics--presented in a clear, legible graphic style--and 5% extremely relevant text that reveals how intelligent and brief you can be (and reflects the latest understanding of legibility, hierarchy and graphic design).
4. The presentation of your application
a. There is no such thing as 'to whom it may concern'
You want your application to get to the eyes of the person who has the ability to make decisions about hiring. Therefore you must ALWAYS address it directly to the partner(s) of the firm, along with their titles. Go to the websites of the firms you like, and get the names of all the important people. If you are emailing your application, get the partners' email address. If their email address isn't online, phone the firm and ask for it. You don't have to tell them you are making an application, just ask for the email.
b. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
If you are able to speak their language, make your application and portfolio in that language (yes, even if it means having multiple versions of your applications!) and get someone to proof read your work to ensure there are no errors. If you're applying in English for a job in a country where the native tongue is not English, try for at least one intro sentence in the native language before explaining that you're still learning and will continue in English. At least then they know you're making an effort.
c. Revise your graphic hierarchy again. And again.
You need to introduce the same graphic hierarchy to your cover letter that you used in your CV and portfolio, which shows a totally streamlined application from start to finish. Sending hardcover portfolios? You're going to spend money to print everything, so it needs to be perfect. Just a note that 10pt font is generally sufficient for body text on a printed page. Take careful note of the typography you use and make test prints to ensure legibility. Don't choose text families that are difficult to read even if they look interesting.
d. Respect yourself - don't spread your portfolio around to places you don't really want to work, or can't see yourself learning from.
When you've killed yourself creating the perfect application, send just 10 portfolios to your top choices. If they are printed, make sure to include a postage-paid envelope to ensure their safe return. I'll be surprised if you have to re-use any of your portfolios.
It takes time to research and prepare applications. Unsolicited applications are fine - you don't have to be responding to a job ad (although that's cool if you do - just that about 20 000 other unemployed people are doing the same thing). The great thing about spending a lot of time to prepare is that you will really know which firms you feel you can fit in well with, so even if they aren't advertising a position you'll feel comfortable sending them your work because it is so aligned.