How to write a speculative job application

Jemma Smith, Editor
April, 2021

Speculative applications give you access to a wider variety of roles, because as we know, not all graduate jobs are advertised. This proactive approach can also increase your chance of success in the competitive job market

What is a speculative application?

Making a speculative application means getting in touch with an organisation to ask whether they have a suitable job for you, despite the fact that they aren't advertising a particular vacancy. It usually involves sending a cover letter and a CV.

Of course, major graduate schemes and roles at large companies will usually be formally advertised and you can apply in the normal way - via their websites, more often than not through the submission of an application form.

However, if you rely solely on responding to job adverts you may miss out on a range of opportunities, especially in the charity, design, environmental and media sectors where applying 'on spec' is common practice.

Speculative applications provide a direct route into the company and making contact with recruiters can lead to:

  • temporary or permanent work
  • internships or work shadowing opportunities
  • increased business connections.

Even if it turns out there isn't a job available, your positive approach may impress the employer and they'll bear you in mind for future vacancies.

How do I identify employers?

To be successful with a speculative application you need to be organised so rushing off a standard CV without any context or explanation won't cut it.

Draw up a shortlist of employers to target by focusing on the sectors and companies that interest you. As a starting point, consider the organisations where you've carried out work experience and the companies you've always wanted to work for. Don't discount small, local businesses - it's usually small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that are the most open to speculative applications.

'Make use of your university's careers service for information on employers and to make connections through events and alumni networks,' advises Emma Moore, director of careers and employability at the University of Liverpool. 'Social media can also be a really good way to network, make contacts and find out more about a business - don't limit yourself to LinkedIn, as other platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok can also be really useful tools.'

'You could also attend networking events both face-to-face and online,' says Claire Bashford, careers and relationships manager and the University of Staffordshire. 'Having conversations with those in industry may help dig up employers that do not have a traditional graduate scheme.' 

For more ideas browse employer profiles or attend careers fairs.

Once you've identified where you'd like to work, and have checked that they aren't advertising vacancies, you'll need to do some background research so that you are knowledgeable and well-informed.

Look on company websites to find out how the organisation operates and get a feel for what it does. What projects is it working on? Are there any plans for growth or expansion? Follow the organisation's social media channels to keep up to date with the company's current events and activities.

How do I tailor my approach?

Take some time to think about exactly what you're trying to achieve and what you want to happen next. Are you going to ask for a permanent role or an internship? How are you going to sell yourself to the company? How can you persuade them that you're a good match for what they need? You need to be clear in your own mind before you start sending any applications.

'Sending a standard CV won't work, and it's essential that you tailor your approach to each company,' says Emma. 'Your CV and cover letter need to explain what type of role you're looking for and why you have chosen that company by referring to any key projects they're working on, or their aims and values and why they resonate with you. Demonstrate that you really are interested in their organisation, and then highlight the relevant skills and experiences that you have.'

The emphasis should be on what you can bring to the company, not on what they can do for you, as the last thing you want is to sound like you're begging for work.

If you're applying for a graduate job you're essentially asking the organisation to create a role for you that doesn't currently exist. To stand a chance of success you need to ensure that all the skills and experience highlighted in your application are directly relevant to the company - this can be tricky without a job description to work from so your research into the organisation really is invaluable.

'Look at any current vacancies they have, the job or person specification can infer the skills used in the business, as well as their business make-up,' says Claire.

In order to reach somebody with hiring authority, make sure you send your application to a named contact. If you can't find the relevant contact information on the company website, try searching LinkedIn or make a phone call to ask who is in charge of recruitment. Always be polite in your dealings with the employer.

Discover how to put together a winning application with this example cover letter for a speculative job application.

Should I follow up my application?

About one or two weeks after sending, follow up your application with a phone call. This gives your contact time to read your email - while it's good to be persistent, pestering the company will not show you in a good light.

'This proactive approach demonstrates confidence and enthusiasm,' says Claire. 'It should go without saying, but do not be pushy and always be polite in all your dealings with an employer.'

Should the employer decide they'd like to meet you, it's time to explore interview tips. Be aware that you may be offered something different to what you asked for - for example, a work placement or internship instead of a graduate job or a temporary role instead of a permanent position. At this stage you can be flexible, but don't automatically accept - make sure you think about whether the offer they put on the table is right for you.

'You might get a few knock-backs, but making personal contact is so important,' adds Emma. 'Even if they can't help you immediately you can find out more about how they normally advertise, and learn about opportunities that might be coming up in the future.'

Claire also points out that while an employer may not be able to offer you an opportunity, they could put you in touch with someone who could help.

Just because your application has been unsuccessful doesn't mean you can't use this opportunity to learn something. Ask for feedback on your application and how you can improve future speculative approaches.

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