When 22-year-old Lauren Partridge spotted an advert for an internship at her favourite business and lifestyle podcast, her heart began to race. “It was my dream opportunity, so I couldn’t let it pass me by,” the third-year psychology student says. Well into an eight-month search for a post-uni marketing job, she was well aware that competition for the internship would be fierce.
In an attempt to stand out amidst the legions of podcast host, influencer and CEO Grace Beverley’s fans, Partridge spent two days creating a hand-decorated postal application which she later shared on TikTok. The box included a professionally printed CV matching the podcast’s branding, neatly trimmed self-care and gratitude cards reflecting its theme, and a plethora of creative ideas, presented on a bed of pink tissue paper. “With the way things are going now, it feels like an ordinary CV isn’t going to get you anywhere,” she tells VICE.
Take a quick look at the entry-level job market, and it’s no wonder why young people like Partridge are going the extra mile with their applications. In November, a survey by the Institute of Student Employers found that the number of applicants per graduate job vacancy had reached an all-time high, with employers receiving an average of 91 applications per vacancy – up 17 percent from 2020. “The majority of graduates are massively struggling,” Victoria McLean, CEO of City CV, a career consultancy firm helping graduates improve their CVs and develop their careers, says. “We hear in the news about how there are a million job vacancies right now, but the reality is that these aren’t necessarily the jobs graduates want.”
A member of the class of 2021, Melissa Conway struggled to find a job in which her fashion branding and communication degree came into good use. After signing up to Universal Credit, the 23-year-old eventually began a six-month Kickstart Scheme (a government-funded employment initiative for 16-24 year-olds introduced during the pandemic) in public relations, but soon found herself unemployed again.
So, when a junior creative role opened at ASOS, Conway didn’t hold back. She spent several evenings designing an interactive CV mimicking the brand’s website design and experience, which she documented on TikTok. “There’s stiff competition for jobs in the creative industries at the moment, and I’d seen so many similar CVs go viral,” she says. “Watching people put all this effort in made me feel like I needed to do something to stand out too.”
Conway isn’t wrong: A growing number of young people are using unconventional methods to vie for the attention of recruiters in today’s cut-throat, post-pandemic job landscape. On TikTok, candidates are doing anything to get their foot in the door — from printing their credentials onto t-shirts to including gifts like chocolate and hand sanitiser in their postal offerings. But while they might stand out amongst a recruiter’s overflowing inbox of traditional PDF applications, do these extravagant tactics really improve someone’s chances of landing a job?
“Most employers still use CVs, cover letters or a standard application form to judge candidates on a level playing field,” Anoushka Dossa, director of intern recruitment at Creative Access says. The social enterprise enables young people from under-represented communities to gain access to careers in the creative industries. The creativity and passion Patridge and Conway’s applications demonstrate might be glaringly obvious, but Dossa argues that style shouldn’t come at the expense of substance, and McLean agrees. “Fundamentally, your CV might look cool, but say its content isn’t strong enough, it hasn’t been proofread and it has typos, you’re not going to get an interview.”
Despite glowing feedback from strangers on TikTok (with some even tagging ASOS in the comments to improve her chances), Conway wasn’t selected for an interview — although the fashion giant said they were impressed with her CV. Conway was unsure if the rejection email she received was personal or automated. “A lot of companies use sophisticated technology to screen their candidates, so it’s likely impressive graphics and photos won’t get picked up by applicant tracking systems,” McLean explains.
Melissa Conway's ASOS job application.
So what about physical application boxes like Patridge’s, which are addressed to hiring managers and posted directly to their offices? While McLean believes it would be more valuable for applicants to spend their time expanding their networks, developing relevant skills and showing a commitment to their profession outside of work, she admits that some may be lucky and extra effort could, in a small percentage of cases, swing an interview.
These same tactics worked for Cece back in late 2020. (She asked to remain anonymous to hide her identity from her employer.) At 23, Cece says she spent £50 on applying for a job at a PR company that regularly shared examples of the creative CVs they received on social media. Believing a lavish application was expected, she spent a week creating “a piñata, personalised baubles and even a company magazine” for the vacancy, and she ultimately got the job.
But job applications like these encourage two problematic expectations: that young people need to overwork themselves to be in with a chance, and even worse, that they need to spend their own money to stand out. Partridge says she spent around £15 on materials, professional printing and postage, but whether it’s a tenner or fifty quid, what about those who quite simply can’t afford to spend money on an application?
“A candidate’s chances should not be improved by how much they spend on printing or presenting their application,” Dossa argues. She continues that this immediately puts applicants from more privileged backgrounds at an unfair advantage and that instead, graduates can display their passion by showcasing the fresh perspectives and ideas they can bring to an organisation. Both Dossa and McLean also maintain that sending gifts to a recruiter is highly inappropriate and can count against a candidate, as it risks being seen as an attempt to bribe and undermine the recruitment process.“You should not have to spend your own money in order to receive a fair and objective review of your application,” says Dossa.
Partridge is still waiting to hear if she’s got the internship, although her presentation box impressed recruiters to the extent that she skipped an initial interview and automatically progressed to a second stage. “I think it shows the power of my application and how I distinguished myself,” Partridge says.
On the flip side, Cece’s company has become so inundated with creative CVs — from board games to songs — that hiring managers are no longer opening postal applications and favour traditional applications instead. Now Cece urges young people to reconsider making creative CVs. “They create a significant financial and time burden and create an uneven playing field,” she explains. “Then we wonder why so many creative industries lack true diversity.”
If the job market for young people and graduates seems competitive now, the surging popularity of these lavish, costly applications indicates that it might only get worse.