How to get ahead in the career race

23rd March 2005, Comments 0 comments

After years of economic gloom and high unemployment, applying for a career job in Europe has become an obstacle course. Here are some tips on getting around the hurdles.

Clearing the second interview is just the first hurdle

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A glimmer of light is appearing at the end of the tunnel for Europe's job-seeking graduates.  Following a difficult period of economic downturn and high unemployment for new entries to the job market, there seem to be more 'help wanted' ads once again.

Although there are now more management positions open than there were a year ago—perhaps in answer to the retirement wave washing through companies as Boomers take their leave—European employers are increasingly wary of being 'stuck' with less than optimal personnel.

To avoid having to manoeuvre through the difficult, and expensive, process of dismissing an unwanted employee, HR departments are being very discerning indeed about who they select for vacant management positions.  And they are doing this by assessing, analysing, testing and re-testing. Below are some of the today's frequently-encountered obstacles in the European job market 'jungle':


The curriculum vitae

The job of a carefully-crafted resume is to get your foot in the door, no more. For this reason it is certainly worth the effort of re-thinking, and re-designing your CV for every job application.

Try to make your experience and education history relevant in some way to the position for which you are applying, although this may not be necessary for much longer.

Top firms such as Unilever are basing their assessment and selection procedures not on the applicant's background, but on competencies and aptitude, making these tests more crucial than ever.


The written application

Practice that penmanship, because an increasing number of firms are requesting hand-written job applications. Whether or not they are actually screened for signs of a mother-fixation or sociopath tendencies remains uncertain, but head-hunters confirm it is a growing trend.

Often you are asked to express your motivation in applying to the company in question, or for the position. Try to be original, keeping in mind there may be hundreds, even thousands, of applicants for the position.


The pre-interview interview

Young actors may be long familiar with the cattle call, but young managers find it unnerving to be herded into a crowded anteroom to face a 15-minute rapid assessment by a panel of HR and other managers. The lucky few are subsequently called back for the next event, sometimes called 'the knockout round'.


The second round interview

This is where you dust off all your lessons from charm school and go for gold. Applicants who drop out at this level will certainly go no further. You should have done your homework very thoroughly by this point, and are conversant in company processes, at least recent history, and can ask some intelligent questions about the industry, the company, the position…and the interviewer.

If you survive this process, it's off to the testing round, where the fun truly begins.


The intelligence test

Today's sophisticated tests include competence in language and communication

Today's very sophisticated intelligence/aptitude tests include spatial orientation and measurement of other cognitive functions, including competence in language and communication methods.

These will focus on verbal reasoning or comprehension (the ability to understand and process written and oral communication); numeric reasoning (the ability to understand quantitative data and arrive at logical inferences from data) and abstract reasoning (the ability to solve complex problems, understand relationships between things and often 'think outside the box').


The personality test

Candidates are usually required to do a personality assessment, and in Europe this is frequently the European variant of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, the ALTI. Find more information, in several languages, at the site of Belgium-based Alert Management, app or take a sample test at or


Cross-cultural competence

Tests for cross-cultural competency are also performed for international management positions. ITAP International offers a range of innovative instruments, (see for more detail, and to take a sample test). Additional tests and information are offered on, and Quintessential Careers offers the most comprehensive list of free assessment and career tests at


The situational exercise

A new and increasingly common twist is the situational exercise. Here important aspects of the job are simulated, and you have to handle, and solve, a number of problems as if you were actually on the job. 

Some sample exercises that you could face:

  • The In-basket Exercise. You will be asked to handle letters, reports, memoranda and messages that are typically deposited in a manager's in-basket for information and action, explaining (in writing) the reasons for your strategies, plans, actions and decisions.
  • The Meeting with a Client. You will meet an external client to discuss issues relevant to a particular situation.
  • The Task Force Exercise. You will be a member of a work-group established to work on problems that the organization is facing and to work toward a consensus on a plan of action.

Handling stress is an important factor in almost any position, and the HR department and assessment centre will have been asked to pay particular attention to your reaction to the unexpected.


The group situational assessment

The final candidates, usually three to ten, are pitted against each other in problem-solving exercises. Here again, research and preparation are of incalculable value. You should know the type of behaviour expected and valued by the company before you ever enter the assessment room – and stay alert. It may be obvious which type of candidate is being sought: as one young woman candidate observed: "It was clear the more loud-mouthed you were the better".


Put things in perspective

All testing agencies have the same advice, however: show up for the tests well-rested and as relaxed as possible. And take the results with a grain of salt.

According to Dutch psychologist and social scientist Peter Tellegen in Intermediar magazine, 'many tests don’t rate much higher than horoscopes qua scientific basis.'

Remember, in the words of HR professor Maria Perez: 'If they don't select you, they may not have been prepared for you. And in that case, they don't deserve you.'

23 March 2005

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Mary van der Boon is founder and principal of Global tmc international management training & consulting, based in the Netherlands - specialising in international HR, intercultural management and diversity.

Subject: Netherlands, jobs and recruitment

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