CV vs Lebenslauf
The first and primary document that most employers will request with your job application is your “Lebenslauf”. A German’s Lebenslauf is very different from an American resume or a European CV. If you want to put together a Lebenslauf, it would be best to search online for a format you like or to refer to a book like, “Die perfekte Bewerbungsmappe” by Hesse & Schrader. This book can also help you to write a cover letter (Anschreiben). Some of the notable aspects of the Lebenslauf include: a photo of yourself, your age/birthdate, your marital status, number and ages of children, your hobbies, and your education from high school level. Often, Lebenslaufe do not contain descriptions of the jobs one has previously held, only the job titles.
Most, if not all, expats will find the Lebenslauf a little strange and a hard format into which to fit their experience. You will notice immediately, that Germans include a lot of personal information, which is common and legal to request. Many times if the HR person who receives your application sees this information missing, they will either immediately discard your application or request that you re-submit it with the missing information. Non-German educations and work histories will also be difficult to fit into the German format. Germans have a more standard and predictable background than people from other countries. It would be very rare, for example, to study history and become an engineer or to study economics and become a Kindergarten teacher. For instance, people who work at banks, study banking from secondary school through university, and then do an internship at a bank. No exceptions.
Another issue with using a Lebenslauf is that the employer may expect that you speak fluent German. This can be problematic because you will not make it through the HR phone interview in order to be able to convince the decision maker that you are the right person for the job, despite the language deficiency. In some companies, the HR people have a checklist of words/skills with which they read the applications. If they do not see the specific items on your application, they will not look deeper to see if your experience fits with the job so you will be passed over no matter how qualified you may actually be. This is yet another reason why networking is important – getting past HR to talk to the decision makers directly will be the key to successfully selling yourself.
Other Expected Documents
In addition to requesting your Lebenslauf or CV and a cover letter, an employer may ask for your Arbeitszeugnisse. In Germany, when you leave a job, you receive a letter of reference (Arbeitszeugnis) from your company summarizing your performance as an employee. Though these letters of reference usually don’t contain anything overtly negative, there is specific language that HR uses to craft the letter to convey to your future employers about how they really felt about your performance. It usually means alot more than it actually says on paper. Every company seems to be in on it and understands the “code”. If you have never worked for a German company before, you will obviously not have any of these documents. Another problem with applying online is that some company websites will not let you submit your application electronically without those additional documents.
If you are trying to obtain a job despite not having mastered the German language yet, your best bet is to use a European CV format. Many suggested formats are available online. You will have to make a judgment call on whether your cover letters should be in German or English. Make sure though that you do not have someone write your cover letter in a high standard that would not be believable to have come from you. You should also mention that due to your non-German background, you do not have any Arbeitszeugnisse, but you would be happy to provide references upon request.