Some general thoughts (mine!) on filling in job applications

(This post is about application forms but I think it can apply to CVs and covering letters).

All of this is my personal opinion and may be at odds with what others think. Each employer will be different and I haven’t got any jobs going at the moment, so my opinion is currently fairly useless 😉 I think it’s good advice though (but then I would say that).

When filling in an application form be aware that your completed manuscript will be viewed by people who may actually know very little about the job for which you are applying, but who know lots about employment in general (that’s why they’re on the selection panel) as well as being viewed by people who do know lots about the job (and who can more easily pick out relevant information if you’ve hidden it in the application which you shouldn’t do).

At this stage, your job is to make it as easy as is humanly possible for anyone who might be looking at your application to see that you are a good candidate.

The sole purpose of an application form (or CV and covering letter) is to get you an interview. Not to get you a job; it’s pretty unlikely to do that. Bear this in mind, and be selective about what you include in your application to make it more effective – don’t just bung in every wonderful thing about yourself.

I failed biology O-level first time round, not because I didn’t know enough about biology (I knew *everything* about O-level biology) but because I hadn’t learned to be selective, or hadn’t listened when someone suggested I should try that strategy.

Many job descriptions (JD) and person specifications (PS) follow more or less the same format these days, and include something along the lines of ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ skills or experience. That’s stuff they think they can’t do without and stuff they’d really like. Don’t be terrorised into thinking that if you don’t have an essential thing then you can’t apply – you might be better than the other candidates, but use some judgement.

One of the types of statements that I’ve seen people ignore include things that don’t seem to relate directly to the job, for example understanding the general importance of equality and diversity. If anything’s on the wanted lists, don’t ignore it entirely or you’ll lower your ‘score’. Have a stab at addressing everything (don’t just miss it out) even if it’s just to acknowledge it (see paragraph above!).

The JD and PS outline the idealised, movie version of the person who the employers want for the job. You need to explain to your application-marking audience how you match up pretty well (even if not perfectly). For this, you need to tether your skills and experience to those requested by the employer, drawing an easy-to-follow path through your document for them.

One way, though of course not the only one, to do this is to use the essential / desirable statements as subheadings and write under each one what you bring to the table. Feel free to be reasonably creative. Your experience and skills don’t have to come from your previous job(s). If the job is interested in your ability to look after finances or do something innovative in websites feel free to mention that you’ve gained experience as treasurer for the local something or other, or that you built your cousin’s highly popular website for them. Relevant experience is what’s important, not where it was acquired (usually).

You are leading the application reviewers towards the unavoidable conclusion that you satsify each criterion, but you do actually have to explicitly lead them there (they’re busy, they’ve got umpteen other applications to look at). This isn’t the time for oblique mentions of brilliant things you’ve done – set it out clearly.

Someone, or more likely someones will be looking at your application not to read it as an interesting narrative, but to pick out the relevant morsels to ‘tick a box’. They will read your application though so put your good stuff in, just make it clear.

Show your workings. Don’t say that “I’m good with computers” or “I work well in a team or by myself” etc., but give specific examples so that your ‘marker’ can see EVIDENCE of this. How have you prioritised your workload? When did you come up against a difficult deadline and what did you do? How did you resolve some minor or major annoyance? Sometimes this will be teased out at interview so you may not need to dwell on it too much at the application stage but do back up your statements with some evidence.

Although you might also include a personal statement which is a bit more narrative-y it really helps to have first made sure that you’ve covered all the required ground. Your application will most likely be skimmed first of all for the words and phrases that highlight how well you match the JD / PS, although pleasantly written text that’s easy to read will help too.

Don’t bury your salient information in delightful prose – get to the point quickly and give examples.

I will say this again because it is so important. Make it easy for people reading your application (who may not know as much about the job and so who may be less able to read between the lines and give you the benefit of the doubt) to see how well you fit. Make sure you list, in some way, HOW your skills and experience match each and every one of the essential requirements – if they don’t match as well as you’d like you may have to think laterally, but for goodness’ sake give it a go.

Relatively FEW people have ALL the skills and experience required for a new job (and you might reasonably ask why they’re applying for more of the same if they do, although they might have a good answer) so don’t be discouraged if you have ‘opportunities for learning’.

And don’t forget you’re entitled to ask for feedback if you don’t get invited for interview.

I hope other employers who feel they have something to add, particularly if they disagree with any of my thoughts, will do so in the comments below.


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2 Responses to Some general thoughts (mine!) on filling in job applications

  1. jobrodie says:

    Weirdly that’s my comment but because it’s been transferred from Posterous it doesn’t show up as me.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I also think it’s important to get the lingo right. For example you didn’t so much "hand your homework in" as "delivered on time and under budget a well-received report on X, submitted as a requirement of a course on Y". That sort of thing 😉

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