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Writing a good job application

Writing a really good job application takes some time and effort, and is unfortunately a skill that you don’t learn anywhere other than through experience, getting some good advice, and giving some really good hard thought to what the selection panel that will be reading them is looking for. Collected here are some thoughts and tips written from the point of view of someone who has not only had to write some good applications to get the jobs I’ve held, but also who has sat on quite a few selection and interview panels:

Firstly – an application form is not the same thing as a CV

When a job advert asks you to complete an application form, it is usually because they are looking for you to provide specific information that they want – not a generic CV. If you ignore this and send them a generic CV anyway, you stand almost zero chance of being invited to interview.

If you complete the application by effectively just copying and pasting your CV into the most appropriate boxes – you are displaying a lack of consideration for what the employer has asked you to do, and giving them the impression that you are either lazy or not a good listener/reader.

Finally, while you tend to try and pack all your experience and job history into a CV (or at least as much of it as you can fit into 2-3 pages), when responding to an application form you should try to be much more targeted with what you include. For example under sections like “employment history” and “other relevant experience”, you should really consider if an item is ACTUALLY relevant in any way before you include it. If you decide that it is, but that might not be immediately obvious to the employer, be sure to explain why it is relevant when you describe the job or experience.

Example: You spent a couple of years in a cadet program and learned about how to handle firearms. Does this have any relevance to a job providing advice and support to service users of a charity? For the most part, no, so you may not want to include it since it will only distract and confuse the selection panel. However the person spec might call for candidates that can demonstrate “trustworthiness and a careful approach to potentially volatile situations”. In which case you could perhaps make that experience relevant, but you will need to explain why. So you could then include it and say in the description something like:

“During the cadet program I had to learn how to handle firearms. This taught me how to take a mature, cautious and methodical approach, as this was essential. I have found this skill has transferred well to other situations which require a similar approach for different reasons.”

You see what we did there? In a short paragraph we told the selection panel how this piece of experience means you meet one of the criteria of their person spec for the role. We made it really easy for them to “tick the box” for that element by giving a real example of something you actually have done that demonstrates the desired trait. This is what application form writing is all about.

Respond directly to the entire person specification

As in the example above, the biggest way in which you can make your application stand out and maximise your chance of being considered for selection is by making it as easy as possible for the selection panel to decide you have the skills and personal characteristics they are looking for in a candidate. For this you absolutely must read the “role profile” and/or “person specification” if these are provided. Any good job advert will tell you what they want, and your job in applying is to tick as many of those boxes as possible. You can’t do that if you don’t consider them carefully.

Many applicants still fill in forms like they are answering essay questions from school. Consider the job the selection panel is having to do for a moment. They will be sitting at some point with what might be a large pile of forms to go through, and their job is to assess each one of them to see which ones meet the person spec best. That’s a lot of reading! They really don’t want to have to trawl through a giant block of text and have to think hard to sift through it for relevant information for each item on the list. Make it easy for them – why not respond directly to the person spec, point by point?

In my experience it is almost like people think that isn’t allowed, because the application form isn’t written that way – but even when the form actually invites you to “respond directly to the person specification” many applicants still just write a big essay and try to cover everything in a small novel. In contrast, the candidates that literally go through the person spec point by point and write a short paragraph or even a sentence for each one make it really easy for the selection panel to decide if they answered that point or not.

Getting the panel on your side by making their job a bit easier is a good strategy!

Don’t make claims – offer examples as evidence

Another of the classic mistakes applicants make is to answer questions about their experience or skills by simply claiming they have what is needed. Again, consider the position of the selection panel. They do not know you – in fact if things are being done to best practice they don’t even know your name yet. They may have over a hundred applications to go through. Why should they take your word for it?

Any time you are being asked to demonstrate experience, a skill or a personal trait – give an example. Think of something you have actually done, either in a previous job, as a volunteer, as a student, in your personal or family life, when dealing with a life challenge – whatever – something you actually did which taught you that skill or trait, improved it, or demonstrates you putting it into practice.

As a simple example, if the person spec says candidates must demonstrate good team working skills, an answer on the form like “I am a good team player and work well with others” tells the selection panel nothing, really. Sure it tells them that you THINK you are a good team player, but why should they believe you? Of course you are going to say that, you want the job!

Instead, consider this answer:

“When I was working at SuchandSuch Ltd, I worked with a small team of colleagues and it was important to getting the job done well that we communicated effectively. I often played the role of mediating between different team members when there was disagreements on how to proceed, so that we could reach a good consensus and move forward with a strategy everyone was happy with. I also found it useful to bounce ideas around with others about how to handle challenges in my own work.”

Now the selection panel has a lot more to go on, and it is a lot more convincing. You’ve not only claimed you have the desired experience, you have actually shown them that you understand some of the important things about why it is a good skill to have. Right away the panel members can envision you performing a useful function in their staff team. You’ve made it easier for them to see you as a viable candidate.

Try to answer each point of the person spec in this way as best you can. If you really don’t have directly relevant experience for a point, try to demonstrate with the most similar experience you do have that might be adaptable how you feel that you could quickly learn how to do well if you got the job. Be honest, if you make things up it is very likely to come out at interview and will be a huge black mark against you, and if it came out after you got the job it may be grounds for dismissal.

Try to show them some “X-factor”

There is a reasonable chance that the panel will get quite a few applications that meet the criteria well enough to interview, but there are only so many interview slots available. Simply ticking all the boxes may not be enough. You should also try to show why you are not just a qualified candidate, but also potentially the right person – the right new colleague, someone with the enthusiasm, passion, commitment they are looking for – the things it is hard to look for by asking about dry facts like previous job experience and qualifications.

Don’t be scared to show a little bit of your personality, in whatever way works for you, while obviously keeping things reasonably formal. Tell the panel not only why you are qualified, but why you want the job, what it would mean to you, how it fits into your future ambitions. Give them some interesting glimpses into who you are that might leave them curious to learn more – reasons to invite you to interview!

This is hard for most people to do, and it is hard to tell someone else how to do. The best advice I can give you here is to go back to what the job is about, and how it is with. Ask yourself what kind of an organisation it is – do some research. Are they the sort of place and is this the sort of role that means they are looking for passion? Efficiency and formality? Sense of humour? Consideration for others? You get the idea. If you have a good idea of who the people you are applying to are, you’ll have an idea what type of person they might be looking for, and you can think about what it is about you that might be best to express to catch their interest.

Showing that you know something about them and have done some research is always a good sign in an application form, as is demonstrating you share the main values and beliefs of the employer. If you have some unique experience that has any relevance and might mean you have something special to offer, get it in there somehow but make it measured. If you oversell, you might come off looking a bit too eccentric or potentially difficult to manage.


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