Personal statements. Psychometric tests. Competency based questions. With all this to contend with, it is hardly surprising that the job application process makes candidates feel that they are navigating through a minefield and are expected to jump through hoops. And that is just for the chance of an interview!

So what are employers really looking for? And what can you do to gain the advantage over all the other candidates who are competing with you? Here is some insight as to what to expect and what you can do to prepare.

What is an application?

An application is simply a prescribed method that a prospective employer uses to ask you exactly what they want to know in order to consider you for a vacancy.

The application form is very often the first step in what could be a long and gruelling process of sifting and shortlisting. The use of job application forms is now very popular, particularly for big employers. Nowadays, such applications are mostly conducted online rather than on paper. They can be quite a challenge for job seekers, as they demand a lot of time and effort.

Applications make the recruitment process more efficient for the employer and the use of a simple form makes it easier for employers to find the right candidate for three reasons:

  1. Time saving: The information is presented in a set order and so it saves time rather than searching each CV.
  2. Level playing field: It brings consistency and so it is easier to compare applicants impartially.
  3. Customisation: Each employer can customise the form to their specific criteria, and exclude the information they do not require.

The small print

Much of the information application forms ask for is similar to that which is usually contained in your CV, such as contact information, education, employment history, work experience and qualifications.

But there is one very important distinction between an application form and your CV: an application form will usually require you to sign some kind of declaration at the end, to confirm the truthfulness of the information you have provided. This could become part of your contract of employment in the event that your application is successful. This means that your application form is a legal document, whereas a CV is not.

The fact that the application form contains this declaration also gives employers the chance to ask for information which would not usually be included on a CV, such as the reasons why you left previous jobs, why you want the position and your salary, questions about your health and whether you have a criminal record.

Writing an effective application

Applications are intensive and can take two or three hours to complete. If you are whizzing through them in record time, they won’t be as effective, and could jeopardise your chances of getting an interview. Before you start, make sure you have everything to hand – a copy of the job description, person specification or vacancy advertisement, your CV and extra info about the organisation. The suggested word count or box size on each application is an indication on how much detail is needed, so use it as a guide. Never exceed a word limit if there is one.

The personal statement

Use this as a space to pitch yourself for the job. It is similar to the introduction on your CV where you outline your brand as a suitable candidate. Sometimes this is called a Summary, Objective or Profile.

Relevant information

This is probably the most important box on the whole form and your best chance to enhance your application. Focus on skills. Be sure to focus on the Person Specification (NOT the Job Description!) given for the vacancy. The person spec is the employer’s summary of what they are looking for in the ideal candidate. You need to match every skill they ask for with a real example, demonstrating where you have used this skill and remember to explain what value you can bring to the company.

Competency based questions

These are the types of questions where an employer will ask you to provide an example where you have demonstrated a particular skill/ability in the past and which proves your capability in this area.

An example of such a question would be:

Give an example of when you have worked within a successful team. Why was the team successful? What was your contribution to the team achieving its goal? (300 words max)

Example answer:

During my university project management modules I was required to work as a part of a team. This often involved cooperation with a wide range of different people with diverse personalities. I believe the teams I was involved with were successful because tasks were allocated with much consideration to individual abilities and talents. By paying attention to each team member’s strengths, we were able to achieve excellent results. My specific contribution in most cases was carrying out research and acquiring technical information, which is one of my strengths.

Note that a real life situation is given, with particular attention to the candidate’s individual contribution.

A good point to remember here is that the example itself is not important – it can be from any area of your life, whether it is work, education or leisure time. As long as it demonstrates your use of that skill, it is acceptable.

How to approach awkward questions

A good way to approach some of these awkward questions is to make sure that you focus on what you want out of a new role.

Here are some examples:

Why did you leave your last job?
Even if you were bored out of your brain, hated the boss or were miserable in your previous job- don’t put that in! This sounds very negative and could cost you an interview. Instead, think about what skills weren’t utilised at that workplace and consider what you are looking for in a new job, such as wanting more responsibility, a new challenge, or better prospects.

What do you want to get paid and what was your last salary?
Unfortunately many employers ask this question and it may be to try and get the best employee for the lowest price. The best answer here is an honest one, although many people put higher than reality to ensure they don’t get a pay cut. But be fair to yourself: decide what salary you can reasonably live on, and stick to it.

Why do you want this job?
This may seem like a daunting question, but it is an opportunity to write about experience you have, your relevant skills and parts of the role which appeal to you. NEVER put “I’ve always wanted to be a … since I was a child”. This is a cliché which every employer has heard before.

Length of answers

Keep it sharp: it is important to fill the boxes with as much relevant information as possible, but try not to waffle.

Tips to remember:

  • Highlight your skills: Remember to focus on skills and use active words, such as achieved, collaborated, enabled and negotiated.
  • User friendly: Use bullet points and spacing correctly to improve readability.
  • Don’t copy and paste: Make sure to write each answer fresh each time no matter how similar it appears to a question on another form.
  • Tests: An application form is often combined with a test such as psychometric tests, personality tests and multiple choice questions that apply to the workplace, so be prepared.
  • Skill scan: Because application forms are online, they can easily be searched for key points the employer is looking for, so make sure to mirror the language and cover every skill they ask for.
  • Keep a copy: Make sure to keep a copy of your application so if you do get an interview you’ll know what you wrote – you may need to refer to it at the interview.

And finally…

Wait! Don’t be too hasty in sending off the form. Before submitting it, there are a few last minute checks to carry out before you send:

  • Always spell check: Many forms don’t let you go back to make corrections, so ensure to do this before you move onto the next question.
  • Follow their rules: If the instructions say include a CV as well, then do; if not, then don’t. The same with a cover letter. If you do it incorrectly, it will count against you.
  • Attachments: Ensure documents are attached to emails
  • No blanks: Never leave a box empty, this looks sloppy and lazy. If it isn’t appropriate for you, then put ‘not applicable’.
  • Remember to also check your online presence i.e. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and any other blogs or comments you may written. Either set your privacy settings so no one can find/see them or edit them so they don’t compromise your integrity.

In the end, you need to show the employer that you have really made an effort to understand their requirements and taken time to provide them with the information they want. It is time consuming, but ultimately the time and effort expended will pay off. Once you get into the habit of understanding what’s involved, you’ll find it won’t be long before those interview invitations start arriving.

Good luck!

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