This post is written by Cate Bennett, Researcher Development Manager (ECRs) and is part of our new PGR Career Planning Guide.
Just like your CV an application form is your personal marketing document. It is your opportunity to introduce ‘you’ to a potential employer and therefore your first opportunity to showcase the relevant skills, experiences and personal attributes that you have and that they are looking for. Your key focus must be to tailor your application to the role.
Before you compose anything, have you …
1. Carefully read the form, accompanying documents and instructions through from start to finish? Ask yourself: do I have all the information to hand that I will need to complete this form successfully?
The above may sound obvious, but you’ll be amazed at how many people don’t do this and then find they are wasting time hunting for key pieces of information, for example; key dates, names of qualifications, examining body details, employers’ addresses and strong examples to showcase evidence. Remember, follow instructions to the letter and don’t leave sections blank, unless you really have nothing relevant to say.
On top of all of this, many forget to seek the permission of their potential referees. It is vital that you ask whether they are happy to be your referee; if you don’t, you may find that a reference won’t be forthcoming!
2. Carried out your research? Ask yourself: what do I know about this organisation and the sector it operates within?
Your research should not be limited to the organisation’s website and application materials. Often you can find out a lot about an organisation through following them on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook etc. Read the press and sector specific magazines and journals.
You may, through reviewing your own network, identify individuals who have knowledge of your organisation of choice. Using LinkedIn Alumni may help you identify graduates from the University of Exeter who are working within the sector you are trying to break into and even the company you are applying to. Why not use your common experience of studying/researching at Exeter as a way to connect through LinkedIn and start a conversation!
Attending employer events and fairs run through the University and elsewhere will also provide you with opportunities to have key conversations with recruiters.
3. Identified the key elements your potential employer is seeking? Ask yourself: if I was the recruiter what would make this application form stand out for me?
Pay very close attention to the advert, job description and person specification.
If, in the advertising materials for the post, you are offered the opportunity to find out more about the role before applying, embrace it! Make contact with the person listed and prepare for your conversation in advance. Don’t ask questions for which the answers could be easily found through the website, or application materials. Think about what you need to know to support your decision making around whether the role and the organisation are right for you and to help you target your application further.
4. Explored and understood the language of the sector and organisation? Ask yourself: does this organisation use an applicant tracking system (ATS)?
‘An applicant tracking system helps companies organize candidates for hiring and recruitment purposes. These systems allow businesses to collect information, organize prospects based on experience and skill set, and filter applicants’.
Although you may not be able to find out whether an ATS is used (currently, it appears to be large organisations that utilise them), taking time to do your background research and looking at the language in the recruitment literature and on the organisation’s web pages will give you the opportunity to use the language that an ATS will be looking for. Try to weave this naturally through your application form and remember:
- No spelling mistakes! The ATS will miss important keywords if misspelled.
- Consider the keywords, buzzwords, technical terms, experience and skills used in the organisation’s recruitment material and in the industry
5. Identified your skills and personal attributes and the experiences you will use to evidence these? Ask yourself: what are the essential and desirable criteria for this role? What else have I learnt about this role through my research and discussions? What experiences will therefore allow me to evidence my most relevant skills and personal attributes?
Don’t just consider standard work or study based examples; what other things have you done or do you do that makes up who you are? Always keep in mind relevance; you are looking for examples across your various experiences that will allow you to evidence skills, experience, enthusiasm and potential. Don’t forget that some experiences that, on the one hand, may not seem related to the role, on the other may be ideal for showcasing the development of key transferable skills that you can’t showcase from more directly related examples.
6. Considered the language you will use to confidently convey your potential and enthusiasm through the examples you use?
Make it positive, for example, don’t use ‘I feel’, ‘I think’, ‘I had to’. You need to confidently convey your actions using ‘power verbs’. You may find the information found via this link will help you get into the swing of this technique:#.
Now that you are ready to start composing your personal statement and/or answer questions posed by the employer on the application form, consider the following …
1. If the application form comprises a personal statement section i.e. the blank box which gives you the opportunity to explain why you are applying for the role and why you are suitable, how will you design it so that it’s easy to see how you match the key criteria laid down? Below is just one approach you could consider:
- An introductory paragraph that sets the scene i.e. explains why you are interested in the organisation and role;
- Followed by a themed approach to showcasing how you meet the essential and desirable criteria. i.e. can you theme the elements of the desirable and essential criteria into simple headings and then provide the relevant evidence as to how you meet the criteria? Although theming may not always be possible, where it is, it will may make it much easier for the recruiter to spot how you meet their requirements, rather than trawling through long paragraphs of text trying to identify them. Unless instructed otherwise, it is often suitable to break-up paragraphs with bullet points, allowing you to highlight the key elements you want to stand out. When providing an example to showcase skills and experience, consider using the STAR technique (see section 2 below for details);
- Brief summary, but not a repetition, of your interest in the role and organisation.
Remember: make the recruiters life easy, don’t write a novel, use a logical structure, be succinct, to the point and provide evidence to back-up your claims. Follow instructions, including those relating to word count or number of pages! If there are no such instructions, often 2-3 pages of A4 is suitable, but if in doubt you can always contact the organisation for clarification.
2. You may find that the application form contains competency based questions. To answer these successfully you’ll need to identify the specific competency/competencies sought. Where this/these may not be obvious, you may find it helpful to refer back to the person specification and job description. Your next step is to pick a strong example from previous or current experience that will help you evidence not only the skill, but the level of your competence in using it. Read the question carefully, if you are being asked for ‘an example of a time when you …’ use one example only.
To help you with structuring your answer and writing succinctly, try using the STAR technique:
S – briefly describe the Situation
T – briefly describe the Task (often you can combine the S&T)
A – clearly explain the Action you took. This is the section in which you provide the detail of what YOU did. Here you must talk about ‘I’. The recruiter needs to know what you did to be able to identify your skills and personal attributes. This is the part of your answer you spend the most time on.
R – explain the Result/s of your action/s. Most people forget to include the outcome of their actions. Don’t skim over this!
Sometimes it may be appropriate to add a second ‘R’ = Review to explain what you’ve learnt or done differently since this experience to showcase your development.
Often competency questions are word limited – remain within the word count!
3. Strength based questions are more commonly asked at interview but may sometimes be asked on application forms. These questions are used to identify candidates whose own strengths and preferred working style matches the job role, therefore trying to ensure higher motivation and performance in successful candidates.
- Utilise strong examples of when you have used the specific strengths asked for and articulate, where appropriate, how they could be of benefit to the organisation
- Make sure you draw on experiences from all aspects of your life – academia, voluntary work, clubs/societies, paid employment, gap year / travel etc.
- Just like every other aspect of the application process make sure you answer honestly. If you pretend to be someone you’re not and are successful in securing the position it may not be a good fit for you.
Final Words of Wisdom
- Wherever possible, give yourself plenty of time to carry out the background research and the drafting of your application; it can take hours to write, so don’t put yourself under pressure. It is wise to take a break, once you’ve written your first draft, and then come back to it to read it afresh, you’ll often find that you can hone it further.
- Whether the application requires a personal statement or answers to specific questions which are word limited, draft in Word first, then spell and grammar check; not every online form has a spell checker.
- If you decide to copy and paste from a previous application form be very, very careful that you are copying the right information! It is more common than you think for applicants to copy across the wrong information, including the name of the previous organisation. It is often better to re-type than copy and paste from an old application form.
- In Word use the word count checker for the elements of the form that are word limited, not every form will cut you off when you have reached the maximum words allowed. Anything written in excess of the word count is unlikely to be read!
- Be aware that when copying and pasting into the online form, formatting may change. Make sure you give yourself time to go back through your text to reformat where necessary – visual impressions do count!
- Don’t lie, be positive, clear and concise.
- The careful use of bullet points can help draw the eye to key elements of your experiences. They can also help you stick to the facts rather than writing a novel. They help breakup blocks of text which are onerous to those who have very little time to read your application.
- Proofread – you first then others.
- If you would like to find out more about disclosing a disability at application stage, please visit the following web pages and listen to the podcasts.
- Without fail, tailor your application and always follow instructions!