7. Application Forms
Many employers do prefer to receive application forms from potential applicants as a way of systematically comparing candidates against set criteria which can be more difficult to assess from CVs alone. As it is a very time-consuming process, it also acts as a way of pre-screening candidates who are serious about pursuing a career with a particular organisation - this is a distinct benefit to the company who will undoubtedly receive a lesser number of applications to sift through. At the same time, the candidate can view it as a constructive way of preparing for interviews based on the in-depth details required e.g. working through a competency-based question.
7.1 - Preparation
Before you begin, you should be able to identify your motivations as to why you wish to apply for that specific organisation, the industry and the role so that you can focus on the skills and relevant qualities you need to promote.
The application form is an opportunity for you to sell yourself as best as possible so clearly state what you have to offer and why you should be considered.
Most applications are now online as they are much easier to read in typed format but some employers still prefer them hand-written in which case, bear in mind the following:
Use black ink unless otherwise stated so that it can be easily photocopied
Ensure your handwriting is neat - you may also want to lean on lined paper to keep your lines straight on the page
As the criteria often specifies a word count, it may be useful to type out your answer first to check this before converting it to a hand-written answer
Take a photocopy of the form and write out a draft version to ensure your answer fits on the page (unless they have specified the areas where you may continue on another sheet)
Check the parts of the form where you need to sign and date it
On completion, keep a couple of photocopies for yourself - firstly, that allows you to keep a spare if they do not receive your original, secondly - you want to be able to recall what you have written before your interview and may be allowed to take a copy in with you
Most will require you to register first - do keep a careful note of your registration details (use your Job Tracker spreadsheet) so that you can readily log-in again and can take your time to complete your application form rather than having to complete it in one attempt
Use the Spellchecker facility and also makes sure that your document reads perfectly before sending it off
Check the word count does not go over the specified criteria but also try to get fairly close to the number of words allowed, otherwise your answer may be too brief
Print off a copy for your records and make a note of the reference number issued to prove that it has been received
Do make full use of the guidance notes supplied as its purpose is to help you to ensure your application form strictly follows the instructions given. It will always inform you of the submission closing date which is essential to note - no matter how impressive your application, it is worthless if it is sent in after this date.
The pack will often include a job description and a person specification which will help you to ascertain whether you can fulfill their requirements. You should be honest with yourself and decide whether you can meet their criteria as you could be wasting a lot of time writing out an application form for an inappropriate job.
7.2 - Completing the Form
Make sure your contact details are correct and that you haven't missed any essential information. Re-check what you have written to make sure it is clear and legible (if hand-written).
Education and Qualifications
Present your qualifications in a way which displays your best results prominently, for instance, by listing your highest grades of each set of examinations at the top. Write down your qualifications in reverse chronological order i.e. the most recent first. As with CVs, this information should always be honest and it is a fair request for a potential employer to ask to see copies of your qualifications.
For non-UK qualifications, you may need to state their UK equivalency. For university degrees, this is usually shown by providing details of how many UCAS points they equate to.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has information on the equivalent of international qualifications as does ENIC-NARIC.
You should list your jobs in reverse chronological order. There is a large variation of detail requested in completing application forms to simply listing your roles to giving details about key responsibilities, achievements, salaries and reasons for leaving.
If you are requested to give such detail you should describe the responsibilities and achievements in your previous roles that relate to the skills required in the job you are applying for.
Example: If the job role requires excellent customer service skills, you could demonstrate your competency as follows:
Liaised extensively with customers via email and within native language to ensure repeat business; communicated with Thai customs officials to speed up order deliveries
This is the most important part of the application form and is best written in draft form initially until you are completely satisfied with the end result. It is essential that you use the information provided by the job specification and person specification to demonstrate how you fulfill their criteria.
It may be useful to consider these questions below to find a starting point and give structure to this answer:
What is the key message that you want to get across to the employer?
What are your three main strengths that are relevant to the job?
How would the company benefit from hiring you?
Your opening paragraph should be positive, bold and provide a short summary of your skills and strengths based on the points above. It should aim to spark the reader’s interest and motivate them to read your statement in further detail.
Each paragraph thereafter should be based on at least one of the essential criteria outlined and any claims that you make must be backed up by an example which provides evidence of the skill you are highlighting, e.g. if you state you are an excellent communicator, you should give an example of when your communication skills were a distinct advantage to your job and the benefits they brought the company. Be specific about this information so if, for example, your negotiation skills helped to win a major new deal, state how you negotiated and the compromise that was agreed and finally, how much money this deal made for your company. Avoid waffle in your personal statement (the word count will limit you anyway but you should write concisely and to-the-point).
Your final paragraph should end with a summary of why you have applied for this role and to their organisation (this paragraph is likely to be answered in more detail in the question ‘Why have you applied to this organisation?’)
Generally, you will be expected to supply details of two referees which should be from previous employers unless you have recently finished studying (in which case you should have a named person from your education establishment to provide this). Always contact your referees first to check they are able to act as a referee for you and their availability to respond. It can be quite frustrating for both the employer and yourself if a delayed start date is based upon the fact that you did not check with your referees first and in addition, it is much more courteous to request this information in advance from that person.
Equal Opportunities information
This is a usual addition to an application pack and its purpose is to fulfill the organisation’s requirements regarding their equal opportunities policies. It remains illegal for an employer to discriminate during the recruitment process based on this information, so the form should be completed and returned to them as requested and will not have any impact on your application.
7.3 - Common Questions
Question 1: What attracts you to our organisation?
You will need to show that you have a clear understanding of the organisation’s values and ethos and that they match yours. To demonstrate a genuine motivation to want to work for them, you should thoroughly read their website as a starting point to understand any recent developments and future plans. For many organisations offering graduate schemes, there is a section dedicated to what their employees say about them so this can be useful in understanding the culture of the organisation and types of people they generally employ (if you already know someone who works for them, they could help to give you an idea about this).
In addition, to further impress and stand out from the competition, you should aim to research them through other sources, i.e. industry sector trade journals, press releases, newspaper articles, etc. to find out how they are placed in the industry they are in.
Question 2: What attracts you to this role/industry sector?
You should demonstrate a clear understanding of the job you are going for and that you have carefully assessed that it suits your interests and motivations. With regards to the industry sector, the employer wants to ascertain that you have a genuine interest for that sector rather than just ‘falling into it’. You should be able to convince them that you have made the right career choice and demonstrate how you are suited to it.
What does motivate you will depend on your background and work experiences, but try to make your motivation relevant to what this job can provide. For example if the job is a fairly isolated one do not give "working with other people" as a motivation! You can use this preparation as an opportunity to think about whether this position is really suitable for you.
Question 3: Describe your greatest achievement
Your answer should focus on an achievement that is related to the position and is fairly recent. Once you have chosen a specific achievement, you should give explicit detail about the task; the actions you took, the challenges you overcame, the value you made to the department/organisation and what you learnt from it. Interviewers are particularly keen to hear about achievements that increased revenues, decreased expenses, solved problems, were innovative or improved a company's reputation.
Do ensure that you do focus on one task/situation only rather than a series of unimpressive achievements which are trying to compensate for a lack of anything substantial. It can be difficult to single out your best example so try to think of an achievement that required you to use a combination of skills and strengths to create an answer that sounds impressive.
If you do not have any work experience or only very little, it is perfectly acceptable to draw upon other achievements that you have faced in your personal life. For graduates, even if you did receive a 1st as your grade which will most certainly have required hard work, it is far more interesting to focus on non-academic related examples to prove you are a well-rounded individual i.e. if you chose to study abroad in a country where you did not know anyone, you could draw on a number of skills you acquired such as risk-taking, using initiative, communication skills, building relationships, learning independence, language skills, flexibility and adapting to change
Question 4: Detail your extra-curricular activities (including clubs and societies)
For certain roles such as graduate schemes, this question is designed to assess two key elements:
to assess transferable skills that you have attained through extra-curricular activities
your motivation to get involved in activities outside of your studies
Think about the skills that are involved in some of your activities which clearly demonstrate your ability, i.e. captain of a football club which would show leadership skills, treasurer of a society to demonstrate your financial acumen. However, do not assume that because you have merely stated that you were a ‘captain’ that this would suffice the recruiter in knowing you can demonstrate leadership skills, it is essential that you can outline the contribution you made and state what you gained from your involvement.
For other positions, you might talk about the contributions you make through voluntary work or personal interests that are constructive or contribute to your own health or well-being (i.e. reading crime fiction, going to the gym, playing team sports, learning a musical instrument).
7.4 - Competency Questions
It is very common for application forms to have a section on competency questions that are used to assess your skills required for the role. For this reason, it is important to understand what they are and how you get marked on them. During your interview, they might ask you to talk through the competency you have stated (which is why you need to read your application form again before the interview!) or they may well ask you for another one. Either way, writing out and practising a few competencies will be excellent preparation work for your interview.
The ‘STAR’ approach
The acronym STAR stands for
It is a universally-recognised communication technique designed to enable you to provide a meaningful and complete answer to questions asking for examples. At the same time, it has the advantage of being simple enough to be applied easily.
Step 1 - Situation or Task
Describe the situation that you were confronted with or the task that needed to be accomplished. With the STAR approach you need to set the context. Make it concise and informative, concentrating solely on what is useful to the story. For example, if the question is asking you to describe a situation where you had to deal with a difficult person, explain how you came to meet that person and why they were being difficult. If the question is asking for an example of teamwork, explain the task that you had to undertake as a team.
Step 2 - Action
This is the most important section of the STAR approach as it is where you will need to demonstrate and highlight the skills and personal attributes that the question is testing. Now that you have set the context of your story, you need to explain what you did. In doing so, you will need to remember the following:
Be personal, i.e. talk about you, not the rest of the team
Go into some detail. Do not assume that they will guess what you mean
Steer clear of technical information, unless it is crucial to your story
Explain what you did, how you did it, and why you did it
What you did and how you did it
The interviewers will want to know how you reacted to the situation. This is where you can start selling some important skills. For example, you may want to describe how you used the team to achieve a particular objective and how you used your communication skills to keep everyone updated on progress etc.
Why you did it
For example; when discussing a situation where you had to deal with conflict, many candidates would simply say: “I told my colleague to calm down and explained to him what the problem was”. However, it would not provide a good idea of what drove you to act in this manner. How did you ask him to calm down? How did you explain the nature of the problem? By highlighting the reasons behind your action, you would make a greater impact.
Step 3 - Result/Reflection
Explain what happened eventually - how it all ended. Also, use the opportunity to describe what you accomplished and what you learnt in that situation. This helps you make the answer personal and enables you to highlight further skills.
This is probably the most crucial part of your answer. Interviewers want to know that you are using a variety of generic skills in order to achieve your objectives. Therefore you must be able to demonstrate in your answer that you are taking specific actions because you are trying to achieve a specific objective and not simply by chance.
Example - Tell us about a time when you have exceeded client expectations
Due to redundancies in my company and a new project team that did not have time to get up to speed with our delivery requirements, we were due to lose a major client of ours. It was my role to retain the client, build the relationship from scratch and resolve many outstanding issues.
I quickly found out who the key people were whom I needed to contact including our stakeholders and organised face-to-face meetings where possible and teleconferencing where it was more practical to introduce myself and to understand and address their concerns. I discovered that communication had broken down once our previous staff had heard about their redundancies and fundamentally there had apathy on their behalf to fulfil the project requirements and this had left the client feeling we had been very unprofessional in dealing with them.
I agreed that they had every right to feel that way and that I would be personally responsible in ensuring my team did everything they could to resolve the problems. I took a detailed approach to understanding their key issues and addressed them individually so that all of their concerns were aired and we could work together towards providing solutions. I explained what the process would be moving forward and set realistic deadlines for when we would be able to produce each stage of the work to re-build their confidence in us. In addition, I worked closely with all the relevant departments to ensure expectations were met and created an environment of continuous communication so that any issues could be addressed early and resolved quickly. I also organised regular meetings with the client so that they felt confident in knowing exactly what was going on and they were kept in the picture at all times.
Through my high level of client management, client engagement and ensuring that the client felt important in the process, I resolved these issues within four months rather than the six months we had first agreed. Also during the process, I had also picked up on other issues that the client hadn’t addressed and resolved those too, so they were more than happy with the successful outcome I had achieved. I received excellent feedback from them and had also managed to appease our stakeholders but most importantly, we were able to retain the client who signed a further contract with us for £2M which would be reviewed on an annual basis.
I believe that I also instigated a strong ethos in my own team of maintaining client focus at all times as a renewal of contracts in the future could not be guaranteed without full commitment from us. The approach of continuous communication has also meant now that my team understand the importance of this in every aspect of their work so I feel that they too, have developed from this.
7.5 - Questions regarding Criminal Convictions
You do have to declare all criminal convictions, or any still pending, unless they are spent. A criminal record will not necessarily prevent you from getting into your career.
Certain jobs and courses such as teaching, health and social work are exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA) and require that you disclose all convictions, even those that are spent.
7.6 - Checklist
Carefully check your spelling and grammar as poor English is the main reason why most applications are rejected
Check and re-check your form before sending it off, you may also want to get it read by someone else as you might not be able to see your own mistakes
Use short sentences/paragraphs which are easy to follow
Use one idea per paragraph and state the key information in the first sentence
Avoid industry jargon until interview stage, and even then, keep it minimal
Use positive, active verbs
Do not repeat yourself, try to introduce fresh ideas in each point raised
Keep a copy of your application form along with the job specification/person description to prepare for your interview
Make sure you use the correct stamps if it is an A4 size envelope or it may not get there!