Robey Jenkins, HR Manager for Age UK Gloucestershire shares his weekly blog with us, this week, how to fill in application forms and get noticed by recruiters!
I’ve spent a large amount of the last week or so wading through application forms for some new jobs, here at Age UK Gloucestershire.
Now, our job application process is pretty old-hat, I’d be the first to admit. It involves downloading an application form, filling it out and sending it back. There’s no clever online form. We don’t, as a rule, accept CVs.
The use of application forms like this is the absolute norm in public sector employment, and the prevailing majority in third sector employment. And, increasingly, I’m seeing it gain traction in the private sector. This has started with the big employers and is gradually working its way down through the medium end of SME towards the small employers. Pretty soon, I suspect, the only people still dealing in CVs will be agencies. And shortly thereafter they, too, will give up on them.
But despite this trend, the world of recruitment remains overwhelmed with advice on how to write a CV, what to include, what not to include, how to lay it out, what fonts to use, what colours to use… But hardly anyone offers similar advice on completing an application form. Perhaps it’s because every application form is slightly different that people think they can’t offer a one-size-fits-all approach. When you sit on the other side of the table, though, reviewing piles of application forms, it becomes pretty obvious which ones you like and which ones you don’t. So here’s some advice from someone who knows.
- Read the person specification.
Every job I’ve ever seen that had an application form came with a person specification. It may not be called a “person specification”. Sometimes it’s (inaccurately) called a job description, or it’s not called anything at all. But you can tell a person specification because it will list the qualities the person is expected to show in their application. Often, these are broken into “essential” and “desirable” qualities.
- Answer the person specification.
It sounds obvious, but 95% of applications I’ve ever graded failed to do this. Your application must demonstrate how you meet every single one of the essential criteria. If it doesn’t, you’re unlikely to get an interview. There’s a reason they’re called “essential”. You should also, of course, do your best to show how you meet the desirable ones, too. If the criteria aren’t broken into essential and desirable, assume everything is essential!
- Give your answers in a way that is easy to assess.
The longer an assessor has to spend hunting through your application for answers, the more annoyed they will become with you. You might still get an interview (if they can find the answers), but their initial impression will not be positive and you’ll have a hump to get over. Most application forms (all the ones I’ve ever seen) have a section that invites you to insert free text explaining your suitability for the role. This is not optional. This isn’t a place to write your covering letter or to talk about how you’ve always wanted to work for this organization. This is the place where you carefully list (ideally with sub-titles) each of the essential criteria and how you fulfil them. You should spend 90% of your time completing this section of the application form.
- Don’t get bogged down in the rest of the form.
The application form will probably have sections for you to list your education, training and employment history. These aren’t unimportant and should be completed. But the amount of detail should be absolutely minimal. Use the space you’re given, but don’t go nuts. I’ve had applications where “additional training” went on for a whole page, listing everything from postgraduate degrees to Zumba classes. If it’s not relevant to the role, don’t bother listing it. Similarly, the employment history section will often ask for a summary of key duties and responsibilities. “Summary” means “keep it short”. The top three or four points for the most recent role. Maybe two points for the two or three roles previous to that. Any prior roles – one point maximum, if it’s directly relevant to the application.
- Keep it relevant. Keep it brief.
If you’re a school leaver, by all means mention that you were a prefect. If your school days are a distant memory, don’t. No one cares. Every single sentence and point in your application should be directly relevant to supporting the fact that you fulfil the essential or desirable criteria for the role. If it doesn’t, take it out. All you’re doing is throwing smoke to obscure your brilliance.
- Don’t repeat the advert back at the assessor.
Many person specifications will ask for “communication skills” or something along those lines. Saying “I have good communication skills” is not answering the question. It’s just echoing the point. What the assessor is looking for is evidence. If you have good communication skills, how do you use them and how do you know they’re good? Do you write documents? Do you present training? Do you give interviews?
- Don’t leave gaps.
For a start, don’t leave gaps in your employment history. If you took time out to travel, to raise children, to care for a relative or even to serve time at Her Majesty’s pleasure, say so in your employment history. But far more importantly: don’t leave gaps in the person specification. If you don’t have an essential criterion you have two choices: either don’t apply for this job (it’s called essential for a reason) or scrape that barrel like mad. Find something, anything, whether it’s from a job you did ten years ago, or voluntary work, or your social life – it doesn’t matter. How well you fulfil each criterion is graded on a scale – typically 0 to 3. If you can find just enough at the bottom of that barrel to justify you a “1” then that’s another step closer to an interview.
Follow these principles whenever you use an application form. They won’t guarantee that you get the job, but your odds of getting an interview will be vastly improved if you follow these steps. Once you’ve got the interview, though, you’re on your own!