These days, when conducting a job search, it is almost inevitable that, whether you are looking for a basic part time role, an entry level graduate job, or a position within a large corporation, you will, at some point, be required to fill in an application form.
This can be a daunting task. Having to give eloquent, yet concise answers to incredibly open questions can be tough, especially as this is before you’ll even be considered for an interview. You may see application forms as yet another obstacle between you and your dream job.
On the other hand, you could view it as one more chance to sell yourself and demonstrate just why you are perfect for the role. This thinking, combined with the practical tips contained in this article, will help ensure that you always take a positive approach to application forms.
Writing good job applications is something they will only touch upon during your visits to the Job Centre Plus, so hopefully the advice below will really give you a head start over other applicants.
First Things First
Before you start filling out your form there are a few things you need to do. First and foremost, if you haven’t already, you should carry out thorough research into the company you are applying to, as well as their industry in general.
If you fail to do this before starting, you will only be forced to do it later. The question ‘why are you applying for this job?’, which is bound to come up, can’t be answered in any satisfactory way without knowing what makes the company unique, just as they can’t hire you without knowing what makes you unique.
The internet is a great tool for doing this kind of research, but it may well also be worth reading some of the trade press for the sector the company operates in. This often gives a more detailed insight into the wider context of what they do.
Secondly, make sure you read the instructions on the form. If it is a printed form you are filling in, look out for instructions on how to write your answer. It could be that they ask you to put your answers down in a specific way. For example, you might be asked to use only black ink, or to write in block capitals.
Recruiters have to go to a lot of effort to weed out the weak candidates from the strong, and they’ll be happy to see anything that makes their job easier. If they receive a form from you and see it filled in with blue ink when they specified black only, they can discard your form without even having to read it, safe in the knowledge that, as you didn’t follow basic instructions, you aren’t worth hiring…
Practice Makes Perfect
If you are filling in an online form, you will usually find that you do not have to sit down and do it all in one go. Rather, you’ll be able to create an account which you can log in and out of, editing your form as you go, right up until the deadline.
This is great as it allows you to keep working on your answers until you are completely happy with them. It is advisable to do at least two or free drafts before pressing send. Be sure to memorize the pass word and login you choose, as you don’t want to get locked out of your account half way through an application!
You should also do multiple drafts when filling out a physical paper form. For this purpose, when you pick up the form, take several, or make photocopies. (If you download it from the net, you can just print several.)
This will allow you to practice fitting your answers into the spaces provided on the form, without making mistakes or cramping up your writing.
You may even want to keep a copy of the completed form for your own records. This can help you remember where you have applied, what you said and how well the application went, all things it can be easy to lose track of when conducting a thorough job search.
In both cases it is advisable to initially prepare your answers using a word processor. This way you can eliminate some of the errors in your writing straightaway, using the computer’s spell checker. (Be aware that most online application forms don’t have a spell check.) Make sure, however, that your spell check function is set to a UK dictionary rather a US version, or you won’t be alerted to the misspelling of certain words.
You can also use a word processor to check the word count of your answer. Often, online forms will set a specific word count for particular questions but, sometimes, if you write a longer answer, the form will not automatically tell you. This can potentially lead to some of your answer being ignored, something you’ll want to avoid.
When checking over your work, always get somebody else to give it a look over. Even if you are a highly competent grammarian and a proficient speller, it can be hard to pick up your own mistakes, as you’ll simply see what you were intending to write. Don’t submit your form before putting it in front of a fresh pair of eyes.
Sending Your Application
If you’re sending your form as a hardcopy, remember that presentation is everything. Put extra effort into your hand writing and don’t skimp on the envelope. Address the package according to the contact details given in the job advert and make sure you’ve affixed sufficient postage.
If you are filling in an online form, it can be a good idea to try and get it submitted a little ahead of the deadline. As you’d expect, there is often a rush of applications being submitted shortly before the deadline. Sometimes this can lead to the system crashing, and you could be left in a position where you are unable to submit your application.
In the event that you send the form as an email attachment, give the file a specific name, such as ‘John Smith Application Form’ rather than simply ‘application form’. If the recipient downloads it, with a title like the latter, they may struggle to find it again amongst all the countless other files with similar names they are likely to have saved on their computer.
Most forms will be very similar, both in terms of content and layout, regardless of the type of job you are applying for. Normally, you’ll find the form brakes down into three main sections; personal information, competency based questions and administrative questions.
The good news is, of these three sections, the first and the last should be no brainers. The first will simply involve entering data such as you contact details and address. The last will require you to provide information for the human resources team’s reference, such as whether you have any disabilities, criminal convictions and sometimes other details, such as your ethnic background. (This will not have a bearing on whether you get the job, they are merely asked to allow the government to check that businesses are cohering to equal opportunities legislation.)
Obviously, if you can’t get passed these simple questions without complications, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job! However, don’t get complacent and rush. If you put down a single character out of place in your email address it could lead to you missing out on an invitation to interview further down the line, rendering all your effort worthless.
You may also be asked to provide contact details of your referees in and amongst these closing questions. Again, make sure you are extra careful to get the contact detail right. On top of this, be sure to check the details are still relevant, especially if you haven’t been in contact with your referees for a while.
In addition, it always advisable to give your referee notice when you are giving out their contact details, not only out of courtesy, but also because it gives you a chance to refresh their memory and how great you are, meaning your relevant qualities will be at the fore front of their mind if a potential employer should give them a call.
Other than these sections, you may occasionally also have to face questions aimed at personality/psychological profiling. These are normal multiple choice questions along the lines of “which of the following words best describes you?”
These questions, though they may not seem it, are also no brainers. Honesty is the best policy. If you deliberately pick the answers you think the employer wants to hear, it will show in the results. These tests are not easy to manipulate, so don’t try. The whole point of the questions is that you shouldn’t need to think to hard to answer them.
Competency Based Questions
These are the questions that form the bulk of the form and it is here that you really need to impress. One of the key reasons that firms might use application forms, rather than asking to see a CV, is that it makes it easier to compare candidates.
You are going to be judged directly against other people who have answered the exact same questions. As the questions are the same for everyone, demonstrating why you as an individual are most suitable for the role depends on fitting things that are unique to you, such as your experiences, achievements and skills, into your answer.
You also need to be able to pick up on which attributes different questions are asking you to expand on. By carefully rereading the job advert and person specification you will see various hints as to what the most important skills to demonstrate will be.
Generally, they will be a mixture from the generic qualities that most employers look for in all their workers;
- Goal setting
- Communication and people skills
- Sticking to policy and procedure
- Decisiveness and judgment
- Organisational and planning skills
- Problem solving
- Risk taking
Obviously, some of these may be of more importance than other to any one particular position, indeed some may be irrelevant. But, where suitable, these are great skills to be able to demonstrate.
Sometimes it will be very obvious what skills you are being asked to demonstrate. For example, answering the question ‘describe a time when you displayed leadership skills’ with an essay about how creative you are would be a big mistake.
At other times, the question may be more subtle and more open. A very common question is ‘what is your greatest achievement to date?’ Yes, you are going to answer this question by outlining the details of an occasion where you excelled yourself, but you are going to want to this by picking up on the subtext of the question, which is ‘what is your greatest achievement to date, and how does it demonstrate that you have the necessary skills for this job.’
Another example of this type of ‘subtext’ to a question would be ‘what attracts you to our company?’ Here the real question is ‘how well do you understand our ethos and how well does it match you own?’
Whatever they ask, make sure that what you offer in response sheds light on your ability to do the job in question, even if the two are not immediately related.
For example, if you are asked to give details of your hobbies, or of previous jobs (some of which might have been in an unrelated field) make sure you can centre your answer around elements of those activities that show your suitability as a candidate for the job in question.
Say that you are applying to work in a nursery. If you are asked about your previous roles, and these involved working in fast food restaurants, focus on skills you will also be able to use in your new role. You might talk about how you oversaw children’s parties and had to make sure every one was safe and well supervised whilst in the restaurant, for example.
This same thinking should apply even if what they ask doesn’t seem to be work related. Being asked about your hobbies should be seen as another chance to show off the various ways you use the skills they are looking for, even in your free time.
Whichever skill you feel you are being asked to demonstrate, there are some techniques you will always want to use when constructing an answer.
A great technique for structuring your answers is the STAR approach. STAR is an acronym standing for; Situation, Task, Action, Result. These provide the four sections you should break your answer down into when asked to describe personal experiences, as with questions such as ‘describe a time you oversaw a project’.
S – Situation
This will account for the first 20% of your answer and will allow you to set the scene and lay down the context for the rest of the details.
T – Task
Use 10% of your word count to describe what your task was, whether it was set by another or a self appointed goal.
A – Action
This is the most important section. 50% of your answer has to be directed at explaining the action you took, the reasoning behind your decision and the skills it took to pull it off.
R – Result
Give the remaining 20% of you word count over to detailing the results of your actions. It is always good if you can demonstrate that you learnt from the experience in some way.
When writing, either on the limited space of a paper form, or in online text box, you will immediately see the need to be concise in your answer. Beware unnecessary verbiage and cut out any statements that do not contribute to any of the sections outlined in the STAR approach.
On top of this, it is wise to refrain from an extensive use of highly specialised vocabulary. By all means, demonstrate your knowledge by dropping in the odd technical term from your industry, but do not descend into writing pure jargon.
After all, if the form is being read by somebody who works in a HR department, completely separate to the department you’d be working in, they may have no idea what you’re talking about!
You should try and use numbers wherever possible. Saying something like “the sales strategy I implemented lead to immediate results” isn’t particularly memorable. Saying “we saw a 10% rise is profits” is not only more memorable, it’s also more concise, easier to judge in a quantifiable way, and stands out more due to the visual impact of the numbers.
You also need to stray away from using bland buzz words that are essentially meaningless. Saying you are “hard working and dynamic”, even if it is true, isn’t a particularly great thing to write on an application form. As a description is isn’t very dynamic, and it certainly doesn’t appear to be the product of hard work, therefore it contradicts itself somewhat.
However, many people make generic claims of this sort precisely because they are vague enough that they can be reused on application forms for various different businesses. This is one of the biggest mistakes that a job seeker can make.
Yes, you may increase the number of applications you get done by using like for like answers on all of them, but you will also decrease the chances that any of them will lead to an interview. As a result, this approach wastes more time than it would take to write unique answers tailored specifically towards each company you apply to.
Other Golden Rules
Here are a few more ideas to keep in mind when entering your answers;
You may have heard of this behavioural technique before, in fact it is often put forward as a useful tool to use in job interviews. The idea is that, if you replicate certain aspects of your interviewer’s body language, they will start to foster a subconscious affinity with you, which can lead to them giving more credence to your answers.
Obviously, body language doesn’t enter into the equation with an application form, but that’s not to say you can’t work some ‘mirroring’ into the language you employ.
It’s something you probably do all the time. For example, if someone addresses you as ‘mate’ your likely to call them ‘mate’ as well, if they say ‘pal’ you’ll probably go with ‘pal’.
Similarly, when writing up your answers, you want to ‘mirror’ some of the most important words used in the job description and the person specification. For example, if they have said they are looking for an ‘ambitious individual’ you’ll want to say something about being ambitious in one of your answers.
Try to be more subtle than simply parroting the keywords with simple statements such as “I am driven and very ambitious.” Put it in a relevant context, for example- “whilst at university, I was unhappy with the dearth of opportunities to practice journalism. As a result, my ambitious nature lead me to start up my own magazine.”
This is a simple strategy that basically amounts to simply showing strength in your convictions. For example, there is not a lot of point in writing something like “I feel that I am a great communicator” when it would be a lot more effective to simply write “I am a great communicator.”
This not only shows greater conviction, it is more succinct. You might feel that writing “I feel that…” or “I think that…” will make your statement look more considered, or even somehow impartial, but it can create the impression that you doubt yourself.
Finally, if you write “I am highly organized” it is obvious what your thoughts on the matter are, therefore there’s no need to preface the statement with a qualifier, such as “I think…” or “In my opinion…”
Most people will tell you that, in life, ‘honesty is the best policy’ and this is especially true of job applications. Lying on a job application form makes very little sense.
After all, you are not going to be made a job offer based on what you write. At best, you will be invited to an interview. Once there you’ll find that, by lying, you’ve simply set yourself up for a fall.
There are many ways you can be caught out. Once famous example involved a graduate claiming in a question about her hobbies that she enjoyed skiing in the Alps and could speak fluent French, just because she thought it sounded impressive.
It turned out her interviewer had passion for skiing and he proceeded to ask her lots of technical questions about the past time, speaking in French, whilst she sat there lost for words. What should’ve been a great way of building rapport ended up with her being exposed as a liar.
Needless to say, you shouldn’t lie about qualifications either, as many businesses will ask to see formal proof of such things upon employing you.
Finally, if you do manage to land the job, and it is latter found that you lied at any point in the application process, you can be sacked for gross misconduct, even if you have been doing a good job. This has even been known to happen to people have been in a role for years and performed very well.
Whilst, as previously stated, we’d strongly urge you not to go copying and pasting answers from one form to another, that’s not to say that you won’t frequently be asked the same questions on many different applications.
You may feel this will make filling out form upon form a bit tedious. On the contrary, it ensures that you will get better and giving a competent answers each time. To give you a head start here is an our outline on how you could go about answering some of the most common questions to be found on application forms;
Outline your work experience. Provide details of your previous roles including the name of the organisation, dates you were there, your job title and responsibilities.
Firstly, be sure to answer each section of the question. Don’t focus so much on explaining your responsibilities that you don’t answer the question fully by failing to specify the relevant dates, as requested.
Secondly, go about detailing your responsibilities. Be sure to describe them so as to draw attention to their relevance to current role.
Give details of your main leisure activities and interests outside of work. What have you contributed and what have you got out of them?
To answer this sort of question, identify the key skills required by the employer and outline recent activities which clearly demonstrate your ability to carry them out. You should also explicitly outline how your experiences and achievements have prepared you for the role.
What attracts you to our firm?
Show your deep understanding of the organisation’s values and ethos and that they these match yours. You need to have done research in order to demonstrate your motivation to work for that specific organisation.
If you can, visit their stand at a careers event and ask their representatives what they enjoy about working there. If there isn’t a careers event being held, go the extra mile and do some networking of your own. Getting in contact with somebody who already works for the company is a great way to get an insight into their way of doing things.
Why this role and line of service?
You need to demonstrate a clear understanding of the job you are going for and that you have carefully assessed that it suits your interests and motivations. Adding a unique ‘hook’ about how you came to apply to this role and how it fits with your own individual experiences will make your answer more memorable.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
Again, demonstrating how this achievement relates to your ability to do the job is equally, if not more important than the achievement itself. As you are being asked for details of one particular event, rather than a list of experiences, this question, and others like it, are great candidates for using the previously discussed STAR formula.
Other STAR Formula Questions
Here are some other questions you can answer using the same method. Make sure you address everything the question asks and feel free to alter the proportions of the four elements of a STAR answer if you feel the question is placing greater than usual emphasis one particular part of the question.
- Give an example of a problem you have solved that required creativity. What methods did you use. What conclusions did you reach?
- Describe a time when you were working under pressure, to a deadline. What was the situation like and what did you do?
- Tell us about an occasion when you had to communicate complex information. Why did you have to do this and how did you go about it? Did you achieve your desired result?
- Describe a difficult team project you have worked on
Next article: How to write a cover letter.