Application forms are irritating. They ask difficult questions, some of which you may consider impertinent, others just silly. Why do employers use them?
While most employers still rely on CVs, large organisations that receive huge numbers of job applications generally prefer to use their own application form. By using these forms they get answers to the questions they want answered not just the information you decide to give. They can also more easily compare one application with another, which is much more difficult with CVs.
In recent years, an increasing number of large corporations and smaller businesses are using an Application Tracking System (ATS) to screen candidates. Application questions often have a word or character limit (150 – 500 words). Many employers allow you to partially complete the form and return later.
But let’s start at the beginning. For most jobs, there is a job description. Once that has been written it is a relatively straightforward task to write a person specification with details of the education, skills and experience necessary. This leads to selection criteria, some of which are regarded as ‘essential’ and others considered ‘desirable’.
The application form is designed to discover evidence that you have all the essentials and perhaps some of the desirable abilities as well. Your task is to demonstrate that you have these.
- Be sure to read the questions carefully and answer them. If a question includes two or three sub-questions answer all of them.
- Write your first draft independent of the application form and check it for spelling and grammar.
- Use spell checks but be wary of them. If you write ‘from’ instead of ‘form’, for example, it will not be picked up. For UK applications avoid those that introduce American spellings like ‘organize’ and ‘center’.
- Cut and paste your final draft answers onto the form.
- Be careful if you are taking material from another application not to include the name of the other organisation. This is the quickest way to the reject pile.
- Don’t waffle. Keep your answers succinct. Edit them for unnecessary words.
- Include key verbs relating to the job like organised, supervised, and liaised. The ATS can scan for keywords and reject forms not including them.
- Your final check should always be to read it through in every detail.
Personal Details and Education
Forms start with the easy bits: name and contact details. They then move on to qualifications. This section is not usually a problem unless your education was gained abroad and the form has limited options to select from. If you are unsure what to include, you can always check with the employer before submitting your application form. Global organisations are used to attracting candidates from diverse backgrounds and often have dedicated staff to advise on international qualifications. Some employers will ask you to translate your grades into UK terms, perhaps using percentages. If you have difficulty you might consult UK NARIC who will translate qualifications for you for a fee.
The ‘Why?’ Questions
One question that nearly always arises in some guise is ‘Why do you want to do this?’ Always avoid negatives on application forms. Don’t say you want to do this because you’re bored with what you are doing now, don’t like the people, they have not treated you well or paid you enough. Be positive and represent this as a move that offers the opportunity to better apply your skills and develop your career. Your cup must be half full, not half empty.
Arguably the most significant question is ‘Why us?’ Don’t go on extensively about how wonderful they are and what they are going to do for your career. Your answers should place more stress on what you can do for them than what they can do for you. When you apply you are attempting to start a relationship by finding common ground. Research their website and other sources to identify what interests you about the employer and the role.
Items to include when answering the ‘Why them?’ question:
- Direct knowledge of their organisation
- Experience in the area of work you are applying for
- Experience of their industry, competitors, suppliers
- Knowledge of their products and services
- Familiarity with their location
- Work in firms of a similar size
- If they have operations abroad, some interest in countries in which they operate or linguistic skills.
Competencies – Skills in Action
It is usual these days to include competency questions which seek evidence of skills such as teamwork, organising, supervising or managing, problem-solving, communicating, initiative and others. Naturally, the relevant skills list arises from the job description and you can often guess what it includes.
The STARR method is the best way to answer competency questions.
- S – describe a situation
- T – tell them what your task or role was
- A – say what action you took
- R – always mention the result; employers like results-driven employees
- R – sometimes it is appropriate to say that you reflected on what happened and decided how you would tackle the problem next time
If your answer includes at least the first four of these points you will be providing what they want. Omit them at your peril.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Application forms often ask about strengths and weaknesses. Most people have little difficulty with strengths but struggle with weaknesses. Never give one-word answers. Try to suggest situations where your strengths were employed.
We all have weaknesses but so many people say that they are perfectionists that employers get tired of this response. Think of your weaknesses as areas for development. Consider also your personality. Extroverts are good at talking but often speak before thinking things through. Introverts reflect of issues but are often not good at communicating their thoughts. If your attention to detail is good you may need to remind yourself of the big picture, the overview. But those with a vision of where they want to get often find it hard to attend to the detail.
‘If you were stranded on a desert island what two things would you want to take?’ This question is currently being asked on an application form. Employers often ask such questions to see if you have ideas and can express them lucidly in prose. Alternatively, they may ask about your knowledge of current affairs. If the firm is listed on the stock exchange know their recent share price history. Consider how the current economic situation will affect their business.
The Catch-all Question
Forms often have a question that says ‘If there is any other information you wish to give put it here’. You are under no obligation to answer this question but cannot subsequently complain that you were not given the opportunity to mention something. You might choose to highlight further motivations for wanting to work for the employer or evidence of relevant skills and achievements.
Inevitably most forms have a list of standard questions relating to ethnic background, health, disability, criminal records, and gender. Some are designed to defend the organisation from accusations of discrimination. Others may have legal significance.
Choose referees who you know will say good things about you. Academics like academic referees and business people prefer those from a commercial background. Don’t use relatives. Always seek permission from the referees before including their details on the application form. There is often a section on the form which you can tick if you do not want your prospective employer to contact the referees without your consent.
- Never tell a lie. You could be sacked.
- Include only items you can defend or speak about at interview.
- Before you press the send button print a copy for future reference.
- Get someone else to read it to discover any mistakes or typos.