Essentials: making applications
Effective applications are the result of careful planning and preparation. The first steps are to make sure that you know what it is that the employer is looking for and that you are able to meet the requirements.
Making Application Tabs
Why do employers use application forms?
- They allow employers to make direct comparisons between applicants in a way that is not possible with CVs
- It makes it easier to obtain standardised information
Why do most application forms fail?
There are mistakes in your spelling and grammar
You won’t get away with these – get a friend (ideally a fluent English speaker) to proof read your application for you - don’t simply rely on the spell checker.
The answers are not sufficiently detailed or specific
Selectors are expert at detecting “waffle”. They want hard facts, details and numbers!
You have answered different questions from those which were asked
This happens if you don’t read the question carefully. Some questions are complicated, having several separate sub-questions. You must deal with each one in turn. This also happens when you cut and paste answers from one form to another without doing sufficient editing.
You have not been positive and persuasive when describing yourself and your abilities
You need to use an enthusiastic tone. Don’t undervalue your own experiences.
PREPARING FOR INTERVIEW
Your application form is often the basis of interviews. Make sure that you are familiar with everything you have written before your interview. Be prepared to talk about what you have written and to answer more detailed questions along these points. Also, it is good to have further examples and stories to back up what you feel are your key strengths.
Completing an application
Completing your application form
The terms vary but the point is this: you must focus on how you can be useful and valuable to the organisation in question. Providing useful evidence that you have a strong range of desirable skills is the key to successful applications.
Figure out what your strengths and your best achievements are. Note all the successes you’ve had, however small. All potentially provide useful evidence that you are a desirable candidate. Understand your motivation and why you are interested in a particular job or organisation.
Know the employer:
Most employers make it clear what sort of person they are looking to recruit. Study the job advert, job description, the recruitment website or brochure carefully. Make a list of qualities which are important to the employer. To impress, these must be covered in your application form.
Create a good overall impression:
"Ensure that you make clear connections between what you have to offer and the skills and attributes that the employer is looking for."
- Recent examples are more impressive. Don’t go back too far – certainly not prior to the last couple of years at school, unless it is for a truly stellar achievement
- You need a good range in your answers. Aim to draw upon experiences in all three areas of your life – study, previous work experience and extra-curricular activities
Our Making Applications [pdf] handout has further information to help you out. General application form advice is also available from TARGETjobs. Students with a disability may wish to read the disclosure section on our Equality and Diversity page.
The vast majority of all graduate recruiters use online application forms.
- Online forms often allow you to save your progress as you're going along. Do this frequently!
- It is sensible to prepare some parts of your application - for example a supporting statement or answers to longer questions - offline, before copying and pasting them into the form being submitted
- If you get the option, preview your form before it is submitted, for a final check of the content and layout
- What made you choose your degree course?
To find out about you and to establish your interest.
- Why have you applied to us?
To discover how much you’ve found out and whether that fits in with your career plans.
- What other jobs have you applied for?
To discover whether you’re interested in this industry sector or applied all over the place.
- What are your three main strengths?
Not just to find out what you’re really good at, but also to ascertain your level of self-awareness.
- What is your greatest weakness?
Try to use an example that you can turn around and show that you’re dealing with positively, e.g. ‘My word-processing is not very fast so I’ve enrolled on a course to improve’.
- Why should we employ you?
An opportunity to demonstrate your suitability and draw parallels between what you’ve got to offer and what they need.
"Tell us about a time when you have worked efficiently in a group. Describe the role you played and any problems you encountered."
"Describe a time where you have had to solve a problem. What did you learn from it?"
How to answer
- It is crucial to respond to all the different parts of the question
- It is important to emphasise your personal contribution to any group based activities - use 'I' at least as often as you use 'we'
- Mention things that you learned, skills that you developed, positive characteristics that you exhibited
- If a question is more general, structure your response into appropriate sections
For competency/skills-based questions, use the STAR technique - see our page on interview technique.
Career choice/motivation questions
"Explain what attracts you to this particular field of work and offer evidence of your suitability."
How to answer
This question is an extremely important one, especially where you are applying to jobs not completely relevant to your studies. Your response must be logical, and structured. It is not enough to say that you have always wanted to pursue that career – employers want reasons and evidence. Make a connection between your own personal strengths and the requirements of the job. Describe any practical steps you have taken to confirm the choice, e.g. attending presentations, talking to employees of the firm, reading careers materials, attending workshops or other training events, work shadowing or work experience.
Why do you want to work for us?
"Why do you feel you are suited to a career with this company?"
How to answer
Your priority here should be to prove that you have done your homework, researching this particular employer and what they offer. Go beyond the superficial - too many graduates are looking for 'challenging opportunities in a fast-paced, international environment'. State what in particular is attractive to you and why.
Career development questions
"If you are successful in joining this organisation, how would you like your career to develop in the next 3 years?"
How to answer
It is important to convey enthusiasm, ambition and drive in your response. An effective answer is well informed about the routes for progression or advancement within the organisation. Where would a person be after three years if they were doing well? Include professional qualifications if appropriate.
YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS QUESTIONS
"What do you consider to have been your main achievements?"
How to answer
Panic can easily set in at the sight of these types of questions. It can feel difficult to come up with sufficiently worthy examples. However, the magnitude of the achievements you describe is not the most important aspect.
The key to success here is to choose achievements which provide good evidence that you are the right sort of person for the job. Focus on the skills and positive attributes which are demonstrated by the achievements you describe. Combining a number of extracurricular achievements with a good academic record could count and would show real evidence of good time management skills, drive and energy.
ACTIVITIES AND INTERESTS QUESTIONS
"What activities and leisure interests are you currently involved in, and what have you learnt about yourself from your involvement in these?"
How to answer
- Ideally you can show a reasonable range of activities, but avoid giving lists. Writing more about a few points will make your answer more impressive and memorable.
- Put in some details and numbers to make it more credible.
- Make sure that you explain any skills that you have developed as a result of these activities.
- Don’t include socialising and going out with friends - most people do this!
PERSONAL STATEMENTS OR OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS
"Explain why you have applied for this job function. Offer evidence of your suitability. Emphasise why you consider yourself to be a strong candidate."
How to answer
Typically, you will have a large number of words allocated for this question, so structure your response. Deal with each part of the question in turn. Highlight the skills you have which are relevant to the job. Give enough detail in your evidence to paint a convincing picture of your abilities. Even if the question is as general as 'Why have you applied for this job?' the secret is to cover the same type of points. In fact your approach here is very similar to that when writing a covering letter. Our Writing personal statements, though focused on applications for further study, may provide some further advice on structure.
QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
"What do you think are your three key strengths? What aspects/events in your life illustrate these? What do you regard as the three areas you feel you most need to improve and why?"
How to answer
Your strengths will be convincing if you back them up with sufficiently detailed evidence. The point of the question is to prove good things about yourself, whether these are well developed skills such as teamwork or leadership, or attributes, e.g. motivation, resilience, drive, creativity.
For weaknesses, employers are primarily looking for self awareness – evidence that you know and understand yourself. You need to answer honestly (of course) and wisely. Avoid corny options like saying you are a perfectionist or that you always work too hard. A “safe” weakness is one that could become a strength when it is managed with insight.
Think about things that wind you up when you work with others – this can often give clues as to your own weaknesses. What is your approach to deadlines, public speaking and projects – is there anything you wish to improve on? Knowledge gaps can be useful e.g. 'I wish I knew more about...'. Beware of simply quoting past weaknesses that you have already overcome – you may be challenged at interview for more current ones.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION QUESTIONS
"Please write here any additional information, not covered elsewhere, which will strengthen your application."
How to answer
Include any unmentioned achievements or difficulties overcome, as long as you feel it has some relevance. For example, if you suffered a setback during your A level studies which affected your grades, or had an issue with a second year project, you should explain that here. If you have nothing to write, at least write 'not applicable' to show that you have seen the question.
ANY OTHER TYPES OF QUESTIONS
And there are many! But whatever the question, always remember your primary aim is to describe yourself as a suitable candidate with desirable skills and attributes which match the requirements of the employer.
Applications for postdocs
All applications should be carefully targeted. You will need to audit and review your unique selling points - your expertise, experience, skills and attributes - and emphasise these in your application. University Researchers and the Job Market - The Effective Job Selection Package (Volume II) produced by AGCAS provides additional information on developing effective applications.
TARGETING YOUR APPLICATION
All applications should be carefully targeted. You will need to audit and review your unique selling points: your expertise, experience, skills and attributes. Having researched the employer and the job, the next step is to emphasise what is relevant to the position applied for. Attending an Imperial College postdoctoral researchers’ workshop on planning your career for academia and outside will enable you to experience what is required by both types of employers in the selection process.
- Think about what the target reading audience will be seeking in an application
- For academic applications, you will need to emphasise your research, teaching and administrative experiences.
- For applications to employers outside academia and how to target your application, the 'Doctoral careers outside higher education' page on the Vitae website has some further information
- Consider what evidence you can provide that demonstrates you have the skills and attributes required
- Structure your answers to respond to each part of the question or to deliver evidence for each of the 'essentials' and 'desirables' listed along with the job description
- Convey your enthusiasm