It sounds a little odd that highly qualified applicants might need advice on filling in application forms, but according to feedback from employers including academics and human resources staff, applicants often overlook even the most obvious points when applying for a job, and therefore can do with all the help they can get. Also if you are applying for a large number of jobs on a regular basis it can be easy to get sloppy so here is some advice on how to maximise your chances by completing the application form in a most professional manner.
Paper or Online?
For many jobs you will now be offered the option of sending off for an application pack or filling your details in online. It is entirely up to you which one you choose, but both can be fraught with problems. If you have a paper application form you have to wait for it to arrive and then nervously wait hoping that it reaches its destination once complete. You also have only one shot: if you fill the form in incorrectly there will probably not be time to wait for the employers to send another form. It is possible to fill in the document electronically and then print it out and send it. This gives the flexibility of being able to edit it while you are working but also having something concrete in your hand to send off. Many people are wary of online applications because they have nothing tangible, no proof that the application has arrived. If you do go down that route, it is worth asking for a reply to acknowledge that your application has arrived.
When filling in online application forms, try to ensure that your answers are readable. Sometimes the formatting (i.e. font, point size etc) becomes corrupted and your answers come out very small or very large! You have to make sure that your form is easy for human resources staff to process giving it a more professional appearance.
Your Contact Details
Would you believe that some people apply for jobs and don't leave their proper contact information? Your prospective employers will not want to spend a long time trying to get in touch to discuss interviews, extra information and so on. If you know you don't answer your emails regularly include a mobile phone number and highlight which is the best method of contacting you. Make sure this information is accurate; if it isn't, the employers are not going to spend a lot of time trying to trace you. Don't miss out on opportunities due to silly mistakes.
These sections are very important; it's where you have the opportunity of listing your education and job history. Do not simply write ‘see attached CV'. This will give the impression that you have not spent much time preparing your application or that you are sending off a number of generic applications. This is the opposite to the impression you want to give: you want to make the employer feel that you are really keen to work for them specifically, not just desperate to get any job at all, never mind whether the latter is true or not!
Double-check whether the form asks you to list your achievements with the earliest or most recent first. Also, make sure you present these sections neatly, whether handwritten or typed. If you are filling in a form electronically make sure the dates, qualifications and institutions line up. The formatting sometimes gets mixed up in these forms. You want prospective employees to be able to see the information at a glance.
Any Other Details?
On the majority of application forms you will see a large box asking for any other relevant information that will support your application. Unlike an Oxbridge undergraduate application this is not asking for you to discuss hobbies or outside interests in order to prove you are a rounded individual. The purpose of this box is for you to show exactly how and why you would be suitable for the job. The best way of doing this is to relate your skills directly to the person specification you should have received with your application pack. Work through this systematically, point by point. Explain how you have already demonstrated the skills required to match each of the requirements. Again the idea is to make this easy to read, so bullet points or headings are fine as they will bring the reader's eye to the relevant section. Under no circumstances write ‘see attached CV', this will look lazy. The idea is to relate yourself to that particular job so do not write a generic statement and use it for many different applications. You will probably spend most time on this section of the form because provided you have the relevant qualifications for the post, what you write in this section will make the difference between going in the discarded pile and staying in the interview pile.
Covering Letters and CVs
Even if you have had to fill in a massive application form, always include a covering letter and CV as well. Otherwise your application will look rushed and unprofessional. CVs for jobs in the commercial sector are supposed to be two pages or less. As an academic you can get away with something slightly longer as it will take more room to list your teaching and publication record, but try not to exceed four pages at the most. For a covering letter, try to find a person's name to address it to rather than ‘dear sir/madam'. If no one is listed in your application pack then address it to the head of department to which you are applying. Use the covering letter to write a summary of your most recent research/teaching experience and why you will be good for the job. Some of this may duplicate material on the application form, but that doesn't matter. Also mention in a covering letter if someone has recommended you to apply, or if you know someone in the department whom you hope to work with. This sort of informal networking can supplement your more formal CV and application form.