by Neil Harris
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.
Over the last ten years there has been a steady growth of on-line application forms that are often tricky to complete and sometimes have word limits (usually around 200 words) for each question. Some employers allow you to partially complete the form and return later. Remember that they can read even your half completed form.
But let's start at the beginning. For most jobs there is a Job description. Once that has been written it is a relatively straight-forward 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.
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. If this affects you, try to translate your grades into UK terms, perhaps using percentages. Some employers are not familiar with the American grade point average or qualifications graded 1 to 7. If you have difficulty you might consult 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. Relationships are built on common ground. Research their web site and any other material you can find to discover what you have in common with the employer and highlight these.
Items to include when answering the ‘Why them?' question:
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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