Application forms allow employers to compare applicants on a more equal, systematic basis whereby everyone answers the same questions. When completing your form you should be completely honest and remember that it is a key marketing tool, which employers will use to decide whether or not to invite you for an interview. This section teaches you the basics of filling in an application form, tells you how to answer frequently featured questions, and shows you how to make a personal statement.
Commanding the basics
If you’ve requested an application form by ringing or emailing a company, it’s likely that you’ll receive an application pack, which will usually consist of the original job advert, job description, person specification (details about what sort of person the company is looking for) and some background information about the company. This is to help you learn more about the job and to help you complete the application form, so make sure you read everything carefully before you start filling in the form. It’s best to plan your answers and draft a rough copy first. It may be the case that you have a word limit for some answers, so it’s even more important that you work out how much you can write in the spaces provided.
Application forms always begin with personal details such as your name and address and then move on to education and employment. These sections are fairly straightforward but if your qualifications were gained abroad then you will probably need to translate your grades into terms recognized by the country you’re applying to. For a guideline on how to translate grades click here. When discussing your work experience (internships, etc.), if you didn’t have an official job title, try to think of one that best describes your position, to make it as professional as possible. Some application forms are short so you may need to summarize your employment, key qualifications or modules or attach a separate sheet with more detailed information, or add this into the ‘additional information’ box. You can also group together or prioritize your experiences. It’s also worth remembering that you don’t need to write the full address of the companies you have worked for – the name of the company and its location (city and country) is sufficient unless otherwise specified.
Think very carefully about the language you use in your application – you want to be as positive, focused and concise as possible. Use power words (active words) as a way of leading the reader through your application and making your skills and experience stand out even more. The following table provides you with lots of examples that you can use in your application. The first column contains active verbs which you can use to answer any question. The second and third columns are words that specifically relate to demonstrating your organizational skills and achievements.
Also, use sub-headings and bullet points to help make information ‘cleaner’ and more accessible to the reader. They are also a good way of condensing what you want to say if you are restricted by word counts. Again, use active verbs, positive language, and clear examples and stick to one idea per paragraph as blending separate criteria in the same paragraph may confuse the reader or lead them to miss the points you’re trying to make. You need to revise and edit your text – every word counts!
Furthermore, apply the following phrases to help fine-tune your application:
- Extensive academic/practical background in…
- Experienced in all aspects of…
- Knowledge of/proficient in…
- Trained in…
- Competent at…
- In-depth/working knowledge of…
- Promoted to…
- Succeeded in…
- Proven track record in…
- Experience involved/included…
- Successful in/at…
- In charge of…
- Now involved in…
- Responsible for coordinating…
- Familiar with…
- Assigned to…
- Committed to…
- Enthusiastic user of…
In any case, make sure that you take into consideration the following dos and don'ts when filling in an application form.
- Follow the instructions exactly. For example, if it asks you to write in block capitals (e.g. JOHN SMITH) then do so!
- If filling in a paper application then use a black pen (it is easier to photocopy) and write clearly and neatly. Keep the form clean and unfolded
- Answer all questions that apply to you, keeping your answers short and to the point. If a question is not relevant to you then write N/A (not applicable). This shows the reader that you haven’t missed the question
- Don’t just cut and paste parts of your CV into the form – this can look lazy
- Be truthful
- Make sure you include all relevant experience and give examples to support your answers
- List your educational qualifications and work experience in reverse chronological order (most recent first) unless told otherwise
- If you need more space to answer a question (and there is no word limit) then attach a separate piece of paper to the back of your application. Write the question number beside your answer and put your name on the sheet in case it detaches itself from your application and gets lost
- Always emphasize proactive behavior and use active verbs
- Be careful when answering questions which have various parts – make sure you answer each part in turn and structure your answer clearly
- Check all answers thoroughly, make sure that all dates agree and ensure that you have answered all questions
- Get someone else to read your form to check for mistakes
- Print/photocopy your form so that you can refer to it again in the future
- Make sure you send the form well before the closing date. If it arrives late it probably won't be considered and you will have wasted your time!
- Send your application form in a big envelope so that you don’t have to fold it
- Rush your application – this will show in the quality of your work and will create a bad impression of you
- Give your opinion. For example you shouldn’t write 'I think good communication is vital to successful teamwork.' Instead give an example of when you have shown effective communication within a group situation
- Exceed the word limit. Writing concisely is part of the assessment!
- Be too general or vague – answers need to be specific, concise and supported by clear examples. Make your answers as full as possible, but don’t repeat yourself simply to make up the word count
- Use slang or technical jargon, and explain any abbreviations that you use if necessary
- Use too many different fonts – keep to one or two that are clear and easy to read
- Use inappropriate colors or graphics – keeping it simple is best!
- Send your form without getting someone else to check it and without having read the final draft at least twice yourself
Application forms also contain almost always certain types of questions. I addition to rather general questions such as 'How would you describe yourself?', 'What made you choose your degree course?', and 'What skills have you developed from your studies?' there are also a few more difficult questions. Competency-based questions are extremely common and these seek evidence of transferable skills, i.e., of skills you acquire during different activities such as working, studying, playing sports and that are transferable and applicable to any job. You can master competency-based questions by following a few simple guidelines:
- Competency-based questions require you to use examples to support your answers. An example of a competency-based question is: 'Describe a situation where you worked as part of a team towards a specific goal.' Teamwork is one of the most desired skills, so tell the employer how you worked within the group to achieve its goal. Focus on how you interacted with others and the particular qualities you contributed to the group. Another example would be: 'Describe a time when you failed to meet a deadline. Why was this and what would you do differently next time?' If a question focuses on a failure of some kind, like this example, then make your answer as positive as possible. For example, instead of saying you missed a deadline because you were extremely busy or ill, say that you worked longer on the project to ensure that it was the best it could be and negotiated with your tutor that working longer would result in a higher standard of work. Questions that focus on problems require you to discuss the process that you used to solve the problem rather than the problem itself and you should highlight examples of personal initiative and creativity in solving the problem. Discuss how you would avoid the problem next time.
- Make sure that your answers and the examples you use are the most relevant to the question and don’t be tempted to invent an answer because the employer will realize this and it will reflect badly on you. Provide evidence in your answers, drawing on your work life and study experience – try to use a range of examples rather than using the same one to demonstrate different skills.
- When outlining your weaknesses, try to think of them as areas for development and talk about how you will address your weaknesses in the future. For example, if your attention to detail is good then you may need to work on seeing the bigger picture. Similarly if you have a long-term goal you may find it hard to focus on the short-term objectives. Thus, these are things you can refer to in your answer as areas for improvement.
- When answering competency-based questions you should use the STAR method: Situation: Describe the situation; Task: Describe what your role was; Action: Tell the reader what you did; Result: Describe the result of your actions
One question that appears on every application form is, in some way or another is ‘why do you want to do this job?' Always avoid negative answers with this 'why?' questions – don't say you want to do it because you're bored with your current job or you’re not paid enough. Instead, talk about this role being a new challenge for you and an opportunity to apply your skills and develop your career. Another popular ‘why’ question is ‘why us?' Don't fall into the trap of talking about what the company can do for you – the purpose of your application form is to highlight what you can do for the company. Look on their website and find out what you have in common with the employer and how you will fit into the organization. You need to demonstrate your experience in the field of work you are applying for as well as experience of their competitors, knowledge of their products and services, familiarity with their location and, if they have operations abroad, some interest in countries in which they operate, and any foreign languages you possess.
Sometimes there are also rather odd questions featured on an application form. An example of a strange question is: ‘If you were stranded on a desert island what two things would you want to take?' Employers often ask such questions to see if you can express your ideas logically and to see what your answer reveals about your personality. Alternatively, companies may ask about your knowledge of current affairs. If the firm is listed on the stock exchange you should consider things such as how the current economic situation will affect their business. Research it is vital!
Inevitably, most forms have a list of standard questions relating to ethnic background, health, disability, criminal records, and gender. These monitoring questions are not used in the selection process but they are necessary so the company can check that it is receiving applications from all sections of society. However, you are not obliged to answer such questions if you don’t want to.
Application forms often have a statement that says ‘please provide further information in support of your application’. You don’t have to write any additional information here but this is a great opportunity to mention things you didn’t in other questions or to add any other information that highlights your suitability for the role. Bear the job description and person specification in mind when writing this and use your research of the company to understand what they expect from their employees and how you match this.
Making a personal statement
Many application forms require you to complete a personal statement which is another tool that employers use to select the right candidate. A personal statement is a way of setting yourself apart from other applicants and being more creative in what you write. When reading your personal statement, the employer will ask him/herself the following questions:
- Does the candidate have the necessary qualifications and qualities for the job?
- Can the candidate work under pressure?
- Will the candidate be able to adapt to the new working environment?
- What are their communication skills like?
- Are they dedicated to this job and have they researched it well?
- Do they have a genuine interest in the job and a desire to learn more about it?
Your personal statement should relate directly to the job specification and should address all of the points in the order in which they appear. Consider:
- The personal qualities you can bring to the role
- Relevant skills and how you acquired them
- Specific aspects of the job that interest you
- Work experience or voluntary work in this field
- Details of your main extracurricular activities (leisure time activities such as sport, membership to clubs) and interests to date – what have you gained from these?
- Where you hope this job will lead
If you’re applying for your first job and lack professional experience, then the following skills will help you to show that you are a reliable and responsible person:
- Part-time job
- Community and charity work
- Helping out at school events and open days
- Membership to societies
- Extracurricular activities
- Languages you speak
- Awards/prizes you have won
- Introduce or conclude your personal statement with a summary of why you’re applying for the job and what attracted you to the organization
- Avoid simply repeating the words used in the job specification in your statement but make a personal interpretation of the criteria and tailor your answer to it
- Use language and phrasing that shows enthusiasm for both the role and the company
- Provide a brief summary of how your skills match the job advert
- Show that you’ve done your research on the company and highlight their strengths as an employer
Before submitting your personal statement read through what you've written and make sure it's easy to read – if you are confused by something then anyone else reading it will be too. It’s important to make sure you've said everything you want to and haven’t under- or oversold yourself. Get your friends and family to read it to provide some initial feedback – combined with time away from your form, this will enable you to look at it afresh and make constructive changes.
It’s wise to save a copy of your original statement before making these changes, so you can go back to it if you need to. It’s also worth bearing in mind that a personal statement is a work in progress, so it’s not uncommon for people to write several drafts before they’re 100% happy!