Employers use application forms to gain an understanding of your skills, qualities, achievements and experience in a format they can compare with other applicants. If the employer has asked for an application form do not send a CV.
Your aim is to present yourself effectively, so that the employer wants to interview you. To do this you have to know what the employer is looking for.
- Writing your application
- Tips for online application forms
- Tips for paper application forms
- Tips for all application forms
- Scanning software - make sure your application gets read
Step 1: Understand the employer and the job
- Read the person specification very carefully. What experience, personal qualities or qualifications are they asking for?
- If no person spec is provided, you can establish what the employer is looking for from the job description or by doing some research into the company.
- See our page Research and preparation for ideas on researching a potential employer and making contacts within the organisation.
Step 2: Match yourself to the job
- The person specification may refer to ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ requirements.
- Give examples of how you match each of the 'essential' requirements. Also show how you meet as many of the 'desirable' requirements as you can.
- Do not be discouraged if you do not meet all the 'desirable' requirements. A person specification describes an employer’s ideal candidate. They will expect to receive applications which match most of these requirements, not necessarily all.
- Show that you have the skills, experience and potential (the 'employability') to do the job.
- Think about placements, volunteering, part time work, also your hobbies, interests and extracurricular activities at university. All of these can be used to demonstrate your employability.
- The Employability Skills Grid (pdf) shows how to evidence the skills employers place most value on - self management, communication, enterprise and research.
- See our page Targeting your CV for more on matching yourself to a job.
Step 3: Identify your unique selling point (USP)
- Your application is being compared with many others, so make the most of your unique experiences and achievements.
- For example, many applicants may have studied French, but only one might have used those skills working in a French school, at a Canadian summer camp or on a volunteering project in Africa.
- Highlight anything you think will make you stand out, but above all make sure it is relevant to the role you are applying for.
Writing your application
Before you write anything, read the application form in full. Plan what information should be included, and in which section. The form should give you the opportunity to make all your key points while answering the questions fully.
A concise and relevant application will maximise your chances of making the shortlist. Faced with 100+ applications, an employer will not waste time searching for relevant content. If something is not relevant, leave it out.
- List your jobs in reverse chronological order - most recent first.
- Include a brief, bullet point list of your responsibilities and achievements for each job. Put the most relevant points first.
- The more relevant the job, the more detail you should include - and vice-versa.
- Include placement and voluntary experience here too, unless there is a separate section for this.
- List places of study in reverse chronological order - most recent first.
- Where your degree is particularly relevant to the job, the employer will expect more information about course content and special projects.
- If the job does not ask for a specific degree, you should still include any relevant skills and experience you gained from your studies .
- Summarise your A level and GCSE qualifications, e.g. '8 GCSEs A - C, including Mathematics and English'. However, if the employer asks for more detail you should give it.
You may be asked to respond to a series of questions, e.g. "Describe a time when you demonstrated a customer-focused and team-centred approach to problem solving". Make your answers as clear and concise as possible. Use the STAR method to help structure your responses (omitting headings for the final draft):
- Situation: "A customer rang up complaining that they'd waited more than two weeks for a reply from our sales team regarding a product query."
- Task: "I needed to address the client's immediate query and find out what went wrong in the normal process."
- Activity: "I apologised, got the details and passed them to our head salesperson, who contacted the client within the hour. I investigated why the query hadn't been answered. I discovered that it was a combination of a wrong mobile number and a generic email address that wasn't being checked. I let the client know and we offered a goodwill discount on her next order."
- Result: "The client not only continued to order from us and also posted a positive customer service Tweet."
source: The Guardian.
- Instead of questions, you may be given a blank page on which to give ‘additional information’ - evidence of your suitability for the job. This is the single most important part of your application.
- You must show that you understand the role you are applying for. Match your skills and experience to the job criteria, e.g. if the job asks for "a customer-focused and team-centred approach to problem solving", you can evidence this as follows (using the example above);
"I was able to successfully resolve a complaint from a client chasing overdue replies from our sales team. I offered an apology and referred the complaint to our Head Salesperson who contacted the client within the hour. Additionally I liaised with the sales team and identified issues with the contact information they had been given. Having informed the client of this we offered a goodwill discount on their next order. The client continued to order from us and also posted a positive Tweet regarding their customer service experience. This positive outcome was achieved by focusing on customer needs and taking a team-centred approach to meeting and exceeding those needs."
- Use key words found in the job criteria in your evidence (see example above).
- Try using the job criteria as a headings and give evidence under each one.
- The application form may have both questions and an additional information section. If so, do not repeat your answers. Use the additional information section to provide relevant details you were not able to include elsewhere.
Interests and extracurricular activities
- Describe any relevant achievements relating to your out-of-work/study activities. This will contribute to the employer’s understanding of what motivates you as a person.
- Before naming someone as a referee get their permission and ask how they wish to be contacted – by email, phone, or letter.
- Employers usually expect at least one academic referee for recent graduates. The second could be an employer or a professional person who knows you personally.
Gaps and blanks
- Avoid leaving gaps in the chronology of your application. If you have been unemployed say so, but be positive about how you used your time.
- Do not leave sections blank - if questions are not relevant to you, put 'N/A' (this is an accepted abbreviation for 'not applicable').
Tips for online application forms
- The rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar still apply to online applications. Lack of attention to detail is likely to disqualify your application.
- You may have to answer questions within a fixed word limit . Be prepared to leave out details if you are struggling to stay within the limit. You can always expand on your answer at interview.
- Do not sacrifice grammar for the sake of squeezing in everything you would like to say. This will count against you.
- Save a copy of the application form if possible, or copy the content into a Word document or similar before submitting it.
- Photocopy the form and use this to write a draft before filling out the actual form.
- The appearance of the form is the first impression the employer will have of you. Make sure it is in pristine condition.
- Never fold an application form once completed, even if it arrived folded. Return it flat in an A4 envelope.
- Be very careful with grammar, spelling and punctuation. Mistakes can be enough to disqualify your application.
- If you copy text from one application form to another make sure it is relevant to that particular role.
- Always proof read your application, do not rely on spell-check to do this for you.
- Once you have finished the draft, ask a third person to read it. This is essential to check that you are saying what you want to say in the best way possible.
- If you can send your application early then do. Some employers scan applications and offer interviews before the deadline.
Scanning software - Make sure your application gets read
Some large companies use software to scan applications and CVs looking for keywords. If the keywords are not found the application is rejected before it gets seen by a human being.
Software will often be company and role-specific, so you must tailor your application to the job you are applying for. You should repeat back key words and phrases used in the job description.
Use the links below to get more information about scanning software and how to 'beat' it;