Job hunting

Top tips for job hunting! Number 2 – Applications and applying for jobs

This post is part of a mini-series all about job hunting! If you haven’t already, click here to read the first instalment on looking for and finding jobs.

So you’ve seen a great looking job vacancy…

Just like dating, applying for jobs is a numbers game (so they say). There are hundreds of jobs out there, but there are also hundreds of applicants, so naturally it will take a bit of time, trial and error, and maybe a couple of broken hearts along the way before you find your one true job. That means you might have to fill in a lot of applications, but there are lots of things you can do to save yourself time, make the process a bit less tedious, and most importantly make your applications the best they can be.

Top tips

First top tip: you miss 100% of shots you don’t take.

I’m sure some famous sportsperson said that once. If you are unemployed, you really have nothing to lose in applying for anything and everything you’d reasonably be willing to do. If you’re managing a full time job as well as new-job hunting, you might want to be a bit more selective if you don’t have time or energy to apply for everything. But if you don’t apply, unless you are a wizard, you’re definitely not going to get the job.

Second top tip: it’s best to think of the job specification as a wish list.

A job spec is a statement of the essential and desirable things the employer would like whoever gets the job to have, and the minimum qualifications, experience and skills necessary to perform the essential functions of the job. The points listed as ‘essential’ are usually just that, and if you do not have several of them you’re unlikely to get an interview. But don’t let that deter you if you really like the job! Go for it anyway, put in an amazing application, and you never know what might happen. As for the ‘desirable’ points, this is where the ‘wish list’ idea comes in. The more of these you meet, the better. However this is just a list of all the things the ideal candidate would have in an ideal world. The employer is unlikely to think they’ll get someone who meets literally every point on the job spec, so don’t think that if you’ve only got a few that there’s no point applying. If you can demonstrate all of your relevant skills and experience and how you would be great at the job (more on that later), then it might not matter if you’re technically missing a few of the criteria.

And ladies: I was at an event a few weeks ago where the speaker quoted a fact: women typically will look at a job spec with eight required criteria, and apply if they meet at least six of them, but men will apply even if they only meet two of them! Disclaimer: I have no idea of the accuracy of this ‘fact’. BUT it doesn’t hurt to think about it and remind yourself of the two top tips above!

Third top tip: be practical and efficient.

When drafting and filling in applications, it helps to always write and save answers to questions, personal statements, and cover letters in Word documents. You can take advantage of spellcheck before you submit your answers, and this helps avoid accidentally losing your whole answer if an application form on a website doesn’t save properly or something. It also means you can copy and paste answers from one application to the next if they are similar questions, and reuse and recycle answers you’ve put time and effort into crafting. Always adapt the answer to suit the question you’re answering though, and to directly reference the organisation, don’t just paste in a generic answer, and double and triple check you’ve changed all the references to the right organisation!

Fourth top tip: complete the application the right way.

Application forms and processes come in all shapes and sizes, and need to be addressed in different ways to make sure you show your best qualities.

Competency questions

If you think you’ve never answered a ‘competency question’, I’d be willing to bet that you actually have and just didn’t realise. Competency questions can be sneaky like that. The point of a competency question is to allow you to demonstrate that you have the abilities, personality traits, skills and behaviours that will be integral to the role. You can spot a competency question by looking for a two key things:

  • they ask about a specific skill or behaviour, for example ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’, ‘communication’, or ‘decision-making’.
  • they ask you to give a real life example, saying ‘Tell us about a time’ or ‘Tell us about a situation’, when have you shown ‘X’ quality (the thinking nowadays is that the best and most reliable way to find out about someone’s potential future performance is to hear about examples of past performance. This is your ‘evidence’ that you actually have this skill rather than just saying that you do).

Competency questions might be framed in different ways depending on the application, but will almost always feature those two things. For example, a less clear but still spot-able competency question might go something like: ‘Teamwork is very important to us, how do you practice teamwork in your current role?’.

If you’re a recent graduate or you’re looking for your first job, and therefore you don’t have any experience of the exact industry or type of job you’re applying for, don’t worry. Competency questions actually make it easier to talk about how you’ve have performed in various situations in the past, not just in similar job roles. You can talk about part-time jobs you might have had, any volunteering or club or society roles, even your general uni or school experience, as well as life experiences like going travelling, planning a wedding or having children. As long as you clearly show the skill or behaviour they’re asking for, you’ll be fine.

Remember that these people don’t know you. You are a collection of letters on a page to them. How do they know if you would be able to maintain your composure on a joint project with nit-picky Nigel in the Accounts department or professionally stand up to bossypants Barbara from Human Resources? Use competency questions to show how you’ve dealt with these kinds of things in the past, and convince them you’d be able to do so again in this job.

The easiest way to tackle dauntingly vague competency questions is by using one of the tried and tested formulas: STAR or CAR seem to be the most popular. The letters in STAR stand for: Situation (describe the situation you’re using as your example); Task (describe what task was required of you); Action: (describe what action(s) you took); and Result (conclude by describing the result of that action). CAR is essentialy the same just a slightly different format: Context (describe the situation and the task you were faced with, when, where, with whom?); Action (how did you deal with it? What action did you take?); and Result (what results did you achieve? What did you learn from the experience?).

Write a couple of bullet points for each letter, then write around them and form them into sentences so your answer seems more natural. Once you’ve got the key points, if you’ve still got word count left you can add in extra details.

These methods work really well for the more generic competencies like teamwork, leadership, communication etc, but I’ve also seen slightly more interesting competencies used in applications that focus more on the organisation’s values. Sometimes you’ll get a competency question about ‘showing courage’, being ‘value-driven’, or something completely random. You can still use the same method though, you might just have to think a bit harder about choosing the right example!

Keep all of these in Word documents too (or Pages documents or Notes, this post is not sponsored by Microsoft Office) – you can even group your answers by competency as you build up more and more answers, so that next time you come to answer a ‘leadership’ or ‘teamwork’ competency question, you’ve got lots of material to choose from that just needs adapted for the question you’re answering.

Generic personal statement

Some applications don’t ask competency questions, and instead just present you with a big old blank page and ask you to write a ‘personal statement’. Some add the helpful line saying ‘Please tell us why you want this job and how you meet the required criteria’. For these types of applications, you should go through all job criteria/key skills listed that you can, and address how you meet/have each of them. If you don’t have some, address them anyway and talk about how you would gain them, or how you have something else that is similar or relevant. Do this in bullet points first, then pad it out into sentences, and top and tail it with some more generic sentences about how great the organisation is, how great you are, how suitable you are for the job, and how much you really want to work for the organisation. Again, remember that all they know about you is what you put on that page. Take some tips from the competency questions crew and put in lots of examples, to personalise your answers and so that your statement isn’t just a rambling regurgitation of the required criteria with no evidence of how you actually meet them.

Cover letter and CV

A vacancy that asks for a cover letter and CV is really not that different to one asking you to fill in a form. First you should tailor your CV to the job specification, by emphasising and bulking out the parts that show the experience and skills they are asking for, and adding or removing any roles that are or aren’t relevant to the job. Then use the main body of your cover letter to write a personal statement like you would if you were filling out a form instead of writing a letter. Make sure it is formatted correctly (remember those high school English classes where you swore you’d never need to use all those formal letter writing grammar rules you learned…? Google ‘correct cover letter format uk’ if you’re not sure).

Fifth top tip: use the wonderful world of the internet.

If you’re stuck for answers for how to demonstrate your skills for application forms, competency questions or in cover letters, Kent university have an amazing tool you can use for inspiration. Have a look at it here. Okay it looks a bit naff on the website but give it a go! Either put in a specific sector and role, then choose one of the skills from the list on the right hand side, or go straight to the right hand side list and choose any one of the skills. It then shows you examples of ‘evidence’ of that skill, and also gives you a couple of little example answers using a similar formula to the ‘STAR’ method. Obviously make sure you don’t accidentally plagiarise from this site and always put things into your own words though.

Some general final points to end on:

Don’t leave it until the last minute! You can’t do a good application if you are rushing, and submitting it five minutes before the midnight deadline it looks bad and as though you either don’t care, or are disorganised.

Spellcheck spellcheck spellcheck. Not properly spellchecking your application is sloppy and lazy and frankly stupid. Employers will notice.

Ask friends and family to proofread and give you feedback before sending in an application. They might pick up on something that makes a real difference.

And, if worst comes to worst and you aren’t offered an interview, ALWAYS ask for feedback. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Any feedback they do give you can be put into practice for your next application.

Good luck! 🙂

Let me know in the comments if any of you have recently applied for a job! How did it go? 

2 thoughts on “Top tips for job hunting! Number 2 – Applications and applying for jobs

  1. That’s so interesting about the difference between men and women when it comes to ‘self-policing’ whether we meet all of a job’s desirable criteria! It’s great of you to point out that employers may be searching for something on their wish list just as much as applicants are. I’ve found that thinking of the process as a human one, about a specific fit, is far more calming and constructive than feeling like an employer’s judgement is about to come down from ‘on high’ (I guess the same applies to dating too!) 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Kirsten 😊 The fact about men and women is probably not the most ‘scientific’ fact but it certainly rings true with me in my experience and the experience of watching friends and family job hunting! You might just accidentally ‘self-police’ yourself out of an amazing opportunity. I think it’s definitely similar dating in lots of funny ways 😋 It’s just people trying to find each other in the end I suppose!


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