Acing applications - what employers don’t want to hear!

Posted by Kate Murray on 23 December 2015

Writing answers to application form questions is an issue with two halves: the first half is generally pretty straightforward answers to biographical questions; the second half is generally the section that takes the longer time and requires more input. I’ll write later about Personal Statements, so here’s some help with those competency questions.ace.jpg

Applications that require you to answer questions will be looking for the evidence that you’re matching the competencies required for the job.  Recruitment processes that uses these kinds of questions should be pretty transparent about what the competencies are. 

Once you’ve understood the competencies, you’ll need to spend time thinking through the evidence that you have used this competency in some aspect of your life: the theory goes that if you’ve used it somewhere before, you’ll be able to transfer that competency into the new role.

Your evidence (stories) can come from different parts of your life, though as a general rule you’ll want to make sure about 80% of them relate to work to some degree.

Here’s a question and an answer:

Q: “Describe a time when you instigated change to solve a problem.” (75 words)

A: ‘During my Masters, I discovered that lab times didn’t suit everyone as many of my year group were missing slots due to timetable clashes with other academic and extra-curricular activities. These included optional seminars that many felt the need to attend and Wednesday afternoon sporting commitments. I undertook research and found that there needed to be a more flexible arrangement for students to carry out their lab work and consequently a greater number of slots were made available’. (82 words)

So, what would an employer not want to hear here?

  1. The language! ‘lab times didn’t suit….’ is far too informal for this kind of document
  2. Lack of precision: ‘I undertook research …. and consequently a greater number of slots’ doesn’t say what this individual actually did!
  3. Not answering the question: are you any clearer about the change the person instigated? No, me neither.

Here’s a better version:

Q: “Describe a time when you instigated change to solve a problem.” (75 words)

A: “During my Masters, I identified the need for a change in lab times since my year group were missing slots due to timetable clashes. I put my case in writing to two academic staff, explaining the situation and suggesting more convenient times. I followed this up in person and was invited to the next staff meeting. After some negotiation, lab times were changed and students were consequently able to complete projects on time.” (74 words)

What would an employer prefer here?

  1. Good, active language: ‘identified’, ‘explaining’, ‘suggesting’ etc.
  2. Much more specific about what this individual actually achieved and how they did it.
  3. Much more structure: can you see a Context, Action, Result in this example?

You can find more examples of poor application form responses in this recruitment forum.

ask at your careers service for help with application forms  Illustration from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, 1883 (Mechanical Curator Collection, British Library) 

Topics: job hunting, CVs and applications

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