Employers often cite a lack of reflection as a reason why an application might not stand out – for example, an applicant may not have spent enough time thinking about how they actually contributed to a team’s effort to get to the final of a mooting competition. This shows in an application and doesn't help move you up the shortlist.
Equally when I’m talking with students about how to tackle some of the more personal questions in an application form (e.g. “name your proudest achievement”, “tell me about a time when you overcame a challenge” etc.), I’m reminded just how hard it can be to reflect on what we’ve actually accomplished. We tend not to take time out to think about our proudest moments and biggest achievements, or even just the highs and lows of a day.
Some of us might not be the reflective type (“Right, what’s next”), others may just not have felt sufficiently challenged (“I’ve never had to climb Mt Kilimanjaro”) or some of us might just feel like we tend to get it all right, all of the time (“I’m perfect – nothing’s a problem”).
In all 3 cases, we’re missing the point – all of us have been challenged, have solved problems – the real issue is that we 1) don’t think deeply or broadly enough about what these challenges and problems could be and 2) don’t think hard enough about how we behaved during these situations.
So quickly, before the exam season takes over, why not spend just a short while having a think about what you have actually done in the last year or so? You’ll be pleased you did when you have to think about writing applications!
Activity 1: THINK EXPERIENCES
- Take a piece of paper and write down everything you believe you have achieved this year (or the last 2) – think through times when you have done something and it left you feeling good - include small things like conquering some research for a module, completing a stocktake at work and bigger things like getting work experience, an award or acing an essay.
- On another piece of paper (I hope you’re using the recycled type), write down the experiences you have had that have frustrated you or challenged you – again think deeply – this could be starting a new course, moving countries, dealing with a difficult customer or working in a changing team.
- Recall times when someone (a customer, a lecturer, a supervisor, a friend) has given you some positive feedback – add these to your 1st page.
- Recall times when someone (as above) gave you some more constructive feedback – this might help you to think of moments when you were challenged by something, or when you learned something new – add these to your 2nd page.
Activity 2: THINK BEHAVIOURS
- Pull out your top challenges and top achievements from your brainstorming efforts achieved in Activity 1. Say 2 or 3 each?
- For each one articulate where you were and what you were doing (e.g. during final year, participated as a volunteer in a £10k running event in South London)
- Then specify what the achievement or challenge was (e.g. challenged when the team leader didn’t turn up and I was left without instructions, and there were loads of other people asking me what was going on).
- Reflect on the challenge or achievement – what did you actually do? Think about the role you took on (e.g. did you lead, or contribute, were you in charge), what was your attitude? (e.g. did you stay calm, or work more quickly), what skills did you deploy (e.g. good communication, attention to detail, planning etc).?
- Sum up – what was the result of your intervention/contribution? It doesn’t always matter if it didn’t go swimmingly – learning from an experience and knowing what you would do differently is a valuable lesson.
Ask yourself the right questions before you start your applications, and you are in with a chance of drastically improving your answers in application forms (and you can give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back before you become a permanent residence of the library’s silent study area). If you want further advice on completing application forms see this handy resource or book a 1-to-1 appointment with a Careers Consultant: http://www.careerstagged.co.uk//files/pdf/Compl_CEP_CompletingJobApplicationForms.pdf
Some final top tips:
- Start writing a reflective diary (daily/weekly) – it helps when you come to write applications/CVs – think about how you handled things and jot down any feedback you are given.
- Have a think about skills you might not be using often enough and look for opportunities that will help you develop them.