Chapter 1: The purpose of an application form
Before I start to explain the most effective way to complete your job application form, it is probably best that explain the purpose of them. If you have an understanding why they are used then your chances of success will no doubt increase.
During my career I scored literally hundreds of application forms. The vast majority, I have to say, were very poor. Too many people spend too little time on their application form. Here are just a few examples of why people fail to pass the application form stage:
1. Failure to follow instructions
With your application form you should receive some form a ‘guidance’ notes. These will provide clear instructions on how you should complete the form. I would estimate that over 75% of people either are not aware of their existence, or they cannot be bothered to read them. For example, a form may give guidance on the colour pen that you should use. If you fail to complete the form in the designated colour, your form will most probably get rejected. If you cannot follow instructions on an application form then there is little chance that you will follow instructions in the job.
2. Poor grammar and spelling
Whatever you do, make sure you get a third party to read through your application form for errors before you submit it. In fact, if you are really serious about the job you are applying for, you may decide to pay a proof-reader to check over the form for you. An application form that is riddled with errors will be rejected.
3. Failure to meet the ‘essential’ criteria
Within the guidance notes or person specification for the role you are applying for, there will sometimes be a list of ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ criteria. Make sure you match the essentials and also try to add as many desirables as possible.
4. Failure to provide suitable evidence
You will notice that, as you progress through this guide, I will encourage you to provide ‘evidence’ of where you meet the requirements of the job you are applying for at every opportunity. Let us assume that one of the skills required to carry out the job you are applying for is that of ‘customer service’. If this is the case it is imperative that you provide some form of previous experience or qualifications in this area. This will demonstrate to the assessor that you already have some essential skills to carry out the job competently.
“The purpose of an application form is to initially assess whether or not you have the skills, qualities and attributes to perform the role. If you do, then you will be invited to attend either an assessment or an interview.”
Many application forms will be ‘scored’ against a number of set skills, qualities and attributes and you can usually find these in the person specification or guidance notes. Take a look at the following sample person specification and in particular note the essential desirable criteria. The position is for a customer service assistant.
Just by reading and studying this sample person specification it is possible to predict the type of questions you could get asked both on the application form and also at the interview. Here they are:
1. Provide an example of where you have provided excellent customer service?
2. Provide an example of where you have dealt with a customer’s complaint from the initial handling of the call through to resolution?
3. What knowledge or experience do you have of database systems?
4. Provide an example of when you have communicated a difficult message to a person or a group of people?
5. How do you organise your day?
6. Provide an example of where you have work effectively with a diverse range of people?
7. Provide an example of where you have solved a difficult problem whilst following procedures of policies.
Hopefully you are now starting to understand how important the person specification is when completing your application form. Whenever I have completed forms in the past I will always have at my side a copy of this important document. I will also get hold of a highlighter pen and highlight the important areas that I need to match when responding to the questions on the form. Once I match a specific requirement, I will tick it off as complete. By following this methodical approach you will be ensuring that you complete the form accurately and in line with instructions. If you do this, your chances of success will skyrocket.
GOOD RESPONSES, POOR RESPONSES AND THE STAR PRINCIPLE EXPLAINED
During this brief section of the guide I want to provide you with an example of a poor response and also a good one. I will also explain the principle that I use when responding to ‘situational’ application form questions. Situational questions are questions which require you to provide an example of where you have been in a specific situation, what you did whilst in that particular situation and also what the end result was.
To begin with, here’s an example of a poor response to the following question:
Q1. Provide an example of where you have worked effectively as part of a team?
Sample response – ‘poor’
“If I was to work with other people then I believe I would have the right skills to do the job correctly and professionally. I would always make sure I performed to a high standard and would work hard to get on well with other people”.
The above example response is poor because it is ‘generic’ and it also does not answer the question. Apart from being grammatically incorrect, the person talks about what they would do if they worked with other people as opposed to providing evidence of where they have worked with other people.
Now take a look at the following ‘good’ response for the same question.
Sample response – ‘good’
“I recently volunteered to work with a new member our team at work. The task required us both to successfully complete a stock take of the entire warehouse within a short time frame. Initially I showed the new team member how to stock take in a professional manner in accordance with company guidelines. Once I had achieved this we both then set about methodically working through each aisle, stocktaking as we went along. Periodically we would stop to ensure that the task was being done correctly. We supported each other during the task and made sure that we kept a watchful eye on the time and the progress that we were making. At the end of the specified timeframe we had completed the stock take and were able to provide accurate figures to our line manager”.
The above response is effective. It conforms to the S.T.A.R principle of answering competency based questions and is also relatively easy to follow, concise and grammatically correct.
The S.T.A.R principle explained
Specific – make sure your responses to each competency being assessed are specific. Provide an actual recent example of where you have met the competency. You will get marked down for being too generic. Don’t say what you ‘would do’ but rather say what you ‘have done’.
Task – briefly describe the task that you were required to carry out. In the above sample response the person has described the task in one sentence as follows:
“The task required us both to successfully complete a complete stock take of the entire warehouse within a short timeframe.”
This sentence sets the scene and tells the person who is reading the response exactly what was required as part of your task. It is important that all of your responses follow a logical sequence of events and the STAR method allows you to do just that.
Action – during this part of your response you will detail what action you took. Remember that your response needs to be specific so you will need to state what you did, rather than what you would do in such a situation. An example of a detailed action response is as follows:
“Initially I showed the new team member how to stock take in a professional manner in accordance with company guidelines. Once I had achieved this we both then set about methodically working through each aisle, stocktaking as we went along. Periodically we would stop to ensure that the task was being done correctly.”
Result – finally, at the end of your response you need to explain what the outcome was to your actions. It is always a good idea to end on a positive note. If you achieved the task successfully then you should state this. You will see from the example provided previously that the result was positive:
“At the end of the specified timeframe we had completed the stock take and were able to provide accurate figures to our line manager”.
Many employers, when requiring competency based responses to questions will require a set ‘word count’ that cannot be exceeded. The reason for the word count is twofold. Firstly the employer cannot spend hours working through your responses. They receive many hundreds of applications per recruitment campaign so they need to allocate a set amount of time to each stage of the selection process. Secondly, you should be able to demonstrate your ability to meet the competencies being assessed in a few words. If you read what is required and have the ability to construct concise, yet relevant responses, then your chances of success will increase.
The maximum word count will vary from employer to employer. In my experience I have known them to be between 100 and 500 words. If there is no allocated maximum word count, always stick to the allocated space unless directed otherwise.
The most effective way to stick within the word count is to initially create your response in Microsoft Word. By selecting ‘tools’ and then ‘word count’ you will be able to quickly assess how many words your response is. Don’t go over the maximum number of words but also do not go too far under either!