Six steps to job application success

Are you currently in the market for a new job, bored in your current work-place or dreaming about your future career possibilities? Job searching can be tough, with countless rejections, nerve-wracking interviews and tiresome application forms along the way. It is time-consuming and draining and we often don’t even hear back from the majority of employers anymore which doesn’t help with our self-confidence in any way, but don’t let that stop you in the pursuit of finding your perfect job – it will be worth it in the end!

Despite still being in my twenties and considered relatively young in the big old world of work, I have managed to gather a wealth of experience when it comes to applying for jobs and attending interviews (all in the short space of time since I left school without really knowing what I wanted to do or achieve in life). Partly due to a big career change a few years ago and also partly due to being extremely ambitious and forward-thinking, I have made a lot of job applications and moved between different roles in recent years, which has taught me a great deal about the jobs market. My range of experiences in the scary world of applying for jobs has helped me to get where I am today and it has also helped me to encourage and advise others in the pursuit of their dream jobs too. So I thought I would share some of my experiences, top tips and nuggets of wisdom with you to help you face the daunting task of finding your ideal career in a relentless jobs market…

1. Don’t let anyone set your limits

This is a lesson my parents have taught me well. I would often look at job descriptions and think about how much I would love to do that role, have that level of responsibility in work and make that fantastic amount of money. But then I would come crashing back down to earth and reality would strike, telling me that I was too young and too inexperienced to apply for a job like that and the employer would never consider me compared to older and more experienced applicants who had more right to a higher salary and level of responsibility than a youngster like me. I’d talk myself out of applying for exciting jobs because I would worry that I wasn’t good enough for that level of pay, work or responsibility, but now I see how wrong I was.

Inadvertently, I was setting a ceiling above myself, limiting myself by what I thought others might think and setting expectations for the employer to judge me by. Whereas in reality, if you meet the person specification and feel confident that you’re capable of the job role, you should apply anyway, no matter how much higher the salary is or how much of a leap in responsibility you would be taking, because how else can we climb the career ladder if we keep telling ourselves we are not as worthy as others?! After all, a higher salary or increased job responsibility doesn’t mean you have to be older and more experienced, as long as you are capable of the role, you deserve it as much as anyone else. If someone tells you a job is above you, just smash that glass ceiling and prove them wrong!

2. Learn to market yourself well

The application form or cover letter and CV you submit are the only things an employer can use to judge if you are worth shortlisting for the next step of the application process – so make it count! In these few pages, you need to make sure you show off your best skills, attributes, achievements and experiences. It often feels like you’re boasting when you write like this, but it is key in getting yourself noticed for the qualities you can offer to the employer. Learn to really use your CV, cover letter and application form to sell your skills, qualities, attributes and experience to employers.

When completing an application form or writing a CV and cover letter, you should always tailor it specifically for the job in question. Don’t make the mistake of using a generic CV that you hope will cover all bases – it is obvious and employers can see this a mile off! Instead, use the same CV and cover letter template, but pad it out with experiences, achievements and skills that are beneficial to this particular role. I always have the person specification and job description by my side when writing my job application, CV and cover letter and I often use the job description and person specification to structure my application too. For example, if the job description asks for applicants who have leadership qualities, team-working skills, organisation skills and great communication, I will include these as bullet points and then explain in a sentence or two, how I meet each of these criteria. By doing this, employers can tick the boxes for each skill on the list, giving them every reason to shortlist you for the next part of the process!

3. Give them more than they ask for

When you are showing the skills, attributes, qualities and experiences that you have in your application form, CV and cover letter, it is simply not good enough to show you meet the team-working criteria by stating that “I can work as part of a team”, because anyone could say that and for all the employer knows, you’ve made it up. Instead, you need to prove your skills using specific real-world examples. It is much better to say something like: “I currently work in a small team of ten and have also experienced working in large multi-disciplinary teams. In my current role, I am individually accountable for delivering marketing responsibilities that feed into the wider team objectives and when I worked in the NHS, I was a team leader of up to twenty nurses per shift. In this role, I learnt to multi-task, manage my own workload, communicate effectively and support my colleagues at the same time. These experiences have taught me to work well in team environments and to collaborate and work effectively to achieve collective goals.”

I think you will agree that this is a much fuller answer with much more meaning behind it. It uses the team-working criteria from the person specification as an opportunity to demonstrate other experiences and skills that you have obtained throughout your career too. The examples used are specific and unique to the individual and can be used as a springboard for further questions in an interview. This type of response is much better thought-out than simply saying “I can work as part of a team” – ultimately, it says the same thing, but this new response adds so much more value for an employer to see.

4. Prepare for the interview

Don’t get me wrong, interviews make me nervous just like everyone else. I get stressed and anxious in the lead up to an interview because that is a natural response. We want to do well, achieve success and get the job, which means that you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, but preparation is the key. You can’t “wing it” in interviews because it is obvious to employers and doesn’t look good, but preparing for an interview doesn’t just mean rehearsing answers to the questions you think they might ask you.

Instead, you need to do a little homework and learn about the company. A lot of people will say that an interview is a chance for the employer to get to know you and for you to get to know them too, and this is true. But the employer has an advantage if they know more about you than you know about them at the interview. So beforehand, do some snooping – explore their website, follow their social media, read their blog, find their mission statement and get to know the job description and person specification inside out. Having this knowledge under your belt puts you on the right foot for asking them constructive questions during the interview, showing your interest and enhancing your answers.

5. Examples, examples, examples

Just like when writing your application form, cover letter and CV, you need to be able to back up your interview answers with examples that are unique to you. Therefore, it is essential to think of a handful of well-rounded real-life examples before the interview, that show off your skills and experiences in key areas. It is a great idea to build up and keep a bank of key experiences like this throughout your career, so that they are always at hand and you won’t have to rack your brain to think of them just before an interview. You could even just keep a record of them in the notes on your smart phone!

Your examples can have more of a narrative in an interview than in your application form – you can tell a story, bring it to life and re-live the experience you are discussing with enthusiasm and energy. It is a good idea to give some background and set the scene so that the interviewers can clearly follow your example, but be careful not to go off track and ramble on with a story that ends happily ever after! Which leads me nicely onto the next point…

6. Structure your answers well

To keep my interview answers and examples well-structured and concise, I like to remember a simple strategy in my head – What? So What? Now What? How?

You might have come across this before. It is actually a framework used for reflective practice and I find it a really useful way of giving rich and meaningful examples in my interviews – after all, we are using reflections of our past experiences to demonstrate how we can do the job in question, so a reflective framework is ideal.

For an example of how to use this, if I am asked “do you have experience of using social media for work?”, I don’t simply answer with “yes.” Instead, I start off by answering the question of “What? So what? Now what? How?” as you can see here:

  • What is my experience of using social media for work? – “I have previously used social media to market events in the venue I worked at, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
  • So what did I learn from that? – “During this role, I learnt to use scheduling software to share posts at popular times when our followers were online and I learnt how to use analytical tools to develop a better understanding of our target audience and how to reach them through social media.”
  • Now what am I able to do with this knowledge, skill and experience? – “Now, I am able to apply these skills to help develop a strategy that feeds into our team goals of achieving 5% more bookings per event.
    Using the analytics tools , I am able to identify key audiences that can be targeted for specific events and I am able to create a content plan and schedule social media posts accordingly.”
  • How can I apply it to this role? – “Therefore, my experience of using social media in work means that I am confident in understanding new audiences and developing social media strategies with key company goals in mind. I can deliver a content plan and create engaging content that is relevant to the audience, share timely messages and analyse and report on social media activity in your company.”

Using this structure has enabled me to give a much fuller and more-rounded answer to a simple question, showcasing even more skills that the employer can make note of. Overall, this is a very simple, but highly effective structure that allows me to thoughtfully expand on a simple answer and give rich detail that will show your expertise in the area. No matter what question I have been asked at interview in the past, this structure has never failed to help me deliver a full response that answers the question and gives the employer so much more!

These six steps are things that I have learnt over the past few years in my pursuit of the right career path and job satisfaction and I have discovered them to be effective mechanisms for me. These are my little rituals that I follow when navigating job applications and interviews, but there are still push-backs along the way. Try not to be disheartened if you are applying for job after job after job and getting nowhere. I have applied for what feels like hundreds of jobs and I stopped counting long ago. Unfortunately it is a numbers game (as sad and unfair as that seems). But it is quite logical that the more jobs you apply for, the bigger the pool of potential employers who might shortlist you for the next stage of the process. And similarly, the more jobs you apply for, the more experienced you will get at the process – and practice makes perfect. You will undoubtedly learn something from every application you complete, perhaps you’ll learn ways to improve your application next time or perhaps you’ll learn something about yourself – like an incredible skill that you hadn’t recognised before. It is all good practice for when your ideal dream job comes your way!

So, get applying, persevere and good luck in the pursuit of your perfect career!

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