When it comes to applying for work the traditional way, we will have to think of putting a number of things in place before we can do this efficiently and successfully. ‘The traditional way’ would here mean through looking for, and finding, vacancies and responding to these the appropriate way through traditional, preset means. These means, or tools include:
- A CV or Curriculum Vitae, or a resume
- A covering letter
- Vacancies and Job descriptions
- Application forms
- Interviews and possibly some additional tasks or tests
All the tools you use for your jobsearch/job applications are marketing tools. Their primary intention is literally to sell your skills, abilities, experience, etc… Looking for work and applying for a position is marketing and sales… employing creativity and entrepreneurial skills gives you the best chance…
The procedure is usually as follows, and you need to take into account and prepare for each step in advance if you can, to maximise your chance of success:
The Curriculum Vitae or CV
An advertisement for your skills and abilities
The CV is seen by many as central to being successful in finding a new job, and in many ways it is. It’s at the same time very easy not to do that well when writing your CV as there are no set ‘rules’ for writing them. The best you can do is make an informed assessment of what an employer is looking for in addition to following basic guidelines. Below you will be able to download 4 different guides to help you with CV writing.
To get writing a CV right it’s important to remember what it’s for.
What it aims to do:
A CV is there for the employer to make a decision on whether to invite you for the job interview, nothing more, nothing less… It is not:
- a place to tell an employer all about yourself
- somewhere to be very personal about your life
… so please don’t make it your autobiography! Rather, try and find a good balance, aided by what an employer is looking for and what you have to offer. In short, what you are doing when looking for work is using entrepreneurial skills to advertise what you have to offer, how you can solve the employer’s problem, and how you can stand out from other applicants.
Your cv is not a biography, it’s an advertisement… keep it short and fully aimed at the employer and the position as you are applying for!
To make it fit in with what the employer is looking for it’s important to think for a moment on the employer’s potential situation and context. To make a decision on whether to give you an interview an employer needs:
- to have some information about you:
- who are you?
- what skills do you have to benefit the employer?
- what experience/education do you have that fits in with the post?
- to see how you stand out. A CV is a marketing document; you need to sell what you have to offer…
Linked to the above, you can safely assume your CV is by no means going to be the only CV they will receive. In order to make a chance you can’t make it difficult for the employer. What’s more, you have to get rid of any hurdle that could prompt an employer to put your CV in the ‘no interview’ pile. To achieve this your CV has to be:
- quick to read: use formatting and layout effectively to achieve this. Assume that an employer has seconds, rather than minutes to read your CV and make a decision.
- easy to read: again, formatting and layout may be useful here, but more importantly, write in a stile that promotes ease or reading.
- explicit: don’t leave an employer to assume anything. If an employer has to read lots of CVs, any assumption they can make will likely be a negative one.
In addition to these guidelines, the following general formatting suggestions on writing CVs are important:
- maximum length will be 1 page or 2 pages maximum
- a reasonable font size is 10 to 12 for main text, 14 for headers
- make sure you fill the two or one page, otherwise an employer may assume you don’t have a lot to offer…
- make sure all the most important information, taking into account the job requirements and what you have to offer, (personal statement, skills and first/latest part of your job history) is on the first page.
Furthermore, to make a decision an employer may need to know:
- whether you fit in with the organisation: personal statement
- whether you have the skills to work to or above the required standard: skills section
- whether you have some experience relevant to the position on offer or the skills/knowledge within it: work history
Always adapt your CV to the job description, using the key words in the job description and the general language used and show you fulfil the job requirements.
You can download handy guides to help you write a strong CV below:
- CV writing guide 1: information gathering (alternative version on Ms Word) (last updated 02/2013)
- CV writing guide 2: why write a CV and a ‘manual’ to help you write strong sections (last updated 03/2013)
- CV writing guide 3: CV example with annotations (last updated 03/2013)
- CV writing guide 4: 3 different CV formats (last updated 10/2012)
Even though they will teach you skills for a range of different CVs, in essence these documents are only for a standard CV. Depending on what your background is in relation to the open position, and what position you are applying for in the first place, there are different kinds of CV formats of which you can find examples on the Prospects website:
- chronological: your life and/or professional history informs the structure of the CV: traditional format; you have a lot of relevant experience as well as skills to offer
- skills based: your CV is written and structured around the skillset you have to offer: you don’t have the work history to fit in with the position/job description
- graduate: your degree and other HE qualifications are key, as you may not have enough relevant work experience
- academic: your academic achievements and publications are the key to your CV: you apply for an academic position and have an academic background
To write and lay out a good CV: look at the job description and other information about the position or organisation, think how you fit in and stand out, change or write your CV accordingly…
You will notice that there are lots of CV examples about, and of course you can be creative in putting your CV together. After all, that may help you stand out. Take the following guidelines into consideration however:
- do not staple your CV, or print back to back. The employer may want to copy your CV and stapling it may damage it making it look less appealing. Marketing is a psychological ‘game’… The employer may also want to see your two pages next to one another.
- for the same reason, print on white or cream paper ideally in black ink, although grey would do as well. If in doubt, ‘test copy’ your CV before sending.
- make sure the CV has a balanced and clear layout.
- check several times for typos, spelling mistakes and mistakes in the lining up of dates especially. In addition, make sure spaces in between sections are the same throughout, as well as size and typeface.
The Covering letter
If you send your CV by post, you need to add a covering letter if you are responding to a vacancy, or a speculative letter if you apply speculatively. If you attach your CV to an email you can use the main body of the covering letter to paste in the main body of the email, unless otherwise instructed by the employer.
There’s no need to add a covering letter if you hand in your CV in person, especially if you hand it to the hiring manager or other person doing the hiring in the company, again unless otherwise instructed.
What it aims to do:
You add a covering letter to:
- indicate exactly what you are applying for
- introduce your CV and generate interest
- summarise (not duplicate!!) the key points that make you a good candidate to draw the employers attention to these.
- explain anything that could not be explained in the CV… but be careful!! Anything that can lead to assumptions being made by the employer is best left for the interview if you can.
Just like for your CV, you have to word your covering letter in such a way that is of interest to the employer. Rather than say “…this position will give me to opportunity to develop…”, say “…as you can see from my CV, my skills and abilities can contribute considerably…”. Say what you have to offer rather than what you can take…
Also just like for the CV, monitor closely what you are writing and how much always keeping a tight grip on what its function is. Keep it short and sweet, the employer doesn’t have a lot of time to read your letter and CV.
Again just like the CV. make the layout clear in the way you section the letter. You would need the following sections:
- your address
- the date
- the company’s name and address
- a reference to the vacancy if you like, although you can do that in the introduction…
- the title: ‘Dear Sir, Madam,’ or ‘Dear Ms…’, ‘Dear Mr…,’ etc… (ideally you send it to a named person)
- an introductory sentence to say what you are applying for, with a reference to the vacancy and where you found it, if applicable, and possibly a statement to refer to your enclosed CV.
- the main body:
- drawing out key points of what you have to offer, but no duplication, all the time referring to your CV and telling the employer what you have to offer rather than what you can get
- a closing sentence such as: ‘I would be happy to discuss my application further. I look forward to hearing from you.’ or similar.
- a closing formula such as ‘Yours sincerely,’ if you used ‘Dear Mrs/Ms/Miss/Mr/Dr…’ and ‘Yours faithfully’ if you don’t know the name of the person
- your signature
- your name
Vacancies and Job descriptions
These are key ‘research opportunities’ for your application, alongside company information. You use these to adapt your covering letter, CV and interviewing preparation to maximise your chances to get the job through your marketing power by showing what you have to offer that fits in with the employer’s requirements.
You MUST use the information in the form of essential and desirable criteria, key words, buzz words, general language used etc… if you are serious about getting the job. If you don’t, it’s a bit like trying to sell skis to Bedouins… you but yourself in a very weak position vis-a-vis the other applicants.
Unpick every vacancy and job description and read between the lines. Work what you find into your covering letter, CV and interviewing preparation, but don’t overdo it. Try and find a healthy balance and use common sense.
Much of the information you are asked to put on and application form is the same or overlaps what you would put on the average CV, and you can use the information gathering file in the CV writing section to help you build a file to have at hand if you have to fill in an application form. often there are sections on the application form which are very different, however, such as the dreaded ‘blank page’ or open questions.
The ‘big blank page’:
This is exactly what it says, sometimes giving you the opportunity to continue on an additional sheet. usually there are some instructions or a question at the top telling you how to proceed. How do you handle this? You can download this document to help you write a strong response, but in short, I would propose the following 4 steps:
- analyse the question or statement carefully, highlighting key words. These are usually in two categories: actions you need to take such as describe, explain, etc.. and what you need to write on such as skills, abilities, knowledge, etc…
- If you are told to write about your qualities etc…:
- look at the job description and essential/desirable criteria: these are what you need to work into what you write on the ‘blank page’. Often the criteria and job description are divided up in sections. You can use these sections either as working headers (or real headers if you’re allowed) for what you are going to write.
- Highlight the key words in the other to be used as further building blocks for what you are going to write.
- If you are asked a question: use the key words in the criteria and job description, as well as the question itself, in what you are going to write.
- If you are told to write about your qualities etc…:
- start writing a first draft (ideally not on the application form if it’s a paper one!) for each section or question.
- look at the key words you need to work in and decide where they would fit. I would use the same words, but don’t copy and past whole blocks of text or sentences.
- review what you have written and make it flow. Ideally, if you can, use the ‘introduction, main body, summary’ technique. even a couple of words of introduction and summary are enough. Don’t worry if you can’t because of space or word count.
… follow instructions on application forms and vacancies to the letter. If they say they don’t accept CVs in addition to application forms, then don’t send your CV… it’s pointless to do so…
Only attach your CV and other proof if you are asked to do so or if there is a suggestion you can.
Interviews and additional tasks or tests
There are a lot of websites out there with excellent advice on how to prepare for interviewing, and I don’t want to repeat what has already been said over and over again. I would like to take a different approach that hopefully contributes to what you find elsewhere and helps you think creatively about interviewing preparation. I am not going to give you the traditional list of possible interviewing questions. I would rather concentrate on the answers you could give to a plethora of questions, as well as different types of questions you may encounter.
The key to preparing for interview is to start well before the actual interview. To make techniques ‘your own’ without having to memorise techniques and actual questions and answers, you could practise a bit every day and use moments when your mind is not busy to practise actual questions and techniques. I would advice to do this on an ongoing basis while you are intensively looking for work… that way, the interview will flow and will not feel or look like a stage performance…
Also remember that the interview is just as much an opportunity to find out whether the employer suits you than whether you suit the employer. So, prepare some good questions in return. Most employers will ask if you have any questions at the end.
‘What if…’ questions:
‘What if…’ questions are more difficult of course, but even there you can imagine a number of ‘problem situations’ you can prepare for.
- Think of what is important in your profession; what situations and competencies would you struggle with. Those could be issues like health and safety, safeguarding, challenging financial or organisational situations, confrontations with different people, etc…
- Make a list of those and describe what you would do in a range of those situations.
- As always, don’t attempt this just before the interview. Ideally you need to start working towards these when you apply for the position as this will give you implicit practice in answering interviewing questions, questioning why you are applying and preparing in a self-reflective way for this and other similar applications.
- Work on this on and off once you have applied so it becomes part and parcel of your thinking and you don’t feel you need to remember a lot of things for the interview.
Competency based questions:
There are also competency based or functional interviews where the employer is going to ask questions which usually start with “tell me of a time when you…”. Even though it’s impossible to anticipate anything and everything with these as well, there are usually a lot of hints in the job description as to where an employer my aim any such questions.
- Just as you would do for the CV or application form, try and pick out key competencies and skills required for the position as long as possible before the interview.
- You can then come up with examples where you used those competencies, bearing in mind coming across as a strong candidate without exaggerating or lying. One possible way to tackle presenting these situations in a structured way could be by using the STAR technique:
- describe a situation, problem, difficulty or challenge
- describe what tasks you planned and what their objective was in resolving or improving the situation
- describe what actions you performed, what further issues you encountered and how you resolved these
- describe the result and how you reflected on what you did, as well as what you learnt
- Work on these examples on and off whenever you have a moment so they become part of your thinking. It’s usually not a good idea to only prepare for an interview just before or one or two days before. This would mean you may feel you need to memorise a lot of things which will put you under undue pressure.
There are a number of questions you could expect, such as ‘why did you apply for this job’, ‘what are your strengths’, etc… but some of them may be more difficult to predict. I start from the premise that the essence of most, if not all answers fall into a number of categories. If you think about the key words important in those answers and you ‘make those part of yourself’, then you are ready for any question an interviewing can come up with… to some extent. Then you have building blocks you can build into any answer.
The diagram below illustrates most categories that can come up in interviewing questions. The intention is to be able to be able to say something about each one of these. It’s important not to memorize entire sentences or bits of text. That would make you as nervous as a first time actor trying to remember her or his lines. When you are looking for work and you can reasonably expect interviews, work on this say an hour or as long as you like every day, so it becomes part of who you are almost. You can use this template to help you.
To help you work on this there are certain prompts which usually ‘trigger’ a possible question. These prompts are::
You can use these prompts to write down your key points to each one of the categories above, if and when they fit of course.
Having an idea of what questions and situations you may be presented with is only half the battle. I would advise to try for a balance in between saying too much and saying too little. As a rule, as long as you are answering the question… keep talking (within reason).
‘Tell me about your weaknesses’, or making an information sandwich.
One of the more challenging situations would be if they ask about weaknesses, gaps etc… try build this into an information sandwich ending with a positive statement. For example:
“I am certain that I can offer you a lot of strong skills…” –> positive
“but I feel I want to work on my negotiation skills to improve my capabilities for acquiring funding further” –> negative (but not crucially so)
“I have already started working on this by doing a short course” –> positive, shows you are aware and you are working towards a resolution or improvement already.
Last but not least, the Stress interview.
When you are in your interview and you notice strange/rude things going on around you, like people walking out, interviewers ‘tutting’ or talking over you, realise that most likely, you are in a stress interview. This is a type of interview that is mostly linked to applications linked to sales, or to jobs where staying calm in difficult situations is key. Once you notice this is what is going on, you can ‘play the game’ and there’s no need to get anxious, stressed or even worse, angry. The best thing you can do is stay calm, keep your wits about you, and respond the best you can.
Nerves, confidence and staying positive…:
From experience with clients I know that a major other factor is confidence and nerves. Clients I worked with made a range of assumptions which were not necessarily correct.
Try to call ‘job interviews’ something different, like ‘a chat with an employer…’. That way, your mind will not automatically associate these with the proverbial police style ‘spotlight’, difficult questions and exam like conditions… You may feel more relaxed…
- I am the only one in the interviewing room who’s nervous –> you may well not be… sometimes the interviewer is as nervous as the candidate.
- I can’t leave any gaps when talking or answering –> yes of course you can. It’s better to take some time to think than to blurt out just anything. If you are uncomfortable with silences you can give yourself time to think by asking counter questions like ‘so what you are asking is…’. It would also make sense to give yourself literally a breather before answering every question. Before responding, take a second or two breathing deeply. This has two effects: it calms you down and it gives you a couple of seconds to think before you answer. I was told of one lady who had taken in a notepad, asking if the interviewer minded if she took notes. This gave her the time she needed to think and the interviewer was really impressed as well.
- I am going to forget what to say –> there is some chance this may happen, but it’s not an exam. Most interviews are conversations and not police cross examinations, so relax. If you are able to relax there is less chance you will forget what you are going to say. Please don’t try and memorize ‘a script’. Chances are the script you have in your mind will be different to that of the interviewer. Work with key words until they embed yourself in your mind and you’ll be fine. Try not to overdo it, especially not until just before the start of the interview.
- I’m worried about not getting there on time –> plan your route, look it up on the internet, including travel timetables if you need to, and get everything you need ready the night before… and if it really goes wrong because of traffic or anything else out of your control… try and give the employer a ring to let them know, so have their phone number ready the night before as well.
- I have to get this job… –> you maybe do, but it’s still very very unlikely to be a matter of life and death. Even in the most difficult times there are other jobs you can go for. Think of the difference between need and want. I guess you’ll find that you may need a job but you want this job… Wants are more flexible and normally generate less pressure and stress, unless we’re talking about addictive wants…
- They are going to ask trick questions and try to get me to lose my nerve and mess up –> most employers don’t try and lure you into a trap. The interview may be challenging (or not) but losing your nerve is only down to you… Try and stay calm and put the interview in perspective… and doing your best is really the best you can do. If you do get the job… great! If you don’t then it probably wasn’t to be this time and you can learn from the experience…
- I am never going to get this job, I’m not good enough… –> they asked you for an interview, so they must see something in you which means you are good enough! All the other candidates there will probably have moments of doubt though. Try and imagine yourself in the role doing fantastically well. If doubt and ensuing lack of confidence is something that really gets you, try and do this as a regular exercise and practice. This will generate positive thoughts towards you being successful and will create a general positive attitude and feeling towards any jobs and job interviews, slowly but certainly building your confidence and diminishing negative thought. Difficult to do at first, but persistence pays and it really works!
Finally… all the usual things are still important, such as sitting upright, a firm handshake, dressing up in line with what is expected. I always advise my clients to dress businesslike, and for men that means a suit or as close to a suit as you can get. No jeans, sportswear or flip flops! Low cut tops and miniskirts often have an adverse effect as well… and you probably don’t want to work for someone who gives you a job for the way you are dressed anyway…