Personal statements. Psychometric tests. Competency based questions. With all this to contend with, it is hardly surprising that the job application process makes candidates feel that they are navigating through a minefield and are expected to jump through hoops, and that’s just for the chance of an interview!
So what are employers really looking for? And what can you do to gain advantage over the other candidates? Here is some insight into what to expect and what you can do to prepare.
What is an application?
An application is simply a method used by employers to find out everything they need to know in order to consider you for a vacancy.
The application form is often the first step in what could be a long process of shortlisting. Application forms are very popular, particularly for big employers. They are mainly conducted online, and while they are efficient for the employer, they can be quite a challenge for candidates.
Applications make the recruitment process easier for the employer for three reasons:
- Time saving: The information is presented in a set order and so it saves time rather than searching each CV.
- Level playing field: It brings consistency and so it is easier to compare applicants impartially
- Customisation: Each employer can customise their form to their specific criteria, and exclude the information they do not require.
The small print
Much of the information asked on an application form is similar to that usually contained in your CV, such as contact information, education, employment history and work experience.
However, an application form may also require you to sign a declaration at the end to confirm the truthfulness of the information you have provided. This could become part of your contract of employment in the event that your application is successful, meaning that it is part of a legal document, whereas your CV is not.
This also gives employers the chance to ask you for information that may not be included in your CV such why you left your previous job, your salary and questions about your health.
Writing an effective accountancy application form
Applications are intensive and can take two or three hours to complete. If you are whizzing through them in record time, they won’t be as effective and could jeopardise your chances of getting an interview. Therefore, it is really important that you set aside enough time to complete your application.
Before you start, make sure you have everything to hand including;
- A copy of the job description, person specification or vacancy advertisement
- Your CV
- Extra information about the organisation
The suggested word count or box size on each application is an indication of how much detail is needed, so use it as a guide. Never exceed the word limit if there is one.
The personal statement
Use this as a space to pitch yourself for the job. This is similar to the introduction on your CV where you outline yourself as a suitable candidate. This is also sometimes called a Summary, Objective, or Profile.
This is probably the most important box on the whole form and your chance to really enhance your application. Focus on skills, and be sure to focus on the personal specification given for the vacancy, not the job specification. The personal specification is the employer’s summary of what they are looking for in the ideal candidate. You will need to match every skill they ask for and back it up with a real example. This is a good time to talk about any work experience, internships or placements that you have done in the past and how they will help you in the role you are applying for.
Competency based questions
These are the questions that involve the employer asking you to provide an example of where you have demonstrated a particular skill or ability in the past and which proves your capability in this area.
For example: Describe a time where you needed to choose between a number of ideas. What criteria did you use? (300 words max)
You only have 300 words so you will need to be concise. The best way to approach these questions, both in writing and in an interview, is by using the STAR method. The STAR method is the following:
Using this method will help you answer the question clearly and concisely and give the employer the information they need. So, an example answer to the above section could be the following:
During my accountancy internship, I was required to work as part of a team with fellow interns. This involved co-operation with a wide range of people with diverse personalities. We were given a task to complete and to present at the end of the internship. All of us had different ideas, so we came up with a list of criteria of what we wanted to achieve and how we wanted to achieve it. We then looked at the different ideas and decided which one was going to enable us to achieve the goals we had set. My idea was the one that was chosen, and at the end of the internship we received a special recognition by senior members of the company.
This answer explains the situation, your task, the activity you undertook and the result. Of course, you will have much more specific examples to hand, the one above is rather generic. However, ensure your answer follows the same structure and the employer will be able to see you are fit for the role.
It is good to remember that the example itself is not the most important thing; it can be from any area of your life. You could use an example from when you were volunteering, or perhaps from a time at university, as long as you can demonstrate your use of the skill, it is still acceptable.
How to approach awkward questions
Unfortunately, there is a chance you will be asked some awkward questions but as long as you know how to answer them, they shouldn’t be awkward at all.
Here are some examples;
Why did you leave your last job?
The chances are you will not be asked this question for your graduate role, but you could well be asked it in the future. If you left because your boss was rubbish or you were bored out of your brain, don’t tell them that. Instead, focus on the skills that weren’t utilised in your previous job and consider what you are looking for in a new job, such as wanting more responsibility, a new challenge or better prospects.
Why do you want this job?
This is a tricky one. Don’t use the ‘I’ve wanted to be an accountant since I’ve been a child’ because it’s a very big cliché and also, we aren’t entirely sure your potential employer will believe you wanted to be an accountant over a popstar when you were six.
How long should my application answers be?
If there is no specific word length, this does not give you an excuse to waffle. You should fill the boxes with as much relevant information as possible, but try not to waffle.
Here are some tips to remember:
- Highlight your skills: Remember to focus on skills and use active words, such as achieved, collaborated, enabled and negotiated
- Make it user friendly: Use bullet points and spacing correctly to improve readability
- Don’t copy and paste: Make sure to write each answer fresh each time no matter how similar it appears to be to a question on another form
- Tests: An application form is often combined with tests such as psychometric tests, personality tests and multiple choice questions, so be aware of those. You can read more about personality tests here.
- Skill scan: Because application forms are online, they can easily be searched to highlight key points the employer is looking for, so make sure to mirror the language and cover every skill they ask for.
- Keep a copy: Make sure to keep a copy of your application so if you do get an interview you will know what you wrote – you may need to refer to it at the interview.
What last minute checks should I do before sending off a job application?
Don’t be too hasty in sending off the form. Before submitting it, there are a few last minute checks to carry out before you send:
- Always spell check: Many forms don’t let you go back and make corrections, so ensure to do this before you move onto the next question
- Follow their rules: If the instructions say include a CV as well, then do; if not, then don’t. It’s the same with a cover letter. If you do this incorrectly then it will count against you.
- Attachments: Make sure all documents are attached to emails
- No blanks: Never leave a box empty, this looks lazy. If it isn’t appropriate for you then put ‘not applicable’
- Check your online presence:
- This includes checking your LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and other blogs or comments you may have written. Either set your privacy settings so no one can find/see them or edit them so they don’t compromise your integrity.
In conclusion, to write an effective application form you need to show the employer that you have really made an effort to understand their requirements and taken the time to provide them with the information they want. While it can be time consuming, the time and effort will pay off. Once you get into the habit of understanding what is involved, it won’t be long before those interview invitations start arriving.