Essentials: making applications
Application forms are a series of questions designed to test your competency and motivation for a particular opportunity. They allow the assessor to make direct comparisons between applicants in a way not possible with CVs and make it easier to obtain standardised information.
Start with the video here - Career Snapshot: making applications which gives an overview of how to make effective applications, and then use the sections below and donwloadable resources for further support. For guidance in answering a range of questions on your application form watch our mini presentation on Application and Interview Questions
Making Application Tabs
A successful application form should clearly link your experiences, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the opportunity with the key criteria provided in the role description.
You must focus on how you can be useful and valuable to the organisation in question. Providing evidence that you have a strong range of relevant skills is the key to a successful application.
Figure out what your strengths and your best achievements are. Note, all the successes you’ve had, however small, all potentially provide useful evidence that you are a desirable candidate. Understand your motivation and why you are interested in a particular job or organisation. For help with this see our section on Self Reflection.
Know the employer
Most employers make it clear what sort of person they are looking to recruit. Study the job advert, job description, the recruitment website or brochure carefully. Make a list of qualities which are important to the employer. To impress, these must be covered in your application form.
What does the organisation think makes them unique amongst their competitors?
What are their key values?
How might you have demonstrated them in your academic and extra-curricular activities?
- Use specialist business databases such as MarketLine Advantage to get up to date information on the industry sector you are interested.
- Research more about the job role and occupation.
- Talking to people who have knowledge of the type of work can be helpful – see our section on Networking for ideas of how to approach people.
Create a good overall impression
Ensure that you make clear connections between what you have to offer and the skills and attributes that the employer is looking for.
- Recent examples are more impressive. Don’t go back too far – certainly not prior to the last couple of years at school, unless it is for a truly stellar achievement.
- You need a good range in your answers. Aim to draw upon experiences in all three areas of your life – study, previous work experience and extra-curricular activities.
Completing an application
- Application forms are generally online and allow you to save your progress as you're going along. Do this frequently!
- Make sure you have key details ready – for example your transcript of grades and National Insurance number .
- Prepare some parts of your application - for example, a supporting statement or answers to longer questions - offline, before copying and pasting them into the form being submitted.
- If you get the option, preview your form before it is submitted, for a final check of the content and layout.
- Save both your completed application form and all related documents (such as the role description) ready for review at the interview stage. It can be hard to remember exactly what you wrote if you have made several applications and the opportunity may no longer be advertised.
Why do most application forms fail?
The answers are not sufficiently detailed or specific
Selectors are expert at detecting “waffle” and information solely gathered from their website. They want hard facts, details and numbers!
You have answered different questions from those which were asked
This happens if you don’t read the question carefully. Some questions are complicated, having several separate sub-questions. You must deal with each one in turn. This also happens when you cut and paste answers from one form to another without doing enough editing.
You have not been positive and persuasive when describing yourself and your abilities
You need to use an enthusiastic tone. Don’t undervalue your own experiences.
The answer is mistakes in spelling and grammar
Don’t rely on the spell checker. If necessary, get a friend (ideally a fluent English speaker) to proofread your application.
From application to interview
Your application form is often the basis of the interview. Make sure that you are familiar with everything you have written before your interview. Be prepared to talk about what you have written and to answer more detailed questions along these points. Also, it is good to have further examples and stories to back up what you feel are your key strengths.
How to answer Competency/skills-based questions using the STAR technique
When providing an answer to a competency question - for example 'Can you describe a time when you had to solve a problem?'
Think STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Results):
Situation - describe the situation that you were in.
Task - describe what you needed to accomplish.
Action - describe the action you took and the skills you used and be sure to keep the focus on you ('I'), rather than ‘we’. Focus on skills and attributes, what went well and what you learnt. About 70% of the answer should be here.
Result - what happened? What were the results? How did the event end? What did you accomplish? What did you learn? Describe outcome, in positive terms, quantified where possible.
A typical question:
Describe a situation where you have worked efficiently in a group. Describe the role you played and any problems you encountered
To answer, break down your response using the STAR technique as below:
S: In my second year I worked in a team of four on a group-based case study that looked at haemodialysis and the polymer membranes used for the separation process.
T: We investigated the biocompatibilty of haemodialysis membranes, which involved producing a summary report and presentation in a two-week time frame.
A: A few days into the project, it became apparent that one of our team was not pulling their weight as they did not attend the visit to the local dialysis unit. Some of my teammates opted for absorbing his workload into their own, whereas others suggested that he was directly challenged for slacking off.
I volunteered to speak to him, and it transpired that he was unclear about the assignment, but was embarrassed to ask in front of the group. I arranged a one-to-one session to talk through what was needed and where he could contribute, he was very good in conducting literature reviews and so I re-assigned some of this work to his area and assumed some of the writing work myself. I also arranged for a knowledge exchange meeting to share the findings from the visit and the literature research. This way he could liaise with other members of the group to provide them with relevant material for the presentation and exchange knowledge with them about the visit which he missed.
R: He also volunteered to do the presenting with one of the colleagues from the presentation group, and overall, we received 68% as a group mark.
You achievements questions
"What do you consider to have been your main achievements?"
How to answer
Panic can easily set in at the sight of these types of questions. It can feel difficult to come up with sufficiently worthy examples. However, the magnitude of the achievements you describe is not the most important aspect.
The key to success here is to choose achievements which provide good evidence that you are the right sort of person for the job. Focus on the skills and positive attributes which are demonstrated by the achievements you describe. Combining several extracurricular achievements with a good academic record could count and would show real evidence of good time management skills, drive and energy.
Personal statements or open ended questions
"Explain why you have applied for this job function. Offer evidence of your suitability. Emphasise why you consider yourself to be a strong candidate."
How to answer
Typically, you will have a large number of words allocated for this question, so structure your response. Deal with each part of the question in turn. Highlight the skills you have which are relevant to the job. Give enough detail in your evidence to paint a convincing picture of your abilities. Even if the question is as general as 'Why have you applied for this job?' the secret is to cover the same type of points. In fact, your approach here is very similar to that when writing a covering letter. Our page on Personal Statements though focused on applications for further study, may provide some further advice on structure.
Additional information questions
"Please write here any additional information, not covered elsewhere, which will strengthen your application."
How to answer
Include any unmentioned achievements or difficulties overcome, as long as you feel it has some relevance. For example, if you suffered a setback during your A-level studies which affected your grades or had an issue with a second-year project, you should explain that here. If you have nothing to write, at least write 'not applicable' to show that you have seen the question.
For additional tips on answering a range of questions on your application form, watch our mini presentation on Application and Interview Questions
Prospects also has some example answers to help you think about what kinds of experiences you could consider.
Applications for postdocs
Targeting your application
You will need to audit and review your unique selling points - your expertise, experience, skills and attributes - and emphasise these in your application. The Researcher careers page on the Vitae website contains some excellent resources on making applications. Having researched the employer and the job, the next step is to emphasise what is relevant to the position applied for.
- Think about what the target reading audience will be seeking in an application
- For academic applications, you will need to emphasise your research, teaching and administrative experiences. The Vitae website has a detailed section on making applications and there are a range of resources on the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre website.
- For applying to employers outside academia and targeting applications, the Doctoral careers outside higher education page on the Vitae website also contains useful information.
- Consider what evidence you can provide that demonstrates you have the skills and attributes required.
- Structure your answers to respond to each part of the question or to deliver evidence for each of the 'essentials' and 'desirables' listed along with the job description
- Convey your enthusiasm.
Disclosing a disability
Imperial Careers Service has close links with the Imperial Disability Advisory Service, other disability organisations, and a wide range of diversity positive employers. This ensures that we are well equipped to provide appropriate information, advice, and guidance to disabled students and recent graduates making the transition into employment.
Your decision of when to disclose may vary depending on the organisation and the particular job that you are applying for. For more information please see our section on disclosing a disability.