Application forms – how to avoid being a statistic on the reject pile

When it comes to applications we often face a conundrum here at the Careers Service. On the one hand we often have students tell us they’ve applied for dozens of jobs and not so much as received a reply, let alone an interview offer. And it’s easy to feel like there’s no hope for job-seeking graduates with news stories like this one from the BBC a few months back proclaiming there are 83 applicants for every graduate job. However, employers tell us a different story. Many graduate recruiters, large and small, say they really struggle to get enough applications of a decent quality. The reality is that in some cases you only have to put in a really strong, tailored application and you instantly remove a large part of the competition. Suddenly the stats don’t look so scary. But in my experience as a careers consultant, most students don’t know where they’re going wrong. They think their applications are good and wonder why they keep getting knocked back.

So what are the key things that will result in your application ending up on the reject pile? Here are my top 3…

  1. The scattergun approach. Some students think that precisely because the job market is so competitive, they should apply for as many jobs as possible; the logic being that this will increase their chances of success. Others aren’t really sure what they want to do, so they ‘hedge their bets’ by applying for everything from finance to consultancy to marketing. Unfortunately, in most cases this backfires, as their applications tend not to be targeted very well at the company or role.

    There’s often a liberal use of copy and paste, which experienced recruiters will spot very easily and in the worst case scenario may result in you accidentally including the wrong company name in your application. Employers say it’s amazing how common this is. The motivation part is often a) generic, b) vague and c) it won’t say why the particular feature of the company you mention interests you in particular. For example, I must have seen hundreds of statements on covering letters that go something like this: “I am excited by the prospect of working for a top global company such as X with the many challenges and training opportunities you offer.” Statements like this are lazy and show a lack of proper research into the company and generally don’t impress recruiters. They want to see you’ve taken the trouble to research their organisation. If they don’t find much evidence that you know what they’re about (e.g. their business, their strategies, their clients, their values), they are unlikely to be convinced you’re really motivated to work for them.

    Here’s a slightly better example… “I was interested to read in your annual report that you are diversifying into hydrogen fuel, as this is a technology that I chose to focus on for a recent research project at university, and I’d be very keen to develop my knowledge of this and other ecologically-friendly fuels further.”

    Obviously, researching an organisation in that much depth (reading their annual report, reading news stories about them etc) takes time, so unless you are confident you can deliver quantity without sacrificing quality, a more effective strategy can be not to write so many applications, but to focus on the jobs you really want, and make sure you do them really really well.

  2. Claims (usually about skills and qualities) unsubstantiated by evidence. By this I mean things like personal profiles on CVs such as: “An energetic, talented graduate with excellent communication and analytical skills…” or statements on applications like: “I was selected as team leader, thus demonstrating my excellent leadership skills”. To provide proper evidence that you possess/have developed a skill, you need details and facts. Why should an employer believe that just because you were chosen as leader, you actually did a good job of leading your team?Here is an example of a fairly strong answer relating to leadership skills on an application form. Notice that the person breaks down her example into the specific skills or activities required of good leaders (e.g. delegation, motivation, organisation and keeping the team on track) and explains how she carried out these activities in the particular situation she describes.
  3. Poor spelling and grammar. Yes, I know we’ve said it before many times, but this is still something that employers complain about again and again. Here are a few funny ones we’ve come across. While it’s hard not to chuckle at some of these, it’s a bit sad too, as they’re so easy to avoid and they create such a poor impression. Don’t rely solely on computer-based spell checkers either. They don’t pick up everything and they sometimes even introduce new errors.

If you’re making applications for jobs and work experience at the moment, check out our Applications and interviews pages on the careers website for more advice, and if you think you’d benefit from individual feedback on an application you’re putting together, book a same-day quick query appointment with one of our advisers.


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