If you’re applying for jobs for the first time, it’s useful to know what to expect from each stage of the process.
Before you start, get organised. Draw up a chart to capture key details for each application – the organisation’s name, the vacancy title, where you saw the job advertised and when, the date you applied, the closing date, the interview date and so on. This will allow you to keep track of your applications and help you meet important deadlines.
You should also keep copies of your applications, letters, emails and other correspondence in clearly labelled folders – online or otherwise.
Now let’s look at each step in your journey to finding the right job.
1. Understand your career ambitions
It may seem obvious, but it’s important to be clear about the kind of job you want. Make sure that you have the necessary skills or that you are confident you’ll be able to develop these if training opportunities are available.
Do your research and get advice if you are unsure about your ambitions or how you can reach your career goal.
2. Write your CV
Another useful thing to do towards the start of your job-application process is to write or update your CV. Although not all employers ask you to submit one, you can refer to your CV to help you complete application forms. You’ll also need a CV if you want to register with an employment agency or apply to employers ‘on-spec’ – see below.
3. Search for job vacancies
Jobs are advertised through, for example, specialist recruitment sites, on employers’ websites, through social media, via recruitment agencies, in newspapers and trade/professional journals, through career services and the Jobcentre Plus, and at recruitment fairs.
Focus on sources that advertise jobs in the career area, sector, location or type of employment that interests you. There are websites that specialise in public sector jobs, apprenticeship opportunities, graduate-level careers and so on.
If there are employers you’d particularly like to work for, try approaching them directly in the hope that they will contact you should they have a suitable position or that they will keep your details on file for the future. This kind of approach is called applying ‘on-spec’.
4. Complete the application form
Once you’ve found a vacancy that suits you and you are confident that you fulfil the essential criteria, you often have to complete an online application, although some employers request a CV or expect you to fill in a paper-based form.
You can normally save online applications as you go along. If there’s any chance you could lose it, take a screenshot or copy and paste it into another document. If you have to complete a paper application, practise on a photocopy.
Start your application as soon as possible
It takes time to get it right, so you don’t want to run the risk of missing the deadline; getting your application in early may just get you noticed. Occasionally employers reserve the right to stop accepting applications before the deadline.
Read up on the employer and the role
You’ll have already found out a bit about the organisation, but have another look at the employer’s social media pages, website etc because there may be something you could mention in your application. Take the job advert, job description and/or person specification and highlight all the key things the employer is seeking and find a way to address each of these in your application.
Answer each question fully
Be guided by the word count or how much space there is to answer each question. In addition to including the basic sort of information that you have in your CV, you may be asked a series of ‘competence questions’ in order to find out how you have dealt with various situations and demonstrated certain skills, such as how you have solved a problem, given great customer service or worked in a team. When giving your examples, explain the context, say what action you took and describe the end result.
Don’t be afraid of a blank page!
Applications often give you an opportunity to provide any other relevant information. Make sure you mention anything that you haven’t been able to put elsewhere that will show that you have the experience and skills required for the job; this might be having a driving licence or volunteer experience. Also say why the job and employer appeal to you.
Make sure your details are accurate
It’s very easy to make errors, for instance with dates or people’s names.
You are normally asked to give the names of at least two referees. One may be your tutor if you are still in education or manager if you are employed. The other could be a family friend or someone else who you can rely on to provide a professional reference. Make sure you get their permission and provide accurate contact details.
Check the whole form
Before you press the submit button or get the form in the post, check it through for accuracy and ask someone else to read it. Double check that you’ve followed all the instructions and completed all the sections.
You may be asked some personal questions about your age, nationality, criminal record, disabilities etc. Your answers will be used by the employer for diversity and equal opportunities monitoring and, only in certain circumstances, to check that you are suitable for a position.
5. Produce a covering email or letter
You should send an accompanying email or letter if you are applying with a CV on-spec, or applying for an advertised job with a CV or paper form. You may have the facility to attach a letter or send an email alongside an online application, but this isn’t always possible.
Keep your email or letter fairly short, but always tailor it for the opportunity. Depending on the application, your email or letter should include:
· the job title and the job reference if there is one
· where you saw the vacancy advertised
· the key things that make you suitable for this position; don’t repeat everything you’ve mentioned in your CV or application, but state any particularly relevant skills, experience and qualifications
· the reasons why a job with this employer appeals to you; you should come across as enthusiastic and committed
· an indication that you are attaching your CV or form and would be happy to attend the interview.
Address your email or letter to a named person. If you don’t have a name, you could start with ‘Dear Hiring Manager’ or ‘Dear Human Resources Team’. In a letter, include your own address and the employers. End the letter with ‘Yours sincerely’ if you have addressed it to a named person or ‘Yours faithfully’ if you haven’t. Don’t forget to leave a space to sign the letter. Choose a business-type envelope and apply the correct postage.
Check your email or letter carefully to make sure that it all makes sense and that there are no spelling mistakes or other errors. Once again, ask someone to read it through.
6. Prepare for interview
The key to success and calming your nerves is to prepare well. There’s no shortage of information on interview techniques so here are some key pieces of advice, much of which will apply regardless of whether your interview is face-to-face, online or even by phone or video.
· Think about the practicalities. Prepare something appropriate to wear and gather together what you need, such as examples of your work. If it’s a face-to-face interview, work out how you will get there and allow plenty of time. If it’s a virtual interview, check that your technology works, that your background is professional and that you won’t be disturbed.
· Do your research and refresh your memory. Have another read of the job description and your application. Do some further research on the employer.
· Create a good impression. Make sure you are clean and presentable. Shake hands if offered, smile, sit upright and look interested. Listen carefully and speak clearly. If you are interviewed by more than one person in a ‘panel’, make eye contact mainly with the person who has asked you each question. Use the interviewer’s name and thank them at the end. And whatever you do, turn off your phone.
· Plan how you will answer common questions. Be prepared to talk about anything you have put in your application, your reasons for wanting the job, what you feel you can contribute to the organisation and your ambitions for the future. Employers often use competence questions, so tackle them in the same way as explained in step 4. Make sure the interviewer hears about the qualities, skills and experience you have to offer.
· Practise your interview technique. Ask someone to do a mock interview with you or try videoing yourself answering some key questions.
· Prepare questions to ask. Be positive by enquiring about training, responsibilities and opportunities for development.
7. Tackling assessments
To assess your skills and aptitude, depending on the job you may have to take assessments in ICT, numeracy, literacy, dexterity or fitness. You may have to give a presentation, do a personality test, and/or take part in group activities and role plays to see how you would cope with different scenarios.
Sometimes a range of assessments are given during an assessment day or assessment centre attended by numerous applicants. It’s important to be yourself, act professionally and participate fully without being too pushy.
Find out what assessments you may have to do and ask whether you can take some practice tests.
After your interview/assessments, check when you will hear the result. If you haven’t heard the outcome when expected, contact the organisation.
Don’t be too disappointed if you’re not successful. Remember that there are often lots of candidates and someone may have just a bit more experience than you. However, do have a think about why you may have missed out. Is there anything you could do differently next time?
Some employers are happy to provide unsuccessful candidates with feedback. Although not always easy to hear, this can be very useful for the future.
You can find more advice on applying for jobs through your national careers service:
· the National Careers Service in England
· My World of Work for those in Scotland
· the Careers Service for Northern Ireland.
The whole application process can be involved and time consuming. A few well-targeted applications are better than lots of mediocre ones.
At all stages, act professionally and be positive. Remember that it’s a two-way process; it’s as important for you to check that a job is the right fit for you as it is for the employer to find the right candidate. Good luck!
Debbie Steel, April 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.