Why am I writing this? I’ve done a lot of recruiting, read a lot of application forms and interviewed a lot of graduates. And often I end up frustrated that potentially great candidates messed up one part of the process. So here is my advice about what goes wrong and how to get it right.
I have also personally crashed and burned several times at job interviews, so I have some experience of how easy it is to mess it up, how much it hurts and how to recover from it.
I am not a careers coach – go to Futures for that – but I know what I have to turn away and why, and I know what I’ve done wrong, so here’s a quick read which may stop you from messing up that dream job.
- Write your base CV and make sure you get it right. Why a ‘base’ CV? Because you’re going to change it for every job. You will have heard this before but from you’d be surprised how many don’t do it. There are multiple ways to do this and it varies by industry; talk to Futures about how. But one tip; make sure you say what you achieved, what difference you made. And don’t claim what others did. It’s really awkward at interview.
- Sort out your LinkedIn. Make it up to date and again, be clear about what you have achieved. Get a few people to write you references. They don’t have to make massive claims at an early stage in your career; you’re looking for reassuring things like reliable, consistent, enthusiastic about work, good with people, and if you can, something else about your skillset. But remember if you’re applying for lots of jobs in different industries, a really specific skillset might be completely irrelevant or even off-putting. Don’t make readers question whether you really want to work in their industry.
- Sort out your social media. Posting any links or shares that are in any way intolerant or abusive doesn’t look great. It won’t be noticed when you’re one of 50 applications, but it will when you’re down to the final three.
Ready to start? I’m assuming you know what you’re looking for, but if not, spend some time with Futures, and get contacts in the few industries or roles you think you might like. Don’t end up in the wrong career due to a lack of research.
Hurdle 1 – should I apply?
Just know this: job descriptions and character descriptions are often ideal, or hoped for, or even imagined, if no-one’s done the job before. Some items on there are genuinely non-negotiable; others are completely optional. You may have a skillset the recruiter never even considered, which is much more interesting than what they said they were looking for.
So, be sensible about what the essentials are. And don’t “not apply” because you miss some criteria. Firstly, you might have other stuff which makes you worth it. Secondly, if they say they want a more senior person, they might consider a more junior person on a bit less money while you get trained up. And finally, perhaps no-one has all the criteria.
If you’re unsure, a call to the recruiting officer or to the HR team can help. Just email them and book in a call, and ask about the really essential parts of the person description. Go on, you’ve got nothing to lose, and it’s a really good way to make a keen and thoughtful first impression.
Hurdle 2 – the application
Part 1: Application forms
Application forms are not there to make things hard, but simply to make the application process fair. They have two core functions:
- Firstly, to assess if you have the skills or experience needed. If you aren’t clear about what you have and don’t have, you won’t get over this hurdle to interview – and if you haven’t got those skills or experience, it’s best to be honest (and say you want to get them).
- Secondly, to assess if you actually want the job and will fit in.
The second takes place mainly at interview, but you can set the right impression on the application form. When you’ve left the room after interview, that form will still be in front of them and it needs to back up what you say at interview. That means on the form, you need to strike a balance between showing you have the skills, and showing why you want the job:
- Don’t spend the whole time saying how much you want the job or love the organisation. I read a lot of these. They sound a bit desperate and they never cover the skills adequately.
- The reverse is just as bad – to completely ignore the job and the organisation, and only focus on your skills. It looks like the applicant just doesn’t care about this role, and is applying to anything at all. So get the balance right between the two points of skillset and enthusiasm.
- Do describe how this job and this organisation fit with your future plans, either tying in with describing your skills, or as a separate paragraph.
- If an application asks for a CV and a covering letter then put some thought into writing one. The potential employer wants to see much more than “please find my CV attached”.
Part 2: CVs
Some jobs don’t ask for CVs; others may want to see how you present yourself. If asked for a CV, spend time tailoring it. You may want to focus on different skills or achievements; change the tone; and particularly change the initial description of yourself so it matches what they are looking for. Don’t say you’re looking for a graduate training scheme if you’re sending it to a small local company with five employees. Go through the Job Description and tick off the skills, to make sure your CV refers to each of them.
Hurdle 3 – the personal statement
I reckon 80% to 90% of personal statements I’ve read are poorly written. That makes it a waste of your time, so if you can’t do it well, don’t do it. Make fewer applications and do them right.
- Don’t only write 100 words for a Personal Statement. There’s more to you than that, surely? Equally, don’t give pages and pages. You don’t want someone to feel bored reading it.
- Many jobs need shortlisting. That means someone will go through to score your response compared to a list of requirements. They might have 50 or 100 forms in front on them, and each one needs scoring. If you don’t make it really easy to spot that you have the requirement, you can’t get the score. Think of it as bingo. If you don’t score the points, you won’t get the interview. For example, if they have listed eight requirements, simply list them out, and provide some evidence or proof you’ve got it:
Experience working with members of the public: In my four-month long placement I dealt with customer queries, managed both written and verbal complaints, and worked one-to-one with people ranging from elite athletes to very nervous first-time clients. I worked proactively to ensure I listened to feedback, put people at ease and communicated clearly with them.
Team working: I really enjoy working in teams; in my weekend work in a busy bar the team changes frequently, and I have always made an effort to make new people welcome. I now have the responsibility of training up new people. As part of group work at University, I enjoy trying out different team roles, including leading the team or taking on one specific area.
Note! Don’t miss out talking about skillsets they have specifically asked for because you haven’t got them. All that means is the shortlister has to hunt for it, before grumpily scoring you zero for that one. Just refer to it, say you have little experience in this area but it’s something you’d like to get experience in, or learn, or grow into, or are training for. Or say what you have got instead. (For example, I don’t have a marketing degree but I do have lots of experience.) Be honest but optimistic.
The good news is the majority of other applicants will mess this up. Be in the minority. Do it right.
Hurdle 4 – attention to detail
Check your spelling and your grammar. Make it accurate. Why does this matter? It matters because if you get the job, you are representing this organisation. They are paying you to do so. What you write – and how you phrase it – matters. For some jobs it may not matter much, but most will expect you to reply to the odd email, send a message or write something. If you struggle to make work accurate, use Grammarly, or spellcheck, or whatever tool you find best, to make this application accurate.
As an example of how easy it is to get into the right pile, I recall a relatively senior job description in which the Essential Criteria included “attention to detail”, in which just one out of forty applications had no spelling errors. I read too many sentences like this; “My attentoin to detail is ecemplary,” which really is a Darwin Award of a job application.
Take heart – a simple spelling and grammar check, and a read through by someone you trust on this will get you in the correct pile.
Hurdle 5 – the interview
Read the website, again. Get clear what the organisation’s values are, and what the role involves, and what their business is – what are they there to achieve, and how would your role fit into this? Talk to someone who works there if you can. Run through in your head the impression you want to leave them with. Prepare key questions in advance; use Futures Online for this to give you a variety of scenarios to pick up and use. Think of questions to ask them at the end. Why do you like working here? How would you describe the culture? What sort of roles do people in this job go on to do? Search it online, you’ll find more ideas. And book in time with Futures to practice an interview. Don’t make the real thing the practice.
On the day
Obvious things first: Don’t be late; don’t forget your notes; don’t have salad on your teeth.
If it’s online set yourself up well in advance, test the system, and check your lighting and background. Avoid that Channel 5 crime documentary style where “this silhouetted person wishes to remain anonymous”. Put your laptop on a pile of books so the interviewers aren’t looking up your nose. Don’t have the camera too close.
If it’s at an actual place, and in person (honestly, this will happen again at some point) BE NICE AND ASK QUESTIONS TO EVERYONE. Really, everyone. They are all watching you.
If shaking hands doesn’t die out completely as a practice, please do a decent handshake. Don’t crush their hand; don’t be a Donald Trump pumper; don’t be a limp biscuit. Just be normal. (Practice it with someone else). You really shouldn’t be trying to stand out with a handshake. Unless it’s for a very unusual job.
They are recruiting a human. Most people are recruiting someone they want in their workplace, to talk to, to spend time with, to laugh with, as well as someone to do a great job. So act like a decent human. And be reassured, because Marjon students are really good at this bit.
Be quietly confident in your abilities. Don’t show off, but don’t hide your light. If you achieved something, if you drove something, if it was your idea, say so. If it was someone else’s idea, that’s fine, say what you did to help it to happen.
Be confident in who you are, and in what you believe in, but if you want to share personal reasons, keep it business-like, as otherwise you’ll lose focus. ‘This is something that happened to me growing up, and that’s why I want to work in…’ I have nothing against people saying personal things in interviews, but if it makes them emotional it often throws them and they struggle with the rest of the questions. So the main reason to stay business-like is that you only have a short time to make an impression and you want to get across lots of other things.
Try to describe your choices logically. They may not have felt logical at the time, but there’s often a goal behind them that you weren’t even aware of. Find it and describe it. ‘I’ve always enjoyed being around children; I was a helper in sixth form with the lower years; I tested that volunteering at my local swimming club, and then I chose a degree where I got to test it more.’
Thank them at the end. Say something (if it’s true) about how you’ve really enjoyed it, and you think you’d really like to work there. Leave them wanting to please you. No one wants to give a job to someone who appears like they’d begrudge it.
Final note – ban the voices
This is a really important moment to banish the talk in your head and recognise a bigger picture. University is a bubble in which things can feel enormous: things that simply won’t matter when you’ve started work.
If you didn’t get the degree results you wanted, if you didn’t win that final award, if you just missed the top mark for your dissertation, stop and think. You have still done that work. That goal, and what it took to aim for it, is in you, and what a piece of paper says cannot take that away. It’s the experience of it, and the attitude it gave you that employers are looking for. And if you think you “failed” at something then no – start reframing it. Work out what the lesson is. Find it. Analyse it. Then it’s not a failure, it’s a life experience.
I’m not making this up to make you feel better. It’s true. Once you start work, it’s your achievements there that will count, and those achievements will depend on your wholeheartedly throwing yourself into it and getting great things done. Not on what one assignment’s results were. Honestly, an absolutely fabulous bunch of references on LinkedIn could easily outweigh anything you feel is negative from University.
And if you didn’t get the degree results you wanted, yes there are some roles that demand a specific result, but there really aren’t many. And that in no way prevents you from getting a great graduate job by being in the right pile at every point mentioned above.
And if you miss out on jobs, remember there is no such thing as one dream job. I think I’ve done about ten dream jobs. Most of them I couldn’t have imagined until they came up. Sometimes a no just makes you free for a different opportunity. Your goal is to react to the situation positively. Ask for feedback, not just from those who’ve interviewed you but from others, try to work out if you’re missing key skills, consider postgraduate study – don’t ever feel that ‘no’ means ‘never’.
Good luck. You deserve it. I’ve worked with thousands of people, and I’d struggle to think of any group as thoroughly inspirational as you lot. So be confident. You’re from Marjon and honestly, you’re worth it.