If you want to get an interview – and I’m guessing most of you do – then you need to avoid the most basic application mistake: padding. Otherwise known as filler, fluff and waffle. Whether you’re writing a CV, cover letter or application form, the rules of the selection game are clear – give the recruiter what they want. Evidence. Evidence that you have the skills (and maybe the experience) to do the job in hand. What they categorically don’t want is your life story and empty clichés.
I just had a nose at the application process for Sky and they couldn’t be more explicit: Don’t waffle. Give us the main details (you can elaborate at interview). Lloyd’s Insurance make it pretty clear too: Be concise. We’d love to find out all about you, but there’ll be plenty of time for that beyond the application form. Give yourself the best chance at the application stage by sticking to the facts. Yes, you’ll need to elaborate – after all we haven’t quite moved to Twitter style applications – but there’s a huge difference between relevant detail and pointless verbiage.
The application form
Recruiters use application forms as they allow for both ease of comparison between candidates and against the required competencies. This also means there is less room to hide, and a weak, poorly constructed application will stand out – for all the wrong reasons!
- If there is a maximum (or suggested) word count, stick to it. Some forms will have scrolling boxes (despite the word limit) but you don’t have to fill them. Don’t repeat yourself just to cover the white space.
- Use the CARE technique (also known as STAR) to help you structure your answers, and put the emphasis firmly on what you did and what you achieved. Don’t waste words (and the recruiter’s time) with a long preamble.
- Employers know you’re not the finished article, so you may need to provide evidence of potential, rather than direct experience but the key here is evidence. It’s no good answering a question about problem solving or leadership and failing to mention specifics.
- Don’t try to make a little go a long way by stretching the truth, embellishing your answers or simply padding with descriptive – but ultimately empty – answers. If you really are struggling to find enough content, then you check in with a job search adviser and get some feedback. It may be you need to sit this one out and find ways to develop your skills and experience for future applications.
The cover letter
You need to think of your cover letter as a ‘hook’: something to tempt and encourage the recruiter. If they like what they read at this stage, the chances are they’ll take a glance at your CV. Get it wrong and they’ll simply move on to the next candidate. Recruiters are time poor, so you need to make their job as easy and pain-free as possible.
- Get to the point – quickly. Who are you and why are you writing? Is it in response to an advertised role or speculatively.
- Keep the language precise and business like. Avoid using long, complicated prose – it usually sounds pompous and artificial.If you are applying for journalism placements or internships, you can afford to be more creative but you still need to choose your words carefully. Make every one count!
- Be specific. Past achievements are not 100% reliable in dictating future performance, but they point in the right direction. Have you increased turnover in a family business? Have you had articles commissioned by a paper/magazine? Have you been active in the
- At the graduate level you may not have direct experience in the industry/sector, so highlight the experience you do have and draw a very clear connection between skills acquired and skills required (for the role).
- If you stick to the formula: opening (1st para); why them (2nd para); why you (3rd para) and conclusion (4th para) you won’t go far wrong.
You may find it hard to let go of some experiences and achievements, but a CV is not meant to document your entire life history. As you progress through university, earlier incidents – whether jobs, awards or achievements – assume less relevance. I’m certainly not suggesting you adopt a ‘slash and burn’ approach, but you do need to be more selective.
- Think twice before you include a career objective/personal profile. Most of the time, they simply fall into the filler category and are more likely to annoy than entice an employer.
- Tailor your CV to the role. By all means keep a ‘master’ version which includes all your information and then use this to cherry pick the relevant bits. Use the job – and person – spec as your guide. If they’ve asked for evidence of x skill, but not y, then don’t waste your time – or theirs – including evidence of y! There’s plenty of time at the interview stage to show what a stellar, all-round candidate you are.
- Focus on recent content. You may have been Head Girl/First Violin in the School Orchestra/Won the school debating competition, but a graduate recruiter simply isn’t interested. If you’re a first year undergrad looking for work experience, you might get away with school based experiences, but finalists…..no.
- Use powerful keywords that mirror the job spec and show how you will add value to an organisation.
- Avoid meaningless jargon. Ask yourself honestly: can you really claim to be a ‘creative visionary’, with a ‘proven track record’ and ‘substantive experience in the finance sector’ (yes, I really have seen all of these on a student’s CV!). Recruiters will tend to ignore these overblown statements – stick to objective facts.
Remember, employers are looking for reasons to screen candidates out of the selection process. Don’t bury your skills and achievements under a mountain of waffle – you won’t get a second chance.