Many jobs will be advertised with a person specification (“PS”) which will set out the attributes, skills and experience an employer is looking for. It’s important to look for this; it may be tucked away in the depths of an application pack. Once you’ve found it, here’s how to use it to make sure you get an interview for the job.
What’s a PS for?
Often the PS will break down the requirements for a candidate for a job into “essential” and “desirable”. Be really honest with yourself when you look at it. If you’re unable to demonstrate that you have the overwhelming majority of the “essential” skills and experience then it may not be worth pursuing an application. You need to be less worried about the desirable criteria – although if you do not have any you might feel concerned that your application may not succeed.
How does the employer use this?
Typically an employer will be scoring applications with reference to the PS. Quite simply the applicants with the highest scores will be invited to interview. If this transparent process is being adopted it won’t matter what networking you’ve done or how nice you are. If you can’t demonstrate that you meet the PS, you will not be interviewed.
How can you make sure that you score highly on assessment?
You need to work through the person specification mapping your skills and experience to the requirements. I think it can be helpful to do this on a piece of paper first. I like listing my experience against the criteria but if you’re more of a visual thinker perhaps a spider diagram would work better for you?
How to start writing your response
Once you’ve identified your relevant attributes I would start at the top of the PS and deal with each point in turn. The requirement for certain educational qualifications might come first. Don’t just assume that because you’ve already laboriously uploaded all your educational attainments (back to GCSE) elsewhere in the application, you don’t need to deal with this. I would still start my supporting statement or cover letter with the words “I have a degree in… and a post graduate qualification in…” Even if you’re on a word count this doesn’t use up many. You save the assessor from flicking back through your application to find the relevant attributes. Make it as easy as you can.
I would then recommend moving on to deal with each section in order as it comes. Again this is going to save the assessor time and make him or her more predisposed to give you a higher mark where there is any element of discretion.
So how does this “marking work”?
The employer assessor is likely to have a sheet which lists the key attributes and allows for a score of perhaps 1 to 5, to reflect the level of success achieved by the applicant against each requirement in the answer. A top score will involve clear evidence of whatever the employer has asked for.
An example might be:
Essential criteria: Ability to work effectively in a team.
An answer could be as follows:
“I am experienced and effective when working in teams. At university I was on the executive committee of the debating society. We had to organise debates, fix venues, invite speakers, and promote attendance among students.”
Is this good or bad? How would it be scored?
It demonstrates an understanding of teamwork and talks about a situation when teamwork would have been required. Those are positives. However, it gives no indication of the actual role that the individual took in the team, or of how that effective team working happened. It’s not a strong answer. It might score 2 to 3 out of 5.
How about this?
“I held the post of speaker secretary for the university debating society. I discussed possible speakers with other committee members before making approaches to those speakers. At one point I realised that the publicity officer was struggling to juggle academic work and publicity, I offered to help with the social media and at the next committee meeting raised the inequity of committee members workloads with the committee generally, this led to a discussion of workloads and agreement that several others would help with discreet aspects of marketing under the supervision of our publicity officer. I would bring these team working skills to your post”.
Better? Yes! This shows how the individual worked in a team and displays genuine teamwork, we know what steps he/she took personally but it links throughout to the team.
What if you don’t have an answer to one of the criteria?
Try not to leave any points unaddressed. If, for example, you are a PG student and a job asks for experience with grant applications and you haven’t made any, then think laterally. Did you get a grant from somewhere for those PG studies? Yes? Then you made a grant application. That answer isn’t going to give you a score at the top end of a range but it will give you some marks. Every point counts in determining who gets interviewed!
What if you find you are repeating yourself?
Don’t refer to the same evidence to meet more than one of the criteria. Go back to the list, or spider diagram, you did as a starting point and think of different examples for different sections of the PS. Generally never repeat yourself on an application form. The employer is almost certainly having to read a lot of applications, he/she does not want to go round in circles in one application.
What if answering the PS doesn’t give you a chance to write about what you’re proud of?
If you are really keen to talk about something in your application, but it does not link to anything in the PS then look back more generally at the job application pack. Does it relate to anything there? If so, work it in, perhaps at the end after you have answered the PS. If, on the other hand, it is not relevant to anything requested you need to think very carefully about whether you can bear to leave it out. For example, your proudest moment might be when you rescued a drowning dog from a freezing river. You might be able to use this as an example of quick thinking, resourcefulness or even observation but, of itself, this is not likely to be that relevant to a graduate role.
And when you have finished answering the PS?
Go back and start reading it again and checking it for grammar and spelling mistakes. Be critical about whether your examples are relevant.