I coach a number of people who are looking to take the next step in their career. I also regularly read CVs and application forms for companies looking to shortlist candidates. Having similar conversations with numerous people, and having spent the weekend reading long detailed application forms that told me very little, I thought I’d share some of my observations and top tips here.
Know the difference between an output and an outcome. (I have blogged on this before if you’re not sure). CVs are often lists of outputs, but I want to know what you achieved, not just what you did. What changed as a result of your work. What would be missed if you hadn’t been there delivering this?
This goes for application forms as well as CVs. If you are giving me an example of a scenario to show how you meet the person specification, tell me what you achieved. Tell me an outcome. If you ran 20 workshops with 10 young people a-piece, don’t stop there. What happened next? What did they learn? What did they notice? What changed? Why was this important? I want to become invested in what you’re telling me. If you stop the story before you get to the good part, I lose interest.
Try not to mangle the English language. There seems to be an odd collective agreement to abandon sensible sentences when writing formally. Use of the word ‘yourself’ and ‘myself’ for example to replace ‘you’ and ‘me’: ‘Myself and Joanna had some training.” or “We’ll set up a meeting with yourselves.”
Use descriptive words carefully. “It is a skill I have developed profusely….” scans very strangely. If I am reading 25 or more application forms, I like (and need!) simple, clear communication.
Pick first person or third person to narrate in. “I am an enthusiastic learner who has taken constructive feedback on board and apply this to my work.” Does not make sense. I personally prefer the first person, because it’s good to take ownership of your successes, your learning and your development, but this is personal preference. Whichever you pick, stick with it.
Take out any words and phrases that are cliched and don’t say anything. Phrases such as ‘help children reach their full potential’, ‘’run exciting workshops’, ‘I’m an enthusiastic self-starter who can hit the ground running’.
We know these are all code words and phrases, and people will understand what we mean. However, they actually say very little, and if everyone is saying them, they won’t say a single thing to make you stand out against the other candidates. Scrutinise these statements a little more; what does full potential look like? Exciting to whom? What can you do that other candidates can’t?
If you can avoid saying ‘I believe’ and ‘I feel’ at the start of your statements and arguments your statements and arguments will be stronger. What do you base your beliefs and feelings on? If it is experience you can say ‘In my x years experience, this is true’ or ‘Based on research…’ or even just rewritten as a statement. It reads more strongly, and if you are invited to interview and asked to expand on the statement you can back it up there.
Before you even start writing your CV or application form, consider what it is about you that you would like your future place of work to know. Do you have any particular skills or values that make you stand out? If you are focused and results-driven, what have you achieved as a direct result of that trait?
If you have a list of qualities (values, skills, traits) that are central to how you deliver your work, write these down before you start.
When you have finished, look over your work and make sure that you have communicated these. Application forms are by their nature very reactive. If you make sure that you have identified those core qualities, you can communicate these and become more proactive in the process. It will feel better, and it will make you stand out.
If you are unable to put them into the application form or the CV, write an amazing cover letter.
Read your application form out loud to yourself. You will instantly notice if you have written a sentence that is too long, if you are repeating the same word too often, or if you have garbled your grammar.
Find someone to proof read your application if you can; a friend, a colleague, one of your referees, a tutor, a family member. Not everyone will have someone they can ask, which makes tip number 9 even more important. If you do have someone you trust to give you constructive advice, a fresh set of eyes can help you avoid grammar and spelling mistakes, and tell you if your writing is as clear as you think it is.
I’ll cover interview tips next time.