7 Ways to Handle Job Applications – Beyond the Covering Letter and Interview

You might think that once you’ve got a great CV, you’ve written stand-out covering letters and you’ve honed your interview technique, you’ve done everything you’ll need to get a job.

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If only it were so simple. The traditional format of job applications, where you send off a CV and covering letter, get invited to an interview and then (hopefully) get offered the job is, in many cases, dying out. That can be because companies have too many applicants and so use more efficient means to sort through the pile and choose the best. Alternatively, it can be because companies are finding that their traditional approach to hiring wasn’t finding the applicants that they wanted, whether that’s because they wanted a higher-quality pool overall, or whether their hires were lacking in diversity – or both. This has led to a whole host of other means of assessing candidates, from quizzes to practical exercises and lots of options in between.
While there’s lots of advice out there on traditional application processes, there’s rather less on these alternative means of assessing candidates. So to help you out, we’ve taken a look at some of the types of assessment you might encounter in your job search, and provided our top tips on how to deal with them.

1. How to fill in an application form

Instead of requesting a CV and covering letter, some jobs will ask you to fill in a standardised application form. The obvious first tip, then, is if you’re requested to do this, don’t send a CV and covering letter instead. Fill in the form as you’ve been asked. It’s amazing how many candidates will think that their CV and covering letter are much better than anything they could put in the application form, and so will try to circumvent the process. Don’t do this; it just makes you look as if you’re bad at following instructions.

Don’t try to circumvent the application form.

Beyond this, it’s important both to answer questions fully and to be concise. The person who is reading the form will have an awful lot of applications to read; they will not thank you for going up to the word count on every single answer (or indeed, over it). However, you also won’t get credit for details that you don’t provide. Your answers need to feel substantial; not waffly.
As in an interview, ensure that you do have some kind of answer for everything. If you’re asked to outline – for instance – your management experience, and your instinct is to say “N/A – I don’t have any management experience”, squash that instinct and find something somewhere in your life, education or career history that could sound vaguely like managing someone, somehow. If the employer is receiving a truly enormous number of applications, their first move may be to throw away all of the ones where any question is unanswered, or any with one-line answers. You might feel that you’d get the job on the merits of your answers to other questions, but that won’t help if your application never even gets read.


2. How to research the company

A little bit of prior knowledge can help boost your confidence, too.

It’s important for every job application to research the company you’re applying for, but it can be a struggle to know exactly what you ought to be looking for. You can end up having a poke around their website and a few employees’ LinkedIn pages, and come away feeling none the wiser. So here are some ideas for questions that you ought to be able to answer once you’ve finished researching:

  • What does this company actually do? What is their product?
  • How is that product different from, and better than, that of their competitors? What makes them unique?
  • Is there anything about the company itself that stands out as different from its competitors? For instance, unlike most supermarkets which are owned by shareholders, Waitrose is owned by its staff – and you would come across as very ignorant if you applied for a job there without knowing that. Are there any such facts that you ought to know about the company you’re applying for?
  • What is their brand like? Do they want to be thought of as traditional, reliable and safe, or do they aim more to be exciting, cutting-edge and disruptive? A company that views itself as disruptive will not appreciate you saying that you want to work for them because you find it comforting how safe and predictable they are.
  • What do you think their employees like most about working there, excluding material perks like a great salary or a company car?
  • Finally, how many basic facts do you know about this company? Is it large, or small? When was it founded? How many countries does it operate in, and how many offices does it have? What is the name of the founder, and what is the name of the CEO?


3. How to give a presentation

Giving a presentation is frequently a task you’ll be asked to do as part of an interview. The best way to deal with this is to keep it simple and concise. Think of one point that you’ll want the audience to remember, and hammer that point home. Remember that your interviewer might have to listen to half a dozen such presentations or more, probably all on similar topics; if they can remember any part of the content of yours, you’ll already be doing well. It’s better to take this approach than to try and cover every single base, cramming your presentation with much too much information.
Hopefully you’ll have been given a rough set of timings for how long your presentation should take. Aim for it to fall towards the shorter end of the time bracket. There are two reasons for this: one is that you don’t want your audience to be glancing at the clock and wondering if you’re ever going to shut up. The other is that people inevitably talk too fast when giving presentations, usually out of nerves. You’ll need to force yourself to slow down, and knowing that you won’t run out of time by talking slowly can help you with finding the right speed. A good tip is to aim for the slow side of normal speech, and then speak slower than that. Bring notes, but memorise as much of the presentation as you reasonably can; a speaker who has notes but visibly chooses not to use them can be quite impressive as long as you can definitely remember what you’re supposed to be saying.

4. How to respond to emails

Again, this is a key element to success in the workplace.

A task that’s relevant for a whole host of different jobs is being given a full inbox of emails, and being told to work out how to respond to them. This has many different aspects. It doesn’t just show how well you write, it also shows your ability to prioritise. This task is frequently time-limited, and it may well be designed so that you can’t possibly get through all of the emails that you’ve been tasked with – so part of the test is your ability to look through the inbox and figure out what’s most important. That means that you shouldn’t just start from the top and work through; you should look through everything first, before you start composing replies.
Your attention to detail is also relevant in this task. Make sure your spelling and grammar are spot on (so when you’re doing your research, pay attention to whether the company sells anything that’s particularly hard to spell, and also note things like capitalisation on brand names). It’s likely that the task will have been set to try to trip you up, so read any PSs, take care to note if you’ve got several emails from the same person, and make sure that you respond to every question asked in any email at the point when you send a reply. Pleases, thank yous and other markers of basic politeness are also a must.

5. How to take a personality quiz

Which personality type are you?

Personality quizzes are a handy way for an employer to search through a large pool of applicants quickly. They might have decided that they really need an extrovert for the job, for instance, and a personality quiz allows them to eliminate all of the introverts in one go. If you know that an extrovert personality is required – for instance – then you might be tempted to try and skew your answers in that direction. That can be unwise, as you never know what they’re actually looking for and you might be asked later on why you answered certain questions in the way that you did. However, the safer equivalent can be to think yourself into your ideal work persona – the kind of person that you are in the workplace, but on a really good day – and answer from that perspective. That way, your answers remain fundamentally honest.
It may be that the quiz you get seems like obvious nonsense to you, or if you get shown the answers, they don’t seem to match up to your personality. Whatever way you choose to deal with this, try not to criticise the activity of the quiz if at all possible. Your prospective employer would presumably not have given you it if they didn’t think it was valuable (even if they’re mistaken about that).

6. How to ask for references

For those early in their career, it is quite usual to have one academic and one employment reference.

Most jobs will require you to provide two references, which will probably have to be from previous employers, or from someone such as a volunteer coordinator, teacher or professor if you don’t have previous employers. You’ll naturally want to choose the people who will give you the best references, but be careful: if you give two of your former teachers as references, missing out your current employer (for instance), it will be pretty clear you’re trying to avoid a bad reference.
This is particularly misguided, because not all that many jobs will require a full character reference any more. Your referees are likely to be asked more basic questions, such as whether you actually had the role that you’re claiming you had and whether you usually showed up on time. Fears over being sued for defamation have led to many people being unwilling to provide a reference as a general policy beyond these basic factual details anyway.
You should always ask your referees if they’re willing to provide a reference before you put their names down on any forms. If they’re taking a while to get back to your prospective employer, a quick chaser email or phone call is perfectly appropriate – and if there is a delay, your new employer is likely to understand that this is your referee’s fault, rather than a comment on you as an employee.

7. How to do a group activity

Possibly the worst job application test is a group activity, because of the mind-bending task of trying to work well with others, while competing against them for a job. The best thing to do is to try to forget the second half of that equation, and simply do the activity you’ve been set as a group to the best of your ability. Do try to lead where possible, especially when it comes to being decisive; group activities can either descend into too-many-cooks madness, or into everyone trying so desperately to be polite and give way to each other so that nothing ends up getting done, and your decisiveness can avert the latter at least.
There are two reasons why an employer might choose a group activity to sort the wheat from the chaff. The first is that they have more applicants than time, and they’ve decided that a group activity is a good way to sort through a lot of them in a short space of time. The second is that the activity in question is a good representation of the kind of thing you’ll be required to do in the role. In both cases, it makes sense simply to get stuck in and do the best you can, instead of worrying about someone else getting credit for your hard work, or trying to do down the contributions of others; it’ll only backfire on you. A big part of success in this task is simply not to overthink it.
Image credits: coffee cup; writing; form; research; smart phone; escalator