Applying for your first job out of university needn’t be confusing or disheartening. Too many graduates learn the hard way how to play the application game, but you don’t have to. Booking a mentor for yourself for advice can get you ahead in your career; however, this little guide will also help you avoid common mistakes and implement an efficient, focused graduate job application strategy that gives you your best chance of success.
Most of your fellow graduates will take a shotgun approach to job applications, filling out as many online forms as possible in the hopes that one of them will lead to an interview. Let them. Instead, your best bet is to focus on the jobs you truly want, with companies you have researched thoroughly. Your applications will be reviewed by people who know how to spot a half-hearted applicant from one who has taken the time to demonstrate passion for the work involved and a knowledge of where they’d like to do it. Which one would you prefer to interview?
Types of Graduate Job Application Forms
Some firms will ask you to fill out exhaustive forms as part of your graduate job application. Others may ask you a few questions and request your CV. Still, others may ask you to respond to prompts that assess your ability to think creatively. Regardless of what you’re being asked, be assured that your responses will be judged critically. Take time to read each form before you begin to fill it out, and have a copy of your CV at hand to ensure that your answers are consistent.
Most or all of your applications may be submitted online. It may be easier to complete an online form than a paper one, but your answers must still be considered, informed, and appropriately formal. This is your first chance to show prospective employers how you handle a business transaction. Acquit yourself accordingly.
Don’t take foolish chances: regardless of what a given application entails, be sure to submit it well before the deadline. Most candidates submit their applications in the days immediately before they are due, and some aren’t so lucky. Server-side problems may prevent you from submitting your application at the last moment; your own equipment or internet connection may betray you. Even time itself may trip you up: you may think you’ve pipped a midnight deadline at the post, but if the server handling your application resides in Berlin, your chance may already have passed.
With those general tips out of the way, let’s go into more detail about the three things you should bear in mind when approaching any graduate job application.
Know What to Expect from Graduate Job Application Forms
Most job application forms will ask you for the same range of descriptive information, but past that point, they can vary wildly. Remember, when you’re filling out your work history, education information, and even your address, to keep things perfectly consistent with your graduate CV. If you’re lucky enough to capture someone’s attention, you don’t want them to linger over why you can’t seem to spell your street address consistently.
Corporate recruiters searching for graduate talent often use a standard application form for all applicants. These generic forms may ask a few industry-specific questions, but otherwise, simply collect the top-level information required by most job application forms. In lieu of industry-specific prompts, you may be asked to respond at length in a blank field. This is an opportunity to distinguish yourself from the competition, so make the most of it.
Most individual companies develop their own customised application forms. These can vary greatly, but each reflects its company’s priorities. Reading a company-specific application form against a more generic one typical of recruitment firms may give you some clues as to what your prospective employer is looking for.
Standardised or specific, on paper or online, job application forms tend to ask similar questions beyond your personal details. For example,
- Describe a situation in which you overcame significant obstacles
- What is your leadership style? Tell us about a time you led a group toward achievement of a common goal
- List your three proudest achievements, and describe how they distinguish you from others
Some of these may seem unfairly vague, and chances are they were designed to be so. Job application forms can be straightforward, or they can represent tests of your resourcefulness.
Do Your Research
Before you so much as enter your name on a job application form, you should learn about your prospective employer and reflect on how your skills, experience, and education meet their needs.
Begin by reading all you can about the organisation to which you are applying, starting with its website and its public literature. The goal here is not to impress your prospective employer with your knowledge of their organisation. Rather, your application will benefit from a clear description of why you chose to apply in the first place: what attracts you to the organisation as a whole, and how you believe you will be able to contribute to its success through the position in question.
Then put together a plan of action for conveying that belief throughout your application. Read the application form thoroughly, then map your experience, skills, and education to each response, always with an eye toward sending a consistent message that you are prepared to deliver exactly what your employer needs.
Don’t be shy about including volunteer work, part-time jobs, and the like in your application. Employers know that you are just beginning your career, and won’t hold your lack of professional seasoning against you. They will, however, be impressed by your wise and serious use of the time you’ve had to date.
Answer Completely and Confidently
Never fall back on boilerplate responses. Tailor your answers to each graduate job application form after reading it carefully.
When in doubt, respond boldly rather than equivocating. Few employers are looking for toadies. Just as few are looking for know-it-all grads. Your answers should convey a tone of relaxed, understated confidence.
When writing a longer reply, feel free to exceed the space provided if the form allows. Limit yourself to eight paragraphs at most, and focus your answers on themes you know to be relevant to the employer. Do not provide information that is redundant with the rest of your application, but feel free to elaborate on the experience you have listed previously. If you have enough room, make this a formal response, complete with an introduction and a conclusion.
Be sure to have someone proofread your entire application, and keep a copy for yourself. You’ll want to review it if asked for an interview, and if that fails, you might well be able to draw on one well-written application when completing another.
Summing Up in Six Points
- Be choosy: apply for jobs that you truly want
- Learn about each employer, and demonstrate how you can contribute to their success
- Take the time you need to make each application distinctive and memorable
- Read any application materials thoroughly before you start filling them out
- Make each response count: consistently reinforce the idea that you are prepared to contribute meaningfully in your new role, and take full advantage of opportunities to provide long-form answers
- Have a friend proofread your graduate job application, and save a copy for future use