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Please don't write bad job applications

3 August 2016

Reading job applications is soul destroying.  So many applications, especially the ones in which the applicant is asked to address selection criteria, are poorly written, don’t engage the reader and tell the individuals reading them next to nothing.  I had one employer tell me that reading job applications was a bit like trying to read the dictionary for entertainment!

Please don’t write applications like this.  It wastes your time, the readers time and leads to misery all round.  Instead write applications that give the reader the information they both need and want so they can move you onto the next phase of the selection. 

And what they need and what they want are two different elements.

What they Need : What they Want

What they need is evidence about WHAT you have done, WHAT you know and HOW you have did it.  What they want is to know WHY you did what you did in the way you did it.

Simon Sinek is a huge name in marketing, famous for a TED talk in which he asserts that:

People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it. 

This assertion holds true in the job application process. 

You see, the members of a selection panel are purchasers and they are making a very, very big purchasing decision – one that will cost the organisation hundreds of thousands of dollars – they are purchasing an employee. 

To be the employee they purchase you need to sell to them not just WHAT you have done in the past and WHAT you know, but also HOW you did what you did and the reasons WHY you did it that way.

 What How Why Circle

A Common Mistake

The most common mistake I see in job applications is when applicants only write WHAT they have done in the past (the outer ring of the circle).  When you only talk about WHAT you have done in the past you leave it up to the reader to do the hard work of trying to figure out, from your past, what you will be able to do in the future.

The thing is that people don’t want to do this – it is very hard work.  They want you to neatly package up for them good reasons why they should move you onto the next stage of the selection process.  And good reasons, in their minds are:

  • A sense that you are like them and are driven by the same sense of WHY as them
  • A sense that you will fit in with the culture of their organisation
  • A sense of potential in you through HOW you go about doing what you do
  • Reassurance that you know WHAT you are talking about
What does this look like in practice?

Here is an actual real life before and after example for a selection criterion that asks for organisational skills.

Before - Showing a big focus on WHAT the individual has done:

I have exceptional organisational skills.  In my current role I organise the diaries of 3 busy executives, am responsible for organising weekly senior management meetings, the training schedule for all staff and two annual in house conferences.  I keep documents and schedules up to date, keep people informed when changes happen and use technology to its fullest advantage.  This includes having strong expertise in the use of calendar software such as Outlook, Google Mail, and ScheduFlow.  The fact that I am able to keep multiple projects running smoothly clearly demonstrates the ability I have to remain organised.

After - With a greater focus on WHAT, HOW and WHY:

Being organised is not just about doing your job well; it is also about enabling others to do their job well.  My capacity to be and remain organised has stood the test of time in many very busy roles.  Maintaining strong practices and processes for staying organised is core to how I do this and will be vital in this role in which many people rely on an accurate and timely flow through of information from this individual.

An example of my capacity to demonstrate high level organisational skills was my recent coordination of an all staff (500 people) annual conference which was scheduled to occur at a very busy time in the calendars of the three executives I support.  To ensure I stayed organised with this conference I took the time to become clear on my responsibilities, what I needed to deliver upon, the timelines and contingencies that needed to be in place and the people I could call on for support.  I built into my daily workflow small deadlines and displayed these in my environment for my own reference and so others could see where we were up to.  When I needed information and input from others I supported them with clear deadlines, gentle reminders and a bit of coaching to help them get done what needed to be done. And although it was a very busy time I also made sure I took care of my own energy levels by not ignoring my need for breaks.

This planning and focus kept me organised and more importantly it provided an example for others and, I believe, enabled key personnel to also remain focused on the big picture not just the small emergencies that inevitably came up.

See how the first example merely says WHAT the person has, not HOW they did it or WHY they did it that way, which the second example shows.  Yes, the piece of writing is longer, but it is also more readable and engaging and will better sell this person. 

In addition much of the information in the first example, such as the software they use, is information that can be better shown in the résumé, so is a waste of opportunity and space to have it in the selection criteria. 

Remember: People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.  If you have decided that the job is worth going for it is worth doing it well. 

As ever wishing you a Flourishing Career


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