How to ace an online job application form

Nowadays, so much of the recruitment process is online that it’s vital to be able to write the perfect job application, tailored for the web.

Competition is fierce for jobs – so what are the top tips, and what are employers looking for?

Differentiate yourself

“Your personal statement is the first thing from your application that will be read, so it needs to be tailored well to each job application,” says Lee Owen, Senior Business Director at Hays Accountancy & Finance. “You need to encapsulate what your experience is, what your skills will bring, why you’re going for the role – and ultimately what sets you apart from other applicants.”

One way to do this, Owen says, is to place a short list beneath your personal statement; “almost like a snapshot of your main skills. You can make these bullet points starting with those most pertinent to the job (such as accounting software, database skills etc.) plus your technical abilities.” This will quickly get the message across that you’re a valuable asset. “Put these in bold,” Owen adds, “so it lifts off the page that little bit better.”

If you’re applying for lots of jobs, it can be tempting to have a set of responses that you then cut and paste into each form. Instead of doing this, use the space well and answer the question the recruiter places in each box. Often, you’ll have limited room and it can be difficult to get in everything you want to say without going over. “If you find yourself writing too much,” Owen says, “take a second look and check all points can be linked back to the job vacancy, showcasing why you are the right person for the job.”

Finessing the form

Recruiters will use their job description and person specification to decide who they want to interview – pay close attention to these and ensure you’ve said things that will make you stand out from the crowd. “As well as to inform candidates what the role will entail, the employer will also use these specifications to ‘score’ applications,” says David Bowen, Director at recruitment firm Bowen Eldridge. “If one of the essential requirements is to have experience using Microsoft Office then your application should clearly state this. Even though it sounds obvious, write ‘I regularly updated internal documents using Microsoft Office’. If you don’t say it, then the employer will only infer you have used it and you will not score as highly.”

“Employers do scrutinise people over their spelling mistakes and errors,” says Dan Kelsall, Founder at Vonkel, a digital recruitment app. “It’s frustrating but you need to be aware of it – you don’t want to be turned down because of a silly error. Get someone to proof-read your form, or help you write it if words aren’t your forté.” Avoid generic statements, Kelsall adds. “Every employer has seen, ‘I work well as an individual as well as part of a team.’ Don’t do that; make sure you stand out as a person and think about how you’re different to everyone else.”

There are cultural barriers to overcome here, Kelsall says. “We can be self-critical as Brits and it’s not easy to big ourselves up. You do need to do this on a form, without being arrogant – get used to selling yourself in the right way.” How to do that? “Learn how to articulate how you can add value to the organisation. That’s why they’ll come to you.”

What employers want to see

Research from the 2017 Hays What Workers Want report suggests that 41% of employers have had experienced difficulties recruiting candidates over the past year with the right skill set. “With this in mind,” Lee Owen says, “employers are looking for skills which clearly match the job description, as well as a willingness to upskill if needed. It’s also important to remember that core skills such as communication and management skills are just as important to employers as technical skills.” Hays’ research reveals that “communication, flexibility/adaptability and problem solving are the top core skills for prospective employers.”

Think outside the box – “talk to other people about the job,” suggests Kelsall. “Try to touch base with a contact in the company you’re aiming to work for. If you’re smart about this, you can find someone who will tell you what the job’s like – and what the company is looking for.” Secondly, try to talk to people who have got similar roles in other companies. And thirdly, “get a mentor. Someone experienced in business who can talk you through it. If you’re willing to do the legwork, it can have great results.”

“If you don’t have prior accountancy experience,” Owen says, “highlight areas of your previous employment or studies that show your analytical ability, numeracy, attention to detail and communication skills, to demonstrate the key characteristics employers will be looking for. Show the areas you have excelled at in terms of study, particularly if this is directly relevant to the role you’re applying for.”

Getting the CV right

Finally, make sure your CV has as much attention to detail as the online application. “Ensure your name, contact details including email address and phone number are clearly visible,” says David Bowen. “Then have a brief profile about you, including your experience, key skills and aspirations.” Keep this concise and relevant. “Go on to list your employment history – company name, job title and dates of employment. Start with the most recent and work backwards. In bullet points, give an account of your key responsibilities and achievements. The number of bullet points should decrease the further back you go.’

The online form – top tips

  • Get the personal statement right. “The power of this is not to be underestimated,” says Lee Owen. “It’s your chance to sell the core aspects of yourself as a candidate, particularly your expertise, level of experience, achievements and future ambitions.”
  • Focus on keywords. “Figure out how to talk about a subject whilst featuring keywords that will get picked up,” says Dan Kelsall. “Try to communicate them as much as possible without sounding robotic.”
  • Highlight your different skill sets. “Mention both your strong technical skills and your key core skills,” says Owen. “Once you reach interview stage you can then share examples of each to your interviewers.”

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