Most people know that when writing job applications, it is vital to review two key documents – the job description and person specification – and that you ignore them at your peril. The terms are not used by all employers and employers are not legally obliged to provide them, but generally they need to form the basis of your applications.
Unless you are applying to smaller employers and have no more to go on than the text of an advert and your own research, you need to learn the art of reading between the lines of these key documents and responding to them appropriately. This is where it gets a bit more tricky.
Some of them tell you virtually nothing worth knowing about the post and you may be left feeling that they have only been written to satisfy company policy. But some are chock full of detail and use five times more words than you could ever hope to get into an application form. And some selection panels will definitely screen your application against a list of ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ selection criteria drawn from the person spec.
At this point, one essential tool to help you separate the wood from the trees is – no, not an axe – but a highlighting pen. Here’s what to do next:
1) Take the ‘desc’ and the ‘spec’ plus any other details about the job you have collected and allow yourself the time to go through them all with a fine toothcomb – and a highlighting pen.
2) Try to get the feeling of the words and the energy they convey. Look for key phrases that tell you what the job is all about and the sort of person they are looking for. When you find one, highlight it. In the margin, add a few quick notes of situations where you used the skills or demonstrated the experience that the phrase indicates. These will be useful reminders when you start to draft your application.
3) Now of course there will be some phrases where you cannot think of any relevant information you can give. If so, do not despair. Highlight them anyway, perhaps in a different way so they stand out. If you come back to them later, it’s amazing how often that you will suddenly recall useful information that is exactly the evidence the employer is looking for – or, if not, something that is similar enough for you to use convincingly.
4) You may find there are some phrases that are used several times in the same documentation. These are likely to be major areas of interest to the employer that you need to write about at some length, using the STAR technique. Similarly, if you are applying for a number of jobs of the same kind, it can be worth noting that some employers mention requirements that others do not.
5) Once you have been through all the documentation, prioritise on the basis of your notes and the required length of the application:
- things you must write about in detail
- things you will at least mention
- things you will only mention if there is space
6) Then put down the highlighting pen and pick up your mouse, laptop or black biro…
A Couple of Provisos
- Don’t forget to say why you want to work for that company, even if they didn’t ask you to
- If you really can’t think of any material that you can use to cover ‘essential’ criteria, don’t apply – the job probably isn’t for you.