Employers use application forms to compare groups of candidates and they'll often be your first point of contact with an employer. Follow our information and advice to make your application stand out.
Our guide includes how to prepare and ensure you provide what the employer is looking for.
Once you've completed all sections of an application form, make sure you check everything before submitting. We can provide advice and feedback on your draft application or help you get started. Find out how you can arrange to meet an adviser.
Before you start filling in an application form you need to do some preparation. This will help you show strong evidence and make sure you don’t miss anything important. Follow our step by step guide:
- Set aside a few hours to spend on your application - if you speed through it you are unlikely to be successful.
- Use our top tips on researching an employer, including what information to look for and potential sources
- Read our career guides and TargetJobs to research commercial awareness and industry knowledge
- Gather everything you'll need including a copy of the job advert, job description, person specification, your CV and your background research
- Carefully read through the instructions on the job application - pay particular attention to any word limits and the deadline
- Print off, download or screenshot the application form - you can then prepare your answers in a separate document and paste them in when ready
Filling in your application form
A successful application form will get you to the next stage of the recruitment process. Make sure your form demonstrates how you meet the criteria and encourages the employer to invite you to interview.
Application form - typical sections and format
Application forms will vary but most will include the following sections:
- Personal information - basic details including name and contact details
- Education - provide information on your academic achievements, including qualifications and courses.
- Work experience - list your employment history and describe your main duties and responsibilities in each role (some application forms may also provide the option to include any voluntary experience)
- Questions or personal statement - your opportunity to show that you have the required knowledge, skills and motivation
- References - provide contact details for the required number of referees (current students and recent graduates can put an academic referee and a previous employer - Graduatejobs provides some good advice)
Application forms require a professional and clear writing style. Employers are looking for candidates that can write with confidence and prove that they meet the requirements for the role.
To write an effective application form consider:
- Using action verbs such as transformed, delivered, achieved and inspired
- Choosing descriptive words to show your motivation such as effective, consistent, determined and adaptable
- Structuring your response
- Making sure you answer the question
- Selecting relevant examples from your recent studies, work experience and other interests
- Showing that you're enthusiastic and motivated about what the role and organisation are offering
- Checking your spelling and grammar
Job criteria or person specification
A person specification is often supplied with a job description and provides a detailed criteria for the role. The person specification sets out the knowledge, skills and experience the employer is looking for.
If the employer has provided this information, you must use it to plan and structure your application form answers. Follow our advice on how to prove you meet the criteria.
Essential and desirable requirements
The criteria is often split into ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ requirements. You can use this information to decide if you're suitable for the role. You'll need to be able to demonstrate that you have a majority of the 'essential' criteria to make it through to the next stage. Think carefully about each criteria - you may have evidence that you could provide from a related field or experience gained on your course. You might not have the specific experience required, but you might gain some credit.
Match your skills
Work through the person specification mapping your skills and experience to the requirements. Plan this out on a list or use a mind map if it helps to view it visually. You need to draw upon examples from different areas of your study and experience; so plan out which evidence is best suited to each area of the person specification.
You need to provide clear evidence that you can meet the criteria. It is not enough to simply state that you meet the requirement. Provide specific and detailed examples from your study, work and interests.
Structure your response
You can use the same order and headings provided in the person specification to structure your answer. This will make it easier for the employer to read your form and match your experience to the job criteria.
The application form may include a selection of questions to find out why you want the job and your suitability. Employers only want to recruit people who are genuinely enthusiastic about applying for the role. You'll need to answer the questions in full and convey a strong interest and an understanding of the role and company.
The questions will focus on the skills required for the role. Typical skills or competencies may include the ability to work in teams, commercial awareness, problem-solving skills, communication skills, IT skills, aptitude for leadership and the ability to manage multiple tasks.
Examples of competency-based questions:
- Tell us about a time when you had to lead a group on a specific task. What did you do and what was the outcome?
- Provide details of an occasion when you had to persuade others to accept a particular viewpoint. What approach did you follow and what was the result?
Some application forms may include strengths-based questions to find out about your personal qualities. Strengths-based questions focus on what you enjoy doing and are naturally good at, rather than focusing on what you can do.
Examples of strengths-based questions:
- When did you achieve something you were really proud of?
- Describe a successful event you have contributed to.
You may also be asked to fill in additional sections or questions that ask about your voluntary work or external interests. You need to take the same approach to these questions, ensuring that you keep the job requirements in mind and think of relevant examples. Employers might include questions to find out about your motivation and interest in the role and organisation.
Use the STAR technique
Use the STAR technique to help you provide evidence to answer the questions. This is a simple approach based on providing the following information:
- Situation – context of the particular example you're providing.
- Task – what you had to do to achieve the desired result.
- Action – what you actually did. The important word here is YOU. They want to know about your contribution, so concentrate the bulk of your answer on this aspect.
- Result – what was the outcome?
Now look at the following example so you can see how to answer this type of question using the STAR technique:
Question: "Can you identify a time when you needed to be able to show that you could manage many tasks at once. How did you prioritise what you did and what was the outcome of the strategy used?"
Situation: "In my final year I needed to complete my dissertation alongside working part-time at X company. In addition, I also had responsibility as the Secretary for the University Athletics Society. I needed to balance these challenges and keep to all the set deadlines."
Task: "I had to achieve sales targets whilst in my part-time job and keep to a research schedule for my dissertation. I was also involved in the organisation of both local and regional athletics meetings as part of my remit for the athletic club members."
Action: "I reviewed the requirements and expectations for each area in discussion with tutors and colleagues. I was able to assess the scale of the tasks and used a spreadsheet to identify and track all commitments. I decided upon appropriate and achievable timings to ensure that each objective was satisfactorily met within the relevant deadline."
Result: "All tasks were completed to a satisfactory standard and within agreed deadlines."
Increasingly, job application forms are asking candidates to complete a section which outlines their suitability for the job. Here the responsibility lies with you to provide the right information. You need to think about what the employer wants and how you can present that information in the best way.
Where to start
Start by checking what is required. Make sure you understand any instructions and follow them to the letter. Have they specified a structure or asked for any specific information? Is there a word count? Familiarise yourself with the requirements in the job description and person specification. Use our advice on 'filling in the form' to make sure you meet the job criteria and person specification.
Write in a style that's true to yourself and which reflects your enthusiasm for the role, but remain professional throughout. Try not to be "chatty" – this is a formal piece of writing and as such needs to be well structured and informative. You need to make your opening paragraph as strong as you can. Back up all your claims with evidence and make all your statements meaningful.
How to structure your personal statement
Write your personal statement in a structure that makes it easy for the employer to find the information relevant to them. Use short, well-structured sentences. You can use the headings in the person specification to organise your writing which makes it easier for the employer or recruiter to cross-reference your evidence against their specification.
Use these to help plan and organise what you want to write. You can start by writing some bullet points under each heading which you can then build on with more detail and examples.
Tailor your statement
Respond to the job description and person specification for each role you apply for. Don’t be tempted to copy and paste from previous applications. Think about relevant skills and examples from all areas of your experience: your course, volunteering, paid employment, work experience, clubs and societies.
By providing evidence of what you have achieved you are showing that you can apply your skills in real-life situations. You can also demonstrate how you have grown and developed your skills and knowledge, or how you have added value to the organisation. For example, the person specification may demand excellent oral and written communication skills but the job description may include taking minutes, talking with clients over the phone and giving presentations. If you have done these specific things before it would be useful to mention them by way of evidencing your ability to communicate.
Use this approach to structure your examples, see our advice in ‘answering questions’ for more details. Do be aware that such examples can be quite wordy; you may need to summarise or consider if this works in a personal statement where there is a tight word limit.
You can outline how the role fits with your career plans, especially if training is offered or if the role allows you to gain professional accreditation. You will need to make sure that your goals are aligned with what the company or organisation can offer.
Demonstrate why you want the job and what motivates you to work in this environment, company or organisation. You can refer to aspects of the job that you find attractive, possibly referring to the training offered or to what you have found out about the company.
Make your conclusion meaningful. Reiterate your enthusiasm and suitability for the role and if possible highlight how you might add value to their organisation.
Speculative applications involve sending a CV and covering letter to an employer to ask if they have any vacancies in the sector you're interested in, even if the company is not currently advertising for a role. They're a great way to access "hidden jobs" that go unadvertised and are filled by speculative applications or networking.
When you should use speculative applications
- Speculative applications may be suitable if you want to work in a particular geographical area or highly focused field (such as sports psychology) or if you want to work in a small, but popular, area such as film and broadcasting
- Smaller employers may not recruit as regularly so speculative applications may be well received - they can save the company a lot of time and money in advertising
- If you're looking for vacation work, work experience or work shadowing, approaching specific companies directly may be beneficial
- Speculative applications are not just effective in niche or popular areas, they're also accepted in areas such as law, civil engineering and management consultancies
Finding contacts to send your speculative application to
Identify 1 or 2 fields of work you'd like to go into and do some research. You could try the following:
- Visit our jobs board – you can search for organisations by business area under the vacancies menu
- Look at job boards for your chosen sector – even if a company isn't advertising for exactly what you want, use the name and address to contact the company and ask them about the sort of work you do want (use our career guides as a starting point)
- Search online directories to explore specific sectors and gather contact details on local employers
- Build up a network of contacts – people are usually happy to talk about their areas of work and can provide you with further contacts
- Academic staff, particularly in business and technology departments, may have excellent links with local industry and commerce, which could help you develop your network
- Getting work experience through paid or voluntary work can help you generate a good network of contacts
- You can use LinkedIn to search for companies who employ people in the sort of job role that you're interested in or local companies operating in your sector of interest
Making a speculative application
Making a speculative application requires a CV and cover letter. You also need to have carried out some thorough research on the organisation. You need to decide what you can do for the potential employer based on your knowledge of what they do.
When you’ve found out all you can and considered the skills, aptitudes and experience you have to offer, you’re ready to contact them.
- Wherever possible target, your speculative letter to a named individual - you can usually find this information out by phoning the company and asking who is responsible for recruitment for the section you're interested in
- Your covering letter should target the company you're applying to - explain why you want to work for the company and what you think you can bring to the work area
- A follow-up phone call will demonstrate your enthusiasm for working for the company - if you plan on making a follow-up call, say so in your covering letter
- Specify what you're looking for and avoid unfocused requests such as "do you have anything suitable for my qualifications and experience?"
- Your application may be kept on file for several months if there's nothing suitable available when you send your application - get back in touch in a couple of months to remind the company you're still interested
- If you're sending out many speculative letters, ensure that you keep a record of who you have contacted and when
You can find an example cover letter for a speculative application on the Graduate Prospects website.
Contact our careers advisers for feedback and advice on your CV and covering letters.
The decision whether to disclose a disability to an employer is often a personal one and may be based on several factors such as the nature of the disability and the demands of the role being applied for.
If necessary, speak with a careers adviser or contact the employer directly before sending in any applications and/or attending interviews to discuss any support that may be required during the selection process or in the role itself.
Read our disability, equality and diversity guide with further guidance.