How to get a head start in the race for your dream job

Thea Jourdan explores the ways that enterprising candidates can secure advantages

If you are looking for a new job, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Unemployment is at its lowest level in the UK since 1971, and opportunities are plentiful. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average number of job vacancies for the three months to December 2004 was 648,800. This was up 44,900 over the year.

If you are looking for a new job, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Unemployment is at its lowest level in the UK since 1971, and opportunities are plentiful. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average number of job vacancies for the three months to December 2004 was 648,800. This was up 44,900 over the year.

So far, so good, but these statistics do not tell the whole story. There is also a trend towards people moving jobs frequently to improve their prospects. According to the latest Mandis/Adecco Job Creation Index, six million people are planning to change jobs in the next 12 months. That means that competition for plum positions has never been fiercer. Clawing your way up the career ladder is also getting harder. Vacancies for senior positions may attract fewer candidates, but standards are expected to be higher. Globalisation has also upped the ante. Applicants may now find that they are expected to compete with hot shots from the Hague and whizz-kids from Washington.

Recruiting procedures are becoming more sophisticated. Applicants may have to face a barrage of personality and aptitude tests. About 25 per cent of all job interviews now include psychometric testing, which assesses the character strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. Financial and business services, most likely to use US-inspired psychometric testing, now account for about one in five jobs in the UK, compared with about one in 10 in 1981.

Some companies even use graphology, analysing the handwriting of potential candidates. Apparently, the way you curl your Ys and cross your Ts can reveal your personality, emotional stability and even how honest you are. In France, Germany and Holland, about 80 per cent of companies use graphology as part of their selection process, although it is less common in the UK.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to maximise your chances, even if you can't change your handwriting. Forking out for professional help could be a wise investment. Some 11 per cent of people looking for work now use career services, says Mandis/Adecco.

A successful job seeker starts with an excellent CV. According to Lydia Holder, the director of Sharp CV, the majority of CVs are more of a hindrance than a help. "We see thousands of CVs every year and the majority are atrocious, absolutely awful. People do not seem to realise that a CV is the first hurdle. If you fall at this post, then you won't be going any further."

Classic faux pas include five-page documents that include every detail of someone's life in chronological order. "A 45-year-old executive director will include the fact that he won a prize in the Boy Scouts. It's irrelevant and distracting. Recent achievements and postings should always come first," says Holder. Gimmicky CVs, printed on bright-coloured paper, are also likely to get no further than the bin. "There may be a very slim excuse if you are applying for a highly creative job, such as a graphic designer, but the general rule is stick to well structured CVs on plain white paper."

According to Holder, a good CV will always start with a personal profile and a summary of what the applicant hopes to do next. "People should focus on the future and less on the past. When it comes to a CV, you have to be ruthless and objective."

Objectivity is sometimes difficult for individuals looking for a job. For this reason, the CV preparation industry is booming. Holder's clients pay anywhere from £129 for a CV prepared for a graduate over the phone, to £495 for a face-to-face preparation for a senior executive. Short turnarounds, within 48 hours, cost more.

CVs should also be accurate. Simon Houlton, director of The CV Referencing Agency, works for employers in the financial, logistics and aviation industries. His job is to check CVs before an applicant is offered a position. "We want to know that you are who you say you are, and that you have done what you say you have done," says Houlton. Over the last year, he has found discrepancies in 15 to 20 per cent of CVs. "About half of those discrepancies were serious enough to have been brought to the boss's notice. Some people even fail to mention criminal records."

Preparation and research can make a big difference to your job prospects. Companies want to hire people who will fit in. Holder advises her clients to go on to the company website and browse. "Then find out the name of the human resource manager. Phone her up and ask her to tell you more about the posting. Perhaps even arrange to visit the offices and have a meeting. She'll be happy to help and very impressed by your initiative."

Psychometric tests, which are one of the most reliable ways of revealing whether or not a candidate is suitable for a job, are supposed to be done without preparation, but it can help to take a test before you are faced with one in an interview.

"If you are asked to go to an assessment centre by a potential employer, 90 per cent of the time you will not be allowed to see the results, which will be kept confidential. If you take a test beforehand, at least you will know what it is that the interviewees are likely to see," says Holder. Interview training can also pay dividends for many people who want to hone their face-to-face skills. Olivier Picard is the director of a London-based company called Interview Skills. Picard's clients, who include doctors, accountants and PAs, are put through their paces during a mock interview, and their performance is assessed. "We want people to have realistic expectations. We had an Arthur Daley-type guy recently who wanted to work in a City accounting department. We steered him towards IT instead. We have also had people who wanted to get into medical school, but it became obvious that they did not have the skills to make it as a doctor."

A single two-hour session at Interview Skills costs from £100 for a graduate to £150 for a senior executive. About two per cent of candidates need more than one session.

Picard believes that the process helps to boost confidence, which in turn effects body language - the most important visual cue when it comes to interviewers making their mind up. "You can change your body language without thinking about it if you feel good about yourself and the interview."

People who have been out of work for longer than three months, or who have recently been made redundant from a senior position, often have particular hurdles to overcome in finding new employment. Many companies now offer job-seeking support as part of a redundancy package. A programme can last for a full 12 months and cost about £5,000.

You can also enlist the help of your contacts when it comes to job-seeking. Carole Stone, author of The Ultimate Guide to Successful Networking (Vermilion £4.99), is convinced that networking can help you find the job you want.

"Make the most of the people you meet to your mutual advantage," she says. "People can help you in any area, including finding a job. Put yourself about and let people know that you are there. Try and make a mark wherever you are. Be reliable, be courteous and well prepared. Getting a job is all about people recommending you. If you've impressed someone, they may suggest you when a great opportunity comes up.

"Networking may help you on your way, but talent will get you the job. That is why networking differs from cronyism. At the end of the day, it is about your abilities. Start in a small way. Think about meeting regularly with contacts, even if it's in the pub.

It doesn't have to be expensive to exchange ideas and develop connections. Face-to-face contact is always better than an e-mail. Take down notes of things that interest you. Find time for everyone around you. Who knows, someone you least expect may be able to find you a great job."

www.thegraphologysite.co.uk

Sharp CV: 0845 057 3251; www.sharpcv.co.uk

Interview Skills: 0845 226 9487; www.interview-skills.co.uk

Color Me Beautiful: 020-7627 5211; www.cmb.co.uk

The CV Referencing Agency: 01277 659988

'My old CV wasn't doing me justice, so I went to a professional - and I got the job'

Bronwyn Kunhardt, 32, is head of citizenship and diversity at Microsoft UK. She lives in Suffolk with her husband, David Williams, a film editor, and their two children, Olivia, four, and two-year-old Georgia. She used a professional CV preparation service, Sharp CV, to help her when she applied for her present job.

"I had worked for Microsoft for six years when this job opportunity came up. I re-read my old CV and I did not think that I was doing myself justice on paper. I didn't have much time to turn it around so I went on the internet to find a professional. I had to pay £375 for the telephone service within 48 hours, but I was really glad I did. I gave it to myself as part of my bonus treat.

"Lydia Holder at Sharp CV spent a lot of time listening to me telling her what I had done. She pulled out the relevant bits and made sense of my achievements. She is very good at reading between the lines. She also helped me to prepare for the interview. It really made me think about my strengths and what I had managed to deliver in my job. A lot of the vocabulary she gave me I used in my interview, word for word.

"I got the job so I suppose you could say that it was one of the best investments I ever made.

"As an interviewer myself, I now recognise the professionally written CVs. It impresses me that someone has shown the initiative to ask a professional for help. It makes it much easier for me to judge a candidate if the information is clear and concise. If your CV is really good, it gives you an extra edge."

DO THE WRITE THING

Graphology

Caroline Taylor is a graphologist with 15 years' experience, based in Folkestone. She works for recruiters who want to check the character of their applicants.

A full handwriting analysis costs £95. Taylor says that she can see from someone's handwriting if that person is gregarious, repressed, or even dishonest. "A lot of it is common sense. If someone's writing slopes to the left, it implies an inward-looking personality. Sloping to the right suggests someone who is more forward-thinking." Large looping handwriting is very feminine, and suggests someone is keen to make an impression. Illegible writing probably reflects a large ego.

Taylor says that her conclusions are usually accurate because it is so difficult to disguise handwriting. "When people try and change their natural writing style, they sacrifice speed and spontaneity," she says. That said, some applicants in the US are taking handwriting classes to make their style more appealing.

TESTING YOUR PERSONALITY

* Psychometric tests

Psychometric tests measure your capability for a particular job. There are two types: aptitude tests and personality questionnaires.

A typical aptitude test might have three sections, each testing a different ability eg verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning and diagrammatic or spatial reasoning. A typical test would allow 30 minutes for 30 or more questions. Your score is compared to a standard. Personality questionnaires can measure how you relate to other people, your ability to deal with emotions, motivation, determination and general outlook, and your ability to handle stressful situations. Unlike aptitude tests, there are no right and wrong answers, but there are checks to detect whether you are giving a false picture of yourself.

IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

* Image consultancy

Audrey Hanna is an image consultant with Color Me Beautiful. Clients pay from £70 for a 90-minute colour consultation to £120 for a full consultation.

"Job applicants have 30 seconds to make a first impression. Studies show that 55 per cent [of it] is based on appearance. It's a good idea to visit the company beforehand to see how others are dressed. Of course, you should always be smart and clean. Polish your shoes. Dress conservatively; if you want to make an impression, show your individuality with accessories. Men can stand out by their choice of tie. Choose your colours carefully - they suggest different things. Navy blues and blacks are authoritative but a little stern. Softer blues suggest that you are thoughtful and trustworthy. Red says that you are upbeat and confident, but may be not a team player."

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