How to apply yourself: Tips on writing CVs and application forms – and preparing for interview

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The perfect CV

Many employers still use the CV as a form of initial screening for advertised jobs. They are also a useful tool when making a speculative application.

What is the purpose of a CV? Some people seem to view it as an exercise in self-aggrandisement; others produce a turgid list of activities reaching back to their cycling proficiency triumph in the 1980s. However, to create an effective CV which will work for you, you must consider what you are aiming to produce and what it will be used for. A curriculum vitae is not just a record of your life to date; you might as well write your autobiography or publish your diaries. Instead, a CV is a structured presentation of aspects of your experience, organised in a way that will make sense to the person reading it.

Take your starting point from the job to which you are applying. Good writing starts with the reader in mind; so does a good CV. Think carefully about who will be reading your CV and what they will be interested in. For the most part, employers will have a vacancy to fill. They will have a vision of the sort of person they would like to fill that vacancy. Your job is to write a CV which will convince the reader that you have the knowledge, skills or experience to meet their requirements. You can "sell" yourself as much as you want, using interesting action verbs or a beautifully phrased personal profile, but these techniques are likely to fall short if you are not telling the employer about something that they are interested in.

So take time to look carefully at the person specification and job description and identify the key skills required. Then think about what you have done that might demonstrate that you have these skills. Remember that you don't necessarily have to have done a similar role to be able to demonstrate that you have the right skills. Working in one environment can enable you to develop skills that will be just as useful in a different environment.

In Britain, most CVs are one or two pages long. You have this much space to make a good impression so use it wisely. Everything that you include on your CV should say something about your skills or experiences relevant to the job for which you are applying. Don't waste space on the first page giving details about your various contact addresses if this means that interesting work experience is forced onto page two. Think strategically about where you place the information. Again, think about what will be a priority to the employer: will it be your education so far, or the experience you have gained through other work or voluntary activities?

Finally, the art of writing a good covering letter should be revised and put into practice for each application that you make. A covering letter should be brief but pertinent, highlighting enough information about you to make the reader want to refer to find out more. A good structure to follow is to address three main themes: why you are interested in the job; why you are interested in working for the company or organisation; and what you think you have to offer. This last section should précis your particular skills relevant to the job in question.

The application form

Of course, you may be asked to complete an application form instead of submitting a CV and covering letter. Most application forms will include a series of questions for you to answer, or a section asking you to provide information in support of your application. Essentially, the same principles apply as for constructing a good CV: think carefully about what the employer will be interested in and try to provide answers relevant to them. Be clear about your motivations for wanting the job, and give evidence of your relevant skills. When giving an example from your experience to demonstrate a skill or achievement, remember to be specific. Focus on what you actually did within the situation and the outcome of your actions.

The interview

If you have been selected for an interview then you have already had a measure of success. Remember this when you are preparing; the employer has been sufficiently impressed by your application so far to want to meet you in person so be confident about what you have to offer.

The type of interview that you might encounter will vary, from the informal, unstructured "chat" to the highly structured scenario in which each candidate is asked the same set of pre-determined questions. Although these different types of interview will necessarily feel very different, there are still some basic rules to help you to navigate even the rockiest interview experiences.

Firstly, preparation: they say time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted and this is certainly true of interview preparation. Take time to research the organisation thoroughly: find out as much as you can about the way in which the organisation is structured, key priorities and challenges that it might face in the future, and how your role will fit into this wider whole. Focus your preparation on three central issues: why you want to do the job, what you have to offer, and how you will contribute to the organisation. Any employer will want to find out whether you are enthusiastic about the job and the organisation, and whether you have the right skills to be able to do the job effectively.

Secondly, performance: most people get nervous before interviews, so remind yourself that this is normal and that most other candidates will feel the same. If you know in advance what is likely to shake your composure – such as being asked an unexpected question or having to defend a viewpoint – then try running through how you might deal with this situation if it arises. Practise answering interview style questions so you're familiar with the process of thinking about and structuring a quick response.

Above all, an interview should be seen as a dialogue rather than a test: a dialogue between you and the interviewers. Most interviewers are not deliberately trying to catch you out or humiliate you – they are genuinely interested in recruiting the right person. Questions might be challenging, and reactions not always congenial, but most of the time interviewers are simply trying to ascertain if you would be suitable for the role. So take your cue from them; be confident and genuine, prepared to enter into discussion or give your opinion, and above all enthusiastic about the job that you have applied for.

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