How to write a job application

The next post in my series about how to write stuff is focused on writing job applications. My tips for job applications are comparatively simple compared to my hints for formal academic writing.

1 Learn the right style

The expectations for applications in different industries are vastly different. Academic applications tend to be built around emphasising the impact of your journal publications, while public service applications tend to be built around demonstrating your proven job skills and personal qualities. These applications tend to have strong stylistic conventions that require a good amount research and practice. For example, many Australian Public Service applications are centred on addressing selection criteria. These criteria are usually addressed by providing a specific example from your previous work history that demonstrates a specific skill or personal quality, such as work discipline, good judgement, clear communication or team work etc.

There are many blogs and ebooks that can help teach you the conventions of a particular industry. Make sure you look into examples of cover letters, CVs and selection criteria that are specific for the type of job you are applying for. A list of academic papers won’t impress a selection panel in business, and a skills-based CV will likely fall flat with a panel of university professors who are keenly interested in your h-index.

There are also important geographical conventions in jobs applications. Australians are oddly enamoured with selection criteria. I have seen many overseas applicants completely neglect to respond to the selection criteria because they didn’t realise these were important. Other countries tend to emphasise the cover letter, and a cursory “Dear Sir/Madam, I’m great. Hire me” type cover letter won’t cut it at getting you an interview

2 Do your research

Make sure you know about the job and the environment you will be working in. Call the contact officer listed in the application package and have some questions prepared. Try to get a sense of precisely what the job entails. Ask around and see if any friends, or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends have worked at this university/ business/ department before, and then ask that pseudo-friend a bunch of questions. This will help you work out if you want the job and be prepared for a possible interview. It will also help you focus in your application. If your background research shows that the work requires an ability to work independently with little direction, you can emphasise this in your application. If your detective work shows that the department is expanding its undergraduate teaching focus, you can slip in some details about your prior lecturing experiences, even if the advertised role is research-only.

3 Get help

Writing job applications is a rare task where I strongly recommend seeking a lot of outside help. It is extremely difficult to write statements about yourself that adequately reflect your good qualities and experiences. Most of us tend to err on the side of modesty and our great achievements are dampened in applications.

If possible, get your partner to write your application for you. They love you and think you are a trophy, so will help you inject a more realistically positive tone into your application. You remember previous achievements as mundane, such as publishing a report, writing an article or finishing a project. Your partner more accurately remembers you negotiating with a complex team, navigating tight deadlines, receiving positive feedback on the project, and succeeding under a constrained budget. He or she will help fold these positives into your application and make you look like the shiny trophy you are to you beloved. If possible, send him or her to the interview in your place.

If you are single, don’t fret. Get your mum or dad, brother or sister, friend, neighbour or barista to step into this role. It really doesn’t matter who it is, as long as they think you are great. If you shun all human contact, don’t fret either. Just imagine that your beloved cat, dog, hamster, pet spider or rock is telling its friends all about how great you are and adopt this tone.

4 Don’t forget your CV

You can’t make assumptions that the selection panel thinks the same way that you do. When I read academic job applications, I skip ahead to the selection criteria to try to get a sense of the candidate. Other people prefer to start with the CV to understand that applicant’s history. We all take in information differently, so make sure you give equal time and weight to each element of the application package. Don’t be tempted to submit a generic CV. Instead, spend some time tailoring it to the specifics of the job you are applying for. In addition, attention to detail will really pay off here. Make you formatting clear and simple, do a thorough proofread and avoid fonts that are a crime against humanity.

5 Don’t leave it to the last minute

Job applications are long and boring and a poor return on investment. You can spend a long time putting together an application for a job you are ambivalent about and know you have a poor chance of success. It can be tempting to leave it to the last minute, and upload any old CV and some cut and pasted selection criteria to the job portal just before the deadline closes. If you’ve left it to the last minute it’s highly likely the selection panel will be able to tell. Just don’t. Think about it in advance and make sure you have time to submit material that is proofread and pertinent to the job at hand.


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