5 ways to ace job applications

Authored on
30 Sep 2022



Summer brings change. For hundreds of thousands of school kids, it means the long wait for exam results and big questions about what to do with the rest of their lives.

While many will stay in full-time education, others will be lured by the chance to start earning and will plump for an apprenticeship or decide to apply for their first job. It’s a nerve-wracking experience, and even with a buoyant jobs market, there are no guarantees you’ll even get an interview.

But there are a few tried and tested tactics that should help give you the edge. We caught up with Paula Wharrier, Recruitment Manager at AJ Bell, and asked for her top five job application dos and don’ts.

Tailor your application

Do your research, learn about the company, find out whether it’s one you can see yourself working for, and ask questions like ‘do their values align with yours?’ Also, have a look at their website and see what information you can find out about them on social media.

Read that advert carefully too, and if necessary, tweak your CV – you might not have put everything in you need to. While recruiters generally don’t want your CV to be more than two pages, there is the chance that in streamlining it you’ve left something out.

Paula warns:

You might have a particular skill, maybe Excel, that you didn’t think was relevant. But actually, where we’ve received maybe 200 or 300 applications, that becomes one of our sifting tools, so you may end up getting sifted out of the process while we gather our shortlist for something that you have actually got but you’ve just not stated.” 

If there is a particular call for action within the advert – if you’re asked for a cover letter or a particular statement as to why financial services or technology services is for you, for example – then do that. Be thorough, use that as a platform to showcase your research, and share how passionate you are about the role.

A really good cover letter is going to stand out head and shoulders above a bland one that doesn’t really go into any detail. I always think the ones that come through where they’ve scratched more than the surface, they’ve read news articles, found out some of the policies we’ve implemented – they’re the ones that stand out,” says Paula.

Don’t make silly mistakes

This might seem like common sense, but sometimes simple things are missed in the rush to get applications in on time. Make sure you’ve run a spell check and that all grammatical errors are gone. Paula says:

Errors are definitely a sifting tool. If your CV’s coming through and it’s saying I’ve got great attention to detail but then I see spelling mistakes throughout, the two aren’t marrying up for me

If your application says you are super passionate about tech but actually you are applying for a trainee accountant role, that’s telling me you’ve not really put time and effort into our application. It’s just one of many that you’ve fired out, which makes me wonder if we are really the job you want or are we just another application you’ve sent out.”

Be prepared for interview

Preparation is key. Google can really be your friend, as there is a whole lot of material that’s in the public domain.

Lots of interviews run the same competency-based format, lots of the questioning is similar. I think if you go away, you research, you do your preparation, you structure your potential answers, I think that will lead to a really good interview,” says Paula.

Her other top tip is ‘Don’t rush – take that drink’:

Use that couple of seconds while you take a sip to think through your question. Breathe and really listen to what you are asked.”

Remember that an interview is a two-way street – it’s not just you being grilled, it’s your opportunity to ask questions as well, so have some prepared.

Candidates should always be on time: it shows this role is important to you. If you have time to do a recce of the location if you’re going into an office, that can help: spend some time before travelling there, seeing if there are any roadworks that might delay you, for example. Alternatively, if you are doing it via Zoom, make sure you’ve got a Zoom account, don’t try to log on 10 minutes before and find you’re not able to – it will just mean you’re panicky at the start of your interview.

Don’t wing it

You’ve got to start off on the right foot, says Paula.

If you go in, you’ve not done your research, you can’t even answer the first question, which is most often ‘what do you know about us?’, I think it’s going to go downhill from there. Whereas a well-prepared candidate will just grow with confidence throughout the interview.”

Answer the question – the last thing you want is to waffle on at a tangent and then realise you’ve not answered the question and the interviewer has to ask it again.

One of the most common things that we see when we are rejecting candidates is they’ve either not prepared or they went off on a tangent and we had to keep pulling them back to the question at hand,” says Paula.

The biggest no-no on the list of don’ts is don’t swear. But if nerves get the better of you and you do, just apologise and move on – don’t let it colour the whole interview.

And finally, don’t ask irrelevant questions. Try and keep it on the job at hand, the skills required and what the day to day of the role looks like. Money is also a big no-no in the first interview, says Paula:

Don’t ask about salary and benefits, they are the things you can utilise your recruiter for, so keep it to expressing your enthusiasm for the role rather than what you are going to get in return.”

Deal with the experience issue

Covid lockdowns have really impacted the amount of work experience that young people have been able to get, so you need to think creatively about the other skills you have.

Your CV has done what it needed to do – you’ve got to the interview. So the people who are interviewing you know you’ve not got a particular background or experience. They want to find out about you, your behaviour, your passions,” advises Paula.

Touch on some of the other transferable skills that you’ve maybe learnt through education, or social or sporting activities. Things like teamwork and determination are great examples and if you can think about that ahead of time you won’t be caught out.

And there is some good news for people looking for a job right now. The fact that so many companies are hiring and there are fewer candidates means that candidates have got the luxury of choice like never before. Recruiters are scouring sites like LinkedIn to find potential candidates, so make sure your profile is on that and other job boards and you might find you get head hunted before you’ve even filled out your first application.

These articles are for information purposes only and are not a personal recommendation or advice.