By Alex Britten
1. Put yourself in the shortlister’s position
The most important thing you can do in preparing for any recruitment process is to put yourself in the shortlister’s position as much as possible. Read about the organisation, its ethos and mission, then read the job description as if you were shortlisting for that role. Read between the lines to work out what they are mainly looking for, and then tell the shortlister exactly what they are wanting to hear.
In general, there’s no better practice for applying or interviewing than going through a recruitment process as a recruiter yourself – it’s so easy to see which people stand out and why when you’re on the other side of the desk. If you’ve never done it before, download some CVs and cover letter examples from the internet and go through them as a recruiter would. Imagine you’ve got an hour to shortlist from 50 applications. Which ones would you want to interview? Why? Even if those CVs and cover letters aren’t exactly related to the type of role you’re looking for, you’ll still get a real feel for what makes the difference between a good and a great application (and a bad one).
2. Bring out what makes you unique for the role
99% of applicants to a role will have managed a website, sent a newsletter, or written that they have “strong communication skills” in their cover letter. Saying these things won’t make you stand out. Don’t just list your experiences and responsibilities, always make sure to show the outcomes of what you’ve previously done, and what your key successes and learnings have been. Did you strategize to increase website traffic through your management? Did your newsletters have higher open rates than those sent before? What are the things you’ve achieved that are unique to you, and others won’t be able to compete with? Make sure your application includes a number of these, alongside the more generic proof that you match each bullet point in the job description.
3. And what makes the role unique for you (even if it isn’t…)
Your application needs to go further than just being a checklist of skills. Within your cover letter, share a bit more about your story and ambitions; show how your path has led you to this point, and why this organisation, and role, is the best next step for where you want to get to.
In particular, make sure to address any obvious questions that might come up for the shortlister whilst they read your application. Are you sidestepping into a new career or subject path? Are you applying for a role that you are underqualified for in some aspects, or even overqualified? Do you think you’re likely to competing with lots of other candidates that have a particular skill or experience that you don’t?
Rather than ignoring areas like these, address them head on, and turn them into a positive; the shortlister will be much more likely to see the positive side if you spell it out to them, and they’ll get a better idea of who you are and why you’re applying in the process.
4. Keep a “brag file”
It’s always tough to immediately bring to mind every success you’ve had that directly relates to that appealing job description you just found. Make sure you’ve always got a list of great examples by keeping a “brag file” – an ongoing list of the experiences you’ve had and the things you’ve achieved, and refer back to this list as a starting point for any application. This list should be broad: include your academic, voluntary and generally impressive life achievements alongside the traditional career experiences.
5. Make it easily readable
Those 50 applications you shortlisted in an hour – which ones stood out for you? Sometimes it’s as simple as the ones that formatted their CV with a design template, or put bold and headings in their cover letter. Remember that the shortlister might have no more than a couple of minutes to scan through your whole application. Pages of plain text can be difficult to digest, and the fact is that even if you’ve got the best written application of the lot, it might get overlooked if your formatting doesn’t emphasise what you want the shortlister to see.
Try giving an application you’ve written to someone you know, give them 60 seconds to read it, then ask them to name the key things that stood out for them from it. If the key things you want to stand out don’t come up, then consider rewriting or reformatting to make them.
6. But don’t stand out in the wrong way
In any pile of applications, there’ll be a whole load that the shortlister won’t remember anything about, and a few that will stick in their mind. The latter category is where you need to make sure you are, but not for the wrong reasons. If your lasting impression is as “the one that set up that new local community initiative” or “the one that does campaigning in their spare time” – great, you’ve made a strong impression that may just get you an interview.
If you’re “the one with the long Dalai Lama quote” or “The one that signed off as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2006”, more often than not, you’re probably not going to make it into that interview pile.
7. And finally, take this all with a pinch of salt
How one person makes a decision to hire a candidate might be completely different to the next person, even if they’re in the same organisation. Some people might hate the formatting advice above. Some people might love that Dalai Lama quote. You’re going to have to do your research and make your best guess as to what approach your particular organisation and shortlister might like, even if you don’t know who they are. Job hunting is tough because the processes we’ve developed to recruit people are pretty flawed, most of it is so subjective, and the difference between getting hired and not can sometimes just be luck of the draw. Putting in the effort and being clever about how you do it will improve your odds, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get that job, even if you’d be perfect for it. Take the learnings you need from rejections, and always ask for feedback, but don’t let them unnecessarily affect your confidence, and take it all with a pinch of salt.