How to tailor a job application

Universities are advertising jobs for the start of the new academic year this September.

I suspect this was why I, much to my surprise, went viral with a Twitter thread on “dos” and “don’t” in completing job applications, with hundreds of retweets. On prompting, I’ve extended that short thread into this much longer blog-post, reflecting much of the excellent feedback I received in the process.

This period means many early-career researchers and others reading endless job adverts with their “essential” and “desirable” criteria, and dashing-off CVs and cover letters through online HR systems. Notoriously, universities are very bad at getting back to applicants who have not been shortlisted for interview, leaving those who applied and were not successful wondering where they might have gone wrong. I think this is a basic service university HR departments could offer.

But because they don’t, I do wonder whether people think there is a “dark art” to writing a good job application. Following a recent stint where I had to shortlist for two very different roles, I couldn’t help reflect how many candidates shot themselves in the foot in some very basic ways which meant they could not be shortlisted for interview.

How shortlisting usually happens

In a UK context shortlisting is mainly driven by employment law and HR practice. To go anywhere near a recruitment process at most universities you will undergo training. This makes very clear that recruitment is about writing a job description with very clear “essential” and “desirable” criteria that you are looking for in candidates. You will then use these criteria to assess applications. It will usually be pointed out in the training that if you do not follow the criteria quite rigidly in selecting your candidates then you might open your employer to legal action down the line if an unsuccessful candidate ever finds out.

The process sounds very tick-boxy, and it is, but for a good reason – it tries to remove biases from the process as much as possible by focusing on specific criteria. Of course, and very sadly, we know from the statistics on aspects of identity like gender, ethnicity and disability, that recruitment is still very biased.

The basic process is that the recruitment panel – at most universities this seems to be made up of, at least, the line-manager for the post, a senior manager, and someone from another section of the university – individually go through the job applications with an assessment grid or similar document, and score the application against the criteria set out in the job description. This is usually a scoring system (such as: 0 – has not met; 1 – has partially met; 2 – has met; 3 – has exceeded). The candidates who have met all the essential criteria, or with the highest scores, are then shortlisted for interview.

It is important to consider who is on the panel: the line manager might know you in your academic discipline, or might just have specific disciplinary knowledge – so some keywords in an application will appeal to them, but the others on the panel will have much less knowledge and are likely to not be disciplinary specialists – this is done to prevent groupthink and bias.

It’s all in the detail

The most basic error candidates make is that they fail to tick those boxes and make it very clear how they might meet the job criteria. This can be incredibly frustrating for the person shortlisting as they know you probably do have the skill, but because it is not clearly demonstrated in the application, you cannot be scored for it.

For example, an essential criterion might be “Can work independently and meet deadlines”. You might think “well, I finished my PhD, so that’s the criterion ticked and that’s on my CV”. However, the shortlisting person might have to mark you as “partially met” for that criterion because they don’t know, clearly, how your PhD demonstrates you have met this skill. If your cover letter included a statement along the lines of “throughout my studies and career I have worked independently and met deadlines, submitting my thesis within three years and [another example]” then you will have more clearly met that criteria.

Because of this, I would recommend actually setting out your cover letter in the order of the essential and desirable criteria from the job advert, even using them as headings, and using at least a sentence to explain what you have done to meet each criterion, even if that is just pointing the reader to look at the CV (obviously criteria like “Must have a PhD in a related subject” can be covered by your CV). It is also important to give examples of the sorts of soft skills like “team working” that are common in job descriptions. It is easy to think such skills are so commonplace that you don’t need to state how you meet the criterion, but you still do.

Another standard criterion is “Excellent communication and presentation skills”. On this one, I think a common mistake is to presume this can only be assessed through you turning up for the interview and doing a presentation. However, one of the key ways to assess this is your actual application – so do take the time to proofread it. A long, confusingly structured application – or one with many errors – is a clear marker that you might not have the attention to detail needed of someone with excellent communication and presentation skills. Some candidates even manage to leave the name of another potential employer in a cover letter. We know you will be doing numerous applications, but a find-and-replace will make it look like you actually want to apply for a job at the university you are writing to.

What else can you do to improve your applications?

I would recommend creating your own assessment grid and looking over your application (or even better, getting a friend or family member to do it) to make sure it is clear how you meet the criteria from a quick look over it. I also think this means the old rule that a cover letter cannot be more than two-pages long should be relaxed. Yes, people shortlisting don’t want to read a short story, but if a third page is needed to explain exactly how you meet the criteria, then this is no bad thing.

Sending out standard cover letters that have not been tailored to the job and employer is a sure way to accidentally miss out on meeting criteria. Yes, a lot of the text can be standard across applications, but it is necessary to tailor an application to the specific role you are applying for.

If you don’t meet one of the essential criteria then I would recommend contacting the named person on the job application to see if it is worth making the effort to apply. It’s useful practice writing applications, but you don’t want to waste your own time if you are going to be weeded out at the first sift

Will all this get me shortlisted?

For a small field of candidates, a panel would try and interview all who met the essential criteria. Unfortunately, for some roles, a university might receive hundreds of applications. In these cases, people who have exceeded the desirable criteria are those who will be shortlisted.

I’m assuming that whoever created the job description is doing a good job. As I mentioned, most employers will make you do training before you are allowed to be involved in hiring processes, and a good HR department should ensure only proper job adverts are posted. But you do hear horror stories of very poor job descriptions being advertised, or those with criteria that are so obtuse that it is clear the post has been created with someone in mind.

The process I’ve outlined also means people with disabilities may find job applications challenging. For example, someone with a speech-related disability might struggle to meet the essential criteria on, for example, communication skills, without reasonable adaptations made. I’m not disabled, and I don’t work in disability studies, so I contacted Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole of the University of Sheffield for advice about this.

The main focus of recruitment training usually is how equalities law means you cannot be directly or indirectly discriminatory in your recruitment processes and this is the main legal safeguard. I would echo the views of disability activists that recruitment processes need a more dramatic overhaul to be fully inclusive. Without such an overhaul, all I can say is that I know if I saw on a job application that a candidate needed a reasonable adaptation to meet a criterion I would definitely shortlist them as I would not discriminate. Unfortunately, I know not all people, at all universities, involved in recruitment processes would take this approach. People with disabilities might want to access the resources of Disability Rights UK or other organisations for support.

The above is not a certified way to get yourself in front of an interview panel, but when I tweeted the original thread containing this advice, I was really surprised by the reaction. I was also reassured that a lot of people with much greater recruitment experience than me were also saying this is very much their experience too. So, to sum up, in the UK there is no dark art to shortlisting candidates for job interviews – it is a tick box exercise and as a candidate, you have to think in that way. It’s not perfect (is any system?) but it is the one we work in.

2 responses to “How to tailor a job application

  1. Generally good advice, although I would take exception to your comment in the second paragraph about universities ‘being notoriously bad at getting back to applicants’. We keep applicants informed at each stage of the process, from acknowledging their application through to the contract of employment – and I would have thought that this would be the case with the majority of universities, given the prevalence of applicant tracking systems.

    What we can’t do is offer individual advice to every applicant as to where they were lacking in their application – because as you mention, we can get in excess of 100 applicants for a post.

    In our case (University of the West of England in Bristol) our application form contains sections asking the applicant as to how they meet the Essential criteria and another section asking them how they meet the Desirable criteria. My advice is always list the criteria and detail how you match it and give an example (don’t just say ‘yes’!).

  2. I would agree with this. Leeds also uses an online application form where candidates demonstrate how criteria are met. Multiple strong examples are scored more highly and I like to see what impact an example has. The latter is less common, but there is also a difficult balance between completeness and an overlong answer that the shortlister struggles to get through.

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