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Question – How should I structure answers to application questions?

Wondering how best to approach those tricky questions on an application form? Need some literary advice? Our career coach gives some guidance.

How should I structure my answers to questions in application forms? Olivia, Kent 

Great question.

When you fill in an application form, you might find it hard to know what information to share, what the right style is, and how much to write.

How much should I write?

If there is a word limit for a question, DON’T EXCEED IT.

You might get rejected for that reason alone. Rightly or wrongly, a big part of work is following instructions, so show that you can do this!

You don’t need to land exactly on the word limit, but you should aim to be somewhere close to it. If there’s no limit, be guided by how much space is in the text box. If that is limitless, it will depend upon the question, but unless it’s posed as some sort of essay, something around 350 words should be plenty.

It’s unlikely that the recruitment team has time to read 1,000 words on every candidates’ motivation for applying, or interests outside of work and study.

What should I write?

Pay attention to the question, and make sure you address it directly in your answer. It’s very common for recruiters to see brilliant answers to slightly different questions.

A golden rule is ‘evidence, not assertion’. For anything you assert, provide some evidence. If you say you want to join the company because it has a progressive culture – explain how you know that. If you say you have leadership potential – how do you know that about yourself, where have you developed that?

Other than that, it depends on the question.

For motivation questions, make the answers specific to the organisation and personal to you. A good formula here is ‘What, How, Why.’ State what the motivation is, how you know this motivation will be fulfilled at this organisation, and why it’s important to you.

This can make even a generic motivation, like enjoying being on a great team, specific and personal.

For suitability questions (‘Why are you suitable for this opportunity?’ and variations on this theme), write about what they say is important for them. You can get this from the job description.

Don’t waste time writing about brilliant qualities you have that don’t interest them. Being a good leader is a great quality and any organisation you join will value it, but the point of the application is to establish if you have the specific qualities they are looking for, for this specific role.

What about style?

Writing in a work context often requires a different style.

It’s not poetry, it’s not prose, there are no prizes for flowery language or fancy words. The point is: a very busy person has to be able to skim your answer and understand what you are trying to convey.

So be clear and concise. Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Bullet points are helpful. Don’t use adjectives excessively. Use facts, data and evidence (not assertions).

It’s better to say ‘the process-improvement project was successful, and we reduced errors by 10%’, than ‘the innovative and ground-breaking process review initiative was extraordinarily successful, and we significantly improved the performance of team’.

Often, it’s best to state your argument and then provide supporting evidence, rather than leading the reader through the evidence to the outcome. Think about news publications, which include the key information in the headline, by-line and introductory paragraph, and then provide the rest of the information.

Don’t use jargon that isn’t commonly understood, don’t use text speak, don’t assume prior knowledge on the part of the reader, don’t assume they’ve read your CV. Don’t use text speak or emoticons, don’t be lazy and use expressions such as ‘these kinds of things…’ or ‘etc…’

Make sure to take it seriously!

I suppose the final thing to say is that patience is required. It’s common to be asked to upload a CV, and then fill in questions that provide all the same information that’s on the CV.

You can be asked seemingly-irrelevant personal information, or be presented with multiple-choice questions where none of the options are right for you. Sometimes you are forced to make what feel like life-defining decisions on the spot – what actually is my third preference choice of location in the UK? Which business unit do I want to join??

As is often the case in world-of-work: don’t let the absurd bureaucratic parts distract you from paying attention to the important stuff.

Don’t copy and paste from one form to another. There’s far too much chance of making an error. The error might be providing only very generic answers, or answers that don’t really address the question, or it might be inadvertently including a different organisation’s name in your answer. This is surprisingly common!

Be diligent, work through it patiently, save your progress regularly, be ready to take a break and come back to it fresh if you need to. It needs to be your best work, with no silly errors.


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