Writing applications

Writing applications

Many employers and educational institutions will ask you to apply online using their application form.

As well as the factual information sections (education, work experience, etc), application forms usually include questions about you, your skills and motivations, and reasons for applying. The key to completing these well is to match what the selector is looking for, so if you haven't already done so, make sure you've read the section on demonstrate you meet the criteria.

Some employers also ask you to submit your CV and complete psychometric tests when you apply, but don't be put off. We've got expert advice on all of these on our website, and following our guidelines will help you get your application noticed!

Our top tips for success

To summarise here are our top tips -

  • Follow all instructions carefully. If a question has a word limit then stick to it. If you disobey instructions you are virtually a non-starter; they will assume you cannot pay attention to detail.
  • Complete all sections of an application form as they are important and should be filled in accurately – if a section is not applicable to you, write ‘N/A’ (Not applicable) to acknowledge it.
  • Draft your answers in Word first so you can check spelling and grammar.
  • Ensure the spell check is set to UK English if you are applying for a job in the United Kingdom
  • Get someone else to check your application for you; many are rejected due to basic mistakes.
  • Take your time. You need to provide information that shows you’ve thought about why you’d be good at the job, why you want it and why you’d like to work there.
  • Keep a copy of the completed application form for future reference. If you are invited to an interview you will need to remember what you wrote as the employer will probably use that information as a basis for their questions. 
  • Don't cut and paste. Employers can often tell if your answers are taken from previous applications, as employers look for different things in the questions they ask. People have even been known to leave a previous employer’s name in their next application!
  • Write positively about yourself - if you don’t, then they won’t know about your good points. Using positive language isn’t the same as being arrogant.

The basics - presenting your information

Education and qualifications

List all the information asked for (dates, education institutions, qualifications, grades etc) in the order and format specified in the instructions. If the format to use isn’t stated, use reverse chronological order (most recent first).

Where appropriate, emphasise subjects, modules, projects and dissertations that are relevant to the employer and the job.

Employment and work experience

Give brief details of each period of employment and work experience including voluntary and unpaid work if you wish.

If you have lots of experience, focus on the significant jobs and summarise others – e.g. you could list them under two headings, e.g. ‘Related Jobs’ and ‘Other Jobs’.

Make good use of the ‘responsibilities’ section to get across your achievements, as well as the skills and qualities you developed and demonstrated in each role. Focus on those the recruiter is looking for.

Don’t leave out what you may perceive to be ‘low-grade’ jobs. For example, shop and restaurant work gives experience of dealing with the public, working under pressure, handling money, etc.

Personal interests and achievements

Employers are looking for clues to your personality as well as your academic and work-related achievements.

Give details of leisure interests, explaining your motivation for doing them and what skills you developed as a result. Activities that demonstrate skills such as leadership, team working, organisation and initiative are particularly relevant and likely to be of interest to the employer.

If you have a lot of interests and achievements select those which demonstrate skills the employer is seeking.

Geographical location

If this is asked, be as flexible as you can but do not include locations that you would not be prepared to move to. If you have a preferred location, give details.

Additional information/personal statement

Some applications include a section where you are asked to describe your relevant skills and experience and your reasons for applying, usually in the form of a personal statement. For advice on completing such a section, see our page on Personal statements.

Equal opportunities and disclosing a disability

Many forms have an Equal Opportunities section which asks for details such as your ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation. This helps employers measure how successful they are at attracting applicants from different sections of the population and your responses are not used for recruitment decisions. Answering such questions is normally optional.

If you have a disability you may wish to disclose this to an employer, especially if your condition has affected your academic results or prevented you getting more work experience. You may be able to comment positively about how your personal qualities have enabled you to cope with any challenges. There may be a section where you can include this information, or you could describe it in an ‘Additional information’ section. Whether and how to disclose a disability can be a complex topic and there is further advice on this area on our website.

Motivational and skills questions


Motivations question ask things like:

  • 'Why are you applying for this job/course?'
  • 'Why this organisation?'
  • 'Tell us about a current development in our industry that interests you'
  • 'What do you expect to be doing in your first year in this job?'

These questions assess your:

  • understanding of the job role and the individual company
  • reasons for applying
  • knowledge of the sector and your chosen profession

Put simply, the question is ‘Why do you want this job with us, and what makes you think you can do it?’ They are looking at whether you can make a match between who you are (your skills, qualities, experiences and motivations) and who they are (their needs and the requirements of the job).

So if you get a question like this, your background research will mean you can give clear reasons and demonstrate your interest, enthusiasm and understanding of the role.

Skills questions - ‘competency-based questions’

Questions about your skills are some of the most important as you can use them to show how you match the requirements.

These questions ask you to give examples of when you have demonstrated particular skills (or competencies) that the employer is looking for. If you can demonstrate using each skill successfully in the past then you are more likely to be able to do so in the future.

Examples of such questions are:

  • Describe a difficult problem you have solved. How did you analyse and solve it? What did you learn from the experience? (Problem solving)
  • Give an example of when you have worked in a team. What was your role and what did you contribute to the team performance? (Team working)
  • Describe a project, activity or event you have planned and taken through to a conclusion. Include your objective, what you did, any changes you made to your plan and state how you measured your success. (Planning)

Use ‘STAR’ to help you structure your answers

  • Situation– Provide some brief details about the situation so that the reader can understand the context of the example
  • Task– What was the objective/purpose?
  • Action– What did you do and how? Summarise your actions in 4 or 5 individual steps, if possible.
  • Result – What was the outcome? Were the objectives met? What did you learn/gain?

Consider what skill the question is asking about, as it isn’t always totally obvious. Then, try to use a recent example from your education, work experience, voluntary work, and spare time activities. 

Write as close to any specified word limit as possible without exceeding it. Don’t include repetitious or irrelevant material just to reach the word count - it all has to be meaningful content.

Don’t use the same example over and over again for each question as it implies that you don’t have varied experience.

Remember - recruiters are looking for examples that are appropriate to your age, level of experience and opportunities open to you. Often, very ordinary situations can provide excellent examples if you describe them well.

Make clear statements about your relevant skills and experience and present them with a sufficient level of detail. Don’t expect employers to read between the lines of an application form or make assumptions about you.

Statements such as ‘I am good at time management’ or ‘I have good communication skills’ need to be supported by examples that show the employer instances in which you applied these skills.

If you are not sure about your skills and experience, try our short course to look at how you can provide evidence of them in competency based and motivational questions (University of Sheffield students only)