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

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) 


Personal statements

Some applications have a ‘Personal Statement’ or ‘Additional Information’ section. It's the key section on this type of application form and will take the most amount of time to complete.

Before you start writing your statement, make sure you have read the section 'Demonstrate you meet the criteria'.

  • Think carefully before you write anything. Decide what you need to include based on your key selling points.
  • Structure your statement by relating it to the Person Specification. If there isn’t a formal job specification available, then write it against the competencies that they say they are looking for.
  • If you are writing a personal statement for a course, look carefully at the course description and entry requirements.
  • Start with a strong opening paragraph to grab the attention of the recruiter. Try to be original in what you write throughout your statement and make sure that it is relevant.
  • Be clear in what you write so the recruiter / academic tutor does not have to hunt around for your skills /qualifications or experiences. Make it easy for them to see that you have what they are looking for. Consider using sub-headings and bullet points to help.
  • Do not miss things out. Try to address all the essential requirements.
  • Write concisely. Don’t make the statement too long with superfluous detail, but neither should it be too short. There should be enough to ‘sell’ yourself, without boring them. Stick to a word count if there is one.
  • Make sure you check spelling and grammar - recruiters will be reviewing your writing ability. Set your spell checker to UK English if you are applying for jobs in the UK.
  • Get a second opinion on your statement. Ask friends or family, and ideally someone knowledgeable about the role or course you are applying to.

Personal statements for jobs

Make sure that you include all the information asked for, and base your statement on what the employer is looking for in the job advert, person specification or the typical skills needed for this type of work. One good idea is to create sections using sub-headings based on the employer's requirements. If you are not given specific instructions about content, you should always aim to include the following:

Why you’ve decided to apply for the job

Describe what motivates you and attracts you about the job. Show that you have a realistic understanding of what is involved and can draw parallels with positive experiences you have already had, even if these have been in different settings.

Why this organisation?

Say why you want to work for this particular organisation, for example, this might be related to its clients, values, reputation or staff development policy. Draw on the research you have done in preparing to apply and don’t just make it up! Be honest about your reasons (although don’t just say that the salary appeals!).

Make the match against the person specification or job description

Make it easy for the recruiter to read, so state clearly and provide evidence of how you match the essential and if possible the desirable criteria within the person specification or job description. For example, if the person specification states 'must have the ability to prioritise and manage a busy workload', describe in detail how you have developed this skill and provide evidence from your course, work experience or interests.

This is the opportunity for you to demonstrate your relevant skills, attributes and specific knowledge, so make sure you sell yourself.

Things you haven’t had chance to tell them about in other parts of the form

You might also use this section to set out experiences that you feel are of ‘secondary’ importance, i.e. things that are still relevant but which you haven’t written about elsewhere in the form. For example, you might write about interests, leisure pursuits or volunteering that are not directly relevant to the job but where you have developed some pertinent transferable skills.

End with a closing paragraph

Try to end on a high note with a positive concluding statement. You could reiterate your motivation and commitment or, if you have one, provide a relevant and memorable fact about yourself.

Dealing with 'difficult' issues / disclosing a disability

You can include a short paragraph about any ‘difficult’ issues such as re-sits, changing courses, lack of relevant experience or time gaps. Explain how you coped with any setbacks and refer to qualities such as determination and persistence. Write positively about the experience, for example what you learnt from it and what you have done to address the issue since then, if applicable.

Disability: if you have health-related issues or a disability, it is your decision whether to disclose this in your application and there is further advice on this topic and you may wish to discuss this with an adviser.


Personal statements for study or research

Match against the course specification

State clearly with evidence how you match the course specification, using the information you have gathered as part of preparing to apply. Consider whether you want to divide your statement into sections with sub-headings.

If you are not given specific instructions about content, you should aim to include the following:

Introduce yourself and your reasons for applying

Admissions tutors won’t have long to read your statement so start with a strong opening paragraph to grab their attention. Try to be original in what you write throughout your statement and make sure that it is relevant to the PG study to which you are applying.

Why this course?

Show you have investigated details about the course/research by saying what attracts you to it. For example, comment on particular modules or experiences the course offers? Explain how you became interested in this subject, and what you have learnt about it through your education and experience.

Write about your studies to date, including any relevant projects, essays or presentations. Use this section to demonstrate study skills, research skills and/or transferable skills such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving or others that are necessary for the course. If applying for postgraduate research, include details of any papers you have written.

If you are applying for a course to a number of institutions through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), don’t name them in your statement or describe why you would like to study at one in particular. Instead, state what appeals to you about the subject or field you're applying to.

Why this institution?

If your application is to an individual institution, show that you have investigated details about the programme and department. For example, is the programme noted for a specialism, or highly regarded for its training? You can also state why you wish to study at this particular institution.

  • Does it have a reputation in your field?
  • Is the mode of study appealing?
  • Are there specific academics or research staff you wish to work with?
  • Are there other reasons for choosing this institution?

Your career / academic goals

Outline your aims and specific goals, showing how you think the course will help you achieve these. This helps you demonstrate your commitment to succeed in your studies. Ensure your goals are realistic and relevant.

Work experience

For vocational courses, you may be expected to have already undertaken a period of directly relevant work experience. Provide details, including what you have learnt and how you feel you have developed as a result. Even if you don’t need specific prior experience, think about the recent work experience you have done including part-time, temporary jobs, volunteering, work shadowing, membership of clubs/societies, etc. What skills have you developed as a result that would be relevant to your application?

Things not covered elsewhere in the form

You might also use the personal statement to set out experiences you feel are of ‘secondary’ importance ie, things that are still relevant but which you haven’t written about earlier. For example, you might write about interests, leisure pursuits or volunteering where you have developed pertinent transferable skills and show that you get involved in university life outside your studies.

Finally

Try to end on a high note with a positive concluding statement. You could re-iterate your motivation and commitment or, if you have one, provide a relevant and memorable fact about yourself. It is vital that your writing is impressive.


Research proposals

If you are asked to submit a research proposal, check what is required with the institution. Below are the components which should be addressed in any research proposal (the specific research problem will dictate other sections that are required).

  • A working title of the topic area / research problem
  • General overview of the research area / problem - include a brief abstract of the general area of research you would like to investigate, identifying the discipline(s) within which it falls
  • Research objectives - state what you would seek to achieve by your research.
  • Rationale - convince the reader that the research is worth doing by describing how the results may be used
  • Identification of the relevant literature - demonstrate that you are aware of the debates and issues raised in relevant bodies of literature
  • Methodology / strategy - given your objectives, explain the methods you would use to achieve them – reading, reviewing, designing experiments or questionnaires, data collection, analysis and interpretation
  • Timescale/research planning - demonstrate an awareness of the need for planning and the timescale of the research
  • Bibliography - include a short list of references to key articles and texts. Use an acceptable referencing format

Aim to produce a professional looking proposal, which is easy to read. Include a contents page and use clear headings and sub-headings. Try to write a logical, flowing piece. Check your spelling and grammar. Ask a friend or family member to proof-read it for you.