I need help completing a UK style job application form.
January 31, 2012 2:42 PM   Subscribe

So this (US union staffer returning to London and looking for a job) was me. Since then I've found a job opening that's absolutely perfect... but I need to fill out a UK style application form, and having spent my whole career in the US, I need some advice.

I'm applying for a job that's absolutely spot on for my skills and experience - if I wrote a description of what I've been doing for the last five years, this would be it! It's with an organisation I respect, the money is great, and there aren't a lot of people locally who do what I do. Friendly overtures to the department that's recruiting make it look like I would at least be seriously considered. This is a senior (but not top of the ladder) management position that would have me responsible for about 20 people and executing the organisation's strategy for a region.

So now I have to actually apply, and it's an unfamiliar process for me. In the US we generally send a resume (CV) that lists past experience, and a cover letter that explains how we're excited about the opportunity and perfect for the role. This organisation (large non-profit) has sent me a "Person Specification" listing desired personal qualities like "able to handle conflict and competing priorities", and a "Job Description" describing what the role means, eg "working with the department to develop a regional plan". I need to take this info about what they're looking for, and fill out an application form that has an area for a work history, and a large blank area to describe how you meet the requirements.

I have a few questions that Google isn't helping with, as every site that comes up is too generic and too focused on applying for very junior roles:

1) How comprehensive does the chronological work history need to be? Do I need to include very early jobs that weren't related to my career path, but which I would mention at interview because I would be referring to my union membership during that time?

2) I have two gaps in my work history. The first was a couple of years ago, when after leaving one job I took a course unrelated to my career path because I was considering changing careers, before being recruited for another career path job and becoming more certain I'll stick with what I've been doing. It means I have a neat, but unrelated qualification. It's a gap of about 9 months that I could theoretically cover up if I can just list years of employment, not months. How would you handle this?

The other is that I haven't worked for the past year, because I had a baby and I've been home with him. If I had been in the UK I would have been on maternity leave, but that essentially doesn't exist here, so I chose not to be employed. Do I list the last year in the history or do I let my work history end in December 2010, and explain in the interview? Or something else? As a woman in my field in the US, putting on an application that you had a young child would be the kiss of death, but my Mum (who works in the public sector) is telling me the gap will scare them more, and would stop me getting an interview.

3) Any tips on that long free-form part appreciated. I've been told that any way of completing it that makes sense will work - is that so? My instinct is to treat it like a very detailed and specific cover letter, and to break it down into thematic paragraphs that address most of their bullet points in total, but don't go through them one-by-one.

4) One last especially stupid question! The form wants the names and addresses of all my past employers. Does it literally want the full postal address, or just the city?

Any advice from those with relevant UK experience appreciated, thanks. It's weird to be a British mid-career professional who has essentially no work experience in my home country!
posted by crabintheocean to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1) There's no need to list every job you've had since high school. List your recent work (past 3-4 positions) plus any others that are particularly relevant to the one you're applying for.

2) I don't see any harm in saying you went back to school - or even what it was for. You're clearly back on the path this position is related to. No need to be exhaustive on the detail for this one though, just say Jun 2009-Apr 2010 - Diploma in Sports Therapy, Boston Sports College or whatever. Same deal for the maternity, call it what it is. If you took a leave of absence, say so. If you quit and returned to work after, say that instead.

3) Your instinct is right, that's exactly what it should be. Make sure you relate your writing to the points in the person specification, try to provide examples. It's essentially a pre-interview interview.

4) Actually don't know this one. I always put the full address just to be safe.
posted by fearnothing at 3:21 PM on January 31, 2012

(forgot to add about the maternity thing - I'm not a mother and lack the equipment to ever be one, but the general impression I get is that unexplained gaps are more detrimental than babies. The equality laws are pretty firm about making leave allowances for already employed mothers-to-be, so I would imagine they'd be similar for applicants)
posted by fearnothing at 3:26 PM on January 31, 2012

I worked in HR many moons ago, so this is my take. Be aware that it is from the employer's side, not the employee.

1. Anything in career path. Anything you're going to refer to as the origin of your skills or experiences. Leave off shelf-stacking or part-time work while studying.

2. Explain all recent gaps in your work history on the application form. The further back in time the more acceptable it is to conflate years and cover up small gaps. But especially don't leave a year's gap after your last employment, ever, as they'll want yo know what you're currently doing.

3. Depending on how formal your potential employer is will decide how to complete the longform section. The standard advice we gave was to look at all the points in the person specification and basically explain how you meet them. Obviously this can get pretty dry, and you definitely don't need to repeat bare facts, but things like "experience of client focussed working" or "passion for union organizing" need to be demonstrated. As you say, one-by-one isn't strictly necessary, but remember that their process may involve "scoring" your application, and that means totting up how many of the points on the person specification you meet. The top-scoring candidates get interviews, so clearly you want any many points as possible, but the HR officers (or whoever does this part of the process) should be smart enough not to need it crudely spelt out to them that you're a good candidate so long as it's all there somewhere.

If the process is informal, I don't know, and you might as well just do whatever you think will impress. I have no experience here.

4. Give more than the city, but you can leave off zipcodes, just make it so they can check your employers actually exist. Except for references, of course, where the full postal address should be given.

Good luck.
posted by Jehan at 3:28 PM on January 31, 2012

In reverse order:
4) I think they will be looking for full names and addresses of the companies - I have filled in many app forms and I don't think I've ever only included postal towns - it's a pain but I suspect it's part of building the chronology and developing a sense of what sort of firms you worked for and where your experience was gained. You could always ring the HR / personnel department or recruitment office number (they normally include some sort of contact info in the job pack) and ask for clarification on that point if you want to be sure.

3)The long free-form is usually where I put a more general statement than details of my current position (which will also be elsewhere on the form) - I tend to include all the bits and pieces and go into a bit more detail, so to cover your query about the 9 month course gap, you could go into a bit more detail here about what the course was and why you did it and what you got out of it.

2) As above, certainly with the training "gap", you can mention it, and it's probably best to mention it in a chronological form. I wouldn't bother trying to cover up, myself - it wasn't a question of you sitting around doing nothing for 9 months, it was a conscious and laudable process of self-development and despite it not being directly career - relevent it will probably come across well. The baby gap - it certainly shouldn't be a problem (and much less so in the public or third sectors). How you would phrase it I don't really know, or even if you needed to - it's something that's pretty personal and if they ask the question at interview (strictly speaking they should only ask you the same questions as they ask everyone else, remember) then I suppose you could say something about taking some family time. Sorry, cant really help on that bit, unfortunately.

1) I would think anything relating to the position you're applying for in any capacity should be on there - you don't have to go into any sort of detail on very early non-career / experience - light jobs (maybe just a single sentence or few lines at most) but again it shows a clear-eyed approach to your union commitments that you have this as a thread throughout your development. And remember - if they can't read it, it isn't there for them to ask about, or if you don't get round to talking about it at interview, they'll never know about it in the first place.

Also, remember that what you should be doing is not so much concentrating on how you fit the details of the job description alone, it's how you fit the person specification as set out in the accompanying info that will count.

On preview, pretty much what others have said more succinctly!

Good luck.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 3:29 PM on January 31, 2012

I'm a Brit, working in a middle-management level role in the private sector firm. I've applied for quite a few jobs in my time, and have done some selection and recruiting in different private sector organisations. I'm not an HR professional.

For what it's worth, I think your mother is right that a prospective employer will be more skittish about an unexplained gap in an applicant's employment record than a gap which is explained. The reasons for your two short employment gaps should not give a prospective employer any concern, and I would deal with them by explaining them very briefly in your application and being prepared to elaborate at the interview if asked. No UK employer is going to find it odd that you took a year out to have a baby, and your 9-month period of study in an unrelated area shouldn't stop you getting an interview if you are otherwise well qualified and have good experience for the role. The only way I can see that being an issue is if your period of unrelated study somehow signals to them that you're not wholly committed to this career path. However, you say that your most recent 5 years of work experience are ideal for the job you're applying for, and that ought to counteract that.

In relation to the free-form section, I would use it to show clearly, using specific examples from your experience, how you fulfill the person specification and role description. Use bullet points so the person reading the form doesn't have to wade through acres of text. Any time I've been involved in recruitment, we've used a model where the employer defines the role in terms of 'essential criteria' and 'desirable criteria' and any candidate who clearly demonstrates in their application that they meet all the essential criteria is more or less guaranteed an interview. (Admittedly I'm in Northern Ireland and we have different Fair Employment legislation to the rest of the UK).
posted by meronym at 3:32 PM on January 31, 2012

Hello! I have been thinking of your last question and kept toying with adding an answer to it to warn you that British job applications, especially for non-profits, are usually very different to US ones. But that wasn't you asked back then. I was a bit worried because in my job I've not been able to shortlist good American candidates before because they basically written an American style cover letter in the personal statement section of the application form and they didn't provide the evidence I needed to justify giving them an interview. It's frustrating, so I'm really glad you've asked this!

I've never had a senior position, so I can't be sure about some of your questions, but I can tell you about how the recruitment process works at the large non-profit I work at and at most of the other places I have worked (and if you want to me me-mail me the name of the organisation you're applying to, I might be able to give you a bit more specific advice as well).

I'm going to start with question 3) first:

In theory, this is supposed to be how we recruit for every position in my organisation, but to be honest, it's not always the case, but if this role is being externally advertised then I think it's likely they will follow a system something like this.

So, we have what's internally known as an 'equal opportunities selection process' (gah jargon!). There's two stages, the first is shortlisting all the applications down to a number of people to invite in for interview. Usually this is around 5 - 6 people at the most. Your goal with your application form is to get you an interview. Don't worry too much about anything else right now.

We shortlist like this: For every criteria on the Person Spec, we look at what evidence the applicant has given that demonstrates that they meet that criteria. Then we score them 0 for no evidence, 1 for some evidence, 2 for good evidence. We add up the scores for each applicant. Three (maybe four sometimes) people do this independently. Then those people get together in a room and go though the scores, and agree on the applicants with the highest scores who will get invited for an interview. The three people normally disagree on at least a few of the applicants, so there's some discussion about who to include. Usually there are some that are essentia qualities on the person spec and some that are desirable, we usually total the essentials, and then if there are any debates look at the scores for desirable qualities.

So, for each item on the Person Spec you need to provide evidence that you can do that. The easiest way to do this is to make each criteria a bullet point and after it explain your experience. Other organisations might have different shortlisting systems, but when I've followed this approach I've almost always got an interview.

I always break it down using the STAR approach. This is where I point out that I've never had a senior position and usually I use this when I'm running our interns' careers workshops. But even for more senior roles it seems to me a clear way to lay out your evidence:

Situation - Who, what, why, when
Task - What was the situation or task you were faced with
Action - What did you do (this part should form the bulk of your explanation)
Result - What were the results of your actions

You can combine criteria if you have evidence that covers them both, but make it clear that's what you're doing.

We can't second guess or read between the lines on the application form. There applicant has to give evidence and explanation.

The people doing the shortlisting are going to be reading a lot of applications (see below) make their job easy.

We have a different scoring system for interviews. The questions are supposed to reflect the Person Spec, but they don't usually a question for each criteria. We score each question 0 - 4 with 0 being no evidence and 4 exceeds expectations. And the person with the highest score gets the job (but usually there's some discussion between members of the interview panel as they again score independently then compare results)

The people who score highly on paper are not necessarily the ones who score highly in interview.

So, your other questions (I've just previewed and few people have weighed in with good stuff since I started writing this):

1) What everyone else said, but make sure that if they specify that you explain all your employment history for X numbers of years, you account for every minute of those X years.

2) What everyone else said, and also bear in mind, that although it varies by field, the charity sector is heavily female-biased (although there is still a bit of a glass ceiling at Director level). My work place is probably 30% male at the most, I've worked places where it was 10%, and these are large, national organisations. But caveat, I've never applied for a senior role. Gaps, particularly recent ones are more worrying, your Mum is right.

4) I want to know the answer to this on too! I usually simplify the addresses of my post-uni, not as important, jobs. (Organisation, Town, County)

Other things:

You will need to watch the jargon you use, and maybe use British expressions instead of the normal American-term, particularly in the personal statement - in that section you might want to even use trade union instead of labor union. I would read the Job Description and Person Spec and their web page carefully and use the same terms that they do. Speak their language. Again, make the shortlisting job easy.

If you are not reading Third Sector magazine, start now. Their daily email is free. It'll also help you get a feel for UK terminology and the wider issues facing the sector. Also search Third Sector for the name of the organisation you're applying for and see what's been happening there. And make sure you read at least the last Annual report of the organisation, and look them up on the Charity Commissions' web page.

And now the bad news. We are currently getting dozens of applications for any role we advertise, 60- 80 is not unusual any more. From talking to friends this is common across the sector, it's crazy. Some places are only advertising roles for a week, maybe even a few days, because they will get enough good applicants in that time.

Two things, this means the people reading your application will be reading a lot of others as well. Make it easy for them to read yours and find the evidence they need to interview you. Second, you will be competing against people who will have done this job before, and some people who will be taking a step down to do it.

But that doesn't mean you can't do it better than them.

It's a weird, but exciting, time to enter the sector. There's some really interesting work going on, but along side a lot of cuts and belt-tightening.

Good luck! And Me-mail me if you want more info.
posted by Helga-woo at 4:23 PM on January 31, 2012 [9 favorites]

I meant:

(I've just previewed and a few people have weighed in with good stuff since I started writing this)

That is, everyone here is offering great advice!
posted by Helga-woo at 4:34 PM on January 31, 2012

The advice above is spot on. I wanted to add one thing: whenever you claim experience or skills in your big free form cover-letter-ish part, make sure the matching job is there on your CV as well. I know this seems obvious but I've talked to people doing recruiting and it's a common complaint, the candidate claims relevant skills which would make them great for the job but there's nothing in the CV to back it up (so the skills don't get counted). Make it all really clear for the people reading your application and include *everything* that is relevant. (not that I think you'll do this, but as I said it does happen so figured I'd mention it!)

I also think it's appropriate to put a small amount in the free form area about how excited you are by the position, similar to what you'd be doing in an American cover letter. Don't get carried away of course, but you're British so you should be fine there heh.
posted by shelleycat at 12:16 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

All advice above is excellent. Don't forget to use the actual words and phrases from the job spec / person spec. And yes to using British terms in the freeform section. You cannot assume people will know what e.g. a labor union is.
posted by plonkee at 1:00 AM on February 1, 2012

Pay attention to Helga-woo, for she is showing you the way :)

My partner regularly comes home and tells me of candidates who simply haven't ensured that their application letter & CV between them demonstrate that they meet the requirements outlined in the job description. For a large organisation like hers which is seriously concerned with "being seen to do the right thing" in equal opportunity terms (because getting this wrong can have expensive legal consequences), this means that these individuals don't get shortlisted, even if she's fairly sure that their job history means that they ought to be perfectly capable of doing the job in question.

This is *especially* true in the current environment, where there may be may many applicants for a given job: any application which doesn't clearly meet the job spec is going to go straight in the "reject" pile, because there are already too many high quality applicants on the "interview" pile as it is.

Once you get to interview, you can wow them with your experience & skillset. Getting there requires ticking the boxes first.
posted by pharm at 8:34 AM on February 1, 2012

(Obviously I have no idea who these candidates are, nor does she tell me their names or any of their other personal information!)
posted by pharm at 8:45 AM on February 1, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone. This was all amazingly helpful. I did put down both my year off to have a baby, and the time I spend studying in another field. I wrote a free form thingy I'm happy with, and had my wife and a friend check it against the criteria. It all took a long time, but was probably a good exercise to do anyway. Application sent, now we see what happens!

For anyone still reading - the interviews for this post are being held in mid-March. Suits me, but why so long? Is that normal?
posted by crabintheocean at 7:36 PM on February 5, 2012

What would the start date for the post be crabintheocean?
posted by pharm at 9:14 AM on February 6, 2012

Response by poster: I don't know. Why?
posted by crabintheocean at 12:01 AM on February 7, 2012

Just speculating that it's a post where long lead times are fairly normal: academic administrator or something like that. The typical notice period might be three months or more in those kind of roles.
posted by pharm at 4:43 AM on February 7, 2012

I'm late to this one, but just to reply to your comment about the delay between application date and interviews. This could just be because of the difficulties of scheduling the interviewers' time - particularly if they are fairly senior and tend to have stuff booked. Shortlisting can also take a while if it involves getting all the interviewers together.
posted by paduasoy at 9:16 AM on May 27, 2012

Response by poster: Another final update. I got the interview, and almost got the job but an internal candidate had been doing it for months with no problems so I missed out. Oh well. Thanks for helping me write an application that totally made it look like I knew what I was doing!
posted by crabintheocean at 9:22 AM on June 9, 2012

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