Applying for a Job

From our: Employability Skills library.

Our pages on Writing a CV and Writing a Covering Letter describe one way in which you can apply for a job.

However, many jobs require an alternative approach: an application form specific to the company or organisation. Unlike your CV, if you are offered a job based on an application form, it forms part of your employment contract with the company so it is absolutely vital that it contains correct information.

You may also wish to send what is known as a ‘speculative application’, where no job has been advertised but you hope that the organisation may be prepared to consider you.

This page discusses job applications in general, and considers these two specific cases in more detail.

The Golden Rule of Job Applications

The most important thing to remember when applying for a job is that your application needs to stand out for the right reasons.

This means:

  • No spelling mistakes
  • No grammatical errors
  • No lying – it’s just too easy to check using Google

If you have to hand-write an application form, which is rare, keep your writing neat, and don’t write entirely in block capitals unless that is specified.

Job Application Forms

Application forms may be electronic or, in rare cases, handwritten. There are usually certain standard sections.

Experience, Education, Qualifications

Much of what goes on the application form will already be on your CV, including education, previous work experience and qualifications.

If this is the case then you can (more or less) cut and paste from your CV, although make sure that you keep to any word limits and emphasise the information relevant to the organisation to which you are applying.


You may be asked to give references on an application form.

At least one of your references should usually be your current or most recent employer, and it’s usual to ask your line manager for a reference. If you don’t feel able to ask your manager, you could instead ask their manager, or another colleague at your manager’s level who has seen your work over a reasonable length of time.

If you don’t have much work experience, then try to find someone who has seen you do some of the things that you need to do in the job. You can draw on voluntary work, or membership of clubs where you have taken responsibility for something. You can also ask a college or university tutor: they will at least have some idea of how hard you can work.

If you don’t want your manager to know that you are applying for another job, you can always ask for references not to be taken up until after you have been selected. But as a general principle, it’s much better if your manager finds out from you that you’re trying to leave, rather than from someone else when they’re asked for a reference!

Competence and Examples

The application form is likely to contain a section in which you can set out how your experience fits you for the job.

This may be more or less structured, from an empty box to a table with ‘competences’ down one side and boxes down the other for you to supply one or more examples that illustrate that you possess the competence.

However the form is structured, this is the place for you to use examples to demonstrate that you possess all the characteristics required of the postholder.

Top Tip!

Don’t start to write straight in the form. Draft your examples first in a separate document and refine them carefully until you’re sure that:

  1. You have chosen the right examples.
  2. You have described your examples as well as possible.

Refining Your Examples

  1. Start with the situation. Describe it in as few words as possible to make the position clear. This is the least relevant part of the example, and should be no more than 20% of the text.

    “I was asked to carry out a review of departmental funding as part of my role as Head of the Finance Team.”
    “As manager of the section responsible for handling complaints, I initiated a review of staff workloads to see whether it was possible to achieve shorter deadlines for replying to customers.”
  2. Next, say what you personally did to address the situation that demonstrates your ability and/or competence. Make sure that you focus on ‘I’ and not ‘we’ or ‘the team’: it’s you who is applying for the job, not them. This should make up about 40% of the total text.

    “I involved key colleagues in identifying budgets with flexibility and where spending was already committed. I co-ordinated a presentation to directors showing them how budgets could be redistributed to address spending needs.”
    “I discussed my team’s workloads with each person individually, making sure that they understood the purpose of the review. I then facilitated a whole-team meeting in which team members were encouraged to identify areas where they could shorten the process and so provide better service to customers. Once the new process had been agreed, I followed this up with each team member individually to agree new targets for volume and workload.”
  3. Finally, describe how you knew that the action had been a success. This might include demonstrable results, or praise from managers, or staff comments in a survey. Again, this should be about 40% of the total text.

    “As a result of the process that I initiated, directors were able to identify and agree funding to meet a shortfall, and also to make a good case for funding an unforeseen pressure. The review was used as a model for a later organisation-wide process.”
    “As a result, the team now routinely responds to complaints within three days instead of five, and the volume of repeat complaints has dropped by half. Staff members also report that they are much happier with the process, and feel that it serves customers better.”

The Legal Bit

There is usually a signature space at the bottom of the application form for you to sign to say that everything in the form is true.

Even if completed electronically, this is legally binding, and will form part of your employment contract with the company. Do Not Lie. You will almost certainly be found out eventually and then you will probably lose your job.

Speculative Job Applications

Speculative applications usually take the form of a CV and a tailored covering letter.

Speculative applications are often addressed to the CEO or the head of human resources of the organisation that you wish to work for. You can also send it to the person responsible for the function that you’d like to work in, for example marketing, finance or sales.

See our pages: Writing a CV or Resume and Writing a Covering Letter for a starting point, but there are one or two special issues to remember with a speculative application:

  1. You don’t have a job description and person specification to work from.

    That means that you have to more or less guess what skills they’ll need you to have. It’s worth having a look at their website, and also talking to anyone you know who works there, or in a similar organisation, to find out what the organisation seems to value. You can then tailor your CV and examples in your covering letter to that.

  2. The purpose of a speculative application is not really to get you a job directly.

    You don’t expect to get a job on the basis of just a letter and CV. The best you can hope for is that it gets you an interview or discussion with someone at the company or organisation that leads on to a job.

    So don’t waste space in your covering letter asking for a job. Instead, explain how much you’d like to work in the organisation’s sector and/or that function, and ask if you could come in and talk to the recipient about what opportunities might be available in the industry and how best to pursue them, or whether you could do some unpaid work experience for a few weeks. That way, you have a reasonable chance that they might agree to meet you. If so, consider it an interview, and see our page on Interview Skills for more advice.

    You may not, and indeed probably will not, get a job from your speculative application. But you might get some helpful advice and, if they like you, and something comes up in a few months’ time, they might just remember you and give you a call.


Applying for jobs is a bit of a numbers game. The more jobs that you apply for, the more likely you are to get an interview, and the more interviews you attend, the more likely you are to get a job.

This is for two main reasons: first, you get better at identifying what jobs you could do and in presenting yourself well in application, and second, you get better at interviewing. Don’t be disheartened by a lack of success: just keep applying ask for feedback on your applications, and your efforts should eventually meet with success.