DISCLAIMER: Note that this is targeted at university students aiming to get generalist internship or graduate positions (as opposed to standard entry level positions or positions which require specialist degrees) in the corporate world. This advice does not guarantee internship or graduate employment and should only be taken as guide which really just scratches the surface.
This thread is part of the 'A Survival Guide To The Graduate Recruitment Process' series. Other released sections can be found below:
A Survival Guide To The Graduate Recruitment Process: Part 2 - Psychometric Testing
WHAT ARE ONLINE APPLICATIONS?
Online applications are usually the first contact of the applicant to the employer in the recruitment process. They usually require the applicant to answer a series of questions and may include the attachment of documents such as a resume or academic transcript. In most cases for applications for graduate positions, this is where the majority of applicants are rejected, so it is important to make a good first impression through the online application.
TIPS ON APPROACHING ONLINE APPLICATIONS
This is not an exhaustive list, but should cover most cases:
1. Follow the instructions by the letter
This may seem obvious but it is absolutely crucial that you follow the instructions of the online application. If an application doesn’t actually ask for a resume or cover letter, don’t waste your time attaching one. If an application asks for an academic transcript or a birth certificate, make sure you attach it. If it asks you to list all your subjects and marks, make sure you list every single one.
It will not look good if you submit an application which is incomplete because you didn’t follow the instructions. Make sure your application is as complete as possible (e.g. don’t omit your high school details if the application asks for it but it is not compulsory). If there are instructions which are not clear, try to contact the employer for clarification.
2. Spelling, grammar and punctuation must be perfect
The online application is the first contact an applicant has with an employer so good written communication skills are vital at this stage. Spelling, grammar or punctuation errors should not exist and all your sentences should be complete and make sense otherwise the employer will get the impression that your communication skills aren’t up to scratch. It is also important to use the right tense (e.g. if it was in the past use past tense).
It is very easy to make these errors when writing several paragraphs of text, so make sure you proofread your answers. Some good approaches in doing this involve typing your answers on a separate word document with spelling and grammar checks implemented as well as getting friends or family to proofread it for you if possible.
3. Be succinct
Most online applications have a word or character limit imposed, which is to be expected given that graduate recruiters read hundreds or thousands of applications. This means that you need to get your point across with as few words as possible. This could mean reducing the number of adjectives you use, getting straight to the point or restricting the number of points you get across to the most important ones. It may be a good idea to type your responses in a separate word document and count the words/characters before pasting it into the online application itself.
4. Present yourself in a confident and professional manner
An online application is an opportunity to show the employer everything about you and your experiences. This is the last place where you should be modest, but at the same time you should not come across as too arrogant. Your language in the online application needs to confidently highlight your achievements to prove to the employer that you are the best fit for the job. Don’t be afraid to place great value on certain achievements even though you personally may not feel that they were that great.
5. Back your statements up with real evidence
This is very important. Anyone can say “I have great leadership skills” but not everyone can say “I managed a large team as president of the XYZ society and successfully coordinated several events which demonstrates my strong leadership skills”. It is much more convincing to the employer if you back up what you say about yourself with real evidence.
6. Make sure you talk about what you can do for the organisation
A common issue in online application responses is that applicants only talk about how the role or organisation can benefit them whether it be their careers or personal interests. Whilst this is helpful to understand your motivation behind applying for the role, you also need to keep in mind that from an employer's perspective they care more about what you can do for them when selecting the right candidate. Hence, where appropriate always mention the ways in which you can add value to to the role and organisation.
7. Make sure your answers are well thought out and directly address the question
Never rush an application and it is certainly not advisable to copy answers across multiple applications word for word and change the organisation name. Every year there are cases where the applicant has forgotten to change the organisation name, which effectively guarantees a rejection no matter how brilliant everything else is.
Your answers must be well thought out and tailored to the organisation. You usually don’t have to do the whole application in one sitting. You can save what you’ve put in and come back to it later after more thought. Good applications should link to the values or businesses that are specific to the organisation and demonstrate that the applicant has researched the organisation. Mediocre applications often contain generic responses which can apply to other organisations.
It is also important is to address every aspect of the question DIRECTLY. Don’t just address one part of the question, indirectly answer the question or paste an answer for a related question from another application. For example, if a question says 'Explain why you chosen division X and how it fits with your career goals.' that means you don't just explain why you chose this division, you also need to link actually it to your career aspirations in your response.
8. Check through your whole application before submitting
Proofread your application in full before you click submit. Check for any spelling, grammar or punctuation errors. Check that you’ve addressed every question to the best of your abilities. Check that you have followed every instruction in the application carefully and that the application is as complete as possible.
9. Do not leave your application to the last minute.
Try to find out about the role as early as possible and start your application as soon as you decide that you want to apply for it. Make sure you know EXACTLY when the application closes so that you don’t miss out.
Leaving your application to the last minute runs the risk of compromising its quality as it would not be subjected to a thorough check with less thought given to the responses. This is particularly important as most online graduate applications close at around the same time.
Ideally, you should be completing all your applications to a submittable level as early as possible. Many organisations organise running recruitment, which means that they review applications as soon as they come in and close it when the position is filled, without much warning. In such cases, it becomes a case of the early bird catches the worm.
A resume is a brief summary of your achievements and qualifications. It is used by the employer as a means to quickly scan and assess your suitability to the role, which can take only about 30 seconds on average, so it is important to stand out in this aspect of the application. Do note that not all organisations ask for a resume, so it is important to check if the online application actually asks for one.
A suggested structure for a resume is as follows:
Name, address and contact details
Name of university and relevant qualifications (can include WAM or any stand out marks here) and name of high school qualifications (can include ATAR or any standout HSC achievements here) as well as the (expected) completion dates
List of positions and places you worked at, when you worked at each place, what you did and any notable achievements
List of relevant and transferrable skills you have and brief evidence of these skills whether it be from university, work or extra-curricular activities
List of relevant activities outside of work and study with brief descriptions of each
List the names and positions of at least two referees who will speak positively about you (preferably in both work and academic context). Contact details should ideally be withheld unless the online application asks for it.
All activities under these headings have to be in reverse chronological order (i.e. most recent at the top). Resumes are typically no more than 2-3 pages. Some applications specify a limit on the number of pages of the resume, so make sure you adhere to it. Make it as neat and succinct as possible. Make sure there are no spelling, grammar or punctuation errors.
Some general tips on resumes:
1. Use language that makes your achievements sound impressive
The language you use in your resume can make a big difference in making your achievements sound more impressive without sounding too exaggerated. For example, for a past tutoring job saying something like “developed strong working relationships with students to help them to achieve their goals in Mathematics” sounds much better than say “tutored HSC students in Mathematics” (provided you actually did have a good relationship with the students). Remember you cannot be too modest in your online applications. You have to sell your achievements as much as possible!
2. Quantify your achievements where possible
Most companies are results focused so quantifying any achievements (provided they are impressive enough to quantify) shows that you can deliver results. Using the tutoring example, you can say something like “50% of students that were tutored achieved marks above 90”.
3. Tailor your resume to the position
Try not to use the same resume for every position you apply for. Resumes should be tailored according to the position. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to submit a resume, which mainly highlights your academic achievements, for a casual customer service job. If you have a long list of extra-curricular activities then only include those that are most relevant to the position and/or stand out the most and/or showcase your personality.
In many organisations, there will be a section on their website or brochure that says something along the lines of “what we look for in applicants” with a list of traits or skills. Some of these skills can be incorporated into the resume. For example, suppose on the website it says “We are looking for applicants with excellent analytical skills with an interest in financial markets”. Make sure you include analytical skills under the ‘Key skills’ section along with other skills that you feel that may be relevant to the position. To cover the “interest in financial markets”, you can list some extra-curricular activities such as trading competitions or involvement in finance/trading societies.
A cover letter is typically a formalised response to the advertised position. It usually complements the resume as a brief summary where the applicant introduces themselves and demonstrates his or her interest and suitability to the position. It needs to be set out like a formal letter with the correct company name (you would be surprised how often people put the wrong company name in it), address, date and title. Do note that not all organisations ask for a cover letter, so it is important to check if the online application actually asks for one.
A suggested structure for the cover letter:
Your name and address
Employer’s name and address
Application for (insert formal title of position advertised)
Dear (unless a specific name is requested by the application, put the company name followed by ‘Recruitment Team’ to be safe)
State that you wish to apply for this position as advertised.
Paragraph 2 and Paragraph 3
Introduce yourself. Describe your degree and highlight what skills and traits you have. Describe what you can bring to the role.
Explain why you are interested in the company and the position.
State that you have enclosed the relevant documents (e.g. resume, academic transcript). State the action item that the employer should contact you if they wish to discuss the application further and thank them for considering your application.
Cover letters are typically no more than 1 page. Make it as formal, neat and succinct as possible. Make sure there are no spelling, grammar or punctuation errors.
Some general tips on cover letters:
1. Use language that makes your achievements sound impressive
Much like the resume, the language you use in your cover letter can make a big difference in making your skills and traits sound more impressive. Your language also needs to come across as confident but not too arrogant and not too doubtful.
As a general tip, when you talk about yourself, assert statements as a fact. This shows that you know exactly who you are and what kind of person you will be in the workplace. For example, saying ‘I am a person who is passionate about helping others’ is better than saying ‘I believe I am a person who is passionate about helping others’ which has a seed of doubt about knowing yourself.
However, when you start talking about the organisation or the role then there are risks in asserting statements as fact because it could come across a little too arrogant because the recruiters know more about the organisation and role than you do. For example, saying ‘I believe I can bring these skills and experiences to X to work collaboratively with the team to deliver innovative solutions to client problems’ sounds better than ‘I will bring these skills and experiences to X to work collaboratively with the team to deliver innovative solutions to client problems’ which comes across as a little overconfident.
2. Tailor your cover letter to both the company and position
Try not to use the same cover letter for every position you apply for and just replace the company name. In many organisations, there will be a section on their website or brochure that says something along the lines of “what we look for in applicants” with a list of traits or skills. You can tailor the cover letter to address the most important of those listed traits or skills.
Tailoring the cover letter is particularly important when you explain why you are interested in the company and the position. Employers particularly gauge the applicant’s interest in through the cover letter so any generic or very general statements would not be highly regarded.
3. Briefly refer to evidence of your skills and traits
There is no need for detail, but make sure you back your claims up with brief mentions of evidence. For example, if you claim that you are a person who is passionate about finance and the markets then back it up with real evidence by saying something like ‘My experiences in the ASX trading game, DCM Portfolio competition and heavy involvement with the Investing and Trading society have heightened my passion in exploring financial markets’. The details can be delved into through the resume or by other means in the online application.
4. Relate your skills and traits to what is involved in the role
It is all well and good to say you have these skills and traits, but simply listing them doesn’t really achieve much. Remember that the purpose of the cover letter is to summarise your suitability for the role, so these skills and traits must be linked back to the role. For example, if you say you are passionate about helping others (with appropriate evidence) then describe that you can bring this trait to something like developing strong relationships with clients. By relating skills and traits to the role, you also indirectly demonstrate that you have done your research on what the role entails.
COMMON QUESTIONS IN ONLINE APPLICATIONS
Note that this list is not exhaustive and may overlap with the content above regarding the resume and cover letter.
Why do you want to work for us?
This type of question will almost always appear in an online application and is a common area where people stumble in. Try to avoid saying something generic like:
• Company is big
• Training opportunities
• Work they engage in is relevant to degree
• You believe in the company’s values
These types of answers do not demonstrate your interest in the company very well.
You should be specific to the organisation and offer multiple reasons. This question indirectly assesses how well you have researched the organisation. Some things to consider include (note these do not apply to all organisations):
• Strategy and culture of the organisation
• International opportunities
• Community involvement
• Work-life balance
• Involvement in projects that you read about in the media
• Impact the organisation has on people
The best answers often relate the reason they want to work for the organisation to what they look for in an organisation in accordance to their own goals and values, backed up with real evidence. Think carefully about what makes an organisation a good place to work for in your eyes. Make sure your reasons are genuine at least to some extent.
What attracts you to this position/division?
Do NOT confuse this with the question of why you want to work for this organisation. This question is more about what the role itself offers rather than what the organisation offers as a whole. Try to avoid saying something generic like:
• Position/division is relevant to degree
• Allows you to **insert description of role here**
• Position/division happens to match your strongest skills
These types of answers do not demonstrate your interest in the position or division very well.
Again you should be specific to the position/division and offer multiple reasons. This question indirectly assesses how well you have researched the role or division. Some things you can consider include (note these do not apply to all organisations):
• Alignment of position to what you want in a career
• Opportunities that the role/division offers that are not offered in other roles/divisions
• Interest in role driven by previous experiences
The best answers often relate the reason they chose this position or division to their interests and passions, backed up with real evidence. Think carefully about what types of roles or divisions are attractive to you more than others. Make sure your reasons are genuine at least to some extent.
Describe the skills and attributes you have and how they will contribute to the position.
This type of question invites you to sell yourself. State the most relevant skills or traits you can offer, backed up with real evidence, and relate these to the role (See the cover letter section for a guide).
What do you hope to get out of this role?
This question is a little tricky because you don’t want to communicate your expectations too highly so that the recruiter cannot meet them but at the same time you should not be setting low expectations to the point where you don’t appear interested in the role. Ideally, recruiters want candidates who are likely to stay for a long time so avoid giving the impression that you expect this role to just be an ‘experience’. Make sure you know what the role entails so you can form proper expectations of what you will get out of it.
Some possible things to consider are:
• Opportunity to work with experienced people in specialised areas
• Real contributions to the organisation and its clients
• Networking opportunities
• Opportunities for development of technical capabilities
What is your greatest achievement?
Here you have to really impress the recruiter. However, this does not have to be a situation where the outcome was impressive. In fact, a lot of good answers do not focus too much on the outcome but rather process behind reaching that achievement. For example, if you persevered through a very adverse situation which could’ve easily ended badly but you managed to get a positive outcome then that would be considered quite a great achievement even though the outcome itself might not necessarily be impressive. A good way to approach this is to answer it as if it was a behavioural question (see the behavioural questions part below).
Organisation specific questions
These can be questions which are related to the organisation itself. Examples include:
• Provide an example where you have used one of organisation A’s values to achieve a positive outcome.
• Please outline what you know about division B and how this fits with your career aspirations.
• What skills and attributes do you have that will help achieve organisation C’s vision?
Make sure you have done your research on the organisation and understand what type of people the company sees itself as having and align them to your personal traits. This should then help you tailor your response towards what the organisation is looking for.
These types of questions ask you to draw on past situations and demonstrate how you behaved in these situations. Common questions include:
• Tell me about a time you resolved a conflict between members of a team
• Tell me about a time you developed an innovative solution to a problem
• Tell me about a time you exceeded a customer’s expectations
• Tell me about a time where you had to persevere to achieve a desirable outcome
• Tell me about a time where you had to adapt to a change to a situation
To answer these questions you are expected to use the STAR structure.
• Situation – Describe the context of the example
• Task – Outline the task or problem to be solved
• Action – What processes did you take to handle the situation and create a solution? This is the most important part.
• Result – What outcome was achieved as a consequence of the action and what have you learnt from it?
These examples can come from university, work or extra-curricular activities. Make sure that the example you use targets the question directly.
For example, a question asking “Please detail a time where you have worked well in a team” is not quite the same as “Please detail a time where you had to deal with conflict in a team”. Although they appear related, they target very different areas. The former is targeting how well you can coordinate activities and work with others successfully whilst the latter is targeting how well you dealt with people who disagreed with each other or yourself. The responses to those questions should NOT be exactly the same. You can use the same situational example, but you would need to emphasise a different aspect of the situation (which may or may not make it suitable to the question in the end) in order to answer the question directly.
Make sure you use good examples from past experiences. If you have difficulty finding good examples then that would be a sign that you need to get yourself in these situations first because it is expected of graduates. Behavioural questions will most certainly be asked in interviews as well so having that general experience is extremely important in boosting your chances.
For a guide on what distinguishes good examples from mediocre examples, see A survival guide to the graduate recruitment process – Part 4 – Interviews (coming soon!)
Last edited by Trebla; 29 Jun 2014 at 11:20 PM.
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