The Art of Applying

So, looking for a job? chasing an opportunity? Here is the long and short, lets get  straight to it.

The first thing you should do is read the advertisement. This may seem like stating the obvious but it is interesting to note how many people only read the headline of an advert and browse through the rest of the details. The reason why you were not even called for an interview may be that you did not hit the nail on the head.

There is a way to read an advert: pay attention to the description of the position, the eligibility and the requirements. What are the key words? Look out for the adjectives they are using, the key skills and competencies that are emphasized. Read actively, with a pen and paper to note them down. Yes, read every detail.

Most adverts will start by introducing the organisation to you, stating their vision, mission and the kind of work they do. If this is not fully articulated on the advert, do a further search of the information on the internet. Note this down too.

Reading and understanding the gist of an advert is important for you to specifically tailor your story to suit the profile of the candidate they are looking for. It will help you know which of your skills and competencies to emphasize.

Pause and reflect. Now that you have read the advert and have some notes. Pull out your CV. Placing the your CV and your notes side to side, begin to highlight the similarities, the gaps in skill set, your strongest points and the areas where you do not shine the brightest. This exercise is very useful because you want to always put your best foot forward.

Feeling ready to start drafting? Great, lets get it!

Start with revising your CV (we need a whole blog for this). Some organisations may have particular templates, customize it. Some want you to fill out the details online- line by line- I personally find this exhausting; but why, give them what they want.

The most important bit about revising your CV is making sure that you have:

  • A brief profile at the top– this section is four to five sentences that summarize your entire CV. This is for me, a written form of an elevator pitch. Highlight: what your primary field of expertise is, what sort of work or organisations you have been involved with, any outstanding accomplishments you have achieved professionally. If you are straight out of school, or are changing careers, feel free to include a sentence on your interests. If you get this right, you can easily be able to answer the question: ‘tell us about yourself’ in an interview.
  • A list of relevant skills and competencies. Your cheat sheet is notes you took when you read the advert, refer to that. Make sure that you match the words you use in your CV to the ones used in the advert, well at least most of them. List the most important skills first. And, this is not where you state your personal qualities. Skills are actually technical abilities you have to deliver on your job. There are several websites that offer ideas on words you can use to describe the most common skills in your field of work.
  • Remove the unnecessary details. Things that do not add any value on your CV, remove them. A two-page punchy CV is memorable than a 6 page CV with information that is not useful to your recruiter. For conference trotters, 10 conferences you attended but you were not presenting a paper or speaking do not necessarily score you points. This may be useful if you are applying for your first job out of college, and that is that on that.
  • Highlight your accomplishments on your previous role, not your day to day duties. For starters, do not copy your entire job description from your previous role. As Briefly as possibly, write down what the task was, what role you played and what the result of that work was to demonstrate what you accomplished. Also be sure to show that you worked in a team and you are not over attributing success to yourself. Three or four for each tasks you held in the past which are specifically related to the advertised role are sufficient. Leave out all the photocopying you had to do, unless photocopying is the technical skill required for the role you are pursuing. Be brief. I cannot overemphasize this.  And use past tense for jobs held in the past. Side note: Education qualifications are not longer your foremost accomplishments if you have worked for more than three years, list that after you professional experience.
  • Fix the basics: nothing is as distasteful as a CV that is not well formatted. Even before your recruiter reads it, they will already be turned off. Find some good templates to use, google that. Grammar!!!! Fix your grammar! Fonts, font sizes, matching headings, numbering, basically formatting. Fix all that. Add your contact details. Also add those of your contactable referees. A well formatted CV will fit in two pages for 10 years worth of experience.

Now you are ready to draft your statement of interest, letter of application and/or essay. The reason I emphasize for you to start with updating your CV is that by the time you are done, you will know how to make your statement, letter or essay compliment (and not repeat) your CV.

Think of your statement of interest or letter of application as you opportunity to tell your story. Here is where you are able to demonstrate, with specific examples how you are the best person for the job. Write passionately. Let the recruiter meet you through the sentences. Figure out a way in which your statement or letter can be interesting and so personal to you, so much that it doesn’t sound like something from the 90’s. Write like its 2019, lol.

Seriously though, focus on demonstrating how in the past, you were able to deliver results on the key competencies or similar tasks as those highlighted in the advert. Demonstrate how you are committed to that field of work by drawing similarities in the objectives of your past roles. Demonstrate that your personal qualities, presenting clearly a situation where you rose to the task.

Something to cheaply impress your recruiter is to make reference to the overall objective of the department you would be joining or the mission of the organisation somewhere in your statement or letter. Demonstrate that you are familiar with the organisations, show that the mission of the organisation aligns with your personal interests and passion. For development work or joining small organisations, this could be all the difference. Again, brief and punchy sentences. This is a one pager. Two pages is too much!

About essays. Firstly, essays are not letters. Secondly, job essays are also not academic essays. You will need to find a good balance. Relate to your technical expertise.  When you answer an essay question for a job application, your recruiter wants to see that you are technically sound. So draft an essay that makes reference to the thought leadership in your field of expertise. What is the latest discourse, what is the future looking like in the way results can be achieved through your line of work? Relate to your professional experience.  Find ways to show how you have been involved in this type of work before and what your contribution has been. A newly graduate is most likely making reference to their thesis for instance. Draw examples from your CV, accentuate that you are the star they are looking for by showing that you are both technically sound and experienced. Relate to the mission and vision of the organisation. Tie everything together by articulating how the technical knowledge you have so well articulated, coupled with your professional experience would make positive contributions to the results that your organisation is delivering. Show that this particular organisation is the ideal place for you, and the work you seek to do. Generally, some people write essays in third person, but feel free to write the in first person. The important thing is to have a consistent narrative.

When should you talk to someone and who should you talk to? The answer to this is when you can not find the answer on google. The truth is that if you are not researching online about some of the questions you have, you will go around asking obvious questions and wasting opportunities where you would have sourced valuable insights.

Talk to your friends and your family. Everyone needs a pep talk, save this for your friends and your family. It is a waste of opportunity to speak to someone who can give you insights and feedback to shape your drafts and all you ask for is a motivational talk about whether the recruiter will pick you, or if you are fit for this role. Know when you are looking for validation and look for it in the right places. Your friends are also a very important resource to review your drafts again and again.

Talk to a professional who has held the role you are applying for or holds a similar role in a different organisation. This is what they call an information interview. Ask useful questions to give you insights about the day to day activities of the role, the work culture and how this role fits in the overall structure of the organisation. Most times, you may not get the opportunity to have them review your drafts, but you can share with them about the ideas you have and the key skills you possess seek their insights on how you can tie your loose ends.

Talk to your referees and mentors. These are the people you need to carry along in our professional decisions. If you are thinking of applying to an opportunity, after you read the vacancy and have updated your CV, take a copy to them and talk about how well you think you are best suited for this opportunity. If you can not talk to them, send them an email with your essay and the summary of the advert and let them know you would like to give them a shot. You may even want to draft the letter, highlighting some of the relevant things you wish for them to highlight to your recruiter and your referee will take it from there. It is not good courtesy to just email especially your referees when you just want them to send you a reference letter.

Reference letters will say for you what you can say for yourself. If you referees are not in the know of what you have been up to lately, they will speak about something in the distant past which may not be the most relevant experience to make you stand out for this role. More importantly, you do not want your referee to send an edited template that they send out for everyone who asks them for a reference letter. They will do this if they do not feel that they have  a personal relationship with you. And the recruiter can tell. You are already scoring in your own goals.

Talk to a coach. Sometimes, what you will really need is someone you can pay to support you through the process, an objective bouncing board for your ideas and a readily available source of feedback. Do not shy away from getting a career coach. They will help you organised yourself and make the best pitch. Just hire a good one.

Before you hit submit, go back to where you started- the advert. Read it again. And then review what you have draft. Is there coherence? Did you answer the questions asked? Did you highlight the key things the recruiter is looking for? Did you incorporate the feedback and new information you received from the people you talked to? Formatting and everything, how is that looking? Good? Great! Now, you are ready to go!

You miss 100% of the shots you do not take. Apply today.

And when you apply, do not forget that it is actually a competitive process. Put your best foot forward, always.



    I actually found you from World Bank Recruitment advert and I love this writeup, its informative and answered most of the questions I wanted to ask you on facebook. Thanks alot

  2. Benton Otieno

    Thank you Chifundo for directing me to this blog. It is very informative and reiterates the importance of paying attention to the minor, but very important details, that we sometimes overlook.

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