Don't fall at the first fence

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Week 2: You have to sell yourself properly to ensure you get an interview, writes Caroline Roberts

Although applying for a new job is exciting, filling in the application can be a tedious and time-consuming task. But it's not something you can afford to skimp on - it's all about selling yourself and getting through to the interview stage. So how can you produce a word-perfect sales pitch?

According to Alistair Thomas, communications director of Step Teachers education recruitment agency, too many candidates still fall at the first hurdle by not following the most basic of instructions.

"Most local authorities have a standard application form, so don't send a CV unless it's specifically asked for. The form will need to be scanned so that's the reason why they always ask you to write in black ink. And it goes without saying that handwriting should be legible and the form should be rigorously checked for spelling and grammatical errors. It's always best to take a photocopy and fill that in as a trial run."

He also suggests that finding out as much as you can about the school and its general ethos can help you make a good application. Talk to people who have contacts at the place, visit the website, read the latest Ofsted inspectors' report. If you don't live too far away, taking a look at the area around the school may also help you get a feel for the place.

Of course, the crucial section is the space where you write about why you're suitable for the job. According to Anna Rowen, recruitment manager for Hampshire local education authority, a common mistake is failing to address the person specification closely.

"Another problem is that everyone is taught how to write an application these days, so you tend to get the same old jargon and standard information. All heads are aware of educational theory, so they don't need the textbook explanation of differentiation, for example. What you need to do is give concrete examples from your classroom practice of how you have applied the theory.

"It's all about individualising your application. Look at the person spec and think about how you can give evidence from your experience in the key things they are looking for."

And it's not just about what you do in your classroom; teaching is about contributing to the whole school, so what should you say about your personal interests? As a general rule, mention things that have some relevance to the job. If you are applying to be head of art, the school is more likely to be interested in your watercolour holidays in Tuscany than your passion for Formula One.

Whatever you mention, make sure you're ready to elaborate at interview. If you say you enjoy reading, then be prepared to wax lyrical about your favourite book.

"Don't try to blag it," says Anna. "Candidates sometimes put things because they think it makes them sound interesting. But if you say you enjoy scuba diving when the sum total of your experience is a try-dive in the local swimming pool, then you can bet the interviewer will turn out to be an open water enthusiast and your whole application will be discredited."

It's also a good idea to consider what you might be letting yourself in for. Schools are always on the lookout for staff whose personal extra-curricular activities match their own. Express a liking for camping and you may be seen as the perfect candidate. The perfect candidate, that is, for the task of leading the Duke of Edinburgh Award weekend bivouac. If your idea of camping is more August in the Ardeche than Saturday night in a muddy field under dripping canvas with a group of excitable sixth- formers, then keep quiet.

If you are asked to send a CV as well as the form then it's worthwhile checking that all the dates agree. Being a month or two out may not lay you open to suspicion of deception, but it does make you look sloppy.

It's also important to keep the presentation professional, says Anna. "Some people try too hard to make their CV stand out from the rest, but you've got to remember there's often a fine line between unique and freak. We've had CVs where people have gone mad with the Clip-Art - we recently had a 'seasonal' one decorated with daffodils and Easter bunnies!"

And in the unlikely event that you are asked to send a photo, make sure it's just a photo of you, not you and your baby, or even worse, your pet.

Remember also that professionalism needs to extend to every contact you may have with the school. Anna points out that newly qualified teachers in particular are prone to having less than professional-sounding email addresses, so if you're known as then you'd better change that pronto. The same goes for wacky answering machine messages.

So what about your covering letter? First, always address it to the correct person. Writing "Dear SirMadam" makes it look as if you couldn't be bothered to find out the name of the head.

Keep it short but include any vital information that there was no obvious space for on the form. It might be the opportunity to explain any gaps you've had in your working life, such as for travel or have a family.

Always offer an explanation; even if you were just doing casual bar work, it reassures the short-listers that you were not detained at Her Majesty's pleasure.

And one final thought: make sure you're not talking yourself into a job that doesn't really fit. "Be honest with yourself," says, Alistair Thomas.

"You need to sell yourself, but make sure you're not just writing things because you think it's what they want to hear. That's when spin becomes dangerous. What you're aiming for is a true match between yourself and your new role. That's a match made in heaven."

Step Teachers

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