How to make your application stand out

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Jobs toolkit: The application. With the market the toughest it's been in years, make sure you don't fall at the first hurdle. Let Steven Hastings help you stand out for the right reasons

Original paper headline: Apply yourself

ou may be applying for dozens of jobs. You may be willing to accept any post, anywhere, just to get a foot in the door and some cash in the bank. But the key to making a successful application is to ensure you target each job individually, and make each school feel you're writing just for them. The best way to do that? Resist the urge to rehash old applications, and instead start every one from scratch. Nothing irritates headteachers more than receiving "cut and paste" applications, so if you can send something that is fresh, sincere, and tailored to the job in hand, chances are you'll get noticed.

Application forms vary widely, but they're all seeking an answer to the same basic question - can you do the job? Everything you write on the form should be an attempt to show that you can. With that in mind, read the job description carefully, and refer to it often. Schools don't just pull these things out of the filing cabinet; a job spec will most likely be the product of a lengthy meeting between headteacher, deputy and subject leader, and if you haven't read it, they'll dismiss you out of hand. And don't simply say you can do the job - prove it. Even if your experience is limited to a handful of PGCE placements, you should still give concrete examples of things you've done, projects that have been successful, and situations you've handled well.

Application forms typically start by asking you to list qualifications, skills and previous employment. The important point here is to be honest and straightforward. Perhaps there are things you'd rather brush under the carpet, but it's a risky business. If headteachers notice a chronological gap in your experience, they will be suspicious. If you list your qualifications, but not the grades you achieved, they'll also probably think the worst. As a general rule, the more details you include, the more convincing you will seem. For example, if you have excellent ICT skills, then say exactly what they are and name the different software packages you're comfortable with. Talk yourself up, by all means, but don't bend the truth - or you may come unstuck at interview.

Most application forms offer you a chance to write about yourself and to say what you could bring to the post. A personal statement should be just that - personal. Try to avoid using jargon or cliche, and instead explain simply and clearly what qualities you have and the kind of teacher you are. It's a good idea to find out as much as possible about a school by looking at its website and most recent Ofsted report. Think about the school's strengths and weaknesses, and how you would fit in there. Headteachers admit they often appoint someone because of a gut feeling that they're "our kind of person" - so try to get your own personality across, and make it clear you're in sympathy with the ethos of the school.

With the job market being so competitive at the moment, having something to offer outside the classroom can make the difference. When you look at a school's website, try to identify an extra-curricular gap you could plug. If your interests are politics and hill walking, suggest that you might be willing to start a debating society, or help organise outdoor pursuits. You don't have to over-commit, just seem keen.

The kind of letter you send with your application will depend on the questions you've been asked on the form. If the form gave you plenty of opportunity to explain your personal qualities and what you would bring to the post, then all you need do is write a covering letter to accompany it. Keep it short - perhaps just a single side - and limit yourself to brief pleasantries, and a simple but strong statement about your suitability for the job. On the other hand, if the application form only asked you to list qualifications and experience, then you'll need to write a longer letter of application, perhaps up to three sides, making a more detailed case. The important thing is the letter should say something new, and not simply repeat what's on the form.

Follow these guidelines and your application will have substance, but it also needs style. Try to use good, clear, standard English, and keep your sentences fairly short. It's hard to stress how crucial the need for accuracy is; there are some headteachers who say just one spelling mistake and an application ends up in the bin. Other pet hates include misplaced apostrophes and excessive use of exclamation marks. So check, and double- check.

When it comes to the overall presentation of your application, there are two watchwords: clarity and professionalism. It's true that completing the form in green ink, or printing your letter on orange paper, will make you stand out. But not in a good way. Better to concentrate on making your application look smart and easy to read.

Word process whenever possible, and don't be tempted by a fancy font. Times New Roman is fine. Or you could go for a serious sans serif like Arial or Verdana, in 11 or 12 point for a letter, perhaps as small as 10 point for a form, though no smaller. Always in black. As for spacing, one- and-a-half space usually offers a balance between keeping things compact and making them easy on the eye, but it depends on the size of your font. When printing, don't use cheap paper - splash out on something with a bit of weight, say 120gsm, in white or cream.

If an application form has to be filled in by hand, then use a pen you can trust, draft your answers first, and, if needs be, rule in some faint pencil lines you can rub out later. Above all, make everything neat and legible. If it helps, block capitals and bullet points are permissible on an application form - though never in a covering letter. A few schools, usually independents, still ask for a handwritten letter of application. If you can wield a fountain pen then go for it, otherwise at least use something that has an "inky" look, rather than a cheap ball-point. It's extremely rare for schools to ask for a photo, and you shouldn't send one unless they do, however nice you think you look.

Finally, check everything over carefully before sending. And never be complacent. You may know you're an excellent teacher, and if you get an interview you'll be able to prove it, but all the school has to go on is your application. If you don't feel they represent you at your very best, sit down and start again.


  • "My references speak for themselves."
  • "I look forward to seeing you at interview."
  • "I have some interesting ideas for improving your school."
  • "I see this job as a useful stepping stone in my career."
    • DO SAY

      • "I am a good team player with excellent inter-personal skills."
      • "I see from your website ."
      • "An example of this is ."
      • "I would be suited to your school because ."
      • "I could contribute to the wider life of the school by ."

          1. Have I demonstrated I can do the job?
          2. Does my personality come across?
          3. Is the application tailored to this particular schooljob?
          4. Is there anything that might be off-putting, or could be taken the wrong way?
          5. Would a non-teacher, such as a governor, understand what I've written?

              • "I want applications that reflect the job advertisement. I'm looking for evidence that a teacher can be innovative, flexible and treat students as individuals." Terry Hedger, Southbank International
              • "I want teachers to tell me what they've done in the past, and how, to give me a clear idea of what they'll do in the future." Peter Hicks, Broadclyst Primary, Devon
              • "I like to feel a candidate is seeking a job at `our' school and they should show that they have found out about our values." Barbara Flitcroft, St Peter's, St Helens
              • "Teachers often write about what they hope to get out of the job, instead of what they can do for the school." Norma Watson, former headteacher
              • "There's nothing worse than an application that has clearly been written for a different job and then re-used." Martyn Coles, City Academy, Hackney
              • "I don't like it when applicants `creep' in the letter by saying good things about the school. You don't have to make me feel good about myself." Anthea Michel, Cherry Tree Primary, Bolton.

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