What makes you the perfect candidate?

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Don't fall at the the first hurdle. Victoria Neumark takes you from immaculate form-filling to accentuating the positive at interview.

OK, you passed the exams, now how do you get the job? First of all, where do you look? The TES first and foremost, obviously. But do not scorn other publications, including local papers and organs of professional associations and unions. Look at all the jobs pages, there may a plum lurking in a field you had never thought of considering.

Read the advertisement carefully. Though it may be hard to believe about such anodyne phrases as "a challenging school where equal opportunity is valued highly", a panel of governors will have agonised over every word of that advertisement and, while it may be overstating the case to say that certain phrases are in code, there is a recognised language about these things. For the example given, "racists need not apply" would be one reading.

However, you need not be put off by stipulations as to qualifications. Nothing venture, nothing gain. If they do get 10 applicants who speak three modern languages, well and good, but it may well be that your two are good enough. In short, if you like the sound of the job, apply.

Conversely, I really wouldn't bother going for something you are sure you would hate "just for practice". More than likely the interviewing panel will recognise your lack of interest and sift you out. In this case, all you will be doing is adding to a pile of rejection slips. Should you, on the other hand, filter in to the system and even get offered the job, you may end up with a bad experience you could easily have avoided.

The next step

If the ad suggests you ring up for more details, ask for more details. The more you know, the better. Ask for an application form. Nothing is easier than absently starting to fill in an application form and discovering in horror that you have made a series of errors. Ask for two forms, no one will mind. Then photocopy the form a couple of times, so there is no need to send in anything imperfect.

I cannot stress enough the imperative of sending in an immaculate form. Governors, who are always involved in the selection process, even if it is the chair sitting in on the interview, really mind about spelling and punctuation. Headteachers, perhaps above all in the primary sector, really mind about presentation. If you cannot present yourself on a form, how will you present the curriculum to the pupils? So, write everything out in rough several times until it is perfect.

Many people prefer handwriting to typing. You should show some handwriting on the form, and it should be very neat and in black ink. You may be asked for some kind of graphic input, like a chart of organisational responsibilities - practise this first, many times, and make it fit in the space provided. Be sure to answer all the questions and tick all the boxes, including the ones for whether or not you are disabled or are related to the education department - these are important too. Above all, check the spelling. Then check it again. If your spelling is weak, use a dictionary. If you are using a word processor, use the spell-check (remembering that it may use American orthography - one for the dictionary).

You will need to attach a CV (curriculum vitae). Do not include everything that ever happened to you, neither your first kiss nor the job you had helping the milkman when you were 13. Do not go on about other interests - they may make you a deeply wonderful and rounded human being but they have no necessary bearing on how you will do the job. A short sentence on how you run the Scout group or man the phones for ChildLine will be of interest; disquisitions on the joys of coarse fishing can be kept for letters to friends. Do not put in opinions, either. Simply list your education, with any relevant courses and qualifications, employment career, if any, and give a brief resume of skills and experiences gained. Thus, being a Scout leader has taught you how to manage large groups of excited children in productive activity, plan the logistics of outings, relate to parents and handle small budgets. ChildLine has developed listening skills, awareness of childhood problems, sensitivity to danger signs for abuse and the capacity to make judgments. Coarse fishing has taught you how enjoyable it can be to have time off - employers don't need to know this.

Be careful about any gaps. What were you doing between June 1986 and spring of 1989? Was it prison, small children, a job overseas or a fog of alcohol and drugs? Use your discretion as to what you write, but do not leave any gaps.

The CV should only occupy a sheet of A4. Throw away any paper which is not a standard size. A4 is the size of the application form, A4 should be the size of you envelopes, your CV and your letter of support to your application. Both should be typed on plain A4 - lined paper from the corner shop will not do.

Your letter of support should not be longer than two A4 sheets. No matter how interesting you find your life, no employer is going to find it so fascinating that he or she will read three or more sheets of paper. Nor will writing screeds on your philosophy of education endear you to people who have spent their whole careers living a philosophy of education.

It is important to:

* Spell the name of the school right. You wouldn't believe how many people apply for a job in an institution whose name they cannot spell. Even headteachers make this elementary error. But governors and managers really mind about their school, and the name is part of what they mind about.

* Respond to the advertisement and job and person specifications and do not write an all-purpose response. If the school wants evidence of practical science, show how you have that experience and do not put in about your holidays in France. If a genuine interest in children is required, don't waste time on your job in an old people's home. Make a coherent argument in favour of yourself, rather than a general vague description of the job. None the less, avoid beginning every sentence with "I". Schools are co-operative endeavours and the suggestion, even if unconscious, that you are an ego-maniac, will not be well-received. Try to vary your sentence structure and do the reader a favour. It is natural to feel well disposed to someone whose writing you have enjoyed. But: * No jokes please. Save them for the staffroom when you've got the job.

* Present the letter fetchingly. This means, nowadays, a word-processor, though fancy desk-top publishing can be a turn-off. Eschew tint-boxes, but go for snappy, short paragraphs, a legible size of type, nice borders for writing in and a couple of headings to break up the page. Some people do still prefer handwriting, but you are going to have to be computer-literate and what better way of demonstrating this than in your letter of support?

* Refer to practical experience, which hopefully ties in to your references.

You will have to give two or three references. If they can be from your final teaching practice and head, of course, that is the best. A third, if required, may be a character reference. This should be from some pillar of the community like a religious leader or former headteacher. Not your Aunty Flo or best mate. Always ask if people are willing to be given as references before giving their name. This is not only polite but also conforms to convention, which is that if someone does not rate you, they will not agree to being a referee. Unfortunately, not everyone adheres to this, but it is a useful rule of thumb.

Make sure you post the application in time. If there is a poor response, schools may consider late applications, but don't count on it. If you know you will be late for some reason, like a tardy response from a referee, ring up and explain. You will even gain Brownie points for consideration.

Keep copies. This is the form to which the interviewers will be referring. You should know it off by heart and be able to touch on it effortlessly if need be.

In the ad or further details, dates for interview may well be given. If you have not heard a week before those dates, do not assume that you haven't got an interview. Ring up. The worst that can happen - and I know it can feel like the ultimate worst - is that they tell you you have not been listed, in which case it was discourteous of them not to inform you. The best that can happen is that you are listed and somehow have not been informed. In which case, don't bear a grudge, just say "thank you".

If the interview dates are inconvenient, you must say so on your letter and form. If you appear a strong candidate, the interview may be rearranged for you. If the only reason the date is inconvenient is because of another job interview, it would not be very tactful to say so. Everyone likes to think they come first. If you are applying to several jobs, mug up on the particular option the night before the interview so that you are not suddenly going to blurt out, "Oh, I forgot, that was on the other application". Of course, everyone knows you are probably applying for more than one job, but the interviewers only want to hear about this one.

That is why at the start of the interview someone will probably say to you, "Are you still a serious candidate for the job?" The answer to this is not binding, but you should take this as a serious question. If you are not a serious candidate, why are you here?

Tips for the interview

Bring something to read or go over while you wait, but not, if you can help it, a packet of cigarettes. Schools are generally no smoking areas and nipping out for a quick fag when your name is called does not create a good impression. But you may have to wait, so be prepared.

Wear the right clothes - suit and tie for men, smart casual for women. Clean shoes, clean fingernails (no chipped varnish), clean, tidy hair, clean accessories and don't overdo the make-up. You are in the game, follow the rules.

When you come in, only shake hands if the interviewers initiate it. It can be quite embarrassing for them if they all feel then compelled to get up and shake hands. Just pause in the entrance, look for the interviewees' chair and, if everyone else is sitting, go and sit in it. If the panel have stood up, wait until they offer you a seat.

They will make some remarks to set you at your ease. Be careful here. "Did you find us easily?" does not require a 10-minute dissertation on the motorway queue but if you are late - DON'T BE LATE - a very brief explanation may be in order. If there is water do not be shy about sipping it but do not gulp, you may choke and discompose yourself.

Use body language. Face front; make eye contact; smile if you feel like it but do not grin inanely; above all, do not giggle. Sit with straight back and try not to cross and uncross your legs. That is a nervous habit and if you convey a lot of nervousness you will make the panel nervous and they will want to get rid of you.

As much as they are trying, quite genuinely, to set you at your ease, reciprocate. If the encounter feels warm to both parties, everyone will be well disposed.

Listen to the questions and then answer them. Don't go on at great length, but give a full answer. For example, "Have you ever taught sport?" does not ask for the answer "yes" or "no" but "I used to take the Scouts for football".

If it seems that the panel have not read or can't remember your letter, avoid sounding reproachful. Simply refer to "As I wrote in my letter", not "If you remember, in my letter . . ." After all, they may be seeing six or eight people end-to-end. It would be surprising if they could call every detail of every application to mind.

Because they are seeing so many people, you need to stand out in some way. Bringing a sample or two of classroom work or your own teaching aids can be very helpful, though don't overdo it. Sheaves and sheaves of not very good sums or spelling tests incorrectly marked will not cut any ice. But two or three pieces of outstanding artwork nicely mounted and which can be clearly shown to have relevance to the national curriculum are just the ticket. Practise bringing them out of a folder and showing them; practise what you will say and how you will put them away. With care, I hope. If they were important enough to show, they are important enough to carry carefully away.

Be open but unashamed about manifest weaknesses. To go back to the old bugbear spelling, a good response to "Are you aware that your spelling is weak?" might be, "I know, I always try to check all the words used in class in a dictionary". Be positive about unknown areas: "I have never taken a netball team but I would enjoy doing so: I love sport." Be proud of your strengths: "I've had a lot of success in my teaching practice in using music to teach rhyme."

But don't be ingenuous. If you are asked what extra-curricular activities you could offer, "tapestry" or "vegetarian cookery" are not nearly such good answers as "maybe a history society using local resources". Never mind if you prefer whipping up bean stew: what do you think a school would like?

Hearing the result

Some schools will tell you if you have got the job straightaway, others may contact you on the phone. If you have not heard within a few days, ring up. You need to know and they should tell you. More usually, however, at the end of the interview you may be asked to wait for the result, possibly with others. This is pretty gruelling, but try to focus on the rest of your life and plans. That way, you may avoid crumbling if you are given the brush-off. If you do not succeed, see if you can be de-briefed. Most headteachers will do this and it can be very helpful to know that you were good but beaten by someone with more experience, an internal candidate, or the one with three languages. If you did not give the impression of really wanting the job or seemed not to grasp its possibilities, that can be addressed the next time.

If you are offered the job on the spot and accept it, a verbal contract is just as binding as a written one. You cannot go off to another interview and get that one, too. If that seems a possibility, you will have to demur. It is really not fair on the institution which needs to fill a post if candidates are not clear about their priorities. Bear this in mind because one day it may be you selecting some hopeful new entrant to the profession. Good luck!

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