A teaching application is a bit like an online dating profile. The people you want to meet (in this case, the school’s recruiting managers) will take a quick glance and decide on the spot whether they like the look of you or not.
If your application doesn’t make a good first impression, school leaders won’t hesitate to “swipe left” and you will never get the chance to show them what you can do in person.
And even if you do make it to interview, your application can affect how recruiters initially respond to you on the day of the interview.
“Your written application is very important because it usually dictates how you stand in the pecking order at interview,” says Mike Beechey, assistant headteacher at Nelson Tomlinson School in Cumbria. “I rank candidates by the quality of the application. The interview is then about reaffirming if this is still the case.”
How, then, can you make sure that prospective employers will take that all-important step of inviting you to interview – and place you near the top of the pile when they do?
School visit or blind date?
One way to demonstrate that you are serious about your application to work at a particular school is to arrange to visit ahead of applying. A visit will give you an extra chance to make a good impression without any other candidates around, says John Stanier, assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon.
“Of course visiting will make your application stronger. Headteachers want to feel that you know their school and that there is something very special about it. Visiting will help you to do that.”
However, there is a flipside to this. If you do manage to get to the school, remember that you are probably being assessed from the moment you step into reception, or even before.
“We start tracking from the initial email and phone call,” Matt Middlemore, headteacher at Tregolls School in Truro, Cornwall, says. “My senior leaders do the tours and come back and report on individuals. We have already started the process. My PA feeds back on their attitudes to the phone call or email and visit.”
Always be aware of the impression you’re making and don’t fall into the trap of believing that your application form is the only thing that you will be judged on.
If you do decide to visit, make sure that you go in ready to get as much out of the experience as you can.
Claire Boyd, head of junior school at Sydenham High School in South London, suggests deciding ahead of time exactly what you want to learn about the school and preparing questions to ask while you’re there. “It goes without saying that you should also mention your visit in your application and explain how the visit has influenced your decision to apply,” she says.
For some schools – particularly those offering alternative provision – a visit might even be a mandatory part of the application process.
“Visiting a school like [ours] before you get to the interview is essential,” explains Sarah Wild, headteacher of Surrey-based special school Limpsfield Grange.
“We are an unusual setting and we are not for everyone, so candidates need to get a feel for the place.”
Conversely, not all school leaders feel that a pre-application visit is essential, or even desirable. Jarlath O’Brien, director for schools at The Eden Academy group, always considers the practicalities: “Visiting is there as a chance for the candidate to decide if they really want to apply and to see if the school fits for them,” he says.
“But I don’t penalise candidates for not visiting. They might be working full time or live hundreds of miles away.”
David James, deputy headteacher at independent secondary Bryanston School in Dorset, goes further and suggests that potential applicants for the most popular jobs might want to consider alternative ways of deciding if the school is for them.
“To be honest, you have to ask yourself how much time the school’s staff will have to give over to the potential applicant,” he says. “Imagine if we had to do that for [every candidate].
“A phone call to the deputy head asking about whether they would welcome an application can save everybody time if certain details need to be clarified.”
But visiting can be part of the process that helps you to understand what makes a school tick. So, if geography makes it a practical impossibility, you should still take steps to ensure that you’re on an even footing during the paper sift.
Something as simple as getting to know the local area can make all the difference, suggests Boyd. “If you do not know the area in which the school is located, make sure you have made some effort to find out about the community and surrounding locality,” she says.
Getting the basics right
While every school is unique, there are fundamental qualities that all school leaders look for when considering which candidates to interview.
If you can highlight these in your application form, you stand a good chance of going further in the process.
1. Check your work
According to James, the most basic box to tick is something that is often overlooked by applicants.
“I cannot stress how important accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar are,” he says.
“Applications for teaching jobs can often be disregarded if there are missing apostrophes or irregular capitalisation.
“If the applicant does not have these basic skills, or has not taken enough care to double check the application, then that seriously disadvantages them.”
2. Beyond the classroom
If you are confident that your spelling, grammar and presentation are up to scratch, the next thing you should consider is whether your application demonstrates that you have an enthusiastic attitude and willingness to participate in school life beyond your own classroom.
This is of particular importance to Boyd. “I like to see successful projects candidates can share that demonstrate they are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved.
“[School leaders] are always looking for people who are going to contribute to team projects and the wider life of the school.”
To do this, Boyd suggests giving specific examples of extracurricular activities, school trips or special events that you have been involved in during your training year.
“You don’t always have to be the perfect, finished article, but if you are eager to work together and try new things, then you will set yourself apart and appeal to appointing heads,” she explains.
3. Reveal your skillset
Stanier says that it is equally important for candidates to clearly signpost their achievements within the classroom.
“If you can prove that you have a track record of achieving good outcomes for your pupils then state that as soon as possible. This is always at the forefront of any headteacher’s mind.”
4. One size does not fit all
Another thing that school leaders really hope to see in job applications is the personal touch – so the bad news is that sending out one generic application to 10 different schools is unlikely to reap rewards.
“It is blindingly obvious when we receive a generic application and this doesn’t communicate that the applicant is that interested in our school,” explains O’Brien.
Boyd agrees. “Whenever I read through applications, I am looking for people who have read the job description and person specification carefully but who have also considered how the role fits into the ethos of our school.
“You can tell in a second which applicants have done their research, read up on the school and found out about our community,” she says.
The culture of the particular school you are applying to will dictate the finer details of what your application should demonstrate. You can often gain clues about this from the job advertisement.
“Believe it or not, schools give a lot of time and consideration to the wording that is contained within their job advertisements,” says Boyd.
“Take the time to read the advert carefully and get a steer on whether the school is seeking someone who is potentially looking for future promotion (“ambitious”, “highly motivated”), someone to fit into a large team (“team player”, “collaborative”) or someone to act as a change agent (“innovative”, “bold”, “visionary”).”
If you can’t deduce much from the advertisement itself, then it is time to get your detective hat on and start finding out as much as you can about the school through its website, social media channels or stories in the local paper.
This will give you a better idea of what to emphasise in your application, but be warned: a school’s main priorities can vary widely.
“Teaching methodology is high on our wish list,” says Beechey. “You need to have spotted this and entwined it into your application subtly without being too over the top.”
Meanwhile, Dani Lang, associate headteacher of Brimsdown Primary School in Enfield, is more interested in recruiting people who are great collaborators.
“My real focus is on comments about teamwork as we are a large, three-form-entry primary,” she says.
“I think that when you look at a job advertisement, you should go on to the school website and request a pack, as both of these things help you get a feel for the school and the kind of candidate it is looking for.”
A school pack will give you an idea of a school’s individual values and priorities. This will help you to tailor your application form but will also give you a better idea of whether the culture would be a good fit for you.
“In our school, we have a strong pastoral system and we emphasise positive pupil-teacher relationships,” Stanier says.
“Therefore, we look for applicants who have strong interpersonal skills, and who have that warm and supportive approach towards pupils.
“But other schools might have a ‘no excuses’ policy, where it will be far more important for you to show that you have good classroom management and organisational skills.”
If you’re still struggling to grasp what a particular school is all about after scrutinising its website and reading the school pack from cover to cover, Middlemore has a simple answer: ask the school directly.
“Call the school and ask them what they’re working on this year,” he says.
“You want to make sure that you can meet their needs.”
5. Show your personality
Perhaps most importantly, school leaders, like any recruiters, are looking for applications that are memorable.
“Very often, you do not get enough sense of the candidate’s character or personality but the application should tell me something that makes me want to continue a conversation with them,” says James.
If there is something unique about you, don’t be afraid to put it out there. It might just be that one detail that catches a headteacher’s eye and makes them decide that they want to hear more.
“It’s very important for the candidate to be interesting, particularly when you are sifting through 100 applications all saying the same thing,” says Middlemore.
“We ask, ‘what can the candidate bring that nobody else can?’ ”
Stand out from the crowd
Your best chance to give any potential employer a strong sense of what sets you apart is in your personal statement.
However, there can be a fine line between showing personality and penning something so wacky that it puts employers off. So, what works? And what should you avoid?
Stanier suggests taking a straightforward approach initially and then going back to add colour only once you have a strong outline to work with.
“The best approach is to write a short, crisp paragraph for each of the aspects of the person specification, showing how you fulfil that criteria,” he argues.
“Top and tail it with why you like the school so much, add your own personal interests, and voila! Application done.”
The more factual evidence, statistics and data about your previous successes you can include, the better, he adds.
And once you are certain that you have addressed all aspects of the person specification, this is the time to include something about yourself that could be considered “out of the ordinary”.
“This will help you stick in the minds of the panel. ‘Who is Kate? Oh, yes: the turtle woman’, ‘Which one is Brian? Oh, yes: magician man’,” says Stanier.
But don’t get so caught up in your embellishments that you end up writing an essay, Boyd warns.
“Do not let it go on too long. You do not want to undersell yourself, but a personal statement is not the place to list everything you have ever done.
“Decide what the headline points are that you feel show you in your best light and stick to covering these.
“Keeping to a few impressive points will make your application stick in the minds of those reading it.”
There is also a balance for candidates to strike between modesty and confidence. “We look for emotional intelligence – can you admit to struggling with something in the past? How have you worked on this? It’s a balance between selling oneself and being too cocky,” says Beechey.
You want to avoid sounding conceited, but headteachers agree that you shouldn’t hold back when it comes to communicating your passion for education.
And don’t forget that personal statements work best when they are honest pieces of writing that tell prospective employers something meaningful, says James.
“Write about yourself, the love of your subject and why you want to be a teacher at the school you are applying for.
“Clichés are easy to delete or change and that creative act should strengthen the application,” he says.
Application mistakes to avoid
So how do you ensure your application form is in the best shape it can be? To give yourself a fighting chance of getting through to the next stage of the process, you need to avoid those application faux pas that are serious enough to immediately rule out a face-to-face meeting.
We asked headteachers to share some of the biggest mistakes they’ve seen candidates make in their forms. Shudder at these all-too-common application disasters and resolve to do better.
1. Not being honest
“The biggest mistake people make on applications is not being honest about their employment records and any gaps in employment,” says Boyd. “Headteachers will spot any inconsistencies immediately, so make sure you are honest and comprehensive in the information you provide from the outset.”
Beechey agrees. “Any gaps in your employment history need explaining carefully and references should be from your current employer.
“If you are really concerned about this, I would suggest contacting the headteacher directly and being up front.”
2. Being dull
Headteachers agree that the best way to put off a potential employer is to send them to sleep.
“The main mistake people make is being very, very boring [and] including as many buzzwords as possible – ‘differentiation’, ‘assessment for learning’ and so on, rather than showing the impact that they have had on pupils,” says Stanier.
Keeping your application to a manageable length will help you to avoid this, he adds.
“Never write more than one side of A4 for a personal statement – unless it is a leadership position,” he says. “Honestly, no one will read it and, if they do, they have already made their minds up about you.”
3. Lacking attention to detail
Silly mistakes, sloppy presentation and factual errors demonstrate that you have not taken care over your application form, says James.
“The most common mistakes are found in CVs: wrong dates, dates that don’t match, missing or vague qualifications (such as grades not given for A-level results),” he explains. “I once saw an application for a role that had another school’s name on it. Clearly, sections had been cut and pasted in. That candidate wasn’t interviewed.”
But O’Brien has experienced this problem on an even more dramatic scale.
“I’m still trying to find Kate, who had some good skills and experience but omitted her surname, address, phone number and email address, clearly having sent in a half-finished application,” he says.
4. Appearing arrogant
As much as you might be of the opinion that any school would be lucky to have you, it’s important to come across as rather more reflective and humble, where possible.
“‘I’m an Ofsted outstanding teacher’ is a vote loser,” says O’Brien.
And Middlemore also sighs in despair whenever he comes across the phrase “outstanding teacher” in an application.
“Nobody is an outstanding teacher in our view, albeit they might be a very experienced teacher,” he says.
Kate Townshend is a freelance writer