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Wake me up;Career Development

John Caunt reveals what catches the selector's eye in job application letters

It is 10.30pm. This is one of those evening jobs that needs to be done without the distractions of a normal day. There are 30 pieces of work to be read and assessed by tomorrow morning. I fight to stop my attention wandering as I churn through the same thing presented the same way 30 times.

Short-listing applications is remarkably like marking. The difference is that a mediocre job application will not be returned with helpful advice. It will go straight to the reject pile.

The factor that separates short-listed candidates from the rest is the quality of their letters of application. Your aim is to show clearly and concisely that you match the selector's requirements, and to emphasise abilities and experience that may not be fully apparent from the application form.

The easiest way to structure your letter is to work from the job details you have been sent. Job descriptions vary considerably and you may need to do some reading between the lines of less well-prepared examples.

Start by listing the main requirements of the job on a blank sheet. Do not just parrot the points made in the application documentation, but aim to tease out the critical underlying qualities. Think also about any attributes not mentioned that are likely to be important.

Next, set out examples of activities and achievements that demonstrate your strengths in each of the areas you have listed.

Presentation is almost as important as content. Lay out your letter according to normal conventions and do not go in for anything gimmicky.

A common fault in letters of application is the adoption of an excessively formal written style. Without going too far in the other direction, try to keep your writing moderately light and aim to let your personality shine through.

If the application is to be sent to a specific individual, then address them by name in the salutation rather than using an impersonal Sir or Madam.

Before you finalise the document you should ruthlessly remove any verbiage. Pay particular attention to cliched expressions and empty buzzwords. Shorten sentences where you can.

Remove repetitions and redundant words, and do not spell out what may be readily implied. Use strong active verbs that convey energy and enthusiasm wherever possible when describing achievements.

Then print your final copy in the knowledge that, at the very least, you have prevented the selector nodding off over his cocoa.


Six tips for effective letters of application

1 Demonstrate your qualities by examples of experience and achievements rather than unsup- ported statements and vague generalisations.

2 Don't bore the reader with every last detail of your achievements. Aim for a maximum of six to eight main points and a page- and-a-half of text.

3 Make life easier for the selector. Your opening paragraph needs to engage their attention and make them want to read on. Attributes they are looking for should be clearly illustrated.

4 Put your draft letter aside for a day and then review it. Invariably you will find things that you can express more persuasively.

5 Get somebody else to proof-read your final draft. We all have our presentational blind-spots.

6 Don't include anything that you will not be able to demonstrate or justify at interview, and remember to keep a copy for pre-interview revision.

John Caunt was formerly director of personnel and student services at Southampton City College

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