A-Z of how to prepare a job application

A selection of top tips you should consider for every step of the job application process

There is a knack to getting it your application right and boosting your chances of securing that all-important job. Photograph: iStock

There is a knack to getting it your application right and boosting your chances of securing that all-important job. Photograph: iStock


Job applications are time-consuming and can be boring and frustrating. Between writing up a template cover letter and CV, tweaking it for every job and going through four or five rounds of interviews and psychometric tests, very few people – if any – would list job-hunting among their hobbies.

Get the cover letter and CV wrong, and you’ll find your applications quickly discarded, with no prospect of an interview. But there is a knack to getting it right and boosting your chances of securing that job.

We spoke to two career experts for their top tips: Brian McFadden is director of client services at Recruiters and Adette Ring is a careers officer at IT Sligo.

Advice: Even beyond graduation, your college careers office is a free source of advice and support to help you find the right job and career. They will help you prepare your CV and cover letter, do mock interviews and point you towards useful testing tools. Most careers offices are open to graduates for two years after they finish college, but some will work with graduates for years or even decades after they finish up.

Belief: If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will. “If you’ve done your research on the company and prepared for the interview, it is important to sell yourself,” says Adette Ring. You don’t have to be the most confident person in the world but when it comes to job interviews, remember that you are selling yourself and your skills for this particular job.

Cover letter: Often considered the most painful part of any job application, it is nonetheless crucial.

Brian McFadden says that a good cover letter needs to be relevant to the job advertised. “It should be short and address why you are applying to this job and why you are a suitable candidate. It helps if you have researched the company’s culture and values, as these can be used as a selection tool.”

Ring recommends looking at examples online and then writing a standard letter that can be tweaked for every job. “Your cover letter should be tied into your CV but can also be used to state things that you can’t get across on the CV. You are looking to tie the cover letter into the job ad and skills and experience required.”

Keep it to three paragraphs: one showing your experience and how you can do the job, a second showing your qualifications and ability to do the job and a final paragraph showing why you want it.

Degree: Employers are often looking for a graduate with a degree, but they’re not always as concerned as you might think about what degree. Ultimately, they are looking for graduates who have a proven ability to learn, because you’ll always have to upskill and retrain, and because companies can train you on the job. They also want well-rounded people with good communications, problem-solving, teamwork and other skills.

Examples: One common mistake on a CV or cover letter is when an applicant lists their skills but isn’t able to back this up with examples in the CV or interview. Ring advises: “If you say, for instance, that you have good communication skills, show them a project or some area where you used those skills, such as a fundraising project for the local GAA or a student club or society. If you say you have IT skills, tell them the packages you can use. If you say you have good time-management skills, be ready to give examples (such as a proven track record of meeting deadlines).” Ultimately, Ring says, your CV should show your skills without you needing to explicitly state them.

Fit: Are you a good cultural fit for the company you have in mind? Look at smaller and medium-sized companies as well as the big multinationals. Brian McFadden says that companies seek candidates who really want to work for the company. “Show them why you are a suitable candidate. It may be that you have researched the company’s culture and values – for us that includes openness, honesty, self-awareness, drive to succeed and fun – and decided that they are a good fit for you. Most companies have identified their cultural fit and this will be on their website or in their job ads.”

Grammar and spelling: Recruiters are looking for excuses to narrow down the number of applicants. “Be meticulous with your CV,” says McFadden. “Your CV is like your brochure, and spelling and grammar mistakes can suggest to an employer that you lack attention to detail.”

HR and hiring manager: Human resources will generally – if not always – be responsible for hiring, perhaps going by the name of “talent acquisition manager”. These are the people who will assess your skills and whether or not you are the right “cultural fit” for the organisation.

Interview: Ring urges graduates to do a mock interview, ideally with your careers office, to prepare you for the process. Job applicants may need to go through several rounds of interviews. “Show them your personality and who you are. They will likely throw some tough questions at you, so practice makes perfect.”

Job description: This is your guiding document. Read the job description again and, from cover letter to CV and interview, make sure you are showing how you are the person who can best fit that job description.

Know the company: Look at the company’s website, social media platforms and media presence, but also try to speak to people who work or have worked for that company. What is the staff turnover like: are people staying for more than a year? A high staff turnover might suggest that people are leaving for a reason.

Leadership: One of many skills that companies want, alongside communications, teamwork skills, attention to detail, problem-solving and initiative. Think of the work experience and volunteer work you have done and reflect on whether it helped you develop those skills – and, if so, how.

Money: It isn’t the primary motivator for graduates who are looking for experience, says McFadden, but it does matter. When is it okay to bring it up? “Companies should be upfront about the pay scales, whether in their job ad or in the first interview,” says McFadden.

Generally, a “competitive” salary is in line with industry norms. Data from gradireland.com shows that average graduate salaries are just below €32,000 but bear in mind that this means some salaries will be lower and some higher.

Nice: If called for an interview, be nice and friendly to everyone you meet, whether online or in person. Be on time, or if it’s online, make sure that your camera, microphone and wifi are working. Be presentable and appropriately dressed.

On-boarding: If you do get the job, it’s important to know how you will be welcomed and inducted into the company – a good company will have clear processes and procedures to help you fit in.

Psychometric tests: Increasingly a part of job applications, these are designed to see what sort of person you are. “Be open, don’t try and blag them or assume the ‘right’ answer; you don’t want the job if you’re not the right fit,” says McFadden.

Questions: “At the end of an interview, you will be asked if you have questions for your interviewers, and the biggest mistake is not to take this chance,” says McFadden. “If you don’t ask any questions, it suggests a lack of analytical thinking, or that you’re just going through the motions applying for different jobs. If you do ask questions, it shows that you are curious and genuinely interested in the role.”

Resumé (CV): Americans are all about the one-page resumé (CV), which Ring is a big advocate of. “If I get 50 applications, am I going to read two pages of CV? I just want to see your education, what degree you have and the main subjects and work experience you have,” she says. A tight, neat CV is possibly more achievable for graduates because they are likely to have less work experience.

For more experienced graduates, however, McFadden says that two pages – maximum – is okay. Either way, it should include your work experience, perhaps with a brief description of the role performed, and then volunteer work or extracurricular information that gives a broader, rounded view of you and your skills.

Social media: Companies regularly check out the social media of job applicants, so don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t be comfortable with your boss seeing. Or, before applying, lock down your Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Also, make sure your LinkedIn is up to date.

Tweaks: Do up a standard CV and cover letter, tweaking it for different jobs and their different requirements, and paying special attention to the skill sets they are looking for.

Understand yourself: Knowing what job you want, or what company you want to work for, is easier when you understand yourself and what makes you tick. VIAcharacter.org is a useful free tool.

Values: Are you okay with long hours and overtime? Do you mind working remotely or do you want to be in the office full-time? What sort of boss do you want and what will they expect of you? Is there someone in the company who will give you mentoring and support? These are often questions you’ll only really be able to answer when you have built up some work experience, but worth considering from the outset.

Work experience: An important element of the CV but one that can be challenging for graduates. “Your work experience is about showing your competencies,” says McFadden. “If you worked in retail, this means you have customer service and communication skills, and you can work to goals and targets.”

Ring advises applicants not to explicitly spell out every detail of their job. “If you worked in a bar, I don’t need to know that you served drinks – this is a given. But if you are the keyholder and have been given the responsibility of locking up, or designing the website or organising events, it’s worth stating this.”

Xennial: Graduates with overseas work experience or a second language are hugely valued. It’s also worth considering whether the company values a diverse workforce – if it’s all white, straight men at management levels, that tells you a lot about opportunities for women and minorities.

Youth versus experience: Graduates can’t compete with more experienced candidates when it comes to work experience, but if your application shows a willingness to learn and that you are a well-rounded person with potential, you’re in with a good shot for graduate or junior roles (though you never know: some graduates might be impressive enough to skip a few levels).

Zeal: If you’re not enthusiastic about the job, don’t waste your time and theirs by applying. Focus on the jobs that really interest you, and your zeal for the role will shine through.