How to make your job application stand out

It’s competitive out there, so what makes one graduate stand out from a pile of applications?

Today’s students are well primed to think beyond job silos and, instead, reflect more broadly on the skills they have learned and developed in college. Photograph: iStock

Today’s students are well primed to think beyond job silos and, instead, reflect more broadly on the skills they have learned and developed in college. Photograph: iStock

 

We spoke to a range of experts about getting your CV up-to-scratch, nailing that interview and putting your best foot forward.

1 Use your careers office

Graduates have a key advantage over other job seekers: many third-levels offer two years of free career advice and support after finishing in college.

At Dublin City University, the careers team – Yvonne McLoughlin, head of the careers service, Siobhán Murphy, who focuses on careers for science, health, law and government graduates, and Elaine Daly, who focuses on careers for education, humanities and social science graduates – advise graduates to avail of this resource.

“We support students and graduates around their career choice and career decision making, getting career-ready, skills sessions, building up their CV and preparing for interviews,” says Daly.

2 Think skills

Today’s students are well primed to think beyond job silos and, instead, reflect more broadly on the skills they have learned and developed in college. So, before putting together your CV, it’s a good idea to reflect on who you are and what you value.

“Investing this time in yourself and your career planning can help you to pivot and transition to new roles,” McLoughlin advises. “Can you talk or write about yourself? What are your interests and skills and what do they say about you?”

This could mean, for instance, that an engineering graduate who was involved in the college hurling team and also developed coding skills has strong analytical, problem-solving and teamwork skills. Or an arts graduate who got involved in the debating society is very good at communicating, researching and planning.

If you haven’t got all the skills you want, don’t fret: just make a note of what you feel you’re missing and how you can cultivate them. Developing this “growth mindset” is about self-awareness and reflection, but it also equips you to learn that “failure” is an opportunity to learn and grow as a person.

“I work with the skills and attributes people have, rather than focus on what they’re missing,” says Daly. “Employers understand that they’re hiring students who have been in college.”

McLoughlin says that, while graduates might have a dream job in mind, it’s a good idea to have a plan A and a plan B. “This is asking graduates to think wide, creative and lateral. If you want to work in journalism, could public relations be a way of getting that role down the line; if you want to work in aviation, could project management or logistics be a starting point? Be strategic with your career planning.”

3 Social media

Social media – and particularly LinkedIn – is one of the three vital parts of any modern job application. (We interviewed Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn Ireland, and Brian McFadden from Recruiters about how to have a standout profile.)

4 The cover letter and curriculum vitae

Companies can get dozens, if not hundreds, of applications for a job. From the outset, this means that they’re looking for every opportunity to cull.

“The CV is the first stage of the screening process,” says Murphy. “When it comes to CV, there’s some basics first: don’t get hung up on using fancy templates, keep it to two strong pages and don’t use colour. Again, we advise graduates to use their college careers service to help put what they need together.”

Don’t fire the same CV out to different companies. “A CV needs to be written in response to the job description,” Murphy says. “An employer wants to know three main things: if you can do the job they have described, if you will do the job they have described and why you want to work for their company. The CV covers the can-do piece and the application form or cover letter is where you can explain what you can and will do, and why you want to work for their company. Think of application forms as written interviews where you can explain what your talents and skills are and how, perhaps, you work in a team. But you do need to tailor each CV to be aware of what the company values and to show how you have the qualities that meet the job description.”

Reading and understanding the job description to grasp what the company wants can be a skill in itself. “Read, reread and again reread the job description and then write the CV,” says McLoughlin. “Look at the language they are using to describe themselves. Look at the verbs they are using. Understand exactly what is being asked and the skillset they are looking for. Mind mapping can help: once you know what the company are looking for and you understand the description, find your examples of how you are the right fit, whether that’s from work experience, volunteering or being involved in clubs and societies.”

Employers are leaning more towards experience than potential at the moment, so list whatever experience you have, and demonstrate any transferable skills. “Show what you have done over the past year, including getting your degree despite not being able to physically attend college,” advises Ruairi Kavanagh, editor of gradireland.com. “That in itself is a massive achievement, because it shows how, despite the challenges that may have included economic hardship, you were able to build relationships and complete projects from a remote setting. Be proud of your achievements.”

5 Interview

Now for the nerve-wracking part: the interview. For better or worse, the days of one interview followed by a quick decision are over; today’s graduate might have to go through multiple rounds of interviews and psychometric tests.

“Employers are taking more of a hybrid approach to interviews,” says Daly. “This was happening pre-pandemic but online interviews might be here to stay. The pro is that you can do the early interview stages from your own home, but the downside is that you need to factor in privacy, noise and the strength of your wifi connection.”

Murphy advises students to practice for interviews, even if that means doing it alone. “Mine the job description, have your examples ready, record yourself and listen back as you articulate your abilities and skills, which can be the most challenging of all the stages of recruitment. Think of it as an elevator pitch where you talk about yourself.”

Helpful hints for cover letter, CVs and interview

Cover letter

Keep it to three paragraphs: your experience (showing you can do the job), your qualifications (showing you will do the job) and why you want it.

CV

– Be very careful of spelling or grammar mistakes. Employers need to whittle down the candidates and if your first interaction with them is full of mistakes, you’ll likely get the chop. Get someone to proofread it for you if possible.

– Tailor your CV to each job.

– List your work experience, education, interests and achievements, with a particular focus on how they relate to the job, how you made an impact and what skills you have demonstrated.

– Consider the skills and experience you gained through college modules and coursework, whether that’s working as a team for a group project or alone.

– You’re a new graduate so you probably don’t have enormous work experience, which means you might need to highlight hobbies, interests or volunteer work, whether it was with a charity or getting involved in clubs, societies, the students’ union or the college paper.

– Look at the CV when it’s finished. Is it cluttered, or is it easy to scan through?

The interview

– If it’s in person, be on time. It’s better to be early even if you’re standing outside the building for a few minutes. If it’s online, make sure your camera, microphone and wifi are working.

– Be presentable and dressed appropriately and, if you’re there in person, be nice to everyone, not just the people you deem “important”: it’s well-known that employers will also ask the receptionist and janitor if you were pleasant to them and, if you weren’t, you quite deservedly won’t get the job.

– Be prepared to show you can do the job and to explain why you want it. Be ready for a range of questions and don’t be afraid to pause to consider your answer.

– They’ve seen your CV: you need to tell your story and why it led you to this job and why you have the right skills.

– Deep breaths. Grateful and grounding affirmations about who you are and why you are happy to have this opportunity. You can do this.