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Most companies large enough to have a graduate recruitment programme will have a standardised application form. This means that corporations, banks, law firms, advertising agencies and many branches of the civil service (to name but a few) set an application form as one of the first hurdles on the way to employment. Application forms are generally used by companies as a filtration process to weed out unsuitable candidates before interview. They will often be dealt with exclusively by the Human Resources department of your target company.
What format do the forms take?
Most forms can be filled out on the Net and accessed through the company's own homepage, but a small minority still require handwritten documents, which you need to order by post. They ask for a lot of the same information that a good CV might contain, such as school and university attended, A-level results, degree breakdown and work experience.
However, in addition to the usual factual information, most application forms have a separate section asking potential recruits to answer a number of frustratingly vague questions - such as 'Describe what has been your greatest challenge in life so far'- with no obvious guidance or criteria.
The questions will vary depending on the qualities required by a given career, but as a general rule you should expect about four sections each needing 200-300 word answers.
How are the forms assessed?
Some companies have a rigid points system for assessing the answers they receive on applications schemes, with categories such as academic achievement, commercial awareness, and capacity to work in a team. Others take a less formulaic approach, and look for style and originality as well as the more prosaic qualities.
To find out what your prospective employer wants to hear in your answers, go onto their website and the websites of their nearest competitors and make a list of their 'buzzwords'- these are qualities such as 'intelligent problem solving' or 'leadership skills' which the firms themselves list as important. When answering, try to focus on these 'buzzwords' and their close synonyms, and choose to describe situations where they might naturally arise.
What shall I write?
Starting your answers to the more general questions can be very daunting. It may help to start with a list of your main achievements to date - particularly if you are filling in several forms at the same time - from which you can select the most relevant examples.
Always try to answer the question as directly as possible, and try to avoid any stylistic or thematic repetition - treat each section as an opportunity to demonstrate a different set of skills and proficiencies.
Try to structure your responses in a format appropriate to the profession - future bankers, management consultants, ambassadors and lawyers should avoid wordy prose, and break their answers down into subheadings and bullet points. Thus a question asking you to describe a time when you influenced others to follow a given course of action should be divided into a brief breakdown of the situation, a section giving details of how you shifted perspective, and a final conclusion giving two or three separate points about the lessons you learned. Meanwhile an advertising or journalistic application might place more emphasis on elegant prose and exciting content.
The key to answering these questions is the way you tackle them, not the issue you choose to discuss. That said, avoid choosing something that makes you sound eccentric (if you demonstrated determination by breaking the world record for most hotdogs eaten in a ten minute period, you should probably keep that to yourself), and if you're going to 'exaggerate' something from your own experience, keep a copy of the form handy to read through before your interview. Many interviewers have been disappointed to discover that their interviewee has no memory of having climbed Killimanjaro or teaching little Timmy to read, as they sent their application in and then forgot what they had written.