How to get a job in 2020: application and interview tips

30th January 2020

By Lucy Clayton and Steven Haines

The application process

Filling in forms, doing online interviews, video interviews and tests is a slog. While it’s fun to think that maybe you could bypass an entire recruitment system by knitting a rug with the CEO’s dog’s face on it, honestly, your time is better spent researching, preparing and practising for the slog itself.

Remember that old adage about reading the exam questions properly? Read the application form and the job specification, then respond to it with clarity, confidence and a little bit of charm. This isn’t about passing a test — it’s about proving yourself capable of doing the job. So much of this is about being easy to say “yes” to.

If you have a genuinely ingenious idea for answering a question on an application, then sure, use it. But don’t ever stray from the required format for the sake of standing out from the crowd. The golden rule is: substance beats stunts. Don’t feel like you have to be joyless in order to seem professional, though. Try to be yourself. Or even better, a polished, bright, super-keen version of yourself.

The covering letter

What seems like a horrendous task is actually a straightforward exercise. The good news is that your potential employer has given you everything you need to do it.

  1. Tell them exactly how you meet the person specification
    Cut and paste the section that lists skills, experience, knowledge and so on. Under each line tell them how your skills, experience, knowledge and so on match what they are looking for. Sounds eerily simple? I’ve sifted thousands of covering letters and résumés and the brutal reality is that if you have clearly said how you will be able to deliver exactly what I have asked for, in the order I have asked for it, you make it very easy for me to shortlist you. Put the criteria in bold, put it in bullet points if you want. Candidates who have all the requirements but have told me their many merits in lengthy, dense paragraphs will end up in the rejected pile.
  2. Close with a sense of anticipation
    Round off the letter with words like “I would relish the opportunity to discuss this further” and sign off as you would for any formal letter. Don’t be overfamiliar, don’t start with “Hey” and end with “Cheers” — it’s disrespectful rather than cosy, and puts distance between you and the reader.

Writing your résumé

Junior positions can get lots of applicants, so CVs should be succinct and deliver the important information as quickly as possible. Like a three-minute pop song. Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.

Dr Joe Grove, Sir Henry Dale Fellow, viral immune evasion, University College London Institute of Immunity and Transplantation, the Royal Free Hospital, and former shelf stacker at Tesco

Writing your résumé for the first time can easily lead to a heavy dose of existential dread. How do you write a career summary when you haven’t had a career? The truth is that no one is expecting you to have had one. But wherever you’ve got to in your education, you have done a lot that shows you could be a great hire. So this exercise is your chance to demonstrate your vital workplace skills (even if you didn’t learn them in a workplace) by succinctly communicating information. And it’s easy enough if you follow these rules:

  • Keep it short
    In 20 years you’ll be cramming a career on to two sides of A4, so there’s no excuse for making it lengthy now.
  • Keep it clean
    Use a classic font like Arial or Times New Roman, minimum 10pt font. You don’t need pictures, text boxes or decorative borders, just vital information and lots of room for it to breathe.
  • Put your name and contact details at the top
    If you have a comedy email address you set up when you were 14, this might be the time to get a new one.

The content

If you have any complementary experience or talents then do share them, but don’t overshare. A friend of mine had an applicant who sent pictures of her paintings for a job as a studio production assistant. The paintings were close-up portraits of her vagina. No.

Avoid ridiculous proclamations — don’t tell us you’re a storyteller or that anything is “in your DNA”. This isn’t a dating profile.

There are different schools of thought about including a personal statement at the start (these are usually a maximum of 200 words). The problem is that you can waste valuable time with empty statements, jargon and over-claiming. If you want to take this route, you might want to try a skills-based résumé which starts with a few key skills you want to show off, with a good solid example of when you’ve demonstrated them.

As with covering letters, you will need to review your CV each time you apply for a job. Show how your skills and experience are relevant to the requirements of the job specification. Don’t skip this step. If it seems too much like hard work ask yourself, do you really want to apply for this role?

Although you may not feel like the jobs you’ve done to date are relevant, include them. Your Saturday job as a tour guide tells employers a lot about your ability to work with the public, handle responsibility and turn up for a shift.

And a few other points to finish off:

  • Read out what you’ve written to someone who can give you good feedback.
  • Always check the spelling and grammar.
  • Do NOT lie on your résumé; it absolutely stinks if you’re caught out.

Social media: the power and the pitfalls

From the moment you approach the idea of entering work, your social media audience changes from friends, family and those soulmates from distant nations who share your love of avocado to include recruiters, colleagues, customers, clients and other people you hardly know, but who are gathering impressions about what kind of person you are outside of work.

So you may need to clean up your act by changing the settings on your personal accounts to private and checking back through your timelines for anything that might be deemed offensive. Think of this as a moment of reinvention, cleanse all your social accounts of anything dubious or inflammatory first, but also consider things that might make you appear juvenile or untrustworthy. If you’re not sure, delete it or maybe even close down your old online personas and begin again with box-fresh new profiles. Set up a Linked In account and populate it with some content that speaks to how you want to be perceived in your future career.

The interview

A huge part of doing well at interview is about preparation and logistics. By now, you’ll know quite a lot about the fundamentals of the role and the industry. If you haven’t done so already, look up the company in detail, read their annual plan and find out about the challenges that they are facing. The people interviewing you will be thinking about this day in and day out — reflecting on what is front of mind for the person recruiting you in an interview is a simple way to build their confidence that you’re the right person for the job.

Read a newspaper, listen to the news, get wired to culture — there’s nothing worse than appearing disconnected. We all want to work with people who are engaged in the world around them.

If you can, find out who is going to interview you and learn a bit more about them through their company profile or on Linked In. (NB this is not the same as looking at their wedding photos on Instagram.)

Find out where you are in the process. When I ran grad recruitment for a major agency, our thinking looked something like this:

  • 1st round — checking you’re real
    Is this person how they seemed on paper? Or did their mother fill in the forms? This is essentially a chemistry meeting.
  • 2nd round — checking you can hack it
    Does this person have the raw potential to thrive in this role? Do they have the basic skills, the curiosity and the work ethic to enrich this business? Can we coach them to become a strong colleague?
  • 3rd round — checking you fit in (the train test)
    If we were stuck on a train to a client meeting for four hours would I want to throttle them?

In advance of the interview, rehearse. Research potential questions and prepare some answers that get your best points across. Rehearse out loud — it’s the most efficient way to refine your thinking and to gain confidence.

Dress rehearsals

If you’ve been offered two interviews and one company is far more appealing to you than the other, make sure you go to both. It’s invaluable practice — you’ll learn far more by spending a day somewhere even if you have no intention of spending a second one.

How to arrive

  • Turn up 15 minutes early. Introduce yourself and wait in reception. Do not sit there looking at your phone. Instead, read the literature on the coffee table, drink in the atmosphere and use this time to calm any nerves.
  • Dress appropriately. For a first interview it’s wise to play it a bit safe — as it’s never great for your outfit to be more memorable than your personality.

Tell them why you are there

A very common first question in an interview is: “Tell us why you want this job?” Think about WHY in the broadest possible terms and you’ll be off to a flying start.

When to stop talking

In an interview you will be asked questions about yourself. It’s imperative that you’re able to answer pithily. Knowing when to stop speaking is hard, but it is a major indicator of emotional intelligence, and it’s something you should rehearse. Stop. Breathe again. Keep breathing.

Questions you should ask

The interview might feel over at this stage, but interviewers will be assessing the quality of the questions you ask. Not asking any will look either arrogant or disengaged. That said, they may also be running over time, so have a couple prepared, ask one or two and make sure they are relevant and can be answered succinctly.

Here are some examples you can adapt

  • What are the biggest future challenges facing you/your team/your business?
  • Beyond my initial training, what opportunities would there be for ongoing professional development?
  • What would you expect the person in this role to achieve in their first few months?

Questions not to ask

  • “Show me the money” (Or anything about salary)
  • “So, did I get the job?”
  • “What’s the annual leave allowance?”
  • Anything personal about the interviewer as small talk (disturbing)

The asshole question

It’s tempting to imagine that tricky questions are there to catch you out, but mostly it’s just an attempt to engineer a vibrant discussion, so don’t panic. The best job interviews feel memorable and stimulating on both sides without the mention of spirit animals etc. But if you do encounter an annoying question, how do you handle it?

I was once asked, “If you were a novel, what would you be?” I gave it hardly any thought and responded glibly with Harry Potter because of the limitless merchandising opportunities. And that was the end of that little chat.

Don’t second-guess what you think the interviewer wants to hear — an authentic answer, however flat or fluffy, will always land better than a pretend one.

Accepting an offer

Congratulations! But before you say yes, remember to buy yourself some time to consider the details. If you are given the news in a phone call or by email, respond promptly, be excited and enthusiastic, but don’t feel you need to accept straight away. On the phone a simple “That’s wonderful news. I’m delighted and I look forward to hearing more about the details/the offer . . .” will do.

Then ask for confirmation in writing and consider whether you want the job and whether or not the terms you’re being offered require negotiation.

When you don’t get the job

Not being offered a job hurts — the same part of our brain that feels physical pain is stimulated by rejection. But the letter that reads “We had a number of strong applicants for this post, and on this occasion, we decided that another candidate was more suited to the role” is usually telling the truth.

Spend some time being disappointed, there’s no weakness in that. However, it’s common to move from disappointment to self-criticism, and for that to become a negative loop, so the sooner you can turn that feeling of rejection into motivation the better. So don’t wallow, crack on. Next time you’ll be better prepared (even if you prepare in exactly the same way, you know more now simply by having been through it).

Spend a bit of time thinking about what you might have done differently

  • Describe the situation: what questions were you being asked? What did you notice about the way in which you were being interviewed?
  • What were you feeling about the situation?
  • How might you approach the same situation again?

Ask for feedback so that you can tailor your approach next time or work on any areas you’ve identified.

Most importantly, don’t panic.

A final word on interviews

I’ve been thinking a lot about charisma. If you’ve made it into the room, you know it’s because you’re good on paper. But the interview is when everything gets three-dimensional, it’s when you stop being a name on a résumé and start being a personality. So be who you are, but on a really good day. And if that sounds terrifying, or like too much pressure, just try saying the same things you wrote in the application, but with some pizzazz. That usually goes down a treat.

How to have a good handshake

A US study found that a firm handshake has a significant effect on success at interview. Another found that a handshake has a cognitive effect that increases the likelihood of a positive interaction. Small, but significant. If you find handshaking difficult (and there’s no shame in that), then just practise. And if you’re wondering what the optimal handshake is, a British professor of psychology, Geoffrey Beattie, has developed a formula for the perfect handshake:

  • Use the right hand
  • A complete grip and a firm squeeze (but not too strong)
  • A cool and dry palm
  • Approximately three shakes, with a medium level of vigour, held for no longer than two to three seconds
  • Executed with eye contact kept throughout and a good natural smile with an appropriate verbal statement