How to Effectively Complete Application Forms
Completing application forms has always been considered by many to be something fairly straightforward, although time consuming, and people often ask why anyone would need to spend much time on them. Students applying for work experience and training contracts have probably got to the stage where they are completely fed up with filling out these forms, particularly for the Magic Circle firms, who all seem to use the same software package and ask very similar but slightly different questions which necessitates careful thinking on each occasion.
Application Forms – why are they used by law firms?
On the whole application forms are used to benchmark all applications within very specific fields – the usual suspect is undergraduate degree classification – for training contracts, pupillage and work experience. At a later stage in careers all those without a consistent academic career and relevant experience will be removed from the shortlist.
Nine Common Mistakes to Avoid with Application Forms
Based on our experiences both as recruiters and careers advisers here are nine common mistakes to avoid on application forms:
1. Spelling mistakes. Over the years we have been reviewing application forms at all levels, including the Judiciary and Senior Solicitor stages, we have rarely seen a form that does not contain a spelling or grammatical mistake somewhere. These can be an absolute killer if they are spotted.
2. Not going into sufficient detail as requested on the application form. An example of this would be under the academic stage where specific grades are asked for and applicants choose to be selective in which subjects they put down.
3. Not answering the question asked on the form. This is the major fault of a large number of applicants, particularly at training contract level. You must read the question carefully and answer it in order. An example of this would be “describe a situation when you were involved in a project and explain what your involvement was, any problems that arose and the outcome”. This question has about five or six different sections to it yet the vast majority of applicants will only answer one or two and almost always will cut and paste a problem they think loosely fits and hope for the best, whereas in reality doing this will almost always result in them being marked down for that particular question.
4. Giving too much information of a negative nature because there is a space on the form to fill out. An example of this would be when the form asks if there were any extenuating circumstances behind an academic result and someone spends 3 paragraphs explaining how they had shingles at university before their final exam and they feel this affected their result. Think very carefully before filling out this section with anything negative. Put yourself in the employer’s shoes and ask if anything going on in your personal life should affect your ability to do your job and if yes, whether you would employ someone who considered this acceptable. My usual advice is that on the vast majority of occasions these sections should be left blank unless there is a very good set of circumstances to explain a particular academic grade etc…
5. Using examples from academic or home life rather than work. An example of this would be “describe a situation when you have been part of a team and had to overcome a problem” type question and somebody gives an example of when they had to organise a child’s party at home for a relative. All very well and good but not really related to the world of work and hence not going to add much to an application.
6. Feeling the need to fill up space. Do not feel that because there is a large space on a form you need to give an answer that fills the entire space when really it only requires a few words. So many people, particularly training contracts and work experience applicants fill every single space on the application form with typing because they think they are missing something if they leave a blank. This is just astonishing. One of the major skills of a lawyer is to be able to be concise and summarise points. If you feel the need to fill in every single space with text this does not exactly bode well for your later ability at presenting a case or giving advice to a client.
7. Unnecessary Waffle. Waffling is something done by just about everyone on application forms and usually involves an attempt to use business speak to fill in space without actually saying anything. Whilst this may feel impressive, it is frustrating when reading through application forms as it is just impossible to comprehend. I strongly recommend not using business terminology wherever possible unless it is necessary and being very conscious of any waffling that you start to do.
8. Putting irrelevant detail into boxes asking for specific answers. The best example of this is when a form has space for positions of responsibility and someone puts in that they were a school prefect twenty years ago, or had helped to set out the books at the start of a class at university. Positions of responsibility are usually something along the lines of captain of your local cricket team, chairman of the local rotary club, head boy at school or president of the student union. Responses such as classroom assistant, librarian, member of the University Law Society do not go down very well and probably would be best left off the application form completely.
9. Filling out the ‘Any Other Information’ section with a load of nonsense. So many people cut and paste in anything they have missed out of the other sections into this bit that it almost renders the whole application completely useless. It is almost as if people feel the need to just fill in the space or get over every single point that they feel they need to.
Try to avoid these common mistakes and you may discover a better response to your application forms. However do not spend significant times filling out application forms for firms where it is pretty obvious unless you have the right academics and the right background you are not going to get anywhere.
Jonathan Fagan is Managing Director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment
For assistance with Application Form reviews, Covering Letter reviews, CV Reviews and CV Writing, please visit www.legalcareercoaching.co.uk – The Ten-Percent Careers Shop