I read lots of application forms for students and become very familiar with standard questions, asked by all sorts of employers. This is a question which comes up over and over again. So, how to go about answering it in the best way? Here are my tips.
1. Answer the question
The most common mistake I see is students answering “Why do you want to work for us?” or “What do you know about us?” in place of the question actually asked. So why does this happen such a lot with this particular question? Sometimes it’s because students don’t feel that they have much to write about themselves. At other times their answers stem from a belief that every single answer has to demonstrate how much they want the particular job for which they are applying. Just think about this. Employers spend lots of time (and money) setting up their recruitment processes. They think about the questions they need to pose to get the answers they want to assess. This particular question is assessing you not asking about your research so don’t be afraid to answer as you.
2. Be honest – not over humble or too arrogant
I was talking to a law firm partner yesterday and he asked why everyone at Warwick has always been the captain of a sports team! Of course you have to sell yourself on an application form but being a committed and reliable team member in any sphere can be as good as being the captain. When you first start out in a graduate role you are likely to be valued for your ability to work in a team rather than your strength in leading. Great if you were team captain to talk about organising fixtures and training and motivating your team. Fine too to talk about turning up for practice every week and supporting others.
You do have to sell yourself though. It isn’t arrogant to be honest and straightforward about your achievements. There’s a world of difference between “I won the prize for being top in…” and “I am proud to say that my efforts were recognised when I was awarded the extraordinarily prestigious prize for….” Try to state the facts and let others draw the conclusions on just how amazing you are!
3. Don’t panic if you don’t think you have done much
Some students will have had the chance to engage in a plethora of exciting extra-curricular activities at school, and will have the freedom and space to pursue a range of interests at university. This is not true for all. Perhaps your school didn’t offer activities, and you have had to work to fund your studies leaving you no time to engage with clubs and societies. Do not despair and put down the application form. Explain your circumstances. “I have had to work part time to fund my studies since the age of x and continue to work now to minimise my debt. I have achieved outstanding academic marks while working for y hours per week demonstrating excellent time management skills, resilience and determination, this has left me no time to engage with student activities” is a great answer!
4. Try not to talk about ancient history
As you move through your life you will need to review what you include on application forms. Now, I acted my way through university in student productions and engaged significantly in student politics. I’m sure it helped me get my first job but I wouldn’t really talk about it now! Of course everything you did at school is going to be relevant in your first year at university but what about by the time you get to the third year? You will need to be ruthless in pruning down what you did at school to leave space to talk about your time at university.
5. Use the word count as a guide
Generally there is a word count, use it for your guidance. If it is 250 words then it’s a fair bet that the employer is looking for a bit more than one sentence. You’ll need to avoid lists though, always best to select some of your best achievements and explain their importance rather than just bullet point activity without explaining what you did or why it matters.
And when you’ve finished? Don’t forget to check for spelling and grammar errors!