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A good CV, cover letter, and application form is critical in getting to the interview stage. Our CVs & Applications books are packed full of examples, so whether you’re preparing for the annual graduate recruitment cycle, or an academic researcher looking for your first lectureship position, you’ll find something inside to help you.

We have put together two videos to help you complete a structured application form, as part of our Careers Essentials programme.

Part 1 looks at the preparation required before starting to complete your application form.

Part 2 looks at common types of questions and how to structure your answers with impact.

Top tips for all application forms
  • Keep basic information such as dates, job titles and grades to hand in a reference document
  • Keep strictly to word limits
  • Leave plenty of time before the deadline - applications can be more time-consuming than you expect
  • Check everything for spelling and grammatical mistakes before submitting the form
  • Contact the employer immediately if you have problems filling in the form
  • Make sure you send the right form to the right employer. Employer A is not impressed to receive your application for Employer B!
  • Save a copy before you submit the form - you will need to review them before an interview
Research the employer and the job

Employers often reject applications where it is clear the candidate has not researched their organisation, or even the the job itself.

Before completing the form you need to understand:

  • What you would be doing in the job
  • How you are going to benefit the employer: what skills, knowledge and experience can you bring to them?
  • Why you have chosen this occupation and this employer
  • What is unique about you - what might make you stand out from other applicants
  • Who the employer is and what distinguishes them from competitors
  • Key challenges and issues facing your chosen profession

To start, thoroughly read the details in the job advert and review the employer's website. The careers, news, and "About us" sections are good places to look on a website. Read wider information related to the organisation and sector. You may have personal contacts who will help you to learn more.

The following Careers Service resources can help with your research:

Types of questions asked on application forms

Employers' forms vary considerably. In general there will be two main elements:

Factual and administrative information information

  • Your national insurance number
  • Contact details
  • Education (dates, place, subjects, grades)
  • Employment (job titles, employers, dates, responsibilities)
  • Details of referees

Selection questions

This may be one large box where you are asked how you meet the selection criteria and person specification. Or it may be a series of more specific questions related to your skills and motivations which you answer with responses inserted into smaller boxes. However it is presented, this is where you have the chance to convince the employer that you have the skills, experience, knowledge and motivation to make a great hire.

Answering selection questions

Competencies/skills questions

Find out what the employer is looking forthe list of essential skills or competencies such as teamwork, creativity, integrity. You can usually find this list in the person specification part of the job description. Spend some time thinking of examples of when you have demonstrated these skills. Use experiences from education, employment/work experience, and from more personal experiences such as travel, hobbies, sport or international experience.

Star technique

When writing your answer to these types of questions, the 'STAR' technique can help to structure your response:

  • Situation - Describe the situation briefly.
  • Task - What were you and the team trying to achieve? What was your role?
  • Action - What did you do? How did you do it? Include the key challenges.
  • Result - What was the outcome? What was the value of your contribution?

Some employers are now combining competency-based recruitment with strengths-based recruitment. The focus of strengths based recruitment is on what you enjoy doing rather than on what you can do. For more information about strengths, read 'The Strengths Book' by Linley, Willars, and Biswas-Diener.

Motivation questions

These questions are designed to convince the employer that you really understand the job you are applying for, have considered your options carefully, and have a genuine interest in building your career with them. Example questions could be:

  • Why have you chosen this organisation/opportunity?
  • What particular specialisms interest you, and why?
  • What career research have you undertaken?

Remember that most readers will not be familiar with Cambridge terminologyavoid (or explain) 'May balls', 'bumps', 'Tripos', etc.

Answering competency questions


Use an example of when you have managed to collaborate effectively. This can be in any context from academia to sport. Employers like you to include challenges the group facedif everything goes perfectly from start to finish, real personal traits tend to stay hidden!      

Avoid: saying 'we'focus on your personal contribution; examples are about leadership rather than team work; being negative about your colleagues


Employers are looking for evidence of you leading a group of people towards a common goal. Include why and how you became leader, how you managed to engage your team, what challenges you faced and how you overcame them. What was the end result?         

Avoid: talking about your team in a negative manner; demonstrating a lack of listening to others; describing leadership by imposition (as opposed to leadership based on trust and or by example).


e.g. 'Tell us about a time when you have been particularly creative.'

Innovation can make an organisation more successful. In a world of constant change, employers like to have staff who can spot methods of staying ahead of the game. Creativity is therefore a skill they like to see in their potential recruits.

Tackle this type of question by referring to a situation when you have challenged the norm and introduced something new, or approached something from a completely different perspective.    

Avoid: reference to ideas that did not amount to anything; ideas that were too costly or unrealistic to implement; not making any reference to the positive implications resulting from your idea.

Time management

e.g. 'Describe a situation when you have had to juggle multiple demands.'           

We all have the same number of hours in a day, but some of us seem to be better at organising our time than others. This ability is particularly advantageous in the working environment, as you will be able to work more effectively and achieve better results.

Employers like to see evidence of you planning your time and achieving more as a result. You could provide them with a true picture of how many hours a week you dedicate to your various activities. A good academic track record whilst enjoying several extra-curricular activities demonstrates good time management.          

Avoid: talking about last minute activities, e.g. preparing for an assignment the night before the deadline; mentioning missed deadlines; explaining that you have concentrated only on your studies and have not had time to get involved in any other university activities. Other students have done both!


e.g. 'When have you had to change your approach to cater for changing objectives/environments?'     

Successful organisations are often defined as the ones that can adapt rapidly to changing environments. Consequently, employers need staff who can adapt to new situations quickly and effectively. When answering this type of question, refer to situations where you have had to change your approach completely, due to new requirements or demands. You could use examples of travel, adapting to changing environments, and appreciating cultural differences.

Avoid: overemphasising a desire to stick to plans despite changes/new challenges; negative remarks about unfamiliar cultures encountered during your travels; overselling stubbornness!

Problem solving

e.g. 'Describe a situation in which you worked on a project that involved problem solving and finding suitable solutions.'           

Most jobs involve problem solving, so it's not surprising that employers welcome staff who can actually solve problems, as opposed to just finding them. (Or, in worst case scenarios, creating them!)

Think of a time when you have been presented with a challenge that was tough to overcome. Your answers can be linked to any part of your experiences, both academic and extracurricular. For example, if you have had the responsibility of arranging a social event such as a Summer Ball, you may wish to talk about the challenges you faced when the lawn was waterlogged due to a torrential downpour the day before the event. How did you cope? What was the outcome?                                           

Avoid: mentioning examples where your input created the problem in the first place!


e.g. 'Tell us about a time when you have displayed self-starter abilities.'  

Employers like staff who use common sense in the workplace and do not have to be guided every step of the way. Obviously there are times when you will need experienced support in a role, but knowing how far to push yourself independently is a valued skill. Talk about a situation where you have worked without constant support or guidance from others, or have displayed self-motivation.                                           

Avoid: talking about a scenario where you were instructed to do something as opposed to acting of your own accord.

Negotiation influencing skills

e.g. 'Describe an occasion when you displayed good negotiation skills.' 

Think about when you have had a different agenda/idea/interest from someone else (client, customer, professor, colleague) and after listening and talking with them you have managed to steer the talks to a mutually beneficial conclusion. The Cambridge supervision system or a PhD viva can provide such an example, but it won’t be unique.

Remember that successful negotiations need to benefit both parties. Negotiating skills are therefore closely linked to communication and influencing skills, as well as relying on personal traits such as levels of trust, respect, knowledge and professionalism.  

Avoid: referring to examples where your negotiations were beneficial to only one party; confrontational approaches; examples where no satisfactory conclusion was reached; examples of ideas that were not taken on board.


e.g. 'Tell us about a time you set yourself a particularly challenging goal.'           

Almost every employer will be seeking highly motivated and determined recruits. When answering these questions think about a time when you have set yourself a goal that has really pushed you outside the limits of your comfort zone. You need an example that will not be applicable to every student (e.g. planning your studies effectively and getting a 2:1). Examples may come from sports, challenging hobbies or travel, or academic challenges.

Avoid: mentioning things that you will not be able to expand upon during an interview; mentioning hobbies/interests you no longer pursue.

Communication skills

e.g. 'Can you describe what your degree subject covers in less than 75 words? (Your target audience is someone who hasn't studied your subject since school.)'

Effective communication is vital in any career. Employers will assess your written communication via your application form, so check your form for spelling and grammatical errors, and style.

Employers in client-facing environments may wish to see evidence of an ability to adapt your communication style to different audiences, or evidence of public speaking, and presentations.            

Avoid: sending in a poorly completed application form; not answering the questions asked; poorly structured responses; waffle - be concise; using language that non-specialists won't understand; overestimating your ability to communicate in other languages. This may be tested!

Commercial awareness

e.g. 'What business issue interests you currently, and why?'     

Whatever your chosen career, from media or education to engineering or finance, there is a strong likelihood that some commercial awareness will be appreciated. If you are going into teaching, for example, you will probably encounter funding and budget issues at some point in your career.

Commercial awareness is largely tested during the interview stages, but it is not uncommon for an employer to enquire at the application stage about your knowledge of:

  • A current business issue that is of interest to you
  • Information relating to their sector
  • Key issues facing their organisation
  • Your opinion on future business/organisational opportunities
  • How you keep up to date with industry/business/professional services
  • Commercial viability of a dissertation/project
  • How you managed to raise funds for your club/society at university
  • Previous employers and their respective sectors

Avoid: listing books or papers that you have never read!; referring to political matters, as opposed to business issues; using lots of jargon without understanding what it means.

Self-awareness/interpersonal skills

e.g. 'What would your friends consider to be your greatest strength and weakness?'         

Being aware of the impact you have on others and how you are generally perceived, including strengths and weaknesses, is vital if you are to develop and progress effectively. Employers are particularly eager to see whether you reflect on past experiences and constantly strive for improvements.           

Avoid: being too honest – remember you need to sell yourself; picking weaknesses that are critical to the job; text-book answers such as 'being a perfectionist'.