How to use your experience for a standout job application
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Most of us are not used to pitching for a job in writing. And many of us may shy away from selling ourselves in an interview. But gathering your relevant experience and presenting it effectively can make your application stand out — and make all the difference.
It did for Sophie Pender, a 26-year-old lawyer, who clearly recalls the moment she secured a training contract at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. “It was my mum’s birthday — I remember getting the call and nearly choking on a meatball!” She saw the news as a reward for putting in “so much effort and time”.
Recruiters say a good application will have three qualities: being error-free, on target and personalised. So you need to have a sense of what the organisation you are applying to does and what the role entails — and then draw on your experience to personalise your application.
Pender, who is now at London law firm Bates Wells, says she had wanted to pursue law at 16, but was put off when an acquaintance warned her there were few available jobs. She studied English instead at the University of Bristol but, in 2017, was accepted on a legal training programme sponsored by Herbert Smith Freehills, starting with a two-year law conversion course.
In the application process, she was able to demonstrate skills such as conflict resolution, which she learnt in part-time jobs while at school — first at McDonald’s and later at department store John Lewis. “Law is all about customer service, presenting things to your client in a way that is really easy to digest,” says Pender. “I think working in sales really helped.”
Employers advise stepping back, connecting the dots and thinking about where you have made a difference. Toby Horner, early talent acquisition manager at law firm Clifford Chance, says competitive candidates demonstrate the impact they have made at work or in extracurricular activities.
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Pender, for example, founded the 93% Club at university, a network that aims to improve social mobility for state school students. This was demanding to juggle alongside work, but she learnt to prioritise and co-ordinate with other volunteers.
You can also seek out insight days, internships and holiday schemes run by companies and charities, says Horner, to give yourself the extra edge and improve your understanding of what it means to work in a particular role or industry.
The Social Mobility Business Partnership offers 16 to 18-year-olds from low income backgrounds in the UK the chance to participate in a week-long insight programme, which includes visits to the offices of organisations such as the BBC and Microsoft, and joining a resilience workshop at a professional sports club.
One programme participant, 26-year-old Muhammad Gangat, says spending time with the legal team at real estate company Landsec exposed him to the variety of work in the legal profession. “I just thought, wow, every day looks so different and you clearly learn so much. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.” He is now a trainee at law firm Hogan Lovells in London.
“Never say no to an opportunity,” advises Gangat, who worked part-time in a warehouse while in the sixth form and was a tutorial teacher at university. “Seek out part-time work, take up a hobby, learn a skill, a language or even reach out to local businesses to try to get some work experience.”
This could even mean pursuing opportunities abroad. Lucy Miller, a 25-year-old policy officer at the civil society network Human Rights Consortium Scotland, did just that when she spent a year studying in Sydney, Australia, as part of her degree at the University of Glasgow. She made the most of her time by working in a call centre and as a research assistant, and interned for a charity.
“Experience gave me a sense of what I should be asking for in a role,” she says. Miller had originally aspired to be a journalist covering human rights but, by picking up skills in Sydney, realised she could engage with these issues through policy and public relations.
If all this sounds like spinning too many plates, it helps to slow down and prioritise. Ask professionals on LinkedIn for advice on working in a specific field, says Gaelle Blake, head of permanent appointments for the UK and Ireland at recruitment firm Hays.
Rather than applying for every role you find, it is better to choose quality over quantity, says Anoushka Dossa, director of intern recruitment at Creative Access, a charity that provides career support and access to the UK creative industries. “Consider earnings, benefits, corporate social responsibility — all the things that are important to you.”
Recruiters suggest noting experience that matches the job description when drafting a cover letter. Applications should “remain professional whilst also depicting a candidate’s personality”, says Blake.
Keeping track of your achievements helps. Gangat, for instance, has a notebook spanning nearly a decade, listing work experience and projects he has participated in.
For anyone worried about not having enough experience, Horner’s advice is to keep it simple: “Reflect on what you have done and think about how you can piece that together in a way that does sound compelling.”