Jobseeking: The do's and don'ts of job applications

What should candidates for charity jobs be thinking when they make their pitches? Four HR professionals tell Annette Rawstrone what they look for when recruiting

Many third sector roles can attract hundreds of applicants, so following the advice of people who work in charity HR departments is likely to help you make your application stand out.

Tessa Drysdale, head of HR at Dogs Trust, says candidates should keep their applications as concise as possible. "A common mistake is writing too much," she says. "As well as thinking about the requirements of the role, bear in mind the person who reads the applications – going through 150 of them, each six or seven pages long, is a hard task."

Ian Westall, director of people and organisation development at the armed forces charity SSAFA, agrees; he advises being ruthless with your ego and limiting your CV to two sides of A4.

Think also about the layout of the application, and make key information easy to find. "Poorly presented applications are common," says Drysdale. "Remember that the application itself is also evidence – people can fall into the trap of saying they are a good communicator when their application shows otherwise." Always spell-check your applications and get someone else to read them so you can, for example, avoid the embarrassing mistake made by an applicant to Anthony Nolan, who stated under hobbies: "I enjoy sex." The bone cancer charity's HR manager, Ian Olivo, presumes they meant "sax", because they went on to describe their musical interests.

A common gripe of HR professionals is about applicants who use generic CVs and covering letters and will often fail the first sift as a result. Charlie McPherson, resourcing manager at British Red Cross, says: "It's important to make the charity feel special and take an interest in it." But his biggest complaint is about people writing "see CV" on application forms. "If we wanted to see their CV, we'd ask for it," he says. "Doing what we ask for on an application form is important, because that is how we shortlist."

McPherson says that people might worry that they have no experience of working in the charity sector, but he thinks that is not a problem if they can give specific examples of relevant experience elsewhere. Olivo advises using language that reflects the charity's values. "Terms used in the charity sector can be very different from those used in the private sector," he says. "Using terms that jar with the charity could lead to the assumption that the candidate wouldn't be a good fit, so adapt your language to show that you understand the charity's mindset and values."

If you're invited to interview, preparation is key. "Really research the organisation," says Westall. "Don't just take a quick look at the website; read at least the last two year's annual reports to see what is being emphasised or is changing, and run a news search to pick up on media activity. For any senior role, make sure you understand the published accounts and financial health of the organisation." He advises using this research to prepare relevant questions for the interviewer - indicating a high level of interest and therefore your seriousness about the role.

The ability to demonstrate technical ability and good communication skills also stands out. "Someone who knows their competence and can explain it well in interview gives me the confidence that they can do a good job," says McPherson. He suggests planning for questions in advance by preparing a toolbox of examples of your team-working, communication and problem-solving skills.

Although it's important to engage with the charity's aims, Olivo advises applicants not to oversell the message that they think the charity is a good cause. "Be specific about why you will be a good fit in the organisation, and show that you're a good candidate who has a sense of your own career path or expertise in the field," he says.

Drysdale says interviewers are not trying to trip you up. "Relax as much as you can and answer questions honestly rather than anticipate what the interviewer wants to hear," she says. Above all, ensure you're well presented and on time. "Use your manners and you won't go far wrong," says Olivo. "And don't forget to be nice to the receptionist – they always know who is going to get the job. It's quite remarkable."

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