Many larger employers, for example those in the professional services and consulting sector, use online application forms, often asking you also to upload your CV and cover letter or statement of motivation. Asking for standardised information in this way allows them to compare candidates more directly, to streamline, and in many cases, automate their screening processes.
What can you expect?
After registering, you’ll typically be asked to provide personal information, details on your academic background, employment history. You might be required to answer a set of questions looking at your motivation and interest, competencies, values. If you pass the initial screen, the next stage might involve online tests, pre-recorded video questions or game-based assessments.
Most online systems include some form of equal opportunities monitoring with questions on age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, sexual orientation etc. This information is confidential and is to ensure employers are attracting applications from a wide pool and not inadvertently failing to attract a specific group of applicants.
In an attempt to eliminate bias from the recruitment process, employers are increasingly using ‘blind recruitment’. In this case, information that is deemed to potentially influence decisions including name, ethnic background, gender, education, personal interests will be removed before your application is screened by a recruiter or manager.
How are candidates initially screened?
Online application processes often use software to complete initial screening potentially filtering immediately on the basis of degree subject and classification, earlier academic results, eligibility to work. You may need to achieve a set percentage in any online test to progress to the next stage. Candidates can receive a rejection email almost immediately after clicking submit if they haven’t met the core criteria.
If you feel there are good, justifiable reasons why you have not met the set criteria, including mitigating circumstances relating to your degree classification, or a disability that will put you at a disadvantage during tests, it’s important to inform the employer in advance, to ensure you are not automatically sifted out.
Once you have passed the initial screen, the focus will be on analysing the content of your answers to the more detailed questions. Again, software may be used to scan for evidence of competencies and key words, so remember to tailor your language and evidence. With careful research and targeted responses to the questions you are much more likely to make it through to the next stage.
How to answer application questions
While precise questions vary – and it’s important to read the wording of each carefully - most online applications will look at some combination of your motivation and fit, skills and experience as well as educational background. Here we share our advice on how to answer the most common types of application questions.
These typically look at your interest in the company, the role, the sector or combination of the three. It’s important you convey genuine and specific reasons based on thorough research, a clear understanding of the role and a strong matching process.
what makes them stand out to you as an employer of choice?
why would you want to work for them over any of their competitors?
what distinguishes them for you personally?
Recruiters can spot generic answers that could be applied to any competitors, or text that’s simply been copied and pasted, including directly from their website. This simply won’t get you through to the next stage. It’s important to demonstrate your research and understanding, to personalise your answer and to be specific. Select your top three or four key reasons and describe them succinctly and persuasively.
Designed to assess your skills, competency questions look for evidence of certain behaviours through the situational examples you give. It’s important to provide a specific example based on previous experience and show not only what you did but how you did it. Use examples from across the breadth of your experience – education, extra-curricular activities including volunteering as well as work experience.
Competency questions may take the following forms:
tell me about a time when you managed a difficult situation
describe a situation where you dealt with a difficult situation
how do you manage difficult situations? Give me an example
do you think you are any good at managing difficult situations? How have you shown this?
what would you do if you were faced with a difficult situation? When have you done this in the past?
The STAR method gives a useful structure for answering skills based or competency type questions.
Outline the Situation, describe the Task, talk through the Action you took, then share the Result and any learning you gained from the situation.
Think of it like telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. The beginning – what you had to do – should take up around 10 to 15% of your answer. The middle – what you, as an individual, did should take around 70 to 80% of your answer. The end –what the outcome was – should take the final 10 to 15%.
Example answer – working as part of a team.
During 2018-19, I was a member of the LSE Salsa Society’s five-person committee.
We decided to organise an end-of-year Salsa Festival and, at an event planning meeting, each committee member took responsibility for an aspect of the event.
My key objective was to secure £1000 sponsorship for the festival. The main challenge was not knowing who to target but I thought my best chance was to contact organisations that recruit from LSE. I looked through all the careers fairs publications from the last two years to see who had attended an event and I also looked on the online careers system to see which organisations had been recruiting consistently from LSE. From this information, I drew up a shortlist of 30 organisations to contact and reached out to them by mail, making follow up calls when I did not get an initial response.
I secured a total of £1500 from two co-sponsors, and we were very pleased with the overall success of the event, which over 200 students attended.
You might be asked to provide a personal statement in support of your application, outline your motivation for the organisation, set out why you want to work for them and the skills and experience you bring. As ever, it’s important to read the question very carefully and follow any instructions, for example in relation to word count, to the letter.
As with a cover letter, a personal statement should have a clear structure. Think about starting with a strong opening statement, provide detail of your motivation for the role and organisation, provide evidence of your relevant skills and experience, and end with a reiteration of your interest.
Often used by organisations that provide a detailed person specification and job description, personal statements can be long and detailed, and require you to show how you meet all the criteria for the role. Headings mirroring the key criteria and bullet points can sometimes be appropriate to break up your answer. Remember it’s important to cover all aspects of the specification, providing evidence for each the skills and other criteria the employer is looking for.
Many online applications include a section where you can provide additional information. Use this space to highlight any information to support your application not covered elsewhere on the form. This might include additional courses or qualifications, memberships and extra-curricular activities or personal circumstances that you feel demonstrates relevant skills or traits.
Employers will occasionally include the type of question which focuses on personality:
how would your friends describe you?
what do you consider your greatest achievement/weakness/strength?
do you prefer to start or finish a project and why?
what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
There aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers to these specific questions. Think about why the question is being asked, what skill, knowledge or personality trait the employer is looking for.
Hypothetical questions can be used to probe how you would respond in a specific situation and are essentially an opportunity for you to show you have a good grasp of the role and the organisation and understand what appropriate behaviours are in their context.
Some sectors will ask role-specific questions. It would be typical, for example, for a marketing, PR or media firms to ask you to critically evaluate a campaign, answer a short opinion question or share a new idea for a programme.
Other advice for applicants
If you require reasonable adjustments in order to complete an application form to the best of your ability, an employer must, by law, make those adjustments for you.
If you would like to discuss this or gain advice you can speak to our dedicated careers consultant for disabled students. You can email for an appointment or advice.
You can also find further information about adjustments throughout the application and recruitment process.
If you have any questions about qualifications from another country or grade conversions reach out directly to the organisation’s recruitment or HR team.
Employers are willing to take into consideration mitigating circumstances that may have impacted your ability to achieve certain grades or work experience. These can include difficult family situations, living and accommodation challenges and financial issues. Inclusive employers recognise that these factors may affect any individual’s ability to build a ‘typical’ CV. In these situations, contact the recruiter to discuss your application.
Read the job description and/or recruitment materials carefully.
Before you start, read the instructions and follow all guidance on word limits, format of downloads etc.
Try and look at all the sections of the form before inputting your answers. That way you identify potential overlap and minimise duplication.
Take your time and complete your application in a distraction-free environment.
If given the option to directly upload content from your CV or LinkedIn, make sure it’s up to date.
Where possible, complete any detailed answers or descriptions of work experience offline.
Make sure you complete every question and tailor all your answers to the questions. You cannot copy-paste generic competency and motivation answers.
Proofread for spelling or grammatical errors.
Save a copy of your application. Hopefully you will be referring to this as you prepare for interview!