I’ve seen lots of talented people screw up their chances of bagging work or study opportunities simply by screwing up the application. Every time I see it happen a small part of me fizzles in anger and frustration. Anger because however qualified I know the person to be, I can’t choose them over somebody who has presented themselves better on paper. Frustration because the problem could have been avoided if the candidate had taken a little more time and care, and applied a little know-how.
The tragedy of badly-formed applications is that the applicant is pretty much squandering what could be a great opportunity. Worse than that, presenting an application littered with rookie errors can damage a candidate’s reputation and future chances. It can be worse than not applying at all, because the applicant has left the assessor with a bad impression. Peacebuilding being the relatively small and incestuous world that it is, you can bet your bottom dollar that these two people will cross paths again later, at which point the applicant is already on a back foot.
So in a bid to make a teeny-weeny contribution to abolishing rookie errors in application forms, I thought I’d highlight 3 tips for people to be aware of when it comes to applying for things.
To make this marginally less painful I’m also adding pictures of animals making rookie mistakes. Idiocy is not only human, you know.
Tip 1: provide plenty of detail, but be concise.
This is really the most important thing. Normally when I have to condemn an application from somebody brilliant to the trash pile it’s because they haven’t provided enough detail. There are a couple of reasons people provide scant/incomplete info:
- ‘She already knows me well, I don’t need to repeat all this stuff’. Not true. You see, no matter how well the assessor knows you, he or she probably isn’t going to make the final decision alone. We normally make decisions in teams, and we can’t fight the corner of a candidate we know to be well-qualified if they’ve provided incomplete information. Sometimes an incomplete form won’t even make it through the initial sift. Shortlisting is done methodically, scoring people based on how they meet pre-defined criteria. If it’s not there, it can’t be scored.
- ‘I don’t want to make a mistake and look stupid’. I often notice that candidates from certain countries provide insufficient information. These countries have cultures where saving face is a big deal, which results in a tendency for people to hedge their bets. The logic goes something like this ‘the more I write, the higher the chance I will write something stupid, and then I’ll lose face, which would be awful, so I’ll only write a little bit and then I won’t look like a fool’. It’s a logic that whole cultures have developed over eons of time, so who am I to knock it. But it’s not a logic that is rewarded in application writing.
- Laziness. No excuse for this. Lazy form-fillers will most likely be lazy contributors, analysts and implementors. Not really who you want on your team, is it? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Remember, assessors are only allowed to make decisions based on what you’ve put on the form. So if you want them to take something into account then you’ve got to write it down. That said, don’t waffle. Nobody needs to know about your swimming badges.
Tip 2: don’t be tempted to skim over all that stuff about impact (yawn)
Every peacebuilding application has it. The dreaded section on ‘what difference will my participation have on myself/my community/my country/the whole god-forsaken universe’.
We all know the answers we want to put are:
- I don’t rightly know, why don’t we try it and see?
- The whole place is screwed, and you expect me to fix it?
- Don’t you know anything about cause, correlation and variables? I am a rigorously trained social science researcher, how can I possible make wildly unsubstantiated claims, in advance, about what effect your programme will have?
The last one might just be me. But yes, these are the things we want to say. However, what we have to do is swallow that urge and instead think through very carefully what the possible impact of the programme could be and how we can make it happen. Basically, we have set objectives and then present a theory of change. We have to show that we’ve thought about the risk factors, and talk about what skills we have (or will develop through the programme) to help us mitigate these.
Think about it. If you’re asking someone to consider your application for a job, a place on a course, or a space at a workshop, then you are asking them to invest in you. And when people invest they want to know what the return will be. In the charity sector this is probably even more cut-throat that in the private sector, because our resources are so hard won and easily lost, and we have to account to so many people for how we spend. Nobody, but nobody, is going to give you a chance if you can’t tell them what they’ll get in return. Nobody worth their salt at least.
And a final word on this – don’t just focus on you. I have had so many people tell me that the impact will be that ‘I will learn a lot and it will be a great opportunity for me and expand my horizons’ and yada yada. Okay, brilliant. I’m happy for you. Now how will you use this to help our organisation achieve our goals?
Tip 3: demonstrate your character, curiosity and resilience
Here’s the thing about peacebuilding: it takes a certain kind of person to do it. That person gets themselves out there, without waiting for an invitation. They spot problems and chivvy people into responding, without waiting for the cavalry. They have an insatiable curiosity about the world and all the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit it. A peacebuilder is a talker, a thinker, a wanderer and an entrepreneur – and probably a bit of a rescuer too.
So being a peacebuilder takes a certain combination of what we call ‘soft skills’. And the thing about these skills is that they are developed, rather than learned. What you need to show in your application is that you’ve already got them. Just focusing on formal employment and education doesn’t convey this well enough, especially if you’re at the beginning of your career. This is where all of the other stuff you’ve done off your own back comes into its own. Did you kickstart something locally? Fabulous! Now I know you’re not shy, you’ve got passion and you’re socially minded. Have you travelled? Great! Now I know you’ve got confidence and curiosity. Volunteered or studied something online? Also good! You’ve got discipline and commitment.
Basically, sifting through applications is one long process of making judgements about people based on what they’ve written. And when an assessor has got hundreds to look through, it can be dizzyingly, mind-swimmingly confusing. How to separate the worthy from the unworthy? The special from the ordinary? It’s an endless, thankless task. If you can put your talents front and centre, show what kind of a character you are, and explain how you’re a bloody good investment, then you’re helping the assessor. And upping your chances at the same time.
Good luck folks!
Categories: Free and interesting on peace