Many employers require applicants to fill out job applications. If, for example, you walk into a grocery store or retail business, you may be asked to go to a computer screen, or kiosk, to complete an online application, or you will be given a two- to four-paper application form to be completed by hand. Many companies routinely give anyone interested in a job a chance to fill out an application.
The following 20 tips should help you complete a job application to the expectations of employers and improve your chances of getting a job interview:
- Dress neatly. Assume that you will be observed when you
complete the application. The person taking your application may make a
note about your appearance and communication skills.
Since you may end up being interviewed on the spot, dress as if you were going to a job interview and observe all the rules for positive verbal and nonverbal behavior (see Chapter 11 of The Ex-Offender’s Job Hunting Guide).
First impressions are always important, be it on an application, over the telephone, or in person.
- Take two copies of the application form. If you are picking
up an application form to take with you, get two copies. Use the one
copy to draft your answers and the other copy to submit as a neat,
clean, and error-free application.
- Read the instructions carefully and follow them completely.
An application is your first screening test in more ways than you may
think. Start by reading through the whole application to see exactly
what information is required for completion.
If you lack sufficient information, don’t complete the application since you will be submitting an incomplete application, which is a negative. Return later with the information that you didn’t have the first time.
Follow the instructions. If it says print, then you print. If it says last name first, then write accordingly. If it asks for a phone number, provide one. If it ask for your supervisor’s name, reason for leaving each job, and pay rates, supply this information. If it says provide three references, then give the details on three references.
Failure to complete an application according to instructions communicates a terrible message – you simply can’t follow instructions, or you have something to hide! No one wants to hire such people. You’ve just wasted your time filling out an incomplete application.
- Use a black ink pen when writing. Avoid using a pencil or an
ink color other than black. In fact, many applications will ask you to
use a black pen. An application completed in pencil looks unprofessional
and one completed in a non-black ink may be difficult to read if the
application is run through a copy machine.
- Answer each question. It’s important to respond to each
question – no blanks left that could raise questions in the mind of the
reviewer about your willingness to disclose.
For example, if you don’t have a permanent address or telephone number, use the address and number of a friend or relative who agrees to serve as your contact location. Do not appear homeless on an application – it raises all kinds of questions about transportation, stability, and work history.
If a question does not relate to your situation, such as military service, type or write "N/A" which means "Not Applicable."
- Try to write as neatly as possible. The neatness and style of
your handwriting may be interpreted by the reader as an indication of
your personality and work habits. If it looks sloppy, with letters or
words crossed out, the reader may think you are confused, careless, or
sloppy in your work habits.
- Be prepared to complete each section of the application. If
you know you will be applying for a job, take to the application center
all information you may need to complete the application in full.
You may want to complete a mock or draft application form, which you always take with you, that contains most information you are likely to be asked on an application.
This would include a list of previous employers, addresses, telephone numbers, employment dates, information about your work, and documents (Social Security number and driver's license). You also want to have with you details on your educational background and references.
Trying to recall this information by memory may lead to inaccurate statements or an incomplete application; you’ll be demonstrating two negatives to the employer even before the job interview - you are unprepared and you're not serious about employment.
- Include all previous employers. Reveal all of your previous
employers, even if you were fired. Many people get fired and it's not
held against them by other employers. You can always explain the
situation, but you will have greater difficulty trying to explain a
major employment gap.
Many ex-offenders also include their prison work experience at a state or federal job, such as "Custodian, State of Louisiana," or "Machine Operator, State of Texas." If, indeed, you have janitorial duties and operated machines, such as those in the laundry room, these are truthful employment statements that do not prematurely raise a red flag that you served time in XYZ Penitentiary.
You have work experience, you used skills, and you have someone who can serve as a reference. Most important of all, you filled in a potential time gap that might have indicated you were hiding something or you were unemployed for a long period of time.
Hiding your record indicates you may be a con artist. No one wants to hire someone who is deceptive. If you can’t be trusted with the truth at the application stage, why would anyone want to trust you on the job?
- If you lack work experience, be creative. Each year millions
of people first enter the job market without formal work experience or a
job. However, that doesn’t mean they lack work-related experience. If
you did not hold a regular job but have volunteer or other life
experiences related to skills found in the workplace, include these in
the work experience section.
Did you assist a group (church, school, sports team, community organization), did you sell something? (Yes, even illegal street activities may demonstrate certain "transferable" skills to legitimate work settings and activities.)
- Appear educated, even if you lack formal credentials. Let's
face it. Few employers want to hire someone without a high school
education. If you lack a high school education but have a GED, include
the date you completed your GED.
If you do not have a GED, get enrolled in a program before you fill out any applications and then state on your application that you are completing your GED in a specific month and year.
If you've completed a training program or acquired specialized skills, include those on your application under Education.
Make sure you appear educated and thoughtful – no misspelling, poor grammar, or stupid and smart aleck statements - in each section of your application.
- Handle sensitive questions with tact. An application is
not a place to confess all your sins, reveal red flags, or prematurely
show your hand. Like a resume, an application becomes your calling card
to be invited to the interview.
In your case, the most sensitive question will be "Have you ever been convicted of a crime? If yes, please explain." Most applicants believe they have three choices in responding to this question: Lie, tell the truth, or leave it blank.
All three choices may have negative consequences for getting the job interview or keeping the job. In addition, the law may require you to disclose your criminal record to employers, and you must sign the applications, indicating your answers are truthful.
However, there is a fourth choice in answering this question which leaves the door open: simply write "Please discuss with me" or "Will discuss at the interview." These statements indicate you have a conviction, you’re not hiding it, and you are prepared to discuss it at the appropriate time.
If you must include some details, keep them short and focused on the future, such as "Will complete parole or probation in 20__." Depending on the nature of your crime, you cannot adequately explain your record in one or two sentences. Indeed, most short statements raise more negative questions than they answer.
This question is best dealt with in a face-to-face meeting where you will have a chance to explain and demonstrate six things – (1) you made a serious mistake, (2) you took responsibility, (3) you’ve done several things to change your life, (4) you're not a risk, (5) you want a chance to prove yourself, and (6) you are positive, enthusiastic, energetic, and ready to perform beyond the employer's expectations.
A similar response should be given to another sensitive question: "Have you ever been fired?" Respond by writing "Please see me" or "Will discuss at the interview."
- Avoid abbreviations. Not all readers share the same knowledge
of abbreviations. You can abbreviate the obvious, such as Street (St.),
Avenue (Ave.), or Boulevard (Blvd.), but spell out the not-so-obvious.
If, for example, you lived or worked in Los Angeles, your application
should say Los Angeles rather than L.A.
- Avoid vague statements. If you state that you can operate a
computer, indicate at what level and with which programs. If you are a
driver, indicate what type of vehicle or equipment you work with. The
more details you give, the more impressive will be your application.
- Avoid revealing salary information. If the application asks for your salary expectations (pay or salary desired), state "Open" or "Will discuss at the interview."
Always keep this question to the very end of the interview – after you have been offered the job. The old poker saying that "He who reveals his hand is at a disadvantage" is very true in the job search.
Get the employer to first reveal his hand before you talk about your salary expectations.
- Include interests and hobbies relevant to the job. If asked
about any interests and hobbies, try to select examples relevant to the
job. If, for example, you are applying for an outdoor job that requires
physical stamina, outdoor sports interests would be supportive of such a
- Include additional comments if appropriate. Some applications
will have a section for additional comments. This is the place you want
to indicate your goals, state your interests, and make a pitch for the
job. Get yourself set up for the job interview by stating something to
"I’m especially interested in this job, because I love working with inventory management software and streamlining operations that save companies both time and money. I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss how my experience can best meet your needs."
- Remember to sign the application. The very last thing you
need to do is sign and date your application. Failure to do so may
invalidate your application and raise questions about your ability to
- Read and re-read your answers. Make sure you proofread your
application for any errors, omissions, or misspellings. Like the perfect
resume, you want an error-proof application.
- Attach your resume to the application form. At least for employers, applications are a necessary evil in the screening and hiring processes.
Most applications follow a similar and rather dull format that yields little information about who you really are and what you have done, can do, and will do in the future. Few applications allow the flexibility to state your goals, skills, and accomplishments.
If you write an achievement-oriented resume, submit it along with your application. With a resume, you structure the reader’s thinking around your major strengths rather than allow the reader to control information about you, which is exactly what an application does for the employer.
With a well written resume, you may quickly grab the attention of the employer who will want to invite you to a job interview. Your resume, not your application, becomes the central focus of the job interview.
- Be sure to follow up. When you submit the application, ask
when you might expect to hear from the employer on the status of your
application. If they say within two weeks, be sure to call and ask about
your candidacy in two weeks.
In some cases, the follow-up telephone call will result in a job interview. After all, the employer may still be reviewing applications, and your call may force him or her to take a second look at your application (and attached resume). Most important of all, your call indicates that you are still interested in the job.
SOURCE: Adapted from Ron and Caryl Krannich, Ph.Ds, The Ex-Offender’s Job Hunting Guide (Manassas Park, VA: Impact Publications). Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.