You’ve spent forever researching the firm. You’ve answered the ten million questions on the application form. You’re exhausted. Dehydrated. Your friends have forgotten what you look like. But you’re nearly finished, right? WRONG. You have the whole work experience section to fill in. And rushing this section is a sure-fire way to get your application in the reject pile. But why is it so important? And what are you even meant to include?
Well, I chatted to career coach and ex-Magic Circle recruiter Hannah Salton to find out.
Hi Hannah. First off, how important is the work experience section on an application form? How much attention are recruiters giving it?
Each section of your application form is important for different reasons, and work experience is a key focus for lots of employers. However, like most things on an application form, how you talk about it and what you demonstrate you learned or achieved with it is more important than simply listing impressive sounding employer names.
What are you even meant to include? It’s called ‘work’ experience, so does it just have to be paid positions?
Work experience can be thought of in broad terms. There are lots of ways you can demonstrate the type of skills that employers are looking for with your experience. Candidates often get hung up on having formal internships, but part-time jobs and volunteering can be great ways of demonstrating transferable skills.
If a student hasn’t done a vacation scheme or been a paralegal, how can they make up for this in their work experience section?
Part-time, non-industry specific work experience is a great way to demonstrate your skills. You can learn a lot about dealing with difficult customers working as a waiter or a waitress in a busy restaurant. You can learn a lot about delivering customer service from working in a supermarket.
Research the strengths or competencies that a firm is looking for, and reflect deeply on how you have demonstrated these with your past experience. Including these examples is normally more relevant for the written answers section (as opposed to your work experience section) but reflecting on this can help you decide what to include in the work experience section.
What about things like running a blog, being on the university football team or open days? Things that really aren’t jobs at all? If there are unlimited boxes, can you include them here? Or should they be put elsewhere?
Just because there are unlimited boxes, doesn’t mean you should include unlimited amounts of experience! It’s good to have a range, but quality experience over quantity is best. Remember, every piece of experience you add dilutes the focus on the most impressive ones, so use your judgement to work out what to include and what to leave out. Look at your work experience objectively, and consider if it adds value to your overall application form.
You can include society or sport leadership positions if you feel they demonstrate skills the employer might be looking for. Avoid listing each and every open day as a separate work experience, but if you feel that collectively you’ve learnt valuable skills from attending a range, you could consider grouping them together and list them as one work experience.
What is a good way to start a work experience description?
It’s helpful to include a brief summary of your role and responsibilities, and then highlight key achievements, outputs, or results – especially if they involve numbers statistics. Different firms will have different preferences, but I personally recommend avoiding writing in the first person in the work experience section. I think you can get across your experience most effectively using short, impactful sentences with specific examples of what you did.
When describing work experience, how much should candidates be thinking about the key skills recruiters are looking for? i.e. communication skills, teamwork?
You may want to mention key skills if they’re in context, but avoid simply listing a long list of skills. If you mention a broad skill such as communication, try and be specific about the type of communication it was, and who it was with. For example, “Developed strong communication skills through presenting to large groups of senior employees in meetings.”
Talking about skills is normally more useful when answering written competency answers, as opposed to in the specific work experience section. For example they may ask “write about a time you demonstrated leadership” as an application form question.
For these types of questions, you need to be able to work out how to get across how your experience translates into the specific skill or competency that the firm is looking for. Listing a range of buzzwords won’t work here, and you need to focus on the specific question being asked, backed up with specific examples.
Can you tell me about some of the common mistakes you’ve seen?
Most people fall down in the work experience section by including way too much detail, or not enough detail. The key is to include valuable detail that is specific and relevant for a recruiter to read. My best advice is: be specific about what you did, share examples of what you achieved, and where possible use numbers or statistics to add context.
Thank you so much for answering those questions Hannah!
You’re welcome! If anyone has any further questions, or would like to request a free 20-minute micro-consultation, please do get in touch!
Hannah Salton worked in corporate HR and recruitment for 8 years, most recently looking after UK trainee recruitment at Allen & Overy. Last year, she made the move to become a career coach and consultant, and helps graduates and young professionals achieve the career goals they really want.
Just to leave you all with a little horror story of my own. One of my friends (who I’m sure will be delighted I’m telling you this) was really struggling with their applications. They were spending hours on each one. Researching. Drafting and re-drafting. Going to open days. Meeting recruiters. And they just could not figure out why they were having no luck.
That was, until I read their application and pointed out that they had put the wrong firm’s name in their work experience section.
“And this is relevant to X firm because….”
They hadn’t noticed, and because they were just copying and pasting that section into each application, they had made that mistake for the last 5+ applications.
As soon as they fixed it, they got an interview at a City firm. And then a TC.
The moral of this story?
Proofreading the work experience section saves lives.