The missing link in job applications: how to become a ‘must interview’ candidate

By Sue Parker

Monday June 28, 2021

The app, dubbed the Bushfire Resilience Star Rating system, will provide site-specific mitigation guidelines
The app, dubbed the Bushfire Resilience Star Rating system, will provide site-specific mitigation guidelines. (fizkes/Adobe)

 The volume of job applications and career changes anticipated in the new financial year is predicted to be substantial in and around the public sector.

Whether at federal, state or local levels, competition for landing coveted roles will be robust from internal and external candidates.

But alongside the recent federal Budget boost for jobs, state-run economic initiatives and jobs growth is a large cohort of unhappy employees hitting the job market.

As reported here recently, The Hays Report FY21/21 Salary Guide revealed 38% of Australian employees in the public, private and NPO sectors plan to look for a new job in the next 12 months and 39% are open to new professional roles due to a lack of promotional opportunities.

So whilst there is a real uptick in professional roles available, the competition will be stronger than ever. In part, more candidates will be in market due to workplace and lifestyle reflections from the past 18 months of COVID-19 around job satisfaction, happiness and goals.

But for whatever the reason, role, seniority level or career trajectory, the job-application process is rarely met with unbridled excitement. Most people applying for roles anywhere between $90K and $900K enter the process with a degree of uncertainty and trepidation.

Root cause of job application anxiety

No matter how confident, successful or experienced a person is, crafting a job application that hits the super sweet spot to obtain an interview is not exactly an easy walk in the park. Hours and days can be spent procrastinating, writing or editing as doubt lingers on the keyboard.

The mere mention of a cover letter and selection criteria can create a throbbing headache, sleepless nights and a pit in the throat.

A review on government sites, including APSJobs, Careers.vic, Vic Councils, and IworkforNSW, shows a consistency of the demands to include a cover letter and selection criteria response. Around 90% of roles ask for a cover letter and circa 65% a selection criteria. And many ask for both.

If a role is outside of your current government sector, anxiety and rumination is amplified. Senior professionals and leaders seeking to transition from local to state government, state to federal or NPO sectors, etc., can have face additional levels of uncertainty.

Given the goals of a cover letter and selection criteria are to differentiate, inspire confidence, and influence, the pressure is palpable. After all the aim is to be considered as a ‘must meet and interview’ candidate.

However, most cover letters miss a vital link rendering them as similar to all others. There is a better way to navigate job applications. as outlined below.

Every role has a shared purpose

Before diving into the ‘better way’, it’s essential to understand the purpose of every job. Every role in some way or form is to solve problems and address key issues, meet goals and manage staff, budgets and resources. All of which have many challenges.

Every public sector role advertised includes detailed information of the department, tasks, responsibilities, focus, candidate skills required and salary range.

But there is rarely any mention of the problems and issues that need to be solved. Nor what success will look like at specific timeframes and KPIs. A lot of vital detail is missing that, if known, will change the application content.

If you don’t quite believe this, just reflect on how often you have heard “I wish I knew that before I accepted the role or applied for it’’.

Yes — it is what is not shared that matters more, as knowledge is power when used with commercial wisdom and relevance. Ignorance of the problems and issues is not bliss, as it doesn’t provide enough insight to deliver a powerful application that converts in a sea of similarity.

The missing link

By virtue, then, the missing link is a problem-solving mindset approach. Most applications, while embracing a STAR construct (situation, task, action, and result), will still be general and don’t tactically address the specific challenges and pain points.

Before you start typing a word on a cover letter or criteria, you must know what the real issues and challenges of the role are, the problems that must be resolved ASAP and in the next 12 months at least.

Understanding the staffing and resource problems are critical. Questions here are the answers! Hiring with confidence is knowing that the incumbent can relieve the pain and issues in a way that resonates and culturally aligns.

How to address your job application

  1. Mindset. Take an equality-driven, business-executive mindset vs a job-applicant one. I have seen far too many senior directors at the $500K band (especially women) become compliant, acquiescent and fearful of rocking the boat. Goodness, these same people are change-makers and powerful in their careers, yet when in the job-search ecosystem they can lose their power and voice.
  2. Research and more research. If you are applying outside of your department or sector you will need to put on a journalistic approach Google, LinkedIn, this publication, and wide networks will give a lot of insight. Be curious and never assume even at a closer department level.
  3. Call the contact person to ask about the challenges and the problems the role needs to solve. Advise this is to give more value to your application to ensure it meets the needs. Specifically, ask what is urgent to address and what success will look like at the 12-months mark.

Do not be hesitant here or think you will damage your chances by asking questions. The reverse is true and if someone takes umbrage then that is a red flag. But you may also find out information that will save you even applying if the role looks unsuitable or unappealing. Further, the answers give your STAR examples greater weight to issues.

Cover letter structure

I recommend for the cover letter one page with five broad key elements. You are not regurgitating your resume. You want to hold value and captivate at the next level. A general structure covers:

  1. Why — a head-first introduction of a positive comment on why you are applying for the role. Adding some charm to why you want to work with xyz is worthwhile when done genuinely.
  2. You — a brief overview of your background but more conversationally than on your resume.
  3. What — communicate what your understanding of the problems and needs are and the importance of them for the departments, council or NPO objectives.
  4. How — talk how your past experiences have faced and resolved similar problems/issues. Include a few hero examples of relevant successes to clearly demonstrate what you could bring to the business needs with ease. Your personality style here is also valuable.
  5. Assumptive close — end with an expectation of a further discussion. No pleading — ‘look forward to’. It’s obvious your CV is attached so end with mutual enthusiasm and respect.

Even with the best of applications there will still be nervousness in an often long and competitive process. But taking a different approach not only amplifies success but strengthens the self-esteem and value muscle.

Be human, be conversational, be authentic and be brave.


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