Take Five: On applying for a job

Written by
Sarah Trounce
Illustration by
Ryan Gillett

Take five minutes and read five practical steps to help you level up your hiring strategy or job hunting.

So you’ve thought long and hard about the pros and cons of a job change, and you’re feeling excited about making the next move. Now it’s time to apply for some actual Jobs. Whether you have your heart set on a prized role in the organisation you most admire, or you’re casting your net far and wide; following a simple application strategy can be a useful starting point. Staying ambitious, organised and open-minded will help you feel more in control of the job hunting process — and more confident you’ll end up in the right place at the end of it.

Job applications are a chance to prove you’re special, but they must also be, and feel, authentic. You’re putting the best version of yourself forward, waving and hoping to be noticed. Always remember: your application is only a doorway to a larger conversation: the job interview. Once you arrive at this next stage, you’ll have the chance to look around, ask questions, and hopefully discover whether your potential employer is offering you everything you need and want. Of course, they’ll have questions and tasks for you too. In the meantime, here are some tips for how to make sure your application is something you can be proud of.

Decipher The Job Ad

First off, does it sound exciting and inspiring? Listen to your gut. Then ask your rational brain some sensible questions like: Is this a role I actually want to do? Does it meet or exceed my salary expectations? Can I easily commute to their offices? Do they offer flexible working if that’s something I need? Think about long-term benefits (do they offer unlimited unpaid leave or extended paid parental leave?), as much as short-term wins (impressive new job title, generous starting salary). The little things (annual bonuses, free lunches, subsidised gym memberships) do add up — but are they enough to keep you satisfied? There are some red flags you should look out for in any job ad, such as those that list the legal minimum holiday requirements as a key benefit, and role descriptions that sound like three positions rolled into one. You’ll notice that job ads can vary from short and ambiguous, to lengthy and detail-driven. Transparency about what the role entails is great. But it may tell you a lot about the business’s working style if they are extremely prescriptive about the minutiae of daily tasks at this early stage of recruiting.

Speak The Language

Job applications often follow a standard format, one that’s largely determined by the person who wrote the job ad. Occasionally you might come across a more imaginative request (‘Tell us what you’re reading’) but usually employers will simply want to see an up-to-date CV or portfolio, and a short cover letter explaining why you’d like to work for their company, and why you think you’d be a good fit for the role. Make sure you regularly browse and read a wide selection of job ads — even the ones you aren’t considering applying for. It’s helpful to see the breadth of what’s out there in terms of role scope, salary, and style of communication. A great application should be straightforward but compelling, enthusiastic but honest. It’s the story of who you are and why you care about the work you do. So start soaking up the right words to tell that story.

Stretch Yourself

You’re sitting down with a hot cup of tea and a fresh tab open, poised to pen that masterpiece of a cover letter. This is when the little voices begin to whisper. But before you get totally overwhelmed by imposter syndrome and decide to trash your application altogether, don’t rob yourself of the chance to dazzle. Reminder: You’ve learned new things in the past, and you will learn many new things in the future. On a piece of paper, write down all the skills and talents you have (all of them, big and little, clever and stupid) and then take a few moments to read and digest. Come back to your application feeling calm and ever-so-slightly powerful. When assessing how well you meet the ‘desired criteria’ outlined for the role, undoubtedly you need to strike a tricky balance. There should be a certain amount of challenge built into any new role you take on. Otherwise, where’s the opportunity for personal development? A good employer will always reward curiosity and a hunger to learn. So ask yourself: What amount of challenge feels healthy and necessary? And what feels unpleasant or totally impossible? A few butterflies can be exhilarating. A nauseous, sinking feeling is probably best avoided.

Make It Yours

Taking into consideration the specified format the job poster has requested for your application, do you still feel confident you can be yourself? Is there room to follow the guidelines but also respond in your own unique voice? This could be in the way you design your portfolio or CV (think order and composition, typography, colour, images and captions). Or in the language you use: can you move away from outdated formal tropes such as ‘To whom it may concern’ and ‘Yours sincerely’, and instead make it more personal, more creative and more engaging? As you put together your application, ask yourself if you have a clear enough sense of the company’s working culture, values and purpose. In order to make a convincing argument for your own contribution to the business, you’ll need to include thoughtful and tailored details that bring your application to life. If these details don’t come easily, do some more digging.


Are you an early bird hoping to catch the worm, or a last-minute maverick unfazed by an impending deadline? If you’re a great candidate for the role, it doesn’t matter when you apply — your potential employer will be happy to hear from you. Even if they already have someone else in mind, if they’re impressed with your application, they’ll often take note and keep your details on file for another opportunity. If you do cut it close to the deadline, most companies understand that people are busy — and anyway, who’s to say you haven’t been meticulously crafting your application for weeks before submitting? No one will ever know unless the quality of your response gives it away. So make sure you pay attention to every single detail, even during a late-night sprint. Often we surprise ourselves by doing our best work when the pressure is really on.

Once you’ve submitted, most companies will acknowledge receipt of your application and let you know a timeframe for next steps. They should also clearly state if they’ll only get in touch with those applicants who have been selected for an interview. Sending a friendly follow-up email a week after submitting your application may prompt a more personal response from the business. While you’re patiently (or impatiently!) waiting, don’t forget that you hold at least half the power.

Ultimately, you’re still putting out your feelers, so don’t be afraid of changing your mind about a company or position in the middle of the application or interview process. Don’t deliberately waste anyone’s time but you should always feel that you’re in the driving seat. Now all that you need is the sun on your face and the wind in your hair.

Take Five

If You Could's Journal hosts a range of useful Guides to help you navigate key decisions at every stage of your career journey. Each Guide consists of 5 simple steps, alongside advice from professionals working across the creative industry. Read more from our Take Five collection here.

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