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Why you need to review your application form

Even though many job applicants dislike filling out application forms, lots of non-profit employers prefer to use them for their recruitment.  In this post, we look at the pros and cons of application forms and how to tailor them to get the best possible response for your vacancy.

Why do employers use them?

There are some distinct advantages to asking a candidate to fill out an application form, rather than send in a CV.  They usually save an employer time and effort, especially if it’s an online form that feeds directly into an ATS (applicant tracking system).  They also make it easier to reduce bias when shortlisting candidates, as each candidate is forced to give exactly the same information.  Many of the questions on application forms are there for legal or institutional reasons, and ensure compliance when recruiting.

The fact that application forms are so very unpopular also encourages some employers to use them. Filling out an application form tests the candidate’s commitment to that role and discourages unsuitable candidates or those who simply send off untailored CVs to every role going.

However, one of the most common reasons for organisations to use application forms is simply because they always have done.  Each time they recruit, extra questions are added to the form, without reviewing it as a whole – resulting in forms that are extremely long and full of redundant questions.

What are the negatives?

The main problem with application forms is that they tend to be far too long and extremely tedious to complete.  Candidates have usually already spent a long time polishing up their CV prior to starting to look for roles, and having to start from scratch each time can be very repetitive and time consuming.  The questions asked are also not always obviously relevant to the job a candidate is applying for.

At TPP, we have a lot of anecdotal evidence that really good candidates simply don’t bother applying for roles if the process is too complicated.  Application forms may discourage unwelcome responses, but they can also deter some candidates who might be ideal for your role.  It takes most jobseekers at least half a day to complete an application form, which is time that’s hard to find if you’re already working full time.  Exceptional candidates can be greatly in demand, and if they can get a job easily elsewhere with less effort, they are not likely to apply for yours.

The more senior your vacancy, the more likely it is that your ideal candidates are ‘passive’ jobseekers, ie those who are not actively looking for a new role but might be tempted by the ideal job.  These candidates are even less likely to sacrifice the time it takes to complete a long and complicated application form.

Other problems with application forms are that they lack flexibility and make it difficult for good candidates to distinguish themselves in a creative way or to really demonstrate their personality.  Also, if a candidate makes a small mistake filling out the form, their application may be automatically rejected, even if they are perfect for your role.

So what should you do?

First of all, you need to find out if you are required to use application forms for every role in your organisation.  If not, it’s worth deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to use them.  The more senior, specialist or niche your role, the less likely you are to have high volumes of suitable applicants, so it’s worth making it as easy as possible to apply.

A compromise solution might be a two-tier process.  Ask candidates to send in their CV and do an initial quick shortlist of those with the right skills and experience.  You can then ask those applicants to complete an application forms to make the final shortlisting process easier and fairer.  These candidates will also be motivated to fill in the forms as they have already passed one hurdle.

The most important thing you can do to improve your recruitment process is to review your application form and make sure it is doing its job – allowing you to identify excellent candidates while filtering out unwanted applications.  The golden rule is, the shorter and easier your form is and the more relevant the questions, the more likely candidates are to make it to the end.

What should you include?

Always start off with basic information and questions that are easy to complete, such as name and contact details and the post applied for, as this encourages candidates to start filling out the form.

You should ask applicants to confirm their right to work in the UK, give details of previous employment, education and qualifications.

It is also very important to include a free text box to allow candidates to write a personal statement in order to sell themselves, along the lines of “why should we consider you for this role”.  It is also a good idea to give applicants room to comment on their answers, eg to explain gaps in their career or unusual career choices.  However, avoid asking too many open-ended questions, as this will lead to repetition, which makes application forms tedious to complete and to read.  Keep behavioural questions, asking candidates to demonstrate their experience, for an interview setting instead.

What should you take off?

Quite simply, take out anything that is unnecessary.  For example, do you really need details for every one of the candidate’s previous employers?  Or just the most recent or relevant?

It is also important to make sure that the questions elicit responses that are non-discriminatory.  For example, you should not ask for a candidate’s date of birth, native language or religion.  Some questions are borderline, eg asking for reference details is standard but may result in average candidates being shortlisted purely because they have impressive referees.  See our post on interview questions to avoid for more tips on avoiding discrimination.

Many not for profit employers like to collect equal opportunities information to monitor the success of their policies designed to promote diversity.  TPP’s advice is that this is a separate, completely anonymous form and not simply tacked on to the application form.

Make the process easy

Even if you can’t improve your application form, there are steps you can take to make the application process as a whole better for candidates.  Your application form should be attached to job advertisements wherever possible; requiring candidates to contact you to request a form is simply creating more work for both you and them.

Online forms are usually the easiest to complete, but even these can be difficult.  Make it clear to applicants how many sections there are to the form and what stage they have reached, and make sure that they can save their progress mid-way and that the form won’t time out.  Adding validation to required fields means that candidates can only submit the form when they’ve given you all the mandatory information you require.

Finally, after making candidates jump through hoops to apply for your job, you should always acknowledge receipt of their application and let them know the outcome, whether successful or not.  After all, people interested in working for you may also be those most likely to donate, refer or volunteer, and you don’t want to damage your relationship with them or your organisation’s reputation.

Finally, test the process

The last stage in improving your application forms is to make sure that they are clear and unambiguous and as easy as possible to complete.  The best way to do this is to have several current employees pretend to be candidates and complete the form for you, giving you feedback on the overall process.

It’s also worth getting hold of the forms used by organisations similar to yours and comparing them to your own.  If it’s much harder to apply for your roles, candidates may choose to go elsewhere instead.

Useful Resources
Application form template for charity jobs from HRBird

CIPD – How to design application forms, including good tips on avoiding discrimination