A Practical Guide to Make Yourself Shine in a Job Application

Laura Izquierdo


In the US alone, the Covid-19 pandemic has cost over 47 million Americans their jobs. Businesses globally are putting a halt to their hiring practices, and it has become increasingly difficult for people to find employment.

For many graduates, this means having to re-evaluate plans. You might have to apply for jobs that wouldn’t necessarily have been your preferred option at the start of the year, or you might opt to take a gap year in the hopes of going traveling once ‘things return to normal.’

Some of you might be feeling anxious about this change of plans. You might be feeling scared to ‘fall behind’ knowing that you’ll be competing for jobs with a fresh round of graduates next year, or you might be concerned that accepting a job that’s not in line with your desired career path will hinder your chances of landing your dream job in the future.

Admittedly, we’re living in uncertain times, and the future can seem daunting. But one thing that’s certain is that there are definite benefits to gaining some useful life experience before launching into a career.

Since graduating from University four years ago, it’s safe to say that my career has developed pretty horizontally. I haven’t followed a linear path or climbed any form of ‘ladder.’

My chronic (and often exhausting) inquisitiveness means that I tend to like more things than not. Unsurprisingly, I ended up testing the waters in a range of different roles, and a few different industries.

Since many 21-year-olds are beginning their careers straight out of university, if you’re anyone who traveled, took a gap-year, or gained experience in a few different roles before identifying the career path you wanted to follow, it’s easy to feel “behind.”

But, thankfully, there’s a silver lining. This exhausting limbo phase has involved becoming familiar with, and going through multiple types of application processes, which have each taught me a few things… including the fact that some things really do get better with age.

Taking your time before launching your career, or even changing career paths later in life comes with its advantages. Here are 5 of them, and I’ve included some suggestions as to how you can express them in your applications.

1) You have acquired a whole set of transferable skills from other experiences.

No experience is an exclusively bad experience. There’s always something to be learned; every experience shapes who you become in some way.

Many people think that stating what their previous roles and their respective responsibilities were is enough. But it’s you who has to make the link between your experience and the job you’re applying for.

Everything you’ve learned can be useful. For example, my first role directly out of university was in business-to-business sales, at a company that sold vending and coffee machines to businesses in London. When I said I worked in sales and worked at a vending company, nobody took me seriously.

Many of the people I surrounded myself with didn’t understand the value of what I was doing. Most of my friends had followed more ‘professional’ roles and had become lawyers, consultants, engineers, and teachers. They were unequivocally ‘important’ adults. Whereas I was ‘just’ selling vending machines.

Well, looking back, I can confidently say that I learned more in this role than I did in my roles in Consulting or as a Paralegal. They threw us straight into the deep end, and I developed powerful negotiation, communication, organization skills that have proved invaluable to me later in life. I also learned how to behave professionally, and they taught us a lot about human psychology. It turns out; sales is all about psychology! It was an incredibly interesting role, and yet, I let other people’s judgments clout my vision to the extent that I couldn’t see just how much I was learning.

How you can express this in your application:

“I have gained valuable transferable skills from my previous roles in…X, Y, and Z. Specifically, as a [name of role], I developed [insert the skill you learned] skills, that I trust will equip me well to [state how this skill will help you carry out the tasks in the new role you aspire to].”

Example: I have gained valuable transferable skills from my previous roles in business-to-business sales, strategy consulting, and law. Specifically, as a Sales Executive, I developed strong negotiation and communication skills, that I trust will equip me well to negotiate contracts with manufacturers as a Buyer. Furthermore…

You can’t expect every recruiter or potential future boss to understand the value of your previous roles or to know exactly what it entailed and appreciate your acquired skills. It’s up to you to tell them — how are the skills you have acquired valuable to the position you aspire to obtain?

2. You have had more time to self-reflect

These past four years have aroused so many emotions… I don’t even know what to call most of them. I’ve had SO many questions about life; about my life (mainly). Where to go? What to do? Which option is best? What will happen?…

And all this questioning has involved a lot of self-reflection.

To know where to go and what to do next, I’ve had to think back to my experiences and think about what worked, what didn’t, what I liked, and what I disliked. I got to know myself a lot. I identified my weaknesses, my strengths, and what works for me. And this self-awareness is massively valuable to any business.

Hiring people who are aware of their weaknesses and are working to correct them means they’ll be hiring someone who’s more likely to keep improving and turn those weaknesses into strengths. They’ll be hiring someone likely to be more productive because they know how and when they work best; they’ve had practice, now its game time!

Also, I’ve had time not just to think about what I want to do but also why I want to do it. I have a greater sense of purpose. I know that not every job that I apply for will be my dream job. But I know why I’m applying; I know what I want to learn, and what I want to gain from the experience because it’ll get me one step closer to fulfilling my purpose.

How you can express this in your application:

“My previous experiences have given me the opportunity to identify my strengths, and understand how I can harness these to bring value to the business. I am particularly confident in my ability to [insert skills here], and I believe these would equip me well for the role of [insert role here]. [Then describe how].”

Tip: My advice would be to save the ‘areas of improvement’ for the interview stage if the question comes up. Whatever your answer is (and please, don’t disguise a strength — e.g., “I’m too much of a perfectionist”, or “I’m too organized”), always mention that you’re very mindful that this is an area of improvement and that you’re working on it.

3) You have developed a greater level of empathy

Until you graduate, whether from high school or university, you’re likely to spend most of your time with people your age.

Living in the ‘real world,’ as an adult, exposes you to a much broader range of people of different ages and walks of life. You hear about their problems, their concerns, their circumstances, and develop a much better understanding of what other people are going through. You might have even been asked for support, help, or advice.

The ability to empathize with others is crucial in the world of work. Businesses are just social constructs; they work because people make them work. It’s all about people.

Having the ability to understand what someone else at work is experiencing will help you communicate more effectively, delegate tasks more efficiently, improve your likeability, and identify where to provide support.

How you can express this in your application:

In my role as [X / When I went traveling in Y / fill in accordingly], I had the opportunity to meet/work with/collaborate with individuals in different departments/ from different nationalities. I thereby strengthened my [interpersonal/communication/leadership/insert relevant skills], and I developed a fondness for collaborating with individuals in a diverse environment.

4) You’re better able to communicate and handle situations professionally

Even if you haven’t worked in a ‘professional’ environment specifically, any role you’ve previously had will have involved at least one of the following:

(i) Communicating with a boss

(ii) Communicating with a client

Both of these things will have required you to tailor your communication style accordingly to make your tone and the vocabulary you employ appropriate to the circumstance. It will also have required that you express information clearly and concisely and remain calm in stressful situations.

For example, when I worked as a Paralegal earlier this year, I received some positive feedback from an associate; she said I handled one particular situation very professionally:

Three of our witnesses were to be cross-examined by the other side. Cross-examinations, as you can probably imagine, are incredibly stressful for witnesses; there’s a lot of pressure on them to perform well because a mistake could cost their employer millions. The witnesses were my responsibility that day; I was with them all day.

A problem arose, and I had to handle it, without expressing concern, as this could throw all of their preparation out of the window. Instead of showing that I was FREAKING OUT INSIDE, I kept calm.

Could I have done this four years ago? I doubt it. Whenever there was a problem in my first role, my default response was to run to my supervisor and await her wise words of wisdom. Gaining experience has given me a greater perspective, and more confidence to handle challenges myself.

How you can express this in your application:

“Throughout my previous role/s as [insert job title], I have strengthened my ability to behave professionally, and to tailor my communication style to collaborate effectively with a wide range of individuals. I have learned to provide excellent customer service, and I am confident in my ability to overcome challenges independently”.

5) Getting other life experience demonstrates confidence

I admire people who haven’t followed a conventional career path. People who have dared to follow their instinct over following everyone else, people who know what they want and are willing to be vulnerable, bold, and work hard to get it.

It shows confidence in one’s ability. It shows that you’re someone who knows that “you’ll be okay, even if you fail, because you’ll find a new way to be successful” — that is extremely attractive.

I don’t just mean “attractive” in a ‘he/she is hot’ way. I mean, it’s attractive generally, to people, including employers. It means you’re the kind of person who, even if you don’t know the answer, or you don’t know how to do something, you soon will, because you’ll find out how.

How you can express this in your application:

Having the courage to gain other work or life experience following your studies speaks for itself. It shows you’re inquisitive, curious, and recognize that the greatest learning opportunities come from taking yourself out of your comfort zone. So this is the part of the application to let your personality shine through; talk about your experience, and your outlook…here’s how you could open it up:

“I’m generally very inquisitive and I enjoy challenging myself by taking myself out of my comfort zone. For example, [insert example here]”.

Remember, you’re not “old,” you’re not “behind” — you’re exactly where you need to be, and you have exactly what you need to get to where you want to go.

So go there!

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Content Creator, Storyteller & Co-host of the Thoughts from Limbo Podcast. Sharing stories designed to help you navigate the messiness of life. Join the conversation: https://thoughtsfromlimbo.buzzsprout.com/

New York City, NY

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