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Online application forms for graduate programmes are increasingly sophisticated. Find out what to expect and how they are used to select applicants, along with tips on how to get through to the next recruitment stage.
The automated process means that, in the initial stages of your application, there is very little human intervention.

The newest iterations of online application systems used by larger graduate employers are designed to be efficient for both the candidate and the recruiter. Generally quicker to fill in, the latest online forms can be accessed on any device and no longer ask you to input laboriously long answers to a huge number of application questions.

Some merely ask you to input your contact information and basic education details and complete online ability tests, games-based exercises or ‘immersive experiences’. Other forms may still ask you to answer an application question or two or upload a CV and covering letter, but will save you time by extracting your contact, education and work experience details from your CV or LinkedIn profile.

An all-in-one-system

To complete an employer’s application form, you’ll need to create an account on their recruitment website or system. Through this system you’ll also often be able to complete online tests and video interviews, receive rejection or congratulation communications, or book times for telephone and/or face-to-face interviews and assessment centres. As you are likely to be contacted via email, it is essential that you provide an address that you check regularly.

How online application forms select candidates

Software is used to  weed out unsuitable candidates automatically; these applications won’t be seen by a human recruiter. This is to make the recruitment process easier for the HR team, as the largest big-name graduate employers can receive tens of thousands of applications a year. The most common sifting methods are:

  • screening based on criteria set by the business, such as having the right to work in the UK or the required number of UCAS points/degree classifications/degree subject
  • screening according to performance on online tests (so, for example, all candidates who scored more than a set percentage on a numerical test may be automatically progressed to the next stage and those who score under it are automatically rejected; these percentages can be set differently for different jobs at the same employer).

How to stop yourself being sifted out

What this automated process means is that, in the initial stages of your application at least, there is very little human intervention. If you have a reason why you haven’t met the set criteria (for example, having mitigating circumstances for your degree results) or wouldn’t perform well in online tests (for example, having a disability that will put you at a disadvantage during tests) and you inform the employer of this, they can stop you being sifted out.

Many large employers advise you on how to contact them about this on their graduate recruitment webpage and some have a box to tick or ask you to fill in details on their online forms – but, if in doubt, email or call the recruiters and they will explain how to proceed. They may override the system or, in the case of a disability, they may have an alternative recruitment method that won’t put you at a disadvantage.

Bear in mind that the system may be set to fast track your application too. For example, if you have completed work experience with the company or if you have a contact working there the system could flag it so that the recruiters can seek references from within the business. So, don’t be shy about mentioning any contacts if they can give you a positive reference!

Graduate application form tip: don’t apply or take tests on the bus

Even though the application form is designed to be completed anywhere, apply and take tests on a laptop or a device with a ‘proper’ keyboard, if possible. This will make it less likely that you will select the wrong answer on a touch screen or make typos by mistake. Complete your application, too, in a quiet place free of distractions. After all, if you select the wrong option or perform badly on the tests, your application could be rejected.

Graduate application form tip: update your LinkedIn profile or CV…

If the online system gives you the option of having your contact, academic and work experience information extracted from your LinkedIn profile or CV, ensure that your profile or CV is accurate (for example, the dates) and reflects your most recent experiences. Otherwise, it won’t save you any time at all.

… but check the information and tailor it on the form

You must check the information the system extracts carefully to make sure that the right information is in the right sections, that the information is formatted correctly, and that the system has selected everything relevant.

Then tweak and tailor your application for that employer, especially any work experience information. Echo the language used in the employer’s recruitment advertisement or job description: for example, if the employer has asked for analytical skills instead of problem-solving abilities, make sure you explain how you used your analytical skills to solve problems, not just how you solved problems. This will be helpful if the online application system scans for keywords, but it will also help demonstrate to a 'human recruiter' that you are a good fit for the role.

If you are making significant re-writes to your information, complete them in MS Word or similar to check your spelling.

Graduate application tip: view all of the sections before you start

When you access the application form, in most cases you can click on and view each section before you start inputting information. Take a good look through and, if there are areas of potential overlap, plan what you should put where. This might be the case, for example, if you are asked an application question about why you are applying to that employer but you are also required to submit a covering letter explaining your motivations for applying for a specific role.

Graduate application form tip: don’t press 'complete' on a section until you’ve checked it

Being able to save and return to your application later is a standard feature nowadays, but typically when you mark a section ‘completed’ you are essentially submitting it and will be unable to amend the information it contains. Make sure you check each section of the form carefully before you click ‘complete’ or ‘submit’.

Particularly check:

  • spelling and grammar: use the spell check, but don’t rely on it.
  • references to the employer’s name: is the name spelled correctly?
  • your contact details: do you need to include both term-time and home address and telephone contacts, and is your email address appropriate?
  • if you have included all of the information the employer has asked for in the way that it has asked for it (for example, if the employer has requested for your work experience details to appear in a certain format or if it wants a breakdown of your degree modules).

Graduate application form tip: get online tested

The vast majority of application forms include some kind of online tests or games-based recruitment exercise and, as noted above, they are the major factor deciding whether you get through to the next stage (usually a first interview). The best way to succeed is to practise as many tests as possible. The employer will usually give you a few ‘warm up’ example questions before you take their tests, but don’t just rely on these: check out our online testing advice for links to free tests or access the tests of our commercial partner, AssessmentDay.

Graduate application form tip: save a copy

Some forms will allow you to print your form, email a copy to yourself or to save it as a PDF as you submit, but, in case they don’t, take a copy as you go along. You might want to copy and paste sections into an MS Word document (or similar), save them as PDFs or take a photo or screengrab of each section. Whatever you choose to do, keep your copy safe: you will need to refer to your application if you are invited to an interview.

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