Job applications: Keep it simple

Claiming excellent written communication skills in your job application? Too many applicants contradict their own claims through poor written communication (and there is more to it than just running a spell-check!) This post outlines why your written style matters and three simple ways to improve it.


CC-BY Wesley Fryer on Flickr

I see a lot of applications, CVs and cover letters in my job as a Careers Consultant.  The quality of these varies massively.  Often I’ll know at first glance that some are sure-fire interview winners, whereas others are unlikely to get past the first sift. Like most recruiters, I tend to skim-read CVs initially to form a quick impression.  Research conducted by The Ladders has shown that recruiters may only look at your CV for a matter of seconds, so a clear and legible format is essential.  Assuming that yours makes it past that first sift, what impression does it create when they actually read it and how can you make sure it stands out?

One easy win is your writing style.  All too often I see applications with great potential reduced to rubbish by poor written communication.  Besides needing to convince a recruiter of your motivation and suitability for the job, your application gives them a chance to assess your written communication skills.  As Sarah Cockburn, Head of Graduate Recruitment at Allen & Overy told me:

“When reviewing an application it is not just the content that employers are assessing but also the style in which it is written. The ability to communicate in writing in a persuasive and concise manner and, in particular, explaining complexity in a way that all can understand is a skill that is imperative in the workplace today”

How to write more effectively:

Keep it simple

Applications often read like the person writing has a Thesaurus-dependency problem.  Using complicated or unusual words will not make you sound more intelligent and is unlikely to help your application.  Aim for a professional yet conversational tone in your writing and write as you would speak (within reason!).

Short sentences

Long, complicated sentences are difficult to follow and therefore lack impact. Aim for an average sentence length of 15-25 words. If you are struggling to reduce your sentence length, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are all the words you’ve used absolutely necessary?
  • Would rephrasing the sentence make it shorter?
  • Have you used a comma where you should (or could) use a full stop?

Active & positive

Write in a positive, upbeat style.  Using verbs near the beginning of your sentences will help this. When discussing skills in particular, it is useful to specify the skill close to the beginning of the sentence rather than at the end.


The following examples demonstrate the difference these 3 tweaks can make to clarity and impact.

1). Long, complicated and difficult to follow:

Having been involved in team sports throughout my school and university career means I have a plethora of experience working with a multitude of different people from disparate backgrounds and I have always been able to efficaciously adapt to new team situations quickly and effortlessly.

2). Plain English:

I have developed excellent team working skills over 10 years playing team sports.  I have worked with people of various ages and backgrounds and always adapt quickly to new team situations.

Further help

The Plain English Campaign has some great resources, including the excellent “How to write in plain English

The Applications, CVs and Interviews section of our website

Law firm Freshfields have produced a useful guide to writing effective applications

1 Comment

Filed under Advice, Autumn career essentials, CVs & Applications

One response to “Job applications: Keep it simple

  1. Great advice Jess. I think one of the biggest challenges for any graduate when they enter the workplace is learning an entirely new writing style. After 21 years of being taught to write 3,000 word (minimum) verbose, articulate and academic assignments graduates have to quickly learn how to ‘tell me what I need to know on 1 page’! This more concise and clear style of writing is a key business skill. And it’s not just about demonstrating your communication skills. I always look for sentence structure, spelling, capitalisation, consistent formatting and punctuation as key indicators of conscientiousness and attention to detail. After all, if they can’t get it right in their application, then I would have concerns about how they would do once they are in the job. Top tip is definitely to get a professional adviser or trusted family member to take a second look at anything for you, before you send it off.

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