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Common pitfalls of job applications

In a recent employer survey conducted by Prosper, CVs and cover letters remain two of the most popular tools for job applications. Understanding and avoiding the common pitfalls in using these tools can make the difference between being invited to interview and being rejected.

Not reading the job description

“What I would say is that people often do not read the job description properly. You need to have given real thought to the role. If you are applying for a role you aren’t interested in and just want it as a way into Tate this will be brought out during the interview. It will become clear that it isn’t what you are passionate about, have knowledge and experience about or want to do. It will be clear that you are unlikely to do that role well, even if offered it, as you have an eye on something else.”

Lindsey Fryer Head of Learning, Tate Liverpool

Applicants who apply for roles without reading the job description carefully can end up applying for irrelevant jobs and are usually unsuccessful at providing evidence that they meet the essential criteria for the role.

Tips to avoid this pitfall

  • Talk friends or family through the job description
  • Align the job description essential criteria to your skills and interests
  • Get in touch with the hiring manager to talk through the role

Not tailoring your application to the job description

“Candidates will often submit a standard CV or covering statement which does not draw on the role description and person specification for the job and therefore miss the opportunity to highlight or expand on key / essential criteria. When there are multiple applications being shortlisted, this could be the difference between getting an interview and not getting an interview.”

Stephanie Donaldson, Executive Director of Business Resources, National Museums Liverpool


It can be very tempting to submit one standard application for every job. However, employers can sometimes be inundated with applications and can spot easily the applicants who have not tailored their documents to the essential criteria of a job description.

Tips to avoid this pitfall

  • Read the job description carefully
  • Align the job description essential criteria to your skills and interests
  • Address a cover letter/supporting statement to the Hiring Manager
  • Use bullet points or sections, to help those reading the applications to spot easily how you meet each one of the criteria

Applying for every job

Sending applications for multiple jobs quickly, and without care, is easily noticed and translated by employers as a lack of interest on the part of the applicant.

Tips to avoid this pitfall

  • Do not just apply for everything and anything
  • Spend more time on applications to jobs that you are passionate about
  • Read the job description carefully to see if you match the essential criteria

Not taking the time to translate your skills

“[…] postdocs, the applicants themselves, don’t understand the depth of the transferable skills they’ve got […] or they don’t sell themselves well.”

Kate Whelan, Chief Operating Officer (COO) & Head of Notch Scandinavia

It is important to not assume that employers will interpret your skills and experience. Most of our employer stakeholders say that applicants who do not explicitly translate their skills and experience to the role being applied for are unlikely to progress to interview.

Tips to avoid this pitfall

  • Make sure you use examples of your experience to show you have a required skill
  • Take every opportunity to show that you meet the criteria. If they allow you to submit a supporting statement, do this!
  • Visit developing a skills-based CV to become more aware of your skills, strengths, achievements and motivations

Not understanding what the company does or the role being advertised

“The main mistake is applying without researching and understanding what tech transfer is, just thinking it’s another career path that you can do because you’re aware other postdocs have done it. Even if you’re a good scientist it doesn’t make you a natural fit to technology transfer.

Dr Martyn Bottomley, Regional Translation Lead, Cancer Research UK 

Employers across multiple industries agree that candidates often do not take the time to fully understand the company and role that they are applying for. Applying without some knowledge is a waste of time for the applicant and recruiter.

Tips to avoid this pitfall

  • Research the role, company and industry ahead of applying
  • Understand how a company fits within its industry
  • Reach out to people who are working in the role being advertised
  • Ensure your skills and interests align with the role and what a company does

“One [pitfall] is people not understanding what we do, not necessarily the company but our niche within the industry. This happens more now that science communication is a recognised thing in its own right, which wasn’t true when I started out.
So candidates might think ‘oh! Science communication! and they think that we either do public engagement, which we don’t, or they might have come across medical and healthcare communications, and again that’s a different field.

Kate Whelan, Chief Operating Officer (COO) & Head of Notch Scandinavia.

Not researching the company culture

“It’s not a mistake as such but one of the hurdles we come across […] is that people aren’t necessarily the right fit for an SME. Some people prefer the structure of a larger organisation and are better suited to all the processes and security that comes with that. We make it clear what the culture of our company is like at interview: you may have a specialism but because we are so small and dynamic you have to be a jack of all trades.”

Andy Chaloner, CEO, Stream Bio

Different industries and different sized companies can have different cultures and ways of working. It is important to understand how the company that you are applying for works ahead of applying for a role to avoid surprises in the recruitment process and/or securing a role.

Tips to avoid this pitfall

  • Research the company culture ahead of applying
  • Reach out to an employee of the company for an informational interview
  • Check Glassdoor for reviews of what it’s like to work for a company

Not proofreading your application

Receiving applications with spelling and grammatical mistakes is a common occurrence for most of our employer stakeholders and often results in a rejection of the application.

Tips to avoid this pitfall

  • Don’t rely on spellcheck software
  • Try reading your application aloud to check for grammatical errors
  • Ask a friend or relative to read through and sense check your application

Submitting an unclear, rambling application

To ensure that your application gets noticed for the right reasons our employer stakeholders agree that an application needs to be as clear and concise as possible. Often applications are too long and do not clearly respond to the job description.

Tips to avoid this pitfall

  • Where applicable, present information in bullet points to allow hiring manager to scan quickly
  • Make sure application is neat and tidy
  • Research the company brand and where possible, tailor application presentation

Decode a job description

Taking a methodical approach to decode what a job description is asking for will help you to avoid the pitfalls described above.

Unpacking key phrases into the skills being asked for can help you to come up with examples from your own career. The workbook provides more detail.

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