How to fill in an application form for a specialist postAuthors: Sally Carter
Publication date: 27 feb 2008
It seems complicated, but Sally Carter asks if there are ways you can make the form filling easierSo you want to apply for a specialist post? You’ve had a look at the Gold Guide,  picked your specialty or specialties, found you meet the eligibility criteria, checked out the competition, and found what looks like the job for you on a deanery website. You’ve seen the person specification, and you think you fit the bill. The deadline for submitting the application form seems reasonable, and you’re available for the interview dates (box 1). So far so complex, but then you knew this was never going to be as simple as firing off a few CVs.
Box 1: Looming deadlinesThe first and main recruitment process for most specialties and GP training in England in 2008 opened on 5 January and runs to 16 May 2008. Many closing dates have passed already. See deanery websites for job adverts and details of application deadlines. Some specialties are recruiting nationally. Specialties can run up to three recruitment processes during the year, depending on how often certain specialties need to refill posts that become vacant. This will apply particularly (but not exclusively) to higher specialty training posts (ST3/ST4). Full details are on www.mmc.nhs.uk.
Be realisticFilling in these forms is going to need your time, probably a lot of it. Although all the forms are CV based, each deanery has its own, and the questions will be worded differently even if they are after similar information. If you’ve saved answers from previous forms, you may not be able to just cut and paste them into another. Make sure you read the job description, person specification, application form, and any guidance on the deanery website. Then decide if you can get the form done in time. Junior doctor Mark Lewis found the most difficult thing about completing application forms was finding the time to complete them all. He said, “I had to write down a spreadsheet of all the specialties by region and put the dates down, as there was no single reference page for them all, but there was a very handy Facebook group created by some other trainees.”
Read instructions—again and againOnce you’ve decided to apply for a post you need to read and re-read the instructions. Professor Geraint Rees, deputy co-chair of the BMA Medical Academic Staff Committee, says, “It is critical to be obsessive about following instructions.” He thinks that two of the quickest ways not to be shortlisted are to ignore a question about eligibility or to miss instructions, such as those telling you to fill in a supplementary form.
Read the question—and answer it in plain EnglishProfessor Elisabeth Paice, dean director at the London Deanery, believes that reading the questions on the form is vital, and it is “amazing how many people don’t and lose marks for not paying attention.” This sentiment is backed up by Dr Chris Clough, medical director of the Joint Royal Colleges of Physicians Training Board. He thinks that one of the most important things to do when filling in an application is to make sure you answer the question. He also suggests reading your answers to friends and asking them to feed back to you what they think you’re trying to say. This will help you check that you are getting across what the question asked for and can be useful in clarifying your writing, especially if English is not your first language.
Matt Jameson-Evans, trainee orthopaedic surgeon and co-founder of Remedy UK, has similar advice. “The cardinal sin in applications is not to show it to enough people. By the time you send your application you should have shown it to at least two of (a) your contemporaries, (b) registrars—that is, previously successful applicants, and (c) consultants. If you know anyone who is good with words (in or out of medicine) get it to them and explain how your life depends on it reading like a work of Shakespeare.”
A blank box is a missed opportunityProfessor Rees thinks that, “It is amazing how many people, when faced with a box asking them a question along the lines of ‘What qualities and achievements do you have that make you particularly suitable for a post?’ will write a single sentence and leave most of the box blank. This is a missed opportunity for self promotion, which is, in essence, what an application form is.” Professor Paice agrees, “A blank box will yield no marks and may disqualify you if the attribute concerned is an essential criterion.”
Keep the points in mind—it’s all relativeApplication forms are scored using a system that reflects the essential and desirable qualities in the job description. Professor Rees says that even if you don’t know the scoring system, the job description tells you which characteristics are being assessed. What qualities or experience do you have that will distinguish you from others filling in the same form? This is where you can score extra points. For example, if two points are available for an audit question a large number of applicants will score one because most people will provide some evidence. To score maximum points, think about what types of audit activity would score highest. Getting on a shortlist is not about your absolute score, but your score relative to other people, and some questions will be more discriminating than others.
The nitty grittyBe factual and concise, but personalise the application (box 2). This is particularly important when answering questions about your motivation for applying for a post. Professor Rees says, “If when you read back the answer to such a question it is so general that it could have come from anyone rather than from you, then it probably needs more work.”
Box 2: Golden rules
- Allow enough time
- Read the documentation
- Check everything is filled in, written to the correct word count, and run the spell check
- Save (at regular intervals)
- Check your answers
- Once sent, check the form has been received
Don’t lieWhen filling in an application form Dr Clough says that, “The biggest mistake you can make is not telling the truth.” If you make up a clinical scenario you will be asked about it in an interview, and it will be obvious if you didn’t see the patient. That could be embarrassing.
Professor Paice agrees. “The worst mistake you can make is to lie about your achievements, your qualifications, or your immigration status, where relevant to your application. You could lose your career that way.”
Help is at handTalk to people whom you want to check your form before you send it off. Check they can turn it around fast enough for you. You’ll also need to ensure that your referees will be available. People will be there to help even if they are available only on the phone or by email.
- Department of Health. A guide to postgraduate specialty training in the UK . (The gold guide). 2007. http://www.mmc.nhs.uk/Docs/A%20Guide%20to%20Postgraduate%20Specialty%20Training%20in%20the%20UK%20(Gold%20Guide).doc.
- Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) England. An applicant’s guide to application and recruitment to specialty training in England in 2008 (Section 2.1 Eligibility). London: Department of Health, 2008. http://www.mmc.nhs.uk/PDF/Applicant%20guide.pdf.
- Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) England. An applicant’s guide to application and recruitment to specialty training in England in 2008 (Section 1.5 The competition). London: Department of Health, 2008. http://www.mmc.nhs.uk/PDF/Applicant%20guide.pdf.
- Brown W. The web they weave. BMJ Careers 2008;336:56-7 (13 February). http://careers.bmj.com/careers/advice/view-article.html?id=2776.
- Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) England. An applicant’s guide to application and recruitment to specialty training in England in 2008 (Section 6 Support to applicants). London: Department of Health, 2008. http://www.mmc.nhs.uk/PDF/Applicant%20guide.pdf.