How not to suck at NHS Job applications

Having just reviewed a number of applications for a senior position, I was astonished at the poor quality of a good number of them. On the one hand, it makes my life easy to reject your application at the shortlisting phase, but I don’t want it to be easy. I could be missing out on a brilliant hire. Your job is to make the life of the shortlisters hard and make it difficult for us to discard your application. So I’m writing these tips to benefit us both.

NB: This advice is related to Digital roles, but I’m pretty sure the principles apply for all senior roles in the NHS (and possibly wider public sector).

There are also other more corporate tips available elsewhere — see references section at the foot of this article.

Cyring baby. Source:

The job I’ve just shortlisted is very senior. The expectation is that people applying for this level of role can do the basics well, but here’s what I found in the application forms:

  • Current job title mentioned but no company name given. Unless you’re in the secret service, I can’t imagine why you’d do this.
  • Current job given, but current salary not mentioned. I don’t put a lot of weight in the salary that is mentioned, I don’t care if this job is a big jump for you — good for you and I look forward to reading why you’re equipped to step up several grades (cos that’s what you’re gonna need to do). ̶I̶ ̶h̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶m̶o̶r̶e̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶c̶e̶r̶n̶ ̶w̶h̶e̶n̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶c̶u̶r̶r̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶s̶a̶l̶a̶r̶y̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶b̶e̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶w̶n̶.̶ ̶W̶h̶y̶ ̶w̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶h̶i̶d̶e̶ ̶i̶t̶?̶ [¹ See postscript below — there’s more to this]
  • No career history. Doing this in NHS Jobs is a pain, but leaving your employment history, or pointing to me to LinkedIn is lazy. I’m immediately asking — if you’re not prepared to fill that in, what are you like to work with? Play the game.
  • Career history roles and responsibilities as a list of statements/acronyms, with no evidence.
  • Statements like “I feel I can do the role well”, with no justification or evidence why.
  • Cutting and pasting big chunks from a CV, resulting in all kinds of mad formatting (NHS Jobs does not do anything in the way of formatting). Even if the formatting is sorted, the content needs to be good. Cutting and pasting from the CV would be fine in the case where you have a decent CV to start off with, but I the cases I saw this wasn’t evident.
  • Complete lack of evidence. Lot of lists of buzzwords, but with no evidence of impact. E.g “I am responsible for service transformation”. What am I to take from that? Were you successful? What worked?
  • Completely missing the point of the Supporting Information section, which is to link back to the published person specification. It says this plainly in the document. This is so basic, but hardly anyone seems to do it.

In this section please give your reasons for applying for this post and additional information which demonstrates that you have read the published person specification and how you meet the essential and (where relevant) desirable criteria for this particular position. This can include relevant skills, knowledge, experience, voluntary activities, training etc. If relevant to the post for which you are applying, you should include details about research experience, publications or poster presentations, clinical care (knowledge and skills) and clinical audit.

Gif: Too long, didn’t read
  • And on the supporting info, one thing in the job description in question was a “Track record of communicating externally (blogging, Twitter, conference speaking) about your professional role and raising the profile of an organisation”. Only two applicants referred to this.
  • Mentioning the name of a different organisation in the application. Clearly this was a cut and paste of a previous application. This is a senior job, show some attention to detail. What does that tell me about what your work will be like?
  • Minor typos, such as previous salary of about ten times what this role is paying (at least I assumed it was a typo!), spelling the name of your current organisation wrong and many others. Again nothing major but its sending me the message that you’re not invested in this job by simply taking some time to proof-read before clicking submit.

So, perhaps no one has ever given you feedback from an application before, or you’ve never asked a friend or colleague to do a critical analysis of your application. These are both things I recommend you to do. It can be embarrassing, but the feedback will be worth it. If you can ask someone who is from a different industry to read your application, checking for jargon and with the specific ask to be critical about lack of evidence for any claim you make, it will really help. Build that into your application prep time.

Having been through two sets of application processes in less than two years I know this is painful. And it takes ages. My experience was that I have a set of material from a previous application or version of my CV, but it doesn’t quite bend to the role you’re applying for so it all needs re-writing and doing some deep thinking which is hard.

You have highs and lows — one moment you feel you’ve perfectly matched to the job and the next you feel there’s too many gaps to make you a credible candidate. Assuming that you’re broadly fitted for this role, then you have to ignore your inner demon and keep doing the hard work to hone your application.

Ok, moaning over. How do you make it harder for me to quickly reject your application and ensure you stand a higher chance of being shortlisted.

But first, before you write anything down. You need to ring the name on the advert. Even if there isn’t a name on the advert, your job is find out who this role will be reporting to them and have a chat.

Ring the person on the advert. I didn’t get this until a few years ago. I simply chucked my application over the wall and hoped for the best. Certainly, the more senior the role is, the more this is expected and will raise an eyebrow if you don’t.

I don’t know why I needed to be told this is a good idea. You get a sense of the job, what the environment is like, some of the key priorities for the person recruiting that may not jump out strongly on the Job Description and indeed if we are an organisation you think you can work with. You can then decide if you’re actually going to take the time to go through the pain of writing a stellar application. Somewhere in the region of a third of the applicants did make a call — hard for me to tell exact numbers as the shortlisting info does not contain names for good reason. I do know that one person decided not to apply after having a chat, which is actually a great outcome for both parties.

So what about the call? Do have an idea of some questions — getting me on the line and saying, “so tell me about the job”, should not be the sum total of your approach. Ideally you’ve done some research and you’re able to ask a specific question. Again this comes back to effort expected at a senior level. The phone call isn’t a job interview, so you don’t need to hard sell, but you might want to think about pointing me to a blog article you wrote or a conference you spoke at, or linking something that we’ve aiming to do at the Trust that aligns with your interests or experience. I certainly don’t want to hear how bad your current job is, or how terrible your boss is. Do some of the human connection stuff that tests out if we can work well together.

Ok, so you’ve decided you’re going to apply, so what are my top tips?

I’m looking for:

  • A sense that you understand the job and you’ve adapted your application accordingly. For example in this job, there was a candidate pack that talked about our ambition to be The Most Digital Hospital Group in England and some of our principles “We will be valuing collaboration behaviours over individual technical brilliance, as teams at each site work to:Do the basics brilliantly, Do things once for both, Do the hard work to make things simple, Be the best you can be”. Very few applications took the time to pick up this from page 1 of the covering application and refer to it.
  • A good career history. Again, this is a pain to add a list of previous jobs, but leaving them out raises more questions and doubts that you don’t want to encourage. So do the hard work and I think NHS job stores the job list so once you’ve done it once, you at least have the base info for future applications. In the roles and responsibilites bit for each role, don’t just give a list of things cut and pasted from your job description, pick two or three key things you delivered in that role that directly relate to the job you’re applying for.
  • A great set of supporting info. As stated earlier, this is where you justify that you meet all of the essential criteria. The easiest way to help the shortlister is to list every essential criteria and provide an evidenced response to each one. For each of the essential criteria my expectation is that you use something like the STAR model to set this out. At the shortlisting stage I’m looking for numbers, scale and evidence of delivery. Sometimes the criterias in the person spec are pretty lengthy, so feel free to trim it down, but you’re sign-posting to the shortlister that you’ve got everything nailed. Oh, and please try and use some white space — that dense block of text is pretty hard to absorb.
  • Use a few tricks. As stated earlier, the job description in question had the criteria of a “Track record of communicating externally (blogging, Twitter, conference speaking) about your professional role and raising the profile of an organisation”. Not all job descriptions will mention this directly, but this is a great opportunity to market yourself without the expense of breaking the word limit of the supporting information. If you’re applying for a senior digital role, then my expectation is that you’re living the NHS Service Design Manual Principle of Make Things Open It Makes Things Better. What does it say about you as a digital professional not to have an online professional presence? If you haven’t got one, now is the time to start.
  • Play the game. If the advert says apply through NHS Jobs, then that’s the route to use. If you’re doing to send me a CV separately via email, then do it by all means, but I won’t take it into account and I’ll still be shortlisting based on content in the NHS Jobs application. So don’t think by sending me your CV you can do a short supporting information section. Using the same assessment is how we make it fair for all applicants.

Applying for a senior job takes some effort. It will take some time and energy, but there’s no magic formula. You can do it. Please do because I don’t want to read another poor application ever again.


¹ I tweeted a link to this blog on Twitter and it resulted in some agreement, but also feedback about my comments when people don’t put their salary on the application. I was gently corrected by a number of helpful and gracious people, including the good folk at Show The Salary, who said:

In the US, when asking current/previous salaries was banned, pay increased for Black candidates by 13% and for women by 8%. Therefore lots of people don’t want to share this info, nor should they be made to, and if it doesn’t influence the pay offer then why ask it?

So, I take back my comment about the need to include salary — I now understand that people do it for sound reasons. There’s potential for unconcious bias inherent in this on a number of fronts, and we should take steps to remove the potential for that where possible. For completeness I’ve not changed the original text, but am now showing it struck-through.

Thank you for the feedback.

Husband. Dad to 3 smashing lads. Cub Leader. MAMIL. Group CDIO for Northampton and Kettering Hospitals. Ex NHS Digital. Views own. Always learning.