Applying for public sector jobs

Interview Pic 4

Applying for jobs in the public sector isn’t as simple as it first seems. Once you have the technique, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get an interview every single time. This guide should assist applicants in applying for those jobs.

I’ve only been a manager 18 months and already been through extensive recruitment training and recruited three officers. One thing that continues to dishearten me is that so many potentially good candidates are not getting through to the interview stage. I believe this is usually simply because people don’t know how to fill in application forms for public sector positions. It’s especially disheartening to see so many ex-soldiers failing to get interviews because they’ve never been taught how to apply for jobs.

It’s really not as simple as showing the recruiting manager that you can do your job, showing you are interested or sending a snazzy CV/resume. You have to demonstrate that you can do the job they have advertised and sell yourself. The process may seem bureaucratic, but there are very important reasons for this, especially in eliminating bias and creating an equal playing field.

Recruitment is one of the most important activities of a manager

Successful recruitment forges a productive and successful team. There are no bad employees, just bad recruitment selections. If I recruit someone into my team that can’t do the job, doesn’t fit in, is unmotivated or cannot develop; it’s not their fault, it’s mine for recruiting them.


There are a few caveats I should state before I continue with this guide.

  • I have never recruited someone for the private sector. I’ve been told by friends and colleagues in the private sector that the process is quite different, bureaucratic and less liberal for the recruiting manager.
  • Every public sector body has its own recruitment policies but the principles remain the same.
  • This is aimed at the UK public sector (I don’t know how well this applies to other countries).

A recent experience as an employer

I recently advertised for an admin/support position. We received 136 applications in total. Of those that applied we had: experienced administrators, personal assistants, students, recent graduates, solicitors, librarians, ex-soldiers, fire-fighters, shop assistants, policy officers, those in employment, those out of employment.

Most had one thing in common, they didn’t provide an application form that would secure them an interview.

This is what 136 application forms looks like. It took 3 days to review and sore all these
This is what a stack of 136 application forms looks like. It took 2 managers 3 days to review and score all these.

It took two managers three days to review all the applications (yes, we really do read and score them all!). We narrowed them down to 8 for interviews. After a day of intense interviews, we appointed one.

That one person understood how to apply, had sold themselves in their application form and made me excited to meet them. The successful applicant has proved to be capable, a fast learner, and ambitious to develop – all the things I could possibly want in my team. The process takes time, but it works.

Interview Pic 2

Below are 5 stages for developing an application that will give you a good chance of getting that interview:

Stage 1 – Read the Job Description and apply for jobs you know you can do

Read the Job Description and decide whether you want the job, and that you can do it. These are usually pretty detailed and explain all the roles of the job. They’re normally evaluated each year to check that they are still accurate and are graded to make sure the job pays appropriately for the level of responsibility.

Be aware that there is usually a clause that states ‘any other activity that can reasonably be expected of the post holder’ (or similar). If it’s not in the JD, it’ll probably be in the contract. This gets the person to do extra ‘reasonable’ tasks not explicitly stated in the JD.

Stage 2 – Your pretty CV/resume is nice, but probably not much use

Provide a CV/Resume, just be aware that CVs are not much use for the public sector. The CV may help in selecting one candidate over another if it’s a close selection, but don’t rely on it, it won’t get you the interview.

Stage 3 – Complete the application form

The majority of the application form asks you questions about your personal details (names, date of birth, address), education and qualifications, previous work experience, references, and disqualifying factors. This makes your CV rather redundant.

Some organisations will guarantee interviews to some groups if they meet all the minimum/essential criteria on the Person Specification (see below). In my organisation, these are provided for those with disabilities, and those that have recently left the military.

At the end of the application, you’ll come to the Personal Statement section…

Stage 4 – (Most important stage) Find the Person Specification and write the Personal Statement

The Person Specification (also known as a Employee Specification, Applicant Specification or something similar) tells you exactly what skills, experiences and aptitudes the recruiter is looking for. It even tells you what is essential/minimum (must be able to do), and what is desirable (prefer you to be able to do).

Example Person Specification - your guide to getting an interview
Example Person Specification – your guide to getting an interview

The Person Specification also tells you how each element will be assessed; by application form, interview or test.

The Person Specification is usually at the end of the Job Description, or on a separate attachment. They’re usually pretty similar in structure, but slightly different in design. Two examples of what to look for are here:

Use the Person Specification as a guide to writing the Personal Statement. Do it in order, statement by statement, one paragraph for each element on the Person Specification. You can combine the elements to answer them together, but make it clear.

For each element:

  • state that you have the skill described on the Person Specification
  • explain how you can do it (through training/as part of a previous job, etc.)
  • give a good, short example of where you have done it

For example, if the Person Specification says: ‘Experience of working with Microsoft Office packages’, your statement could read:

I have extensive experience of working with Microsoft Office packages through recent work experience as a XXXX. In this role I worked on a daily basis with Outlook to maintain email communications, manage my calendar and create task lists. I also used Excel extensively to create spreadsheets and databases, allowing colleagues to filter information quickly and efficiently to support them in their roles. One example of this is where I created a database of customers, allowing colleagues to filter data and access key information on customer groups so that we could provide bespoke and efficient services to them.

When writing the personal statement imagine that the person scoring your application has little knowledge of the job beyond what the Person Specification says, and they simply ticking off each element. They aren’t going to search for the answers and they wouldn’t know what to look for anyway. This isn’t the case in all organisations, but in some Human Resources will do the short-listing before they even get to the manager.

I’ve heard advice that the Personal Statement should be kept to 2 pages in length. I’d rather read a lengthy but good personal statement that meets all the criteria, than a short one where I have to make assumptions.

If you get these right for every essential element, you should get an interview. Be aware though, that if competition is strong (and at the moment it really is), you may need to meet all the desirable criteria too.

Stage 5 – Prepare for the interview

I’m not going to go into interview techniques in this blog, there is already a wealth of information out there. I will say that if you are invited to interview try to meet the interview schedule; asking for deferrals shouldn’t, but probably will, effect the recruiters opinion of you. They want someone who is willing to drop everything to work for them, not someone who is difficult even before the interview.

Remember, the Person Specification pretty much tells you what they are likely to ask questions on in the interview. 

Useful links

Some useful links for interview techniques are below:

I really do hope this guide helps those applying for jobs. I know there are so many good applicants out there that have probably never been properly taught or advised how to negotiate the bureaucratic process of public sector recruitment. If you do have any experiences, please comment below, it would be good to learn from each other.

If you would like more support, such as a review service for your application, contact us for our services and rates.

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