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11 Jun

Can I ‘hack’ a job application form?

As a job seeker, you may have found yourself wondering if you can improve your chances of securing a job interview by ‘hacking’ the online application form. Is there a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to answer a question and does making the right decision help your chances of being shortlisted?

Application forms come in all shapes and sizes: the most basic could be just a few YES/NO questions on the end of a Seek ad. The more advanced are connected to a back-end application tracking system (ATS) or database. In this case, your answers help recruiters and employers to not only assess you for this opportunity, but to include you in their talent pool for the future.

Application form questions come in three forms. Multichoice (i.e., YES/NO), multi-answer (i.e., tick as many as apply) and written (i.e., please tell us why this role appeals to you).  

Busy employers who don’t have a team of people with time to read through every application will often use multichoice as a screening tool to weed out candidates who don’t fit the brief. Typical YES/NO questions include residency, work rights, certificates/qualifications and transport.

For example, if the advert says you must have your own car, then answering ‘no’ to that question on the application form will likely mean your CV isn’t even opened. Yes, you can ‘hack’ the system by answering in the affirmative to boost chances that your application isn’t declined on the first pass, but before doing that, ask yourself if it’s worth it.  

Usually employers set YES/NO questions for deal breakers and if you need a car to do the job, then not having one will become a problem pretty fast for both you and your new boss. If you are in the process of buying a car and don’t have one now, but will by the time you get to interview, then it might be worthwhile to take the risk. If there’s no room on the form for grey areas, you need to use your best judgement.

Multi-answer questions are often used by companies and recruitment agencies that have an ATS in the back end helping to process applications. An ATS is used to ‘keep your information on file and contact you if another vacancy becomes available’. When you select from a drop-down menu and tick the software programs you know, the industries you’ve worked in or the technical skills you have, a firm with a good ATS will be able to filter this information to assess your suitability for the current job, as well as for any future jobs where there’s similar criteria. So, it can be very powerful.

The multi-answer question is an area where candidates often try to stretch the truth. I once read a resume from a candidate who ticked that he had 5 years of experience in the ‘food processing’ industry, when in fact he’d been working at KFC. Ticking everything may well get your application past the gate keeper, so it’s a reliable ‘hacking’ technique. However, if your resume doesn’t stack up, you will quickly be back to the decline pile.

One of the most important areas of the application form in my opinion, is the written answer. When I see a paragraph from a candidate who has read the advert, researched the company and customised their pitch, there is a good chance their application will get past the gate keeper and move to the ‘review’ part of the process. Unfortunately, so many job seekers let themselves down in this area by cut/pasting the same answer to multiple companies, writing ‘NA’ or ‘read my resume’ and displaying poor grammar. 

Here’s what’s wrong with those approaches. A sophisticated ATS that uses AI (artificial intelligence) to look for key words and phrases, does not respond to ‘NA or ‘read my resume’. A firm with the resources to have human eyes going through every application may accept this, but you’re taking a chance. And when you are competing against 100 other candidates, presenting a lazy written answer on the application form doesn’t stack odds in your favour. 

Here’s a second tip: if the job advert calls for ‘good written communication skills’, whether it’s a human or AI reviewing your application form, they will expect to see evidence of this in your short, written answer. Even if you are applying on a mobile phone, there is no excuse for poor grammar and punctuation, so don’t skimp in this area. For more tips on completing written answers, check out this blog.  

In summary…

A white lie may help you get past an ‘auto decline’ filter on an application form. But if that attribute is a deal breaker to get the job, ultimately you are wasting their time - and yours - by fibbing. It’s tempting to think they might overlook your lack of a degree once you’ve dazzled at an in-person meeting, but it’s an investment in time that could backfire and result in you being blacklisted from any future opportunities with that organisation.  

You also don’t know exactly how sophisticated the back end of the application form could be. You could be applying to a recruiter who uses an ATS that slices, dices and filters your information into categories, so that you can be easily found in a future search for roles requiring your skill set.  Incorrect information could impact your chance to be shoulder tapped.  

We err on the side of ‘honesty is the best policy’ when it comes to multichoice and multi-answer questions. We recommend instead, that you use your creative energy to craft personable and engaging written answers that showcase your enthusiasm and interest in the organisation.

For more job seeker advice, check out our other blogs at talentpropellerjobs.co.nz/resources.