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The Developing Developer is a blog series giving advice for early-career developers.

If you read my last post about getting hired, you might have thought to yourself, "Ok Marissa, that seems pretty legit, but it's just general advice. What's the one secret trick to getting employed?"

It isn't exactly a trick, and I can't say that it's a secret (since I'm publishing it on the internet), but here is the method that I use when applying for jobs. I call it application cheatsheet.

It's based on the idea of putting together an application in the same way that you would study for an exam. All the answers are right there: you just need to find them.

Note that getting this to work relies on you having the right level of experience to prove that you are capable of doing the job. The cheatsheet structure can help you find the right answers, but it can't magic them out of thin air if they don't already exist.

Example: Bagel Babies

To understand how this works, I'm going to walk you through an example.

In our fictional scenario, there is a company called Bagel Babies that makes bagels for babies. (Yeah, I have no idea how my brain comes up with this stuff either.) Let's now admire their logo, which I spent far too much of my life making:

Bagel Babies logo

Bagel Babies wants to hire a new baker. We'll show how our imaginary applicant, Suzy Q, puts together a case for herself using the application cheatsheet structure.

Step 1: Understand the job description

First, take a look at the information in the job advert. The criteria for working at Bagel Babies is pretty simple:

  • Experience in bagel baking
  • Enjoys working with babies
  • Optional: can also bake bialys

This list of criteria will go directly on our cheatsheet. At this point, make sure to look up any terms that you don't understand and make a note of them. In our example, Suzy doesn't know what a bialy is, so she looks it up. She still doesn't have any experience making bialys, but at least now she can talk about them without sounding like an idiot.

Step 2: Research the workplace

In addition to the job description, we'll also want to find out more about the organisation doing the hiring. (If the job is within the same organisation that you already work at, research the new team instead of the organisation.) In particular, try to note the following:

  • Core beliefs
  • Goals/strategic vision
  • Anything of particular relevance to your skillset

Most of this information should be available on the organisation's website. Add these points to your cheatsheet, and continue to research until you feel confident that you understand what their organisation is about. (As a sidenote, recruiters are generally very impressed if you can demonstrate that you are aware of these things, as it shows extra motivation on top of just reading the advert.)

In Suzy's case, she discovers the following additional facts about Bagel Babies which she adds to her cheatsheet:

  • Bagel Babies uses only local, organic produce.
  • There is a second branch of Bagel Babies in Barcelona.

Step 3: Add evidence

Once you have pulled together all of the criteria you can find, you will start adding evidence. The evidence builds a case that you are the right candidate for the job - you can think of this as similar to compiling evidence for a court case. The goal here is the same: to make a compelling argument that convinces your listener.

There are two types of evidence that you can use:

  • Professional evidence uses examples from your career and schooling. The most compelling professional evidence is recent, paid work - less compelling is unpaid work in the distant past. (I don't advise using anything very distant, i.e. earlier than secondary school, as this can come across as a bit desperate.)
  • Personal evidence comes from your interests, hobbies, and personal experiences. It is not as strong as professional evidence, but it can be used to demonstrate passion.

Suzy's cheatsheet with all of her evidence added might look like this:

  • Experience in bagel baking
    • Apprentice baker at Bagels R Us
    • 1 summer working the till for Binky's Bagels
    • Keen baker all my life, was taught to make bread by my grandfather at the age of 10
  • Enjoys working with babies
    • 3 years regular babysitter for neighbour
    • Has 2 younger siblings
  • Optional: can also bake bialys
    • A type of Polish bagel, use experience in making all types of bread to prove this
  • Bagel Babies uses only local, organic produce.
    • My uncle has an organic farm and I have helped out on it since I was a child.
  • There is a second branch of Bagel Babies in Barcelona.
    • Community class in Spanish (ongoing)

On her cheatsheet, Suzy uses a mixture of personal and professional evidence - you will most likely do the same. Ideally, you should have at least one piece of professional evidence for every point, but personal evidence can also be used to show why you (uniquely) are right for this role.

If you have any exceptional personal achievements you may also want to consider adding them in, even if they are not related to any of the criteria on your list. These are what will make you stand out from the other candidates.

How to use the cheatsheet

Once you've got a cheatsheet that you feel happy with, there are several ways that you can use it to help support your application.

Remember the job details

If you are applying to lots of jobs at once, it can be difficult to remember the details of each one. Even if you aren't, there is often a long gap between applying for a job and being invited for an interview, so it is easy to forget.

I recommend keeping a copy of your cheatsheet saved somewhere with the text from the job advert (as these are usually taken down before interviews start). This is an invaluable way to keep the details fresh in your mind.

Write your cover letter

This is an instant win, as the cheatsheet can be used as the outline for your cover letter. All you need to do is structure the points into paragraphs - easy peasy!

Revise for your interview

If you get invited to an interview (hooray!), the cheatsheet then becomes your study guide. Use it the same way that you would to study for an exam:

  • First, study by yourself and make sure you remember all the points. Practice saying them out loud so you can try out different phrasings. This will be useful once you are under pressure in an interview.
  • Next, have a friend give you a pop quiz by randomly making up questions from your cheatsheet for you to answer (e.g. "Tell me about your experience working with children"). Ask for feedback so you can refine your answers.

At this point, I also suggest doing a little bit more research (if you can) on the workplace culture and information about the people who will be interviewing you. This will help you know what to expect when you walk through the door.

Summary

Using the cheatsheet structure, your application and interview will easily cover all of the essential points for the role:

  • Capability to do the job (by showing that we meet the job description)
  • Workplace fit (by showing how we fit with the organisation's beliefs and objectives)
  • Motivation (by showing passion through personal experiences and interests)

You can continue this process for as long as you want by doing more research and adding in further evidence, until you feel that you've made a compelling argument for yourself. The benefit to laying things out this way is that it is easy to see where your application is weakest. These are the areas that you will need to concentrate on doing more work to strengthen your arguments.

Whether you do manage to pass your interview or not, if you have done all of the above, you will have made the best case that you possibly can for yourself. Hopefully, all of your studying will manage to pay off in an A+!

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