Hacking the Apprenticeship / Graduate / Entry Job Application Process

At Digital Native we've had several hundred applications from young people for the IT Apprenticeships that we offer, many of these have gone on to interview with potential employers and a few get offered jobs, but many more don’t…….

Prompted by a recent Linkedin post, that I largely agreed with, I thought I would share my experiences as someone who has sat in the hiring chair and made countless Hire / Bin decisions. By doing this I hope to help prevent the current crop of Graduates and School leavers from wasting their summer on applications that are just not going to cut the mustard.

You can read the Linkedin post that prompted me to action here:


Some basics first.

First key point: This is not a numbers game, 100 quick applications is very likely to result in 100 #fails.

Second key point: This is not about you. As an employer I’m looking for someone (anyone) to fill my vacancy with as little risk of failure as possible. I'm not looking for a friend....

Third key point: You can hack the application process i.e. all you have to do is work out what the employer is looking for and give it to them better than your competition. Luckily, employers looking to hire provide a massive amount of information to help you hack them….

Let’s start with your CV. – Whatever you do, don’t have a “standard” CV.

Use your Linkedin profile to contain all your experience (work, school, Uni, clubs everything), make it as rich as you can. If someone is browsing your profile on Linkedin then it is either because you’ve come up in a search and they have time to browse or they are interested enough to spend time researching you, don’t disappoint them….).

Your CV should be dedicated to that application, The CV that you submit should be a response to an advert or job description and it should contain what the employer has asked for in the same sequence, using exactly the same terminology used in the advert. i.e. if the advert asks for a hardworking team player to learn Microsoft BI skills then why not start with “I am a hardworking team player who wants to learn Microsoft BI skills”.

I typically use the following structure but as long as the CV responds to what the employer has asked for and evidences it the format is less important.

Introduction – This section addresses the advert and then talks about your passions, This is often the only section I’ll read. Sorry but there is a lot going on…..if you’ve not taken the time to focus this section then I’m not going to waste my time reading the rest. I’ve got others who have made it easier for me.

Experience – This is your evidence for the passion above, it is not just related to school, university and work but should include all activities that evidence a claim you have made above.

Qualifications – These must meet the employer requirements, I find that listing the higher grades first looks better and is more impressive. I’m typically looking for your highest best qualification first i.e. a Degree, then the number of A’s or B’s in anything once I have enough of those then I will check subjects. Merits, Passes, Distinctions mean little to be as they weren't around when I did many of my qualifications, translate them for me. Pass=C Merit=B Distinction =A or something.

Contact details including professional social media streams. It’s very rare that I care where you live so leave this stuff to the end. You never see paper headlines saying ‘Printed in Wapping” so why do it on your CV…..

But, before you set finger to keyboard make sure you understand the company, read their website, understand the market they operate in, have you any experience of them? Have you used their product? A little flattery will help your case and show your passion for their company.

While you are researching the company look at their values, are these values you can live? If so then include them in your CV not as a blatant copy but by scattering them around the place.

Why? In some firms where they have a high volume of applicants they use text matching algorithms to do the initial sift, in the other firms they use low cost / non-technical resources to sift. If you have used exactly the terminology and values then you make it easier to survive the initial sift.

If you pass the initial sift and make it into my inbox, as the hiring manager then the quicker your CV answers my questions then the more likely you are to make it to the interview pile. For a high volume position anything more than 2 min’s and you’re probably in the bin. Like a good web site, a good CV for an entry position should not make me think, it should be obvious.

Hence why the sequence matters. As a time pressured hiring manager when asked to create a job description, the most important things get typed first. Many of the later things probably matter less to me or have been added by my HR team.

Why does this matter? Remember I’m looking to fill a vacancy not learn about you. (Harsh but true) I’m asking the question can this person do what I need Yes / No? How confident am I in that decision? What evidence have they offered that I can use to support that decision. So answer my main points first (I’ve given you the clue in the advert why ignore it?) and then evidence them.

The evidence.

This is where many young people fall down. ‘How can I be expected to have done ….. I’ve just left school / University’

Simple if you want the job you will have done it or something similar yourself already and if you haven’t and you’re up against someone who has you’re dead in the water.

There are very few careers that cannot be evidenced through prior activity.

Team player – sport, arts clubs etc..

Self-starter – Done something out of school / University, School prom organiser etc...

I want to be a web designer – I’ve built my own web site it’s www…..

I want to be an accountant – I’m in these online groups, I subscribe to X magazine updates, I help my gran with her financial planning.

I want to be a spaceman – OK this one is tricky but NASA probably have something that you should be involved with.

This evidence of getting up and doing something is critical. Without that you are just another wannabe. If you don't have this then spend your time doing something for the career you want. If you don't know what you want to do then work it out FAST..... this uncertainty will come out in interview and if you're against someone who has worked it out, you're dead in the water again.

I often tell a hiring story to illustrate perfectly how to get hired. We were advertising for 10 graduate BI positions, we had 2 solid days of interviewing, tests and evaluation exercises for the final 40 applicants.

As interviewers our heads were fried, the candidates were blurring into on another, blonde keen puppy dog followed by brown keen puppy dog etc.. See the post above on the need to stand out.

Then in walks keen puppy dog No. 9….. similar Maths / English test scores, similar CV, similar traveling / mud hut building in Africa etc....

Standard chit chat later.

“How did you prepare for this interview?”

“I started by reading your web site and your customers web sites, I saw that you did BI but I didn’t know what it meant so, I went to Wikipedia and read about it, I thought it was interesting, so I then found an Open Source BI tool, which I installed on my laptop, I then found some data and loaded it, <Insert discussion about the problems he found and how he solved them> I then built a report to answer a question I had. I really enjoyed solving the problem.”


And to cap it all he had used Linkedin to research who were the senior decision makers in the company and our hobbies. He used this information as one of his questions. Ok the last bit a bit excessive and stalker-ish but it’s public information and he shone out and got the job why not use it.

The preparation work he had done in the last couple of weeks made him stand out against the other candidates. It had tipped the scales in his favour everyone can do the basics he had stepped up.

There can be only one winner…..All you have to do is separate yourself from the pack and ensure that you out compete the competition by working out what the employer is looking for and giving it to them.

Happy hacking.

Some tips to help:

When faced with an online application form complete the entry in a word processor. Make full use of the spell and grammar checking and then cut and paste the section over, there is also less chance of the work being lost.

Respond to requests for more information quickly

Answer the phone politely when an unknown number calls you i.e. Hello, this is X how can I help you?

When called to interview be clear on where to go, who to meet (once you have their name check them out on Linkedin), what time to get there, check out how to get there. Practice the route if required.

Complete research into the company What do they do? What is going on in the industry at the moment? Have they been in the news recently? What were their last results like?

Prepare some questions that matter to you, and will make the interviewer think you know something. i.e. I see in the news that xxx is causing massive change in your industry, how is your company adapting to that?

Prepare some stock answers, including one to “Where do you want to be in 5 years?”. I’ve always talked about being at my cousins beech bar in the Caribbean, as I think this is a ridiculous question that I cannot ever answer well.

Practice wearing your interview clothes, If it is a suit and you don’t normally wear a suit then wear it for a few days in advance so you feel comfortable in it.

Find some relaxation techniques that work for you and ensure you practice them before the interview.

Finally create your self some evidence.

Computer Aided Design (CAD) 3 Dimensional - Certificate Level 3
Higher National Certificate in Electronic & Electrical Engineering
Construction Plant Maintenance Advanced Apprenticeship Level 3
Business - BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma
Travel and Tourism - Level 3 BTEC Extended Diploma
Art and Design - Foundation Diploma

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