Tips when applying for trainee jobs in a small business

Firstly, I am not an expert recruiter.  I have no significant HR knowledge/experience.  However, as the owner of a (very) small business that’s taken on a few trainees over the years, I feel I can provide some guidance to those struggling to secure their first proper role.

I had a “gap year” after university.  It wasn’t planned.  Naivety meant I didn’t find it as easy securing that awesome graduate role as I’d expected, so I spent a year doing various low level temp jobs around periods on the dole.  Pretty depressing time…but then accountancy firm Tenon took a chance on me, and 10 years on look at me now (ahem).  I’m very grateful to them for that and hope I can do the same for a few others.  Point is, I know it’s hard for youngsters to get their first foot on the job ladder, and I’m keen to do any tiny little things I can to help.


The application/CV

This is your first chance to impress.  Mess it up, and it’s irrelevant if you interview really well.

  1. The cover note is vital.  When it’s a trainee role, I firmly believe the cover note is more important than the CV.  Your CV inevitably won’t have much in the way of useful work experience.  It’ll have your school qualifications and probably a bit of blurb about how you like sports/socialising with friends…point being, most junior CVs are very similar.  Take the cover letter seriously, it’s your main chance to stand out.
  2. Spell check everything.  We all make typos from time to time, but this is your first, and potentially only chance to impress, so don’t look sloppy.  Get a friend/family member with good grammar to review it too.
  3. Tailor the cover letter to the role.  This goes beyond saying “I’ve always wanted to be an [insert job title here]”.  If you could readily replace “accountant” with “solicitor”/”architect”/whatever, then it won’t convince me that this application is any more than a fleeting thought for you…not something any employer wants to take a punt on.  Why do you want the role?  What parts of your qualifications/experience to date make you suitable for the role?
  4. Tailor the cover letter to the firm.  As above, this goes beyond saying “I’ve always wanted to work for [insert firm name here]”…in fact, make sure you don’t do that, it’ll make you look daft and/or insincere when the firm you’re applying to is tiny and has only been going a few years.  Have a proper look over their website, see if you can pick out some things they specialise in and explain why that appeals to you.
  5. Address it to the relevant person.  Links with the above, take the effort to find out who’s likely to be the person making the decisions.  Avoid “Dear sir/madam” and use a real name if you can.
  6. If your CV has glaring weak spots, explain them.  Loads of us have some things that didn’t go as well as hoped in our lives.  An exam you flunked, job you got fired from, you dropped out of uni, period of unemployment etc.  In many cases you can “hide” these and get away with it, but where that’s unlikely, don’t just ignore it, explain it.  Recruiters are human too so will understand not everyone has a flawless record…and every now and then, it’ll work in your favour (eg the recruiter may have hated the same subject/been in a similar situation themselves).
  7. If you’re overqualified, explain why you’re applying for the role.  Perhaps not relevant for the typical school leaver, but a few of the applicants for our recent vacancy have left me baffled.  Their CV suggests they’re a high flyer in some other field…yet they’re applying for a junior trainee role…why?!  Sure, every now and then someone will decide they’re pursuing the wrong career and want to change…if that’s you, say so!  Otherwise you’ll be met with suspicion/it’ll be assumed you applied by mistake and/or will waste the recruiter’s time.
  8. Where are you/the role based?  We got quite a few applications from people hundreds of miles away.  Most made no mention of this fact, and that commuting wouldn’t be realistic.  Again, if there’s any obvious “problems” with your application, explain them.  Perhaps you used to live near here and were considering moving back anyway, or you have friends/family you could stay with if you got the job before finding a place of your own.  If you don’t mention it at all, I’ll assume you haven’t considered it and blindly applied to hundreds of jobs however inappropriate, so won’t take your application seriously.
  9. Consider your internet profile.  This will apply more if you have a distinctive name than if you’re called John Smith.  Most employers will Google you to see what comes up.  For me personally, and on the basis we’re expecting school leavers/new graduates, I actually liked to find some silly pictures/banter…made me think the person was normal!  Had I seen anything particularly extreme it could’ve been a negative though.  I appreciate different recruiters will have different attitudes to this…generally speaking avoid having anything too contentious out there but don’t get overly worried about a friend swearing on your Facebook wall or a picture of you in the pub.
  10. Don’t chase it up excessively.  Hopefully the job advert gave a deadline for applications.  If so, and you submit yours 2 weeks before that, don’t hassle the firm if you don’t hear back straight away.  They’ll likely be waiting until the deadline to ensure they’ve received all applications before deciding who to call to interview.  You don’t want to stick in their mind for the wrong reasons.

Most of the above is about trying to make the reader feel you could be bothered to make an effort, that you’re fairly committed to the role, fairly normal, and not too irritating.

The interview

So, you passed filter one, congrats!  They’ve offered you an interview.  To my mind it’s less easy to distinguish between people based on interview…but there are a few things that stood candidates out in a good/bad way.

  1. Respond promptly.  This is not a time for a demonstration of power, keeping them waiting (like not texting too soon after a first date).  At this early stage it’s highly unlikely you stand out as amazing, you’re just someone they’re going to give a chance to, who will easily be written off if you muck them around.
  2. Read the interview instructions carefully.  Obviously things like time and date, but also what will you be doing?  They’ll be giving you some information on what you’ll be tested on, and who will be doing it.  Do some research based on that.
  3. Psychometric tests?  It’s fairly common to have some kind of psychometric test.  If you haven’t done anything like that, try finding a few online to practice.
  4. Who’s interviewing you?  Have they said which individual(s) will be interviewing you?  If so and you’re feeling keen, look them up either on their website or perhaps LinkedIn, or even Facebook.  You can bet they’ll have done the same for you.
  5. Dress code?  The instructions will likely make this clear, don’t ignore it.  If they say “smart casual” and you turn up fully suited and booted, for me at least it’s more likely to make me think negatively that you can’t follow instructions, rather than impressed at how dapper you look.  If it’s unclear, err on the smart side…you can take a tie off, but you can’t easily convert a hoody into a shirt.
  6. Turn up on time.  Like the spell checker, don’t be late, it paints you in a bad light.  Being significantly early (ie >15mins) won’t tend to do you any favours either.  If you’re travelling a long way so hard to know exactly how long it’ll take to get there, aim to get to the area nice and early, check you find the place, but perhaps then potter about/go to a cafe to kill a bit of time/review their website again to refresh your knowledge of them.  5-10 minutes early is perfect.
  7. Again, do your research on the firm.  We specifically asked interviewees what they knew about us.  Other employers may not, but if they don’t, you can find a subtle moment to drop in some of your knowledge of the firm/key individuals then go for it.  It’s flattering for the interviewers to feel you care about them…flattery will get you everywhere!
  8. Speak highly of your current/previous employer.  If you moan about how crap your current/last job is, we may well think you’re a negative, moaning person.  It doesn’t matter if the work was mundane or boss was occasionally difficult, key thing is what positives you took from that to help you on the next step upwards.
  9. Relax.  Ok, so easier said than done…but it’s perhaps worth stressing the recruiter won’t necessarily be looking for the person who gave the most technically accurate answers.  Especially if this is for a role in a small firm, it’s vital that you fit into the team well.  Personality/attitude will be more important than knowledge/experience for a junior role.
  10. If you get rejected, send a short thank you.  Ok so I find it a bit cringeworthy on The Apprentice when someone gets fired then says “thanks so much for the wonderful experience”…but despite that, I’d recommend you do it here.  You might be their second choice who just missed out.  Show that you’re mature and not sulking, and if things don’t work out with the first choice recruit, you’ll likely be the one they turn to.

Hopefully the above will prove useful to someone somewhere.  Interested to hear any comments people may have below.

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