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How to Ace Short Answer Questions on Job Applications

Most people probably think of the interview as the most crucial stage of any job application process. But what about short-answer questions that are sometimes included on application forms? Common examples include: "tell us why you want to work here," "why we should hire you?," or "what makes you unique from other candidates?".

Do you know how to articulate your value? Consider these tips the next time you need to ace a short-answer application.

  1. Look for the question under the question. What are they really asking? What information are they trying to gather by posing a particular question? I saw a short-answer question recently that was something to the effect of: “what makes you unique, weird or quirky?” Why in the world would an employer want to know that? In this case, the organization had a rather witty brand voice, and all of the content they produce is heavy on humor. I’d imagine they don’t really care if you know how to yodel or if you hold the world record for one-footed jumping, but telling them as much could help them gauge your writing style, how you tell stories, and how well you may be a fit for the organization.

  2. Use the job description (and other research) to your advantage. To a certain degree, you know the demands of the position and what the hiring manager is looking for. Ask yourself where you’ve acquired those skills, and be sure to highlight them in your responses.

  3. Show, don’t tell. Consider ways to demonstrate skills through mini stories or examples, rather than simply making statements. If someone tells you “I’m a strong communicator” that’s one thing. If you get to see their communication in action, that’s another. Demonstrate your skills by describing how they’ve shown up and worked well for you in the past. Use stories to illustrate your skills. The STAR interview technique could be helpful in crafting short-answer stories, as well.

  4. Mirror the brand tone in your writing. Read the organization’s Twitter feed, LinkedIn content, blog, and any other places they’re publishing content. If they are serious and formal, match that in your short-answer responses. If they are lighthearted, sarcastic, or punchy, bring that into your writing. They’ve got to see that you “get” their organization, and one of the best ways to do that is by speaking (or in this case writing) their language.

  5. Don’t regurgitate your resume or cover letter. Think of each component of the application process as a chance to show them a bit more of who you are. You can certainly highlight specific experiences that answer the question, but I’d caution against broad summaries like “I have experience in x, x, and x” as they could deduce that readily from your resume.

  6. Go beyond “yes” or “no.” Even if the question is worded as a close-ended question (meaning that a “yes” or “no” technically fully answers the question), it’s important to add more. For instance, an employer might ask a question like, “do you have experience with non-profit capital campaigns?” If you have had direct experience, draw their attention to it and share what made it successful, interesting, or how you contributed. If you haven’t had direct experience, tell them what skills or experiences have equipped you for this opportunity, even if it’s new territory.

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