Successful Written Communication

The completion of a written task is often a key component in the job application process.

Employers will ask you to provide written evidence to prove that you possess the qualifications, skills, knowledge, experience and attributes to successfully perform the job and fit within the organisation.

Job application requirements will differ depending on the employer and the level or complexity of the position.  Government departments and large organisations generally have quite specific application requirements and expectations.

Application requirements may include one of the following written tasks:

  • A separate response to each selection criteria listed
  • A short response or statement
  • A supporting statement or extended cover letter
  • A pitch.

Preparing a written response

Invest time in your preparation to ensure you produce a strong application.

Step 1: Research

The first task in your preparation is to understand the organisation and the requirements and duties of the job to create a targeted written response. Research gives insights into an organisation’s culture, values, aims, business priorities, and achievements. Thorough research will increase your chances of meeting the employers’ expectations.

Research the organisation:

  • Google the organisation
  • Check its website
  • Follow social media channels, especially Facebook and LinkedIn pages
  • Use your network to find out more about the organisation
  • Talk to staff working within the organisation

Research the position:

  • Read the job advertisement and position description closely
  • It is a good idea to call the Contact Person – ensure you make a good impression and have something relevant to ask
  • Talk to your contacts who may work in a similar role elsewhere

Build a clear picture of what you will be required to do so you can closely align your written response to what will be required within the position.

Step 2: Assess and act

It is essential that you read the job advertisement and all supporting documentation before you commence writing, so that you are clear about what is required. A useful approach is to highlight keywords in the job advertisement and supporting documentation provided. Often applicants are directed to the Position or Role Description, which provides information on:

  • the employer – their values , purpose, vision
  • the key duties and responsibilities of the position
  • what the employer is requiring or looking for, often referred to as the selection criteria
  • how to apply

Tip: Take time to think about what the employer is really looking for. What are they asking you to focus on?  Is it your skills and experiences or is it your motivation? How can you match their expectations?

It is important first to analyse exactly what is being asked for in the criteria listed. For example: Demonstrated problem-solving ability, critical and analytical skills, relevant to your discipline/s. In your response, it is important to ensure that you analyse and address each part of the criterion:

  • Demonstrated – Demonstrate means you provide example/s of situations from the past, which clearly show you have effectively applied the skills that are being asked for.
  • Problem-solving ability, critical and analytical skills – Your example/s must clearly show the steps you have taken and how you problem-solve and critically analyse.
  • Relevant to your discipline/s – The final part indicates that the example/s you provide must be clearly linked to your discipline area/field of study.

In analysing selection criteria, think about the vocabulary that is used, particularly the level requested. The following terms are commonly used in selection criteria:

  • Knowledge of – A basic understanding
  • Sound knowledge of – A good working knowledge, specific application
  • Thorough knowledge of – A comprehensive grasp of information and application
  • Demonstrated ability – Provide specific examples of performing the function
  • Ability to rapidly acquire – Prove you have the capacity to learn

Step 3: Evidence

The employer will be looking for evidence that you are the ideal candidate. Your written application needs to demonstrate your breadth of experience and promote your knowledge, skills and attributes. Your goal is to gain attention and impress.

Brainstorming all your experiences will assist you in identifying the most impressive and relevant evidence to provide:

  • Highlight the specific skills, experiences, knowledge or attributes you are being asked to respond to (keywords).
  • Reflect on where and when you have developed or demonstrated the required skills, experience, knowledge or attribute. Consider all your life experiences, including university study, relevant work experience (placements, fieldwork), employment, community activities, travel.
  • If you have kept your resume and LinkedIn up to date or have maintained a journal or ePortfolio, now is the time to review these documents to identify relevant experiences.
  • Review your subject descriptions and learning outcomes to identify skills and knowledge gained within your academic studies that are relevant to the position
  • Review your placement, project, practicum, fieldwork and other assessment items to identify knowledge, experience, skills and attributes gained. Review all reports to identify evidence of your achievements.
  • Write examples of how you have met the employer’s expectations from each of the experiences identified.
  • Select the strongest evidence. Concise, focused examples of how you meet the position requirements are critical to standing out and being short-listed for interview.

Solid, detailed examples of how you meet the employers listed requirements are critical to standing out and being shortlisted for interview.

Action: Go to your downloaded workbook and complete Activity 4

Step 4: Concise responses

Follow the application instructions regarding word count and format (see Topic 1).  When writing your response, your key aims are to:

  • Demonstrate capability by providing evidence of how you meet the required knowledge, skills, experience and attributes
  • Provide specific details of your actions
  • Include an indicator of success or an outcome.

Here are three tips from GradAustralia to help you to make your message stick:

  • Keep it short – Short words, short sentences and short paragraphs help readability. Cut your word count in half, and then make another cut.
  • Cut the padding – Use the most straightforward words you can find. Banish long clauses, repetition and any other waffle. Buzzwords and clich├ęs are so overused that you can only gain by cutting them out. However, do include language specific to the company and industry you are targeting.
  • Verbs are your friends – When you are writing about work experience, verbs – words that say what you have done – are critical. Put verbs near the beginning of the sentence. And make sure your verbs have punch: the easiest way to draw attention is to use active voice, for example: “Our team produced a new product” is snappier than “a new product was produced by our team”.

Step 5: Proofread and edit

Check your written responses to ensure they address the expectations of the employer and the requirements of the position. Ensure that your responses are error-free. Written communication skills are highly valued by all employers, and your written responses will provide evidence to employers of your skill levels in this area. An application with spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors creates a very poor impression.

  • Read and re-read your responses a day after you write them – it is easy to miss mistakes when you are tired
  • Run a spell check, but don’t rely on this entirely
  • Ask a friend or colleague to check your application for spelling, punctuation and layout, and to ensure you have addressed the requirements of the position
  • Book an appointment with the JCU Careers and Employability Team.  Appointments are available by Zoom, face-to-face or phone.

Selection criteria

For many years, employers, particularly government departments, have used the written response to a list of selection criteria as a key component in the recruitment process. The quality of each response forms the basis for selection panels to shortlist applicants for an interview. Subsequent interview questions are based on the selection criteria listed. While this approach is not as prevalent in today’s recruitment practices, it is still used by a number of employers and requires skill in knowing how to best respond.

Responding to selection criteria in this format is a way for employers to ensure fairness and objectivity in selecting the best applicants to shortlist.  It is also a way for you to indicate and evidence your level and range of specific skills plus the knowledge and experience deemed necessary by the employer to successfully undertake the duties of the job. By providing statements on how you meet each criterion, an employer can gain some insight into you as a person, your capabilities, and how you may fit into a particular organisation.

Format

Traditionally, selection criteria are split into mandatory or essential (criteria that you must be able to address in order to be eligible for the role), and desirable (criteria that an employer would prefer you possess).  If you are asked to respond to each criteria, then it is essential that you do so – skipping an essential criterion or merging two or more criteria into one response can result in an automatic fail for your application.

Examples of mandatory or essential criteria:

  1. Degree qualification in xxxxxxx or a related field
  2. Demonstrated analytical and solution focused problem-solving skills
  3. Demonstrated well developed written and oral communication skills, including interpersonal and negotiation skills with the ability to develop and maintain collaborative working relationships with various stakeholders
  4. Demonstrated organisational and time management skills and the ability to prioritise tasks to meet deadlines and achieve outcomes with a focus on process and business improvement.

Examples of desirable criteria

  1. Experience in contract management systems in an Australian Tertiary Education environment
  2. Understanding of health professional education and training and its connections with the health service system in Australia

If you are required to provide a separate response to each selection criteria listed, then it is essential that you write EACH criterion as a heading in bold font and then provide the response in normal font below. Always follow response word limits. If a word count is not provided, seek clarification from the employer.

Writing your response

  • Address all the criteria
  • Write responses with the duties of the position in mind and use relevant and robust examples. Use strong practical evidence that link your experience directly to the requirements of the position.
  • Give clear, succinct and specific examples of work and/or life experience that support (prove) your claims, avoid being too general or vague
  • Focus on outcomes that you have achieved and match these to the selection criteria
  • Mention how you would gain a skill or experience, if you do not currently have all of the skills or experience required
  • Use action words (verbs) and an active voice to describe your experiences, for example:
    • I managed the change process
    • I implemented the plan
    • I coordinated the responses for the team
  • Be results-orientated and carefully address the level of skill being asked for. It is important to be convincing about your success to create an overall positive impression. Provide examples that quantify your contribution or outcome, for example:
    • Number of recommendations adopted
    • Implementation of new system
    • Simplified a process
    • Gained positive feedback
    • Critical problem solved
    • Assessment mark achieved

One way to write strong responses is to use the STARL model, also discussed in Interviews and Recruitment Processes module. This model will help you frame your response in a clear, concise, evidence based format.

SITUATION – Where these experiences occurred and what was the context.

TASK – What was required of you? This could be a technical performance, project, dealing with a problem.

ACTION – What action did you take to deliver the task, resolve a problem, or present a case?  This part is critical - it is essential that you clearly list your application of the skills the employer is seeking.

RESULT – What was the outcome and how did your actions affect this positive result?

LEARNING – What did you learn from this process and how could you apply this to other tasks?

It is common to describe two or three separate examples in a STARL format in response to one criterion. In outlining your response, start with a general introductory paragraph that summarises your claims against that criteria. Then follow this with your specific STARL response as evidence of the claims you have made.

Criterion: High level of interpersonal skills, with a strong focus on oral and written communication

Example Response

I have strong interpersonal skills, which are demonstrated by the positive relationships built through good communication with my clients and workmates in my previous employment. More recently, my university experience has further developed my written communication skills.

(Situation) An example that demonstrates my interpersonal skills, both oral and written, is in the research component of my study. My task was to present an oral overview of a written research proposal with the purpose of persuading my academic peers and examiners to approve my research project.

(Task) Firstly, I prepared a concise written proposal document for an examiner to scrutinise. My interpersonal skills assisted me in the production of this document; allowing me to discuss ideas for my project with a diverse group of my peers and academics and then receive feedback. The purpose of this complex document mandated that it be readable by any examiner with or without a detailed knowledge of the subject matter. To achieve this, technical terms were made clear using plain language, and concepts were developed logically with the assistance of diagrams. This written document achieved a high distinction grading.

(Action) Secondly, in preparation for the oral presentation of my proposal, I attended a night course in public speaking to sharpen my skills. This course allowed me to present my research proposal with clarity and confidence to a group. Importantly, it also refined my ability to discuss my somewhat complex research topic to laypeople.

(Result) The outcome of this written and oral presentation of my research proposal was that my research was approved and I gained valuable feedback that I can incorporate into future research proposals.

(Learning) I learned that strong interpersonal skills contributed to the effectiveness of communicating my research. I am confident that my interpersonal skills will contribute to my individual and team tasks, as I am an attentive listener and clear communicator. I believe that these interpersonal skills will be a valuable contribution to the specific tasks required in this position.

Action: Go to your downloaded workbook and complete Activity 5

Short response or statement

Many employers have moved away from the traditional selection criteria response format and are now requesting that applicants provide a short response or statement to specific questions or information. The response is often restricted within a text box with a strict word limit. In each of these examples, employers are giving you the chance to promote yourself, for example:

  • What skills, knowledge and abilities could you bring to the organisation?
    (Queensland Health Graduate Nursing Program)
  • Your career objective, which covers a short explanation about your career goals
    (Commonwealth Bank Graduate Program)

Using stories to sell your skills is a highly effective technique. In a short space, you can tell a story that will make potential employers remember you favourably. Employers believe that the best predictor of future success is past success, so convey stories that vividly describe successes or experiences that you have learned and grown from. Try to be results-oriented and give evidence of a positive result or learning outcome. Reflect on your skills, knowledge, abilities, strengths, weaknesses and values and be confident that you can write about them authentically. Remain within the word limit but give a full response.

Supporting statement or extended cover letter

Employers may request a supporting statement in the form of a two-page response or extended version of a cover letter. Employers expect you to provide a well-crafted statement outlining your suitability for the role on offer. Your response needs to show that you have researched the role, understood the requirements and accountabilities, have the capacity to undertake the duties of the position, and positively contribute to the organisation.  These formats can be difficult to construct as they are not clearly delineated like selection criteria responses.

To prepare a strong response, read the employer’s instructions, research the organisation and role, decide what you have to offer, and draft a response:

  • Your plan should be to capture your strongest and most relevant skills and experiences. Responses that are directly aligned to the job requirements of the position will score well.
  • Start with an opening paragraph that states concisely why you are a good candidate; your education and skills should match the job advert.
  • Next, outline several examples where you have developed or demonstrated the relevant skills. As a word or page limit will apply, you may need to combine several criteria and skills and provide an example to demonstrate that you meet them all. You may be able to highlight your communication, writing and teamwork skills all in one example.
  • Finally, your closing statement could show how you can make a contribution to the goals of the organisation.

Tip: Remember to review your resume to check that it is tailored to the role and will support your statement or pitch.

Pitch

A written pitch is an opportunity to promote your unique attributes in addition to explain how your skills, knowledge, experience and qualifications make you the best person for the job.

Examples

  • In 500 words, tell us what interests you about the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) graduate program and what skills and experience you have that you think are important to contribute as an officer of DFAT. (DFAT Graduate Program)
  • Your Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) application will require you to submit a one page pitch (application response). We want to know why you want to work at PM&C, why you are interested in the role, what you can offer us, and how your skills, knowledge, experience and qualifications are applicable to the role. (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet)
  • As with all written tasks, research is the best starting point.
  • If you are applying for a graduate program, read all you can about the program, the organisation, and review the comments/videos of past participants to determine what is required for success in the role.
  • You may find you have too much information to draw on, so you will need to be clear and concise to get your best points across within the word limit.
  • Think about what interests you, as that will set you apart from other candidates.
  • Start your response by summarising how you can contribute to the organisation; think about your qualities, skills, knowledge, and abilities as they apply to the role.
  • Next, demonstrate these skills with evidence. Due to the word limit, you may need to use one or two examples to demonstrate several skills.
  • Avoid repeating information verbatim in your resume. Aim to highlight any specific examples and achievements to support your application and demonstrate your ability to do the job.
  • Finish your response by reiterating your motivation and interest in the opportunity.