How to stand out when applying for an apprenticeship role

In case you hadn’t heard, we’re currently looking for another apprentice web developer here at Squelch Design (please note that this role was filled in August 2015). We’re keen to find the right person and want to help you stand out, so we’ve put together a bunch of suggestions on how to do just that. Follow these simple steps and I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll find the right job, and you never know, that might be right here at Squelch Design.

1. Have at least one good grade from a relevant course

Schools are pretty much the single worst place to find what it is that you excel in…

Too many applications that I receive have lots of mediocre grades and nothing that stands out. We can’t all be “straight A students”, but we can all excel in something. I’m a firm believer that schools are pretty much the single worst place to find what it is that you excel in, and the people who stand out are those who got up off their back sides and did something about that.

I for one did only one year of A-levels before ditching the sorry excuse for a 6th form my school offered and finding a fast-tracked vocational qualification I could actually get excited about at a college that was much less convenient to get to. It took about an hour to get there and an hour back, and I had to do an evening course one night a week which meant on Thursdays I didn’t get home until gone 9pm. It cost me a big chunk of my measly shelf-stacking salary in bus tickets to get there and back, and often I’d run out of cash and have to cycle the route in wind, rain, snow, hail or whatever else the universe threw at me, but I still did it and one year later I walked away with a distinction in a course that should have taken two years to complete.

And I had the time of my life doing it too.

So you don’t need to have 4 A-levels at grade A*, 10 grade A GCSEs and an NVQ in Business Administration. But I do want to see that you’ve taken some initiative to further your career. When you’re young you’ve got plenty of learning options available to you, if you’re not snapping off the education system’s hand then you shouldn’t expect employers to snap your hand off when you apply for a job.

How to stand out

Get out there and do a short vocational course in programming, IT, graphic design, software testing, or whatever is relevant to the job you’re applying for. Throw yourself into the course and walk away with an exceptional qualification to prove you’re capable of the things you claim to be capable of.

2. Have some relevant work experience

“I have spent the last 4 months working in my Dad’s garage changing tyres and making coffee.”

You work in your Dad’s garage, changing tyres? Excellent, you will obviously make a fantastic web developer then as programming and changing tyres are so similar.

In most jobs, if you talk to the right person politely, you can make a mark doing things that are relevant to your intended career.

The sad thing is, you actually might make a fantastic developer but you’re not giving me any information that tells me this. As far as I’m concerned you might as well skip this section if there’s nothing relevant that you can tell me about the work you have already done. But in most jobs, if you talk to the right person politely, you can make a mark doing things that are relevant to your intended career.

I held a summer job with a college doing general tasks: Enrolling students, manning phones, offering guidance to potential new students, sending out letters, etc. With a word in the right ear I ended up being transferred to the college’s in-house design and development team writing a web application for the tutors to use, and added another relevant piece of experience to my CV.

If you’re stuck somewhere that will never give you relevant work experience then you need to get out. You might have to volunteer your time for a little while in order to get experience, but it’s worthwhile if it means you can get some quality experience onto your CV.

How to stand out

Ditch that minimum wage job if it’s never going to give you relevant experience. Use your time to either get a relevant qualification or relevant experience from a company. There are plenty of companies out there that would be more than happy to take you on a voluntary basis if that’s the only way you can gain experience. But make sure it’s truly relevant to the career path you want to pursue: Don’t volunteer as a graphic designer if you want to be a programmer.

3. Strengths

This is the section where you tell me why I should be hiring you

In the “strengths” section of the job application you get to boast, and boast you should. I’m not kidding, I don’t have time to kid. If you can’t find something to really brag about then get up off your back side and do something about it. When you come to write this section it can be hard to think of good strengths to list, but it’s worth taking your time and making sure you get this right, because any boss worth having is going to hire you solely on your strengths. What strengths should you be listing? Well at Squelch Design some relevant strengths that we’re always looking for are:

  • Programming in PHP, JavaScript, MySQL or similar languages.
  • Web development skills such as HTML and CSS.
  • Graphic design skills such as PhotoShop, Adobe Illustrator, GIMP, InkScape or Scribus.
  • IT administration skills, such as Unix or Linux experience, networking knowledge, or hardware skills.
  • General Information Technology skills.
  • Communication skills: Speaking in public, good written language skills, fluency in a second language.
  • Time management skills, an aptitude for taking the initiative, and improving overall efficiency.

I don’t want to hear, in this section, how you want to “improve upon” this strength or that strength, nor do I want to read vague phrases such as “I am passionate about X” or “X is the route I want to take in life”. This is the section where you tell me why I should be hiring you. You might not have a degree in computer science, but if IT is one of your strengths then you should be telling me here so that I can see why you’re the right person for the job. No employer looking for an apprentice will mind training the apprentice, but they want to know that the apprentice is going to learn quickly and suck up information like a sponge.

In fact, maybe put “I absorb knowledge like a sponge” in this section if you want to get brownie points. You still think I’m kidding don’t you? I’m not.

How to stand out

Work out what pain the employer has that has led to them putting together a new role, work out what skills would take that pain away, and make sure you hit at least two of them. Give real examples and tell me why I should be hiring you. If you can’t match yourself to two of the skills then maybe this role isn’t right for you? Or maybe you need more training or experience? Or perhaps you need to tell me how one of your other strengths can make up for it.

Read back what you’ve got as if you’re an employer seeing this application for the first time. Does this section categorically state that you’re the right person for the job? No? Then rewrite it so that it does.

4. Personal skills you would like to improve

This question was added by the college and can be interpreted two ways:

4. 1. A basic rehashing of the world’s worst interview question: “What would you say your greatest weakness is?”

This question is terrible because everyone knows what it means and how to answer it. Back before it was a common question it would have been a mean but meaningful question. But because of the popularity of this question everyone and their dog now knows the formula:

  1. Take one of your assets,
  2. Make it sound like a bad thing,
  3. Add in another one of your assets as a “fix”,
  4. Then find the synergy between the two and use that as a sales pitch for yourself.

Blah blah blah, we’ve all been there and done it. So it’s now a bad question to ask that only tests a candidate’s ability to remember good answers to bad questions.

If you see the question this way and answer accordingly then we will learn nothing about you. Literally nothing. If I learn nothing about you in your application then I might as well as not bother reading your application, and we all know what that means kids. So I’d prefer you to think of it as…

4. 2. An opportunity to sell your desire to learn

A strong desire to learn is an absolute essential in the apprenticeship world. If you already had all the skills you needed then you’d be hired already and earning £30-50k a year, so accept that you still have a lot to learn and try to prioritise what it is that you want to learn exactly. Do you want to learn how to speak to customers? Or how to program in PHP? Or how to design a website that converts visitors into customers?

You need to pick something that you want to learn that is specific to the industry and the company you’re applying to. Here at Squelch Design we’re all about getting our customers online and making more money so maybe you’d like to learn how to make a website that converts. Or maybe you’re interested in the technical side and would rather leave the marketing fluff to other people? If so maybe PHP, JavaScript, MySQL, HTML or even CSS is the thing you’d like to improve on.

Whatever it is you choose you’re going to want to make it highly relevant to the company. To my mind it doesn’t matter if you want to improve at talking to customers or improve at writing JavaScript: We’ll place you in such a way as to allow you to slowly build on your existing skills and develop the skills you don’t yet have. But if you take this as an opportunity to say “I enjoy learning new things” then you’re telling me nothing and consequently not likely to get hired.

5. Hobbies, interests or achievements

Tell me you do this stuff for the pure joy of it, not just in the hope of receiving some hypothetical pay cheque.

If none of your hobbies relate to at least one business skill then I’m not interested. Maybe that’s harsh, but that’s the way it is. I don’t want to hire someone who expects a career to be handed to them. I want to hire people who have a genuine passion for their job. I started programming when I was 7 years old and I’ve been programming almost every chance I’ve had since then until now. I write code both for fun and for a living because I live, breathe and eat code. Okay, maybe not eat it.

Maybe you’re more interested in design? I’d want to see that listed as a hobby or an interest: Tell me you don’t just do this at school or college, tell me you go home with a burning desire to create a new logo for your friend’s band, or to create graphics for a free game someone’s making online, or even if you just like to switch the faces of celebrities around using PhotoShop. Tell me you do this stuff for the pure joy of it, not just in the hope of receiving some hypothetical pay cheque.

Remember your achievements too: Tell me what you’ve achieved so far with your life. Yes okay you won a canoeing tournament, that’s great, but what have you done that I can use within the business? There’s not a large call for canoeing in the IT industry to be honest with you, but we could certainly use someone who’s won coding tournaments, built a well respected blog, built RoboCode robots, built a freeware application that solves a problem, or even just built their own metal detector. These are real problems that you’ve solved. That to me is an achievement that I can sink my teeth into and get interested in.

Yes include some of your normal hobbies too, but be careful. “Hanging out with friends” makes you sound like a delinquent. Seriously. I have had several applications with this on them, please just never write this. Similarly “socialising” makes you sound like you spend every free moment in the pub.

6. Due diligence

Always do your due diligence on any company you apply to. I can’t stress this enough. You should find somewhere to crow-bar in the fact that you’ve been reading up on the company:

“From your website I can tell this is the kind of company I want to work for…”

If you’re lucky enough to make it to an interview then lay your due diligence on thick, make sure you make it very clear that you’ve scrutinised the website.

7. Offer to send a real CV

The apprenticeship scheme application system is designed to take away all of your creativity and force you into conformity to a given structure. You can actually get a lot more across in a normal CV than you can on a website. So why not write a killer CV, upload it to a website, and then paste the link into your application? An employer’s going to love that you thought outside the box, took the initiative and also tried to make their life easier.

But whoah there cowpoke. This advice only applies if your CV doesn’t suck. You need to get that CV absolutely spot on before you go shoving it down my throat, because I will be judging you on it.

8. Bonus Points

A lot of what I’ve talked about has been boring. You’re still going to struggle to get hired at Squelch Design if you bore me: I want to know that there’s a sense of humour in there too, because you’re going to need it. Web designers and web developers strive toward perfection day in day out only to have customers rip their hearts out with criticism; A sense of humour is going to keep you sane. So don’t be afraid to show me a few glimpses of the real you:

What are your strengths?

I came top of my class in my IT course and have been experimenting with computers since an early age. I love building my own machines and dabbling in software development, I recently wrote a simple Android game which is available for free on Google Play. I’m an able communicator with good written and spoken English skills, I am good on the telephone and take pride in writing proper English and clear emails. I make a wicked cup of tea.

Admittedly you’d want to gauge that one by the company you’re applying to, Squelch Design is a new company with a start-up vibe. The name “Squelch” is onomatopoeic, a little bit childish, and suggests fun. We’re the sort of company where a little bit of light humour in an application can go a long way. But if you were applying to a law firm, well, I think a sense of humour is probably illegal under some section of the public order act.

In conclusion…

Your application for an apprenticeship needs to be treated with the same amount of concern as an application for any other kind of role. If you follow all the advice in this article then I’m sure you’re going to get a great role and, I hope, you’ll be here and doing great work for us.

Nobody’s perfect and so don’t panic if you can’t achieve everything in this list 100%, but for most people it comes down to showing initiative and taking the time to go over your history and rake up the stuff that employers actually care about. If you’re having problems doing that then you might want to talk to a careers advisor and see if they can help. But remember that it’s your CV, your application, your career, so don’t let someone else put too much of themselves into what you write.

Be wary of clichés in what you write and be wary of following advice from too many sources (remember: too many chefs ruined the broth).

And lastly don’t blindly follow 100% the advice you get off some random blog article on the web. Like this one.

About Matt Lowe

Matt Lowe is a WordPress web designer / developer based in Newbury, Berkshire. After 8 years of doing the nine-to-five for other companies and watching them make the same mistakes over and over he set out in business on his own, forming Squelch Design to help businesses get online and make money.

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