Why you should improve your application forms

If you’ve ever applied to a job using an job application form – either in paper form or online – you’ll know how awful most of them are!

They’re usually long. Very long. And very tedious.

They ask you to answer lots and lots of questions. Although the information they ask for isn’t always obviously relevant for the job you’re applying to.

Worse still, if an online form has been badly coded you can even lose your carefully crafted ”I’m-the-best-person-for-the-job” efforts if the form ‘times out’ on you!


There’s little more frustrating in life. It’s a bit like working on a Word document for 3 hours and then losing the lot when the batteries fail on your laptop!

Of course, despite manufacturers’ claims, laptop batteries never last as long as they’re supposed to?!

Why employers do this to you

As you’re completing one of these mammoth application forms, you’re probably wondering why employers and recruiters punish you this way. Why on earth do they make you jump through such hoops of fire?

Well, in many instances, I don’t think they know either. Or, to put it more accurately, they’ve never given their application forms much thought.

Actually, one cynical recruiter I met (and recruiters can become quite cynical) told me that they deliberately kept their application form long and complicated in order to put people off applying!

No, I don’t understand that negative attitude either…

More often, in organisations of all sizes, the application form is the one they’ve pretty much used since the company was founded in…1790 or whenever! It may even still ask whether you rode, if you attended Eton and whether you’re a ‘good chap’.

Why good application forms are like healthy roses

My Dad, despite his advanced years (he’s 83), is a keen gardener. His roses are his pride and joy. So, it was with horror that I used to watch him viciously prune his rose bushes every year.

But you know what, those poor, hacked-to-pieces rose trees always came back into glorious bloom year after year. Unfortunately, its rare for application forms to be pruned and cut back in size over time.

OK, so maybe I’m stretching the analogy but you can see where I’m going with this…

Over the years, recruiters tend add extra fields for information to their application forms. This is why application forms tend to grow in size and complexity. Different generations of recruiters keep adding extra text fields for you to complete or boxes to tick.

Recruiters also tend to keep whatever is already in the form. It’s a bit like the fear of loss that we humans suffer from. No one wants to cut down on information gathered ‘in case it’s useful’.

Going easy on recruiters

You know, I think I’m being a little unfair on recruiters. I recognise the constraints that they’re usually under: lack of time, people, money, influence and resources.

They also have legal or institutional reasons for collecting so much information. Even if it is never actually used.

Nevertheless, there are huge opportunities for forward thinking organisations to streamline and improve their job application forms. 

Yes, make your application form do its job – filter out unwanted and speculative applications whilst identifying quality candidates. But keeping your application forms too long and/or difficult to complete is missing the point and is potentially damaging to your organisation.

You may think that you’ve got hundreds of candidates doggedly sticking with your painful application process but you’ll probably be putting off those great candidates (who can get a job anywhere). 

So, clever clogs, what suggestions do you have?

I thought you’d never ask…

1. Take a long, hard look at your application forms. Are you proud of them? Would you, indeed, apply for a job using one? If you did, and you found it awful back then, why haven’t you made changes to them since you joined the organisation?

2.  Ask yourself whether your online form is suited to the Web? This is often not the case if the form was originally cut and pasted from a Word document.

3 Are you asking too many questions? Do you really need to ask every question at this stage or could you ask questions later (at interview or when a candidate has joined the organisation)? And do you actually need all of the information you’re gathering?

4. Make the forms as appealing to complete as possible. Provide plenty of white space and allow people the opportunity to free answer when they need to. Or at least make the form have as many options as possible so that people can explain gaps in their career and unusual career activities.

5. Check that the instructions you provide are clear and unambiguous. The best way to do this is to have several people check and even complete the form for you.

6. Think about the order of your questions. As a general rule, start off with the easy information – name and date of birth and so on – that candidates won’t mind completing before asking for the more complicated stuff.

7. Make it clear to online applicants how many stages or sections there are to complete. Also, make it obvious how far they’ve got at each stage of the form and at what stage they’ve reached.

8. Again, for online forms, ask your your techies to ‘validate form fields’. This means making sure that only text can be added where text should be added and numbers where numbers should be. This will save you a lot of headaches later on, especially if you make the really important fields manadatory.

I could go on but I won’t. That’s because there’s tons of great advice on form design here and here.

Please, if you’re a recruiter, check your application forms are fit for purpose. Keep them as painless as possible to complete and you’ll make this world just a tiny little better place to be. :)



2 Responses to Why you should improve your application forms

  1. Some people say that if you can not apply in the same time as a teenager needs to type it’s 140 characters text message – you will loose that aplicant. :)

  2. Charles says:

    I completely agree with this post. I’m currently looking for a job and spending a lot of time applying online. Most of the forms I’m forced to use are dreadful – they make my brain hurt!

    Come on recruiters, have YOU tried to apply to your jobs via your forms??!

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