January 31, 2008

How to answer those tricky, off-beat questions that appear on application forms

So, you're filling out an application form. You finish the first page and flip over to start the second. Suddenly, fear washes all over you. Mid-way down the page, you see questions that don't simply ask you to state your contact information or where you last worked.

That's right, I'm talking about the dreaded "supplementary information" part of the application form - the question(s) that usually appear right before you sign and date the application form.

And for those of you thinking about working in retail of the food service industries, take note - most application forms for these types of companies contain these questions. Some of the most common ones include, "Why do you want to work with our company?", "What skills and experiences would you bring to our company?", or "What didn't you like about your previous jobs?"

And sure, they seem like really easy questions to answer, but they sometimes aren't. And a lot can often be riding on answering these questions correctly.

In fact, I've spoken "off the record" with the hiring managers of a few stores in my local mall and asked them about their store's application form policy. While I won't name any names, here are two common themes that emerged:

- These questions are not pointless. Some managers will look at your availability first, then check to see if you've worked before, and then they zone in on these questions and really look at your answers. They often receive information/training on the ideal answers to these questions and they are looking to see how the application stacks up.

- Other managers simply flip the page and work backwards - the answers to these questions are the first things that are looked at. Even though there might be more than one question, many managers said they will focus in on one answer (usually the one that deals with your strengths/weakness). Then they'll look at other areas of the application form.

So for this post, I went around to a few stores and collected application forms from them. I won't name the stores, but I've taken their questions and below, I've offered some suggestions. Enjoy, and good luck!

1) What skills would you bring to our store?

I find that this question appears on the majority of forms. While there's no hard and fast rule about what managers are looking for, I'd pick three of your top skills that relate to the job you are applying for. Stress skills like communication, computer, customer service, visual merchandising or food handling skills. And remember, these skills don't need to be ones that you learned from a previous job - you can talk about skills you've picked up while doing extracurricular activities or volunteer work (e.g. teamwork skills).

Sample answer: I believe that my communication skills, including fluency in English, French, and Mandarin, combined with my teamwork and visual merchandising skills would be an asset to your current team of staff.

2) What didn't you like about your previous jobs?

This is arguably the trickiest question to answer. After all, you are saying something negative about your former employer - and we all know that you never bad-mouth a former employer because it can come back to haunt you. The best thing would be to choose something that you didn't like but that was beyond your control. For example, you can talk about how you wanted the opportunity to learn the cash system, or work more hours.

Sample answer: At my previous jobs, I would have preferred to have had the chance to learn the cash system, as I knew I would be able to do a good job at it. However, after speaking with my manager, I found out that they had already hired all the cashiers they needed, but he noted my enthusiasm for learning and decided to have me job shadow a cashier during quieter periods in the store.

3) What are your career goals?

As much as you might want to write an essay on your desire to become a lawyer or find a cure for cancer, that's not what an employer is looking for. Conversely, they aren't looking for you to say that you dream of a career managing a fast food joint or clothing store (unless you really do!). Instead, talk about broader career goals like going to school. I personally would take this route, especially since you might not know what you want to do. Say something like, "While I have many diverse career goals, I look forward to completing high school and going to college ..." This will give you a way of showing that you've got many interests but aren't sure which career path you want to take.

Sample answer: While I have many diverse career goals and aspirations, I have been focused on maintaining a high academic average and extensive involvement in extracurricular activities as I plan on continuing my education after high school.

4) What is your biggest weakness?

Again, another tough question to answer, but really, there's only one really good answer here. This can easily be your standard answer for any question about your weakness ... "I sometimes try and take on too many responsibilities, as I really enjoy helping people." The key to answering this question successfully is to make sure you mention how you've learned from your weakness and what you're doing to turn this weakness into a strength.

Sample answer: My biggest weakness is that I find myself taking on too many responsibilities as I try to help as many people as possible. However, I have learned to ask my co-workers and/or supervisors for feedback on how to prioritize the tasks.

5) Why do you like coffee/movies/books?

Okay, this question usually only appears on certain application forms, however, you should know how to answer this type of question because it could easily be asked during an interview too! The key to answering this question is to keep the answer professional, while showing your creative side. For example, don't say you like coffee because of the caffeine - instead, talk about how much you enjoy learning about how to make different coffees.

Sample answer: I really enjoy reading books for a number of reasons, but most importantly, I love learning about new concepts, ideas, events, and people. Personally, I see books as a window to worlds that might be far away and unknown to me. But with books, I get a chance to peer inside the window and learn something new.

6) Provide an example of a time when you faced a major problem. What did you do? What was the result?

I used to see this question asked on pretty much every application form, but I notice that application forms are becoming shorter as employers put more of an emphasis on resumes and cover letters. Nonetheless, this question does still come up. Remember that there are three parts to this question - the actual problem, what you did, and what the result was. Make sure you answer all three parts.

Sample answer: One day when I was working at my local grocery store, the sidewalk outside of our store became really icy and two people slipped. I went outside, helped them into the store, got them some ice and helped them fill out the relevant paper work. I asked a colleague to throw some salt on the sidewalk. For the remainder of my shift, I stood in the doorway, advising people to watch their step and helping anybody that requested it. In the end, I ended up being named "Employee of the Month" and even received a thank you letter from head office because the paperwork had been correctly and completely filled out.

7) Is there any additional information you wish to tell us?

This question doesn't have to be answered if you have nothing else to say. If that's the case, just put "N/A." However, this can be an opportunity to showcase additional skills or experiences that may be relevant to the job. Or, if you were referred by someone (and they said it was okay to mention on the form that you referred them), you can put the information in here.

Sample answer: In addition to my communication, teamwork, and visual merchandising skills, I also know how to use a cash register and Interac/credit card machine. As well, I also have experience performing inventory.

8) Why do you want work with us?

You really can't fill out an application form without encountering this question. As a rule of thumb, keep the answer professional and avoid saying really dumb things - like you want to work at the store because of the discount. Try and fit the reason why you want to work at the store with one or more of your skills.

Sample answer: I want to work at your store because I often shop here and am always impressed with the way the clothes are visual merchandised and the excellent customer service I am offered. As such, I'd really like to be part of your team and contribute to the creation of innovative clothing displays and to the exceptional customer service this store prides itself on.

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