Many employers require applicants to fill out job applications. If, for example, you walk into a grocery store or retail business, you may be asked to go to a computer screen, or kiosk, to complete an online application, or you will be given a two- to four-paper application form to be completed by hand. Many companies routinely give anyone interested in a job a chance to fill out an application.

The following 20 tips should help you complete a job application to the expectations of employers and improve your chances of getting a job interview:
  1. Dress neatly. Assume that you will be observed when you complete the application. The person taking your application may make a note about your appearance and communication skills.

    Since you may end up being interviewed on the spot, dress as if you were going to a job interview and observe all the rules for positive verbal and nonverbal behavior (see Chapter 11 of The Ex-Offenderís Job Hunting Guide).

    First impressions are always important, be it on an application, over the telephone, or in person.

  2. Take two copies of the application form. If you are picking up an application form to take with you, get two copies. Use the one copy to draft your answers and the other copy to submit as a neat, clean, and error-free application.

  3. Read the instructions carefully and follow them completely. An application is your first screening test in more ways than you may think. Start by reading through the whole application to see exactly what information is required for completion.

    If you lack sufficient information, donít complete the application since you will be submitting an incomplete application, which is a negative. Return later with the information that you didnít have the first time.

    Follow the instructions. If it says print, then you print. If it says last name first, then write accordingly. If it asks for a phone number, provide one. If it ask for your supervisorís name, reason for leaving each job, and pay rates, supply this information. If it says provide three references, then give the details on three references.

    Failure to complete an application according to instructions communicates a terrible message Ė you simply canít follow instructions, or you have something to hide! No one wants to hire such people. Youíve just wasted your time filling out an incomplete application.

  4. Use a black ink pen when writing. Avoid using a pencil or an ink color other than black. In fact, many applications will ask you to use a black pen. An application completed in pencil looks unprofessional and one completed in a non-black ink may be difficult to read if the application is run through a copy machine.

  5. Answer each question. Itís important to respond to each question Ė no blanks left that could raise questions in the mind of the reviewer about your willingness to disclose.

    For example, if you donít have a permanent address or telephone number, use the address and number of a friend or relative who agrees to serve as your contact location. Do not appear homeless on an application Ė it raises all kinds of questions about transportation, stability, and work history.

    If a question does not relate to your situation, such as military service, type or write "N/A" which means "Not Applicable."

  6. Try to write as neatly as possible. The neatness and style of your handwriting may be interpreted by the reader as an indication of your personality and work habits. If it looks sloppy, with letters or words crossed out, the reader may think you are confused, careless, or sloppy in your work habits.

  7. Be prepared to complete each section of the application. If you know you will be applying for a job, take to the application center all information you may need to complete the application in full.

    You may want to complete a mock or draft application form, which you always take with you, that contains most information you are likely to be asked on an application.

    This would include a list of previous employers, addresses, telephone numbers, employment dates, information about your work, and documents (Social Security number and driver's license). You also want to have with you details on your educational background and references.

    Trying to recall this information by memory may lead to inaccurate statements or an incomplete application; youíll be demonstrating two negatives to the employer even before the job interview - you are unprepared and you're not serious about employment.

  8. Include all previous employers. Reveal all of your previous employers, even if you were fired. Many people get fired and it's not held against them by other employers. You can always explain the situation, but you will have greater difficulty trying to explain a major employment gap.

    Many ex-offenders also include their prison work experience at a state or federal job, such as "Custodian, State of Louisiana," or "Machine Operator, State of Texas." If, indeed, you have janitorial duties and operated machines, such as those in the laundry room, these are truthful employment statements that do not prematurely raise a red flag that you served time in XYZ Penitentiary.

    You have work experience, you used skills, and you have someone who can serve as a reference. Most important of all, you filled in a potential time gap that might have indicated you were hiding something or you were unemployed for a long period of time.

    Hiding your record indicates you may be a con artist. No one wants to hire someone who is deceptive. If you canít be trusted with the truth at the application stage, why would anyone want to trust you on the job?

  9. If you lack work experience, be creative. Each year millions of people first enter the job market without formal work experience or a job. However, that doesnít mean they lack work-related experience. If you did not hold a regular job but have volunteer or other life experiences related to skills found in the workplace, include these in the work experience section.

    Did you assist a group (church, school, sports team, community organization), did you sell something? (Yes, even illegal street activities may demonstrate certain "transferable" skills to legitimate work settings and activities.)

  10. Appear educated, even if you lack formal credentials. Let's face it. Few employers want to hire someone without a high school education. If you lack a high school education but have a GED, include the date you completed your GED.

    If you do not have a GED, get enrolled in a program before you fill out any applications and then state on your application that you are completing your GED in a specific month and year.

    If you've completed a training program or acquired specialized skills, include those on your application under Education.

    Make sure you appear educated and thoughtful Ė no misspelling, poor grammar, or stupid and smart aleck statements - in each section of your application.

  11. Handle sensitive questions with tact. An application is not a place to confess all your sins, reveal red flags, or prematurely show your hand. Like a resume, an application becomes your calling card to be invited to the interview.

    In your case, the most sensitive question will be "Have you ever been convicted of a crime? If yes, please explain." Most applicants believe they have three choices in responding to this question: Lie, tell the truth, or leave it blank.

    All three choices may have negative consequences for getting the job interview or keeping the job. In addition, the law may require you to disclose your criminal record to employers, and you must sign the applications, indicating your answers are truthful.

    However, there is a fourth choice in answering this question which leaves the door open: simply write "Please discuss with me" or "Will discuss at the interview." These statements indicate you have a conviction, youíre not hiding it, and you are prepared to discuss it at the appropriate time.

    If you must include some details, keep them short and focused on the future, such as "Will complete parole or probation in 20__." Depending on the nature of your crime, you cannot adequately explain your record in one or two sentences. Indeed, most short statements raise more negative questions than they answer.

    This question is best dealt with in a face-to-face meeting where you will have a chance to explain and demonstrate six things Ė (1) you made a serious mistake, (2) you took responsibility, (3) youíve done several things to change your life, (4) you're not a risk, (5) you want a chance to prove yourself, and (6) you are positive, enthusiastic, energetic, and ready to perform beyond the employer's expectations.

    A similar response should be given to another sensitive question: "Have you ever been fired?" Respond by writing "Please see me" or "Will discuss at the interview."

  12. Avoid abbreviations. Not all readers share the same knowledge of abbreviations. You can abbreviate the obvious, such as Street (St.), Avenue (Ave.), or Boulevard (Blvd.), but spell out the not-so-obvious. If, for example, you lived or worked in Los Angeles, your application should say Los Angeles rather than L.A.

  13. Avoid vague statements. If you state that you can operate a computer, indicate at what level and with which programs. If you are a driver, indicate what type of vehicle or equipment you work with. The more details you give, the more impressive will be your application.

  14. Avoid revealing salary information. If the application asks for your salary expectations (pay or salary desired), state "Open" or "Will discuss at the interview."

    Always keep this question to the very end of the interview Ė after you have been offered the job. The old poker saying that "He who reveals his hand is at a disadvantage" is very true in the job search.

    Get the employer to first reveal his hand before you talk about your salary expectations.

  15. Include interests and hobbies relevant to the job. If asked about any interests and hobbies, try to select examples relevant to the job. If, for example, you are applying for an outdoor job that requires physical stamina, outdoor sports interests would be supportive of such a job.

  16. Include additional comments if appropriate. Some applications will have a section for additional comments. This is the place you want to indicate your goals, state your interests, and make a pitch for the job. Get yourself set up for the job interview by stating something to this effect:
    "Iím especially interested in this job, because I love working with inventory management software and streamlining operations that save companies both time and money. I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss how my experience can best meet your needs."
  17. Remember to sign the application. The very last thing you need to do is sign and date your application. Failure to do so may invalidate your application and raise questions about your ability to follow instructions.

  18. Read and re-read your answers. Make sure you proofread your application for any errors, omissions, or misspellings. Like the perfect resume, you want an error-proof application.

  19. Attach your resume to the application form. At least for employers, applications are a necessary evil in the screening and hiring processes.

    Most applications follow a similar and rather dull format that yields little information about who you really are and what you have done, can do, and will do in the future. Few applications allow the flexibility to state your goals, skills, and accomplishments.

    If you write an achievement-oriented resume, submit it along with your application. With a resume, you structure the readerís thinking around your major strengths rather than allow the reader to control information about you, which is exactly what an application does for the employer.

    With a well written resume, you may quickly grab the attention of the employer who will want to invite you to a job interview. Your resume, not your application, becomes the central focus of the job interview.

  20. Be sure to follow up. When you submit the application, ask when you might expect to hear from the employer on the status of your application. If they say within two weeks, be sure to call and ask about your candidacy in two weeks.

    In some cases, the follow-up telephone call will result in a job interview. After all, the employer may still be reviewing applications, and your call may force him or her to take a second look at your application (and attached resume). Most important of all, your call indicates that you are still interested in the job.

SOURCE: Adapted from Ron and Caryl Krannich, Ph.Ds, The Ex-Offenderís Job Hunting Guide (Manassas Park, VA: Impact Publications). Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.