The Parliamentary CV Scheme was launched in the Summer of 2011 to help demystify the process of getting a job in Parliament. Many potentially good candidates fall at the first hurdle because they make common mistakes, which we hope the scheme has highlighted to them.
Under the scheme, a cross-party panel of current parliamentary researchers and caseworkers gave candidates the real story on whether their application would get an interview, and why. Or, more commonly, why not.
To do this, we set up a fake MP, Jane Doe, MP for Plant City from the Purple Party. Jane advertised for a Parliamentary Assistant and a Caseworker and gave away certain information about herself in the process. Here is the ad:
This guide sets out the main lessons learned from the scheme.
- Applicants: 223
- For the Parliamentary Assistant position: 195
- For the Caseworker position: 28
- Interviews offered : 37
- Success rate: 16%, or just under 1 in 6
5 in 6 rejected: why?
Everyone knows that competition for parliamentary jobs is fierce. It wouldn’t be unusual for a real job to attract around 200 applications and, of course, in real life it wouldn’t be possible to interview 37 people – you might interview 4 or 5.
This means that a lot of people will lose out for every person who is successful, but it doesn’t mean that competition is the main reason why some people are not successful.
In our scheme, 5 in 6 applications were judged not to be good enough for an interview, in a situation where there was no restriction on numbers.
The reality is that there are a lot of applications that need real improvement or they will not secure an interview for the applicant, no matter how few people they are competing against.
The 6 points below are the main problems that caused people’s applications to fail. They are listed roughly in order of importance, but none should be ignored.
Of course, it’s important to say that every MP is different and every MP’s office looks for different things – but everything here was agreed on by the cross-party panel of MPs’ staff and should be taken seriously.
1. Application not tailored to the job
Overwhelmingly, the biggest problem identified by members of the panel was that people had not tailored their application to the job in question.
This was a problem across the board, but in different ways for the Parliamentary Assistant/Caseworker applications.
PARLIAMENTARY ASSISTANT POSITION (see ad above)
- Personalise your letter to the MP
For the Parliamentary Assistant applicants (who formed the vast majority), there was a massive failure to talk about the MP herself.
When applying to work for an MP, you have to show that you know about that MP and understand, and are interested in their work.
Why? Well, the real question is ‘why not?’. Almost without exception, MPs work hard to publicise their work and generate interest in their chosen ’causes’, and they also believe strongly in the importance of their work. They have worked very hard to get where they are and they care about what they are doing.
So, if you write them a letter telling them that you are very interested in politics generally, and in the [X] party, and in Parliament, but you fail to mention them, why should they believe that you are really interested in working for them? Can they believe that you really understand the fact that they are different from other MPs? Given that you are applying for a research based position, how much time and effort does it look like you have spent on your application if you can’t even show that you have researched them?
The lesson is that you MUST ALWAYS talk about the MP to whom you are applying, and why you are interested in their work and what you could bring to it.
In the case of our fake job ad, we specified that Jane was Chair of the APPG on Plants. This was put in to tell you something about the MP, given that you could not research her as she does not exist.
We weren’t expecting huge paragraphs on your technical knowledge of plant issues. Examples of successful mention include:
- I am extremely in tune with current affairs and parliamentary events – including your work in plant advocacy which I studied with environmental politics in my degree.
- The rights and compensation of plant-growers, which has been an important part of your activities as an MP since your first election, is an issue I feel particularly passionate about.
- I also admire your personal accomplishments in promoting forest conservation through your leadership of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Plants and would like to work with you on developing such initiatives.
Out of the 195 Parliamentary Assistant applicants, only 28 people mentioned the Plant Group.
This is around 14%.
Of the 28 people who did mention it, 13 were offered interviews.
That is a 46% success rate – nearly 1 in 2.
Of the 138 people who did not mention it, 23 were offered interviews.
That is a 16% success rate – 1 in 6.
- Job Description
You should try to hit as many of the points in the job description as you can, but many people looked like they hadn’t actually read the job ad at all.
In this case, Jane talked about the successful applicant drafting PQs and EDMs; preparing briefings; writing press releases; maintaining the website and managing correspondence.
Many people bypassed mentioning their skills in these areas, in favour of giving a pre-prepared statement-style potted history of themselves, their degree and perhaps why they want to work in politics, but don’t tell the MP that they can do any of the tasks that would be required of them in the job.
Your CV will tell the MP what your educational and employment history is and should, itself, be slanted towards showcasing your RELEVANT experience, but your letter should tell the MP what you can bring to the job they are advertising for.
CASEWORKER POSITION (see ad above)
Of the 28 caseworker applications, only two were given interviews.
The main problem here was that applicants did not refer to the job description of being a caseworker. A huge number of the applicants talked about skills more relevant to the Parliamentary Assistant position, like political awareness, research and media skills which would NOT be needed in most caseworker positions.
People said things like:
- The position would be an excellent opportunity for me to broaden my insight into politics, working in a varied and challenging environment as part of a career in current affairs.
- I have always been aware and interested in the work that Parliament does and want to be a part of this.
- Working for an MP such as Jane Doe is a unique opportunity to be involved at the heart of the British public affairs.
These are immediate red flags. Being a caseworker will not put you in Parliament and it will not put you at the heart of British public affairs. You will be based in Plant City (it’s a very good idea to make reference to this so that the MP knows you don’t expect to be in Westminster), and you will be dealing with cases, not policy issues.
Far too many people failed to refer to anything in the job ad about advocacy and advice, which is the main part of the job, and instead focussed on things that will not be in the job.
It would be very difficult to put someone forward for an interview who clearly hadn’t understood what the job would actually involve.
Your CV should change for each application, or type of application, as well as your letter. Perhaps it’s OK to send the same CV to every MP (although if you have overlapping interests with the MP make sure they are clearly highlighted in the CV), but you must not send the same CV that you would send to public affairs companies or law firms etc.
Your personal statement should not say “looking for work in politics or public affairs” – it should be specific. Your sections should be grouped in a way that is relevant and attractive to the parliamentary job, not a law job. If we found your CV in the street, we should be able to tell that it’s being submitted for parliamentary jobs. If we couldn’t, it needs more tailoring.
2. Failure to pick out and present relevant information
This is so important. Everything on your application should be there because it is adding something. For every single line on your letter and CV, ask yourself, “what is this adding to my application?”
This is for two main reasons:
- Whoever is reading your application does not have a lot of time, and they want to see the information they are looking for straight away. If it is crowded out by less important information, it won’t get the attention it deserves.
- It will be an important skill in the job to pick out and present relevant information in a concise way, often condensing complex subjects into one or two pages. Your application should show that you can do this.
Interests are good. They catch the eye, they can make you memorable and are fun to read.
But when is an interest an interest? For example, let us consider the following phrases which appeared on applicants’ CVs:
- I managed to have a vibrant social life at University.
- I am a very family orientated individual, spending a lot of time with my parents, two brothers and sister.
Does partying or having siblings add anything interesting to an employer? Is having brothers or having gone to parties while at university the most interesting thing you can say about yourself? No.
Also beware of “socialising with friends”. Everyone socialises with friends. It is not a hobby.
If it doesn’t do anything extra to convince the MP that you would be good for the job, get rid of it.
- PREVIOUS EMPLOYMENT
It is of course fine to show that you have done part-time/casual work. MPs will appreciate someone who has been proactive and organised enough to work while at university, but it is up to you not to let this swamp your application.
For example, in the (redacted) extract below, the candidate has actually had experience working for an Assembly Member and during an election campaign, which he could have fleshed out into a really good “political experience” section, but he has chosen to give this the same amount of space as bar work and concreting.
The candidate has also chosen not to group his political experience – it is hidden in the middle of this paragraph.
This will NOT give the MP/staff member the instant access to the information that they need, and it also suggests a lack of skills in presenting information.
In general, the MP will want to see the details of your degree (don’t leave your grade off unless you want people to assume that you got a 3rd) and, occasionally, your A-Levels, although many people would say these aren’t necessary.
Your GCSEs are not necessary. If you feel compelled to include them, give them one line, MAXIMUM. This goes back to the question, ‘What is this adding?’ Far too many people listed all their GCSEs with one line for each, resulting in a large education section with the degree about a tenth of the size of the GCSEs. They are less (or not at all) relevant – therefore they should have minimal (or no) space.
For the same reasons of relevance and concision, a CV and letter should be as short as possible.
Members of the panel had differing views on this, but many felt that three pages is always too long for a CV. Others felt that it could be acceptable for an applicant with considerable experience but, in general, if you are a new graduate or have been in the workplace for a few years only, two pages is the MAXIMUM length for your CV and one page is the MAXIMUM for a letter.
If yours is longer than this, it suggests that you have trouble picking out relevant information.
One page is even better.
There were far too many errors in applications.
Being picky about mistakes isn’t just for fun – it’s crucial to show that you can write an error-free document (especially in an application process when you are not under pressure). Otherwise, how does the MP know that you can be trusted to write an important letter or submit an accurate amendment to a Bill or email someone on their behalf without them having to check it every time? If you make more than one or two small mistakes, you are unlikely to be reliable in written communication – or at least, that’s the impression that the MP will get.
Many people said that they would allow one or two small errors, but for more than that, you would need a very good reason to avoid automatic rejection. Others would stop after the first mistake, and getting the MP’s name wrong will almost always lead to the bin straight away. This does happen. Make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
Real life story
One panel member stated that, in a real recruitment exercise for a caseworker, the tiebreaker decision was made between two evenly-matched candidates on the basis of an error in one of their letters.
One of the most common places people made mistakes was with a misplaced apostrophe in “GCSE’s”.
It really looks bad – don’t do it.
4. Poor letter etiquette
As correspondence will be an important part of the job, your letter should be done properly. Doing it wrongly won’t be an immediate rejection but it does look bad or, at the very least, it is a missed opportunity to show that you can do it well.
- Dear Sir/Madam
As previously discussed, it’s really important to show that your application is not generic, it is specific and only being sent to one organisation.
Writing ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ is about as generic as you can get.
In this process, it should have been ‘Dear Ms Doe’. In real life, it should either be to the MP or, if you are really not sure, you should call the office to check.
‘Dear Sir/Madam’ will not get you eliminated immediately, but it gets you off to a bad start.
- Dear Jane Doe MP
A lot of people wrote ‘Dear Jane Doe’ or ‘Dear Jane Doe MP’.
This reads badly – you would never say this in a formal letter. You should be working on showing that you know how to address someone, and this isn’t it.
- Yours sincerely
If your letter is addressed to a person by name (which it should be), it should be finished ‘Yours sincerely’ (note no capital S).
This is really basic stuff, but so many people got it wrong. Graduates spent the whole letter saying how good they were at attention to detail and what perfectionists they were, and then failed to get this right.
It looks bad. If you don’t know this, what else don’t you know?
Leave spaces between your paragraphs. Don’t indent your paragraphs. Use an appropriate typeface. Make sure there isn’t a rogue blank page at the end of your documents. Lay your letter out nicely and make it neat and pretty.
- Email v Letter
Always attach your letter separately rather than in the body of your email. This way, you are fulfilling the specific request in the ad for a letter, and you are also avoiding the chance of your formatting going haywire.
If you can, turning your documents into PDFs is great because it keeps them looking exactly as you want them and gets rid of any traces of formatting, etc.
A final note on letters: attach them in a file format that the MP will be able to open. This means Word or PDF. Do NOT use anything else. If they can’t open it, they won’t use it.
5. Over-the-top language
Brevity is the soul of wit, and of much else as well. In politics, this is especially true. When writing press releases, speeches, PQs, EDMs and much else, the fewer words you use, the better your point will come across. In press releases in particular, you will have to communicate in snappy, short sentences that non-specialists can easily understand – so keep your language in check.
Simple is always better.
Some phrases in people’s applications were actually very off-putting:
- I have a deep and burning passion for politics and humbly request the opportunity to serve as your assistant.
- I am writing to you to apply for the coveted position of a Parliamentary Assistant, in your highly esteemed political organisation.
And some really didn’t come across as people had intended:
- I am an extremely hungry individual.
- I realise the importance of seeking to stimulate individuals.
- I am articulate and assured whether in the public arena or in more intimate settings.
Over the top language also extended to long-winded proclamations about the value of politics:
- I truly realised that it was a duty to make an individual effort to understand and better the world we live in, and leave it, as far as possible, a little more just.
- One of my greatest driving forces in life is a desire to see the suffering of others reduced.
You do not need to tell the MP why politics is important or what the values of their party are. They know this.
You do not need to be humble. You do not need to be burning. You do not need to be hungry.
Less is more.
6. Excessive emphasis on own needs
Some people placed far too much emphasis on what the job could do for them, rather than what they could do for the job.
This doesn’t mean that it’s not important to demonstrate why you want the job, but the most important thing that your application should do is demonstrate why you are right for it, not the other way round.
The job is a job, not a learning experience:
- I aim to gain experience of working in Parliament, and the position you are advertising is the ideal opportunity for me to make this transition.
- This opportunity will provide me a chance to acquire professional and practical experience.
Much better to highlight what you DO know, and write about how quick you will be to pick up anything else.
Needless to say (or so we thought), avoid talking about your social life:
- I am very eager to move to the capital as I relish the lifestyle that it presents.
Your letter is your chance to show that you are ready, willing and able (and excited) to do THIS job with THIS person – because it’s a great opportunity, not because it’s a means to an end for something else.
Getting a job in Parliament is competitive and we can’t guarantee anything, but hopefully this guide has given a good idea of what the main things you can do to improve your applications may be.
An application that is error-free, well presented, tailored to the job and written in simple and engaging language will stand a good chance.
You can do it.