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How to ensure your job application leaps off the page

Having just sifted through 146 applications for two jobs, this headteacher offers advice to candidates to ensure they don’t fall at the first hurdle in the job hunt (published TES 6th December 2021)

We recently advertised for two newly created head of school positions at my school. We received 146 applications.  

What was so striking was not just the quantity of the applications but the huge range in quality of those applications – some were brilliant, with outstanding evidence-based, impact-driven and concise information that leapt off the page.

Others had so much potential but also some errors that let them down – we saw some with over forty spelling errors – while other candidates failed to follow simple instructions (such as emailing HR the application form), which immediately raises concerns.

This was very surprising. After all, when you recruit for any international school role, whether leadership or not, it is a potential million-pound investment from the school over the duration of an eight-year tenure.  

Costly mistakes

It is not only the normal costs of salary but relocation, repatriation, visa and work permit costs, plus significant on-costs for both the potential employee and their family.  

Not only that but if things don’t work out, you can’t just be replaced by a teacher from down the road. 

As such, bearing in mind the gravity of the process and the million-pound price tag that a longer hire can lead to, why is that the completion of a prefilled form and quality letter of application eludes some of the most brilliant among us?

I know the talent that is out there and yet, even now, we continue to see applications that do not represent this talent. 

With that in mind, here are some top tips for any aspiring international teacher, or someone looking to move role, on how to make sure you get the basics right and make any school see you as a prospective hire worth taking seriously, and worth the time and cost investment.


1. Read the details clearly 

This sounds basic but it is vital you properly understand what you are applying for, the skills and attributes required and the deadline for the application. Some of the candidates for our recent roles clearly had not done this with applications that appeared to be for different jobs.

2. Research the setting 

Check out the school website, read the news section and look at their social media channels (as this tells you what is important to the school), and know the organisational structure.

Use this information to inform how you demonstrate that you “fit” the school.

3. Research your interviewees

Find out who the people are likely to be appointing this role (such as head of faculty or head of school) and friend them on LinkedIn. 

Know their background and specialisms and use this knowledge to help you target your answers and questions. 

If you are talking to a world-renowned expert in lesson study, make sure you are aware of what lesson study is.

4. Give yourself time 

When completing the application allocate at least two “blocks” of time to complete it – and give yourself permission to have this time.

The biggest error I see, particularly from women, is that they do not give the application enough time as they are so busy. I frequently hear this through conversations with women leaders and one candidate even told me that they hadn’t put the time into their application as they were so busy with the day job. Put yourself first!

In the first block of time, complete the standard form and start to identify the key aspects you want to highlight in your application, including:

  • Your motivation, why now and why this role and organisation
  • How you fit the job specification and job profile. If you don’t fit everything don’t worry, explain how you will acquire this knowledge and expertise and what transferable skills you already have
  • Pinpoint your interest in the school from your research
  • A few short examples of where you have improved the outcomes for the students or community in your care. The best measure of what you will do is what you have already done. Be explicit and sell these achievements (don’t be shy!)
  • Avoid being overly verbose and ideally do not exceed two pages (some schools even specify one page)

5. Double-check everything 

In the second block of time (ideally at least a day later) double-check your application form for clarity, errors and typos. Write your letter of application in full, using your notes and thinking from the previous block of time.

Now, and this is the critical part, share the full application with a trusted friend or colleague and ask them to check for errors and clarity. 

Also, give them the job advert and job specification so they can cross-reference. This is such a simple step that is missed by so many. 

Having fresh eyes on your application at this stage can make the difference between being selected for an interview and not being selected. This is not a hassle; for the most part, your friends and colleagues will want to help you.

6. Final, final checks 

Then you should be good to go – but before you do, carry out these final checks:

  • Have one last read-through and recheck the submission instructions
  • Do a quick online imprint check of your social media accounts and online profile. You will be searched! Bikinis and piña colada pictures are probably best avoided
  • Submit your application in full and by following the instructions precisely. Under no circumstances submit a CV in place of an application form (schools have forms for safeguarding reasons and your application could be discarded based on this alone)

International recruitment is extremely competitive. In seconds, a recruiter is going to have to make assumptions about your fit to the role and their school based purely on what you submit. Just as you give the time to your students and communities, ensure you give yourself the time too!

As we hit the height of this season’s recruitment, ensure that the application you submit represents the brilliant you that you are. 

Liz Free is CEO and director at International School Rheintal (ISR) in Switzerland, an IB World School

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