How to write an application

At the end of October, I attended the RCGP annual conference (RCGPAC) which is a great place to meet inspirational GPs. At risk of sounding like a RCGP poster girl, I really recommend you go because there are so many inspirational workshops and talks going on that it’s an invigorating breath of fresh air during our daily grind as primary care physicians.

As (now former!) Chair of the JIC, I’d speak to a dozen or so GP trainees or within the first five years of qualifying on the phone. It’s usually a more personal way of talking about opportunities available out there and also a way for me to get to know enthusiastic doctors. One such GP trainee stopped me at the RCGPAC this year which I love because I finally get to put a face to the name. He asked me a great question on how to write applications because, having spoken last year on the phone, he had followed my advice and had applied for some JIC opportunities, like the exchanges, but couldn’t get past the shortlisting. This really got me thinking about how no one teaches you this and perhaps I had been taking for granted how easy it is to do. So here is my tuppence on how to write applications. And just to be clear, I am not an expert and I am not an academic GP. I am only sharing how I would write for a JIC -level, and just to be clear not United Nations-level, applications!!

The simple things

This sounds super obvious but reading the advert thoroughly is an incredibly important first step. Try to see what they are asking you. If you are applying for a job or a position, you need to have a good guess at what they are looking for. Underline the important descriptive words and go through the personal spec. Every word on that advert has been checked and chosen by several people before it goes out to make sure that they are attracting the right person. Remember that you have to show why they should pick you over everyone else and the more you can show that you are aligned with their values, the better.

Also, don’t forget really simple things like checking the deadline. Personally, I’m very unforgiving when people hand in an application after the deadline as I’m already thinking that this person is disorganised (unless there is an excellent reason) which is not a trait I wanted in someone in my team. I know that other JIC members are kinder on this point than me but you are already introducing an unconscious bias and setting yourself up to fail. Sorry but it’s that simple!

Writing the application

Imagine being the person marking your application. They probably have several applications that they are looking through and they probably have a mark scheme with tick boxes that they have to get through. Therefore, you want to make life easy for them. When scanning an application, I search for things that demonstrate that skill set (e.g. leadership, motivation). By deliberately using the same descriptive words used in the advert, you are making it really clear that the example demonstrates this skill set that they are looking for and I can tick that box straight away. This is so much easier than reading a whole example and trying to figure out if this is demonstrating what I am looking for. Let me give you an example…

The advert says “Desirable characteristic: good interpersonal skills”

My tick box says “Has good interpersonal skills”

Example 1: I have been part of many multiple-disciplinary teams where I have learnt the importance of good communication and good team-working.

Example 2: I have been part of many multiple-disciplinary teams where I have learnt the importance of good interpersonal skills including good communication and good team-working.

This example shows that you haven’t added anything extra apart from making it really easy for the person reading it to tick that box!! I’ve talked about this point with other people who mark applications so I know I’m not the only one here. That’s why reading the advert carefully is so important. However you do it, allowing the person marking to pick up on what they are looking for super easy will get you brownie points and probably literal points for this!!

Secondly, imagine you are applying for funding. If you were the person awarding this money, who would you want to have it? I certainly want to avoid anyone who looks like they are going on a jolly and also any projects that would benefit only the person involved. Sustainability is a really important word in global health and demonstrating that you will impact more people with what you have learnt from the opportunity I am about to give you is very appealing. Saying that you will present to your VTS is fine (unless you’re applying for NIHR level funding in which case it might not be fine 😉) as well as writing for Innovait or BJGP. You just want to demonstrate that this experience will not just be a memory for you and nothing more. This isn’t only relevant to applications for funding but all applications. This is personal to me but I always set my applications along the lines of “benefit to me as an individual”, “benefit to the population I am visiting” and “benefit to the NHS or my local population” as relevant.

Don’t worry about not having loads of examples. Within the JIC, we always talk about the “JIC spirit” – does someone have it or not? What we mean by this is someone who has a can-do attitude and is passionate about international primary care. We would always choose the person who has the JIC spirit with limited experience over someone very accomplished who didn’t. And don’t forget that we are designed to help you kick-start your career and that most of the people that we serve don’t have much experience. Further to this, you will always have examples from just being a doctor. We demonstrate communication skills, leadership skills, team-working ability every day. I’ve used my experience on my elective as well as my rotation in HIV medicine at med school to show my interest in global health and international primary care. I slightly cringe when I think about my interview for the Deputy Chair role for the JIC four years ago when I was using my captaincy of the women’s boat club at med school as my example for leadership (which incidentally was 10 years prior). All I can say is that I got it. Don’t feel like you need to have been the Chair of something to be worthy!

And finally, don’t forget to get someone to proof-read your application! A second pair of eyes is so helpful. I’ve asked friends and family but I also got my Programme Director on my VTS check one of my applications. It might feel a bit cringe but this feedback might be what makes it successful!

What happens if you don’t get it…

My general advice here is don’t get disillusioned. I have a friend of whom I have real life-envy – she’s been hanging out in sweat lodges with indigenous populations in the US; is off on an expedition to Antarctica; and (the one that I’m most jealous about) is meeting with THE Alain de Botton to talk about life. When I asked her how does she get these amazing opportunities, she says ‘I just emailed them’. I get the impression she doesn’t get too hung up about the ones who don’t respond (she says that there are loads and she even possibly positively forgets about them) because she only needs one yes to get through the door. I loved it when she said “I really wasn’t expecting him to respond…” when she was telling me about Alain de Botton which I think really sums up her attitude. They say that success only signifies a multitude of failures in the past and it is so important that you shake yourself down, pick yourself up and carry on – don’t take rejection personally.

But do use it as a learning experience. You are entitled to feedback and I have learnt plenty from the comments that I have received from my own rejections. I used to always offer an opportunity for feedback following an interview for a JIC vacancy and I found it so interesting that not everyone takes it. Another interesting observation is that some of those who did take the opportunity have reapplied, came back better than ever and got in!

Some final thoughts…

I really hope that this post encourages more of you to get applying for things, whether that is for Next Gen, local vacancies or for JIC opportunities – literally anything at all. Let me know if this post has been helpful and I know that there are many ways to skin a cat so it would be great if you want to share any tips of tricks of your own below!!!