Impact paths Jobs talk

Anatomy of a perfect job application

In my first job in the UN system, the department I worked in underwent what they called a “functional review”.

The idea was that the “functions” of core positions needed to get reviewed and mapped against new ideas.

This many years later, I still don’t fully know what the catalyst for the functional review was. I think it had to do with bigger institutional changes and the interest senior managers may have had to get rid of old staff and bring in some new ones. (That didn’t really happen in the end, but at least one senior up got put out to pasture.)

Now, the functional review resulted in a months-long process: ToRs (terms of reference, or job descriptions) for all FTA (fixed-term appointment) contract holders had to be reviewed, updated, readvertised, interview shortlists created, interviews scheduled, and offers made.

What this meant in practice was everyone had to interview for their jobs again.

Just starting out in my career, I was appointed as the note taker and interview report writer for all 24 jobs. At first, I was disappointed as I wanted to focus technical work and analysis of development statistics. But this experience proved to be one of the most powerful I’ve had in my career.

Each role had a minimum of 3 people interviewed, which means over the course of a few weeks, I was a fly on the wall for well over 70 interviews.

Here’s what few with this experience ever share about applying to top global development jobs.

There is no such thing as a “perfect” application.

When we get stuck, and very few of us NEVER get stuck, we turn to shiny new objects.

If we think we’re qualified but don’t land the interview…

  • We go away and find pretty new CV templates. I’ve had this fight with so many, it’s crazy. NO. No one cares about the design of your CV and the fancy fonts. There are better things to tweak and spend your limited time on… more on these below.
  • We go away and blame “the system”. Yes, people hire people they know. Yes, many organizations have diversity quota (whether gender or nationality-based). Yes, real corruption happens. But two of these are just tools to use in your career growth if you can flip them on their head properly, and the last one is trending towards being caught and stamped out.
  • We try tricks like gaming the AI keywords and copying and pasting the ToR into our CV. Reality: Reviewers can always see through these gimmicks – frustrating not just them when they’re stuck days reviewing hundreds of applications, but your efforts at landing your next great job.


You want to excite and titillate

The closest to “perfect” we can get is when someone gets butterflies in their stomach.

You want hiring managers and your future colleagues (who are likely the ones doing the shortlisting) to be excited about you.

This can mean many very different things. So you have to do your homework and research.

One thing I do when applying to new work is Google the team members. I always find someone associated with the team, and usually the boss I’d be reporting to.

From there, I go in and research their specific interests. I used incognito mode on LinkedIn to glean information from their profile. Typically, the schools they went to, the publications they’ve had, or the type of content they post give me some “hook” to understand what they value.

And through this, I can include something in my application that starts to build a connection to their interests. Or learn that – nope, that’s not the work place for me.

Understand the deeper context

Departments, units and teams have their concerns.

Did they just go through a restructuring (meaning, they are still trying to figure out their mandate and mission)?

Have colleagues been there for 10 years plus (likely pointing to a closed circle of friends you have to find ways to break into)?

Did the team receive a new cash injection (if so, what donor provided it, and what do THEY want)?

These and a dozen other points give you important clues about what the hiring team finds important. And in this, you learn more and more about parts of your profile to match against these interests. Again, maybe you find out you and this team don’t quite fit with one another, so you can stop wasting time applying to this job and move on to the next.

You can’t avoid politics

In my experience, as soon as 2 or more humans are involved in deciding anything, politics rears its ugly head.

Alliances form. Competition to win enters. Differences of opinion come out like daggers.

You can’t avoid this. So it’s better to understand it and take your position.

What was one of the most stunning lessons I learned from sitting on over 70 interview panels?

People hire people they like. Shocking I know. But who are people that people like? They are the ones who can help further their career interests.

In our sector, many view that with suspicion. It should be all about the issues. About the programs. And about real impact with communities.

Yes: these are all important. And by and large, most of us truly, deeply care about the work.

But for each of these, you cannot ignore that you will be working with a team, with a boss (regardless of how senior you are, you will always have a boss), and with people in government, communities and other organizations. Relationships with others is the oil to delivering positive human development results.

And paying attention to the very human needs and interests people have is not only fundamental to living a good life, but a cornerstone to a strong global development career.

So what makes a job application just… work?

It’s giving them what they want.

What I find is typically when you’re stuck…

Your job applications haven’t been going through.
Or your interview asks you questions that only make you stammer and eject the word “Uhhh” accompanied by a blank stare.
When you can’t get to those senior jobs you know in your bones you can do.

It’s because you’re not giving the very real people on the other side what they want.

Since sitting in on 70+ interviews at the start of my career, I have gone on to write ToRs, review thousands of job applications to a single role, and help hire dozens of colleagues for several UN agencies and NGOs.

What are some of the key questions you have about how any of this works?

Talk soon,


Tired of people telling you to "tailor" your CV and add "keywords" but not showing you how?
Get the free ULTIMATE IMPACT CV CHECKLIST that got my students their first interviews in 2 weeks! It uses real-world CV samples from professionals we've helped to get jobs at the World Bank, Save the Children and UN agencies.
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.