Preparing the perfect specialty training application form

Matt Green from BPP University School of Health explores what steps you should take to ensure that your application stands head and shoulders above others

The specialty training application process may be the most important selection process you will go through in your career. A well thought through and prepared application will give you the best possible chance of securing your preferred position. Leaving the process until the last minute and submitting a hastily put together application could derail your career and set you back years if you do not secure your preferred training programme or location.

When do I need to start thinking about my application?

The simple answer is now. It is never too early to begin researching the specialty training application process and to start to draw together your skills and experience in your portfolio. The sooner you begin researching the options that are open to you the better. Visit the NHS specialty training website at, together with and applicable royal college websites. Application to most specialties is processed nationally, coordinated by a royal college or a lead deanery on behalf of all deaneries. A great deal of guidance and information is provided on these websites, so make sure you read through them carefully.

Ensure that you have a clear understanding of the eligibility criteria and career structure for your chosen route—are you looking to apply for core medical training or are you applying for a run-through programme? Pay particular attention to the competition ratios, as these will have a bearing on your chances of success. When you have determined which specialty or specialties you wish to apply for, find out what is involved in submitting your application, note the key dates (especially when you can register online and begin completing your application), and look at the person specification, the scoring matrix, and examples of application forms. By giving yourself time to prepare your application and to address any shortfalls in your skills and experience you will avoid a last minute panic. Effective time management is essential throughout the whole application process.

The importance of the person specification and scoring matrix

Each specialty has a nationally agreed person specification that details the required competences. I cannot emphasise enough how important the person specification is in terms of your application. Another important document is the scoring matrix, which will detail the weighting that is placed on each area of your skills and experience in the context of the application. These are the criteria that your completed application form will be scored against and to which you need your portfolio of experience to correspond. The more criteria on skills and experience that you meet, the higher the chances of securing your first choice position. By gaining early sight of what is contained in a person specification you will give yourself plenty of time to deal with any shortfalls in skills and experience.

How to approach the application form

Carefully read all the application documentation provided to you. Ensure that you are clear about what you need to submit, because failure to submit any particular document may result in your application not being processed.

It is the questions relating to your skills and experience where you will score most points, and it is therefore important to compose your responses in a structured way to score maximum marks. Have a clear understanding of what the question is actually asking for; many points are needlessly thrown away through candidates failing to understand what is being asked of them. If you are unsure, discuss the question with a colleague or tutor to gain clarity.

It is tricky when answering these types of question to adhere to the word limit. Limits can range from as little as 65 to 250 words. It is important that your answers are coherent and to the point. Answers that exceed the word limit will be disregarded.

Begin by listing the key points to a particular answer and then begin to shape your response, ensuring that it comes in under the word limit. An effective way to compose high quality answers is to follow the “NEURO” approach:

New—Is the example you are proposing to use new and not used elsewhere in your application? This requires careful planning. Do not use the same example to answer different questions, because this will reduce your score.

Example—The key here is to use an example that is relevant to the question. Include details of where and when. If you use an example that draws on your professional experience, ensure that it aligns with your chosen specialty and, further, that it paints a picture of commitment to your specialty. Begin your answer by briefly setting the scene and putting the example in context.

Unique—Is your example unique in terms of helping you to stand out over your rival applications? The higher and rarer the achievement, the better your score will be.

Role—What was your role in the given example? For instance, leading an audit is obviously a much stronger example than playing a small part in the data collection. Does your description of your role answer what is being asked in the question? Does your answer focus on what you achieved and not on what others did? Do not try to pass off someone else’s achievement as your own.

Outcome—What did you achieve? How is it special? What did you learn from the experience? How has it informed your decision to follow your chosen specialty? Ensure that you conclude your answer to the question and don’t leave the assessor hanging.

Types of question you will encounter

Your specialty training application will comprise a series of questions that explore the clinical and non-clinical skills you have gained in your career so far. It is important to note that the structure and questions of the application form will differ between specialties and levels, and it is crucial that you gain early sight of example application forms for your chosen specialty to get a feel for the types of question you will encounter.

  • Postgraduate degrees—The importance placed on completion of postgraduate exams will depend on your chosen specialty and the level at which you are applying.
  • Additional achievements—Points will be awarded for additional achievements, including prizes, awards, and any other achievements at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
  • Training courses—It is important to include training courses you have attended that are most relevant to your chosen specialty. Include the course’s full title, duration, and location and the dates of attendance.
  • Achievements outside medicine—Giving examples of outstanding achievements away from medicine paints a picture of a well rounded and grounded individual who has a life outside medicine.
  • Presentations—More weighting will be placed on relevant presentations that are made at a regional, national, or international level than at a local level. Include the title of the presentation and the event, location, and date.
  • Publications—More weighting will be placed on publications appearing in peer reviewed journals than conference examples or opinion pieces. Use the Harvard citation system to maximise space. If asked, ensure that you describe your role in the published work.
  • Teaching experience—Outline your involvement to date in conducting teaching activities, who your audience was, the techniques used, what you have gained from the experience, and whether teaching is an area in which you wish to continue your involvement.
  • Clinical audit experience—Detail the topic, your role, the guidelines audited against, the location, timeframes, and the outcome. The higher the level of involvement, the more points scored.
  • Suitability for specialty—This is your opportunity to really show how your skills and experience map to the person specification and why you should be offered a role over other candidates. Be careful to avoid repetition.
  • Commitment to specialty (activities and achievements)—What steps have you taken to gain a clear insight into your chosen specialty? What has this taught you? Do you have any clinical skills, achievements, and awards that are specific to your chosen specialty? What do you believe you will contribute to your chosen specialty?
  • Management, leadership, team working, and communication skills—Clinical examples could include clinical audit, research projects, an active role within a multidisciplinary team, and organising rotas. Non-clinical examples could include committee work, organisational roles within a team sport, and arranging fundraising events.
  • Research skills—When describing research, include details of the project title, whether it is ongoing or completed, your role, methods, funding, number of publications, and whether the research was part of any higher degree.

Final thoughts

  • The sooner you begin preparing for your specialty training application, the greater will be your chance of success.
  • Look at example application forms and person specifications.
  • Deal with any shortfalls you have in terms of the person specification by gaining the necessary experience.
  • Where you are missing suitable examples of experience that could be included in your application form, involve yourself in relevant activities as soon as possible.

Competing interests: MG is the editor of Preparing the Perfect Medical CV, published by BPP Learning Media.

Matt Green medical publishing director BPP Learning Media, London, UK

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