We have to fill them out to apply to colleges, or for jobs, to pay our taxes, or to see the doctor.
You have to fill them out to buy things online.
We tend to accept forms as a part of everyday life, like waiting.
Sometimes I think people and businesses use forms as a way to avoid talking to each other.
Just the same, I can also find forms soothing. I don’t know what that says about me.
When I find forms irritating, it’s because I have to hunt around for a ton of information, take the time to fill it in and find ways to cope with the hiccups and bugs of an unfamiliar computer program or worse. That’s tedious.
When I have real problems with forms, it’s most often because I’m applying for something important – like a job or a grant – and I have to fill the form out perfectly to have a chance of succeeding.
But I don’t know what they want! Doesn’t that just get you?
I can understand why agencies and employers use forms. They need to gather data and they want to be able to compare applicants on an equal footing. The data gathering questions are usually fairly straightforward and tedious at worst – or soothing, if you’re weird.
But it’s those comparison ones that can be confusing. How can you answer the question to show yourself in the best light if you don’t know what they’re trying to find out?
I once worked for a state agency which gave out grants. They were updating their application forms and I was invited to the staff meeting at which they would be reviewing these forms. I asked why they appeared to be asking the same question twice. They told me what they wanted the second question to explore. I asked them why they didn’t phrase the question exactly like that.
As I recall, they didn’t really have an answer.
I took away from this the thought that forms are sometimes vague not because people don’t know what they want to find out, but they’re not sure how to explain themselves.
They might even have a funny feeling that it’s somehow cheating to ask a straightforward question.
Here’s how you and I, as applicants, can stand out in this murky area – clarity.
All we can try to do is to be as direct and clear and concise as we can be while answering their questions, or what we assume to be their questions.
Resist the pull towards confusion inspired by a poorly phrased question.
Stating what you think their question is at the beginning of your response can help. If you follow that with a simple and direct answer, you’ll stand out as clearly as the full moon on a still summer night.
And hopefully your response will be just as illuminating.
by Danielle Dresden