Tips for an effective museum job application

A couple of months ago, I was on the shortlisting and interviewing panel for a documentation-related museum job. Although we had some very good applications, the overall standard was worryingly low. It looked as though many applicants hadn’t been told about what makes a good application, so I’d like to offer some advice here.

This is as much for my benefit as it is for the applicants’: when you’re shortlisting 150 applications (as I and my fellow panel members did), then you really do want those applications to be as easy to process as possible.

This comes with a caveat, of course: this is what I look for in an application. I think it reflects what my colleagues look for, too; but other people and organisations may do things differently.

  1. Shortlists are drawn up using a scoring system: applications are compared to the advertised selection criteria, and awarded a score on how well they match all the criteria. Sometimes it really is a  numerical score. It’s that mechanical.
  2. In a field like museums, where there will be many prospective candidates, you will be up against many people who meet all the essential criteria. So, if you can’t meet the criteria – particularly those that ask for particular experience – stop now: you’ll be saving everyone’s time. Ten years on, I think this is the one thing I’d change. Even if you don’t have everything that’s asked for, it’s still worth applying – if you can show the same knowledge or experience acquired in a different way. For example, if one criterion is a degree in a particular subject, and you don’t have one, but have been looking after a collection of relevant material for several years: then say that you’ve acquired equivalent knowledge and understanding by working hands-on with objects. 
  3. Your application will be one of many, often over a hundred. It will do much better if it makes things as easy as possible for the people reading it.
  4. Don’t list everything you did in every job: only use aspects of your experience that are relevant to the selection criteria.
  5. List the selection criteria in your application, then address them all, explicitly, using one or two concise examples. We need to see evidence of what you’re claiming. Anyone can write ‘I have excellent communication skills’ – tell us about something that proves that you do.
  6. Keep your application as short as possible whilst addressing all the criteria: no more than two pages of supporting statement, and ideally less than one. This may not always be possible if there are many criteria to address, but do try and get it as short as possible: an application is seldom harmed by being trimmed ruthlessly. Personally, I don’t have any objection to bullet-points in an application.
  7. Spell check it. Leave it for a day, then reread it. Is it clear, correctly spelt and grammatical? Never, ever, submit an application with a typo in the sections about attention to detail or immaculate data-entry skills – you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen this.
  8. Have someone else – ideally someone who knows you and the experience you’ve had – read it through. Ask them to tell you if there are any howlers – and if you’re selling yourself short.

If you follow these rules, I can’t guarantee you’ll reach the shortlist – but you should be much more likely to do so, and you will receive the silent thanks of those on the shortlisting panel. If you’ve just read this piece, and can truthfully say you do all this already – then thank you!


14 January 2016: if you found this very tactical look at writing a museum job application useful, you might also be interested in Mark Carnall’s recent more strategic look at applying for museum jobs (and he talks about interviews, too!)

22 November 2016: corrected the typo under item 8. Yes, I know. ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’

12 January 2017: there’s also a useful web page about demonstrating how you fit job criteria on the University of Oxford’s Careers Service’s website.

28 July 2017: Tom Hopkins gave out same sage advice on Twitter about getting that elusive first paid museum job today; Storifyed here.

8 August 2017: and I see that Tom is also blogging on the process of getting your first paid museum job: you can read his advice here.

1 March 2020: the Museums Association has published advice about applying for museum jobs on its website – but this is only accessible to Museums Association members or Museum Practice subscribers. Or you can read it in hard copy in the Museums Journal for February 2020.

3 January 2024: item 2 updated – new text in italics.

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