Are You Experienced?
Nancy Groves Finds out that you don’t have to canoe backwards up the Khyber to impress employers. It’s all about selling experience that you already have
Who would think that scrubbing the floors of a pub might play a part in securing your dream job after graduation. But when recruiters at a top financial-services firm were deciding between two applicants with near-identical academic records recently, it was the student who could talk about his experiences in bar work that eventually got the position.
What many graduates forget or overlook is that employers want to hear about your life experiences in the real world, away from the theories of academia. And they expect your university experience to have generated more than a piece of paper. Your degree is no longer enough. Indeed as one graduate recruiter said in the aptly named career guide, If Only I’d Known, "a degree is no longer a meal ticket to your future – it’s merely a licence to hunt".
So why has your degree been devalued? Surely once upon a time if you studied hard and got good grades then a degree was your passport to a top job? Well, much of the answer is basic maths. "More graduates than ever are coming through higher education," says Sean Russell, director of the careers service at Birmingham University. "So if you don’t get involved in other activities and skills development, you risk being left behind."
More than 60% of university students now leave with a 2:1 and with government policy aiming to get 50% of over-18 year olds in higher education, the graduate job market has never felt more crowded.
Work placements, part-time jobs, student societies, sports teams and volunteering can all teach you things that your studies cannot. But you aren’t going to get that job simply by joining every society going while at uni.
"Some students will come in with a catalogue of societies they are members of, but when you being to probe as to what their responsibilities were, that list begins to crumble," says Tony Butler, former director at Oxford University careers service. Building up your CV is less about counting what you’ve done that making what you’ve done count, he says.
"It’s not so much a case of what you do, as what you get out of it," agrees Sean at Birmingham. "You can learn a lot from what might seem like a fairly mundane job. Fantastic CVs don’t necessarily come from spending your gap year building mud huts in the jungle."
This means not only learning how to talk about what you’ve worked on, but also how to talk about the results and the part you played in them. In short, you need to learn to market yourself and your experiences.
Step forward two graduates from Bristol University’s Class of 2004 who found time between their studies for more strenuous activity than watching Hollyoaks. Claire, 23, gained a 2:1 in Social Policy and now works as a recruitment consultant. She was put in charge of housing-sector recruitment at her company and has already doubled her starting salary and now interviews dozens of candidates each week. But only a year ago, she was in the hot seat herself.
"I think the fact that I had a part-time job at a high-street retailer throughout university really impressed my interviewer," says Claire. "It showed that I’m a hard-worker who can keep a lot of balls in the air. I also talked about my time on the social policy society committee, which involved a lot of event management. It was all about promoting and selling, both of which are transferable skills for a job in recruitment.
From her new perspective as a recruiter, Claire believes that these skills are a candidate’s biggest selling tool. "So many people have degrees now that you can’t rely on your 2:1 to get you through. No one wants to know you got your ballet badge at the age of eight but it’s good to mention your other activities."
What he’d done outside his degree was the first thing to come up at interview for Rich, 23, a modern languages graduate who recently secured a training contract with a top City law firm. "The partners opened by asking about my involvement in my student band. I think they were using it as an ice-breaker but I was able to talk about the skills I learned from co-ordinating nine people and their instruments," says Rich. "I also talked about managing a £1,500 budget for sound equipment and lighting when we played at our university ball. If you can quantify your achievements, it sounds better."
"The knack is being able to make the connection between what you’ve done and what you’re applying to do," agrees Oxford University’s Tony. "Over the past 10 years, employers have become more skilled in articulating what competencies they want and their testing processes have become increasingly sophisticated."
According to Tony, the best aspect of his job is meeting a student who has a really good CV but doesn’t realise it. "You discuss their achievements and see their eyes opening. It’s a great sensation for a careers advisor – someone who suddenly gets it," he says.
But, counters Birmingham’s Sean, "what really breaks my heart is seeing the CV of a final-year student who has good academic results, did a lot at school but has not got involved in anything since they arrived at university."
If you plan ahead and there’ll be no need to break any hearts. Nor will you be struggling for words at interviews. "Get in there. Get involved. Start to work with other people and try to achieve something," urges Tony. But whatever you do don’t leave uni thinking "if only I’d known".