Get the X – Factor!
What makes a graduate stand out from the crowd? Buckets of work experience? a first class degree? David Williams finds that employers are after something less easy to define….
Each year, more than 400,000 graduates enter the world of work. Head and shoulders above the rest are the ones who understand that their degree alone is not enough to get them a job. Employers are equally interested in experience gained beyond the lecture theatre.
Unfortunately, you can have a wealth of work experience, have travelled the world, gained a good degree and still fail to impress employers. There is also a mystery ingredient – a secret Factor X – that gets some people jobs and leaves others standing in the dole queue. But what is it and how can you get it?
Phil Brown of Cardiff University and Anthony Hesketh of Lancaster University Management School have written a book exposing the realities of graduate selection. "There is undoubtedly a Factor X," says Phil. "It is the ability to work out what employers want to see and then select those aspects of yourself and your experience that best fit with that employer."
As the authors explain in their book, it’s all very well to have canoed backwards up the Khyber River during your gap year, but it won’t impress employers unless you can articulate the skills you learnt from it and how they relate to the role in question. Sadly, as a rule, graduates are not skilled at doing this.
The importance of being immodest
"When we talk about star quality that’s particularly where people go wrong, especially in the UK culture where being slightly self-deprecating is seen as a good thing," argues Fiona Sandford at LSE careers service. "We see many students that have great personal qualities, attributes and skills but problems arise because many are not particularly good at articulating them."
Jo Odds is a 23-year-old graduate with a BMus from the University of Glasgow. Last year she was selected as a finalist in the Real World 2005 Graduate of the Year awards. Jo has now landed her ideal first job and works as a music administrator for the Scottish Arts Council. "My friends tend to undervalue the experiences they have had. They just don’t understand what employers want to hear about it. For example, while at uni, I worked part-time as a steward in the student union. It might sound ordinary, but it allowed me to talk about how I improved my communication skills, worked under pressure, and dealt with difficult situations – skills that employers want you to have."
Tailoring a CV to the employer is also essential, she says. "For the Arts Council job, it was vital that the interviewers could see clearly that I had both arts and administration credentials. So my CV highlighted my experience in theatre and front-of-house work, as well as flagging up relevant degree work. It’s being involved in things outside your degree, and then knowing that you need to change the emphasis for every job you apply to." Careers services, says Jo, are excellent at helping you with this.
Don’t make the employer cringe!
Another issue is that, according to employers, graduates frequently forget to consider what the employer is looking for. "One of the questions on our application form is about working within groups of people," said a car manufacturer, interviewed anonymously for Brown and Hesketh’s study. "All the applicants write about university project work and I read the same thing time and time again: half of them say, ‘I was put with these people that I didn’t know and we had to do this presentation together. So we decided that because we all had different timetables, we should split the work into four sections and each of us did our own section and then presented it together at the end.’ They miss the point of how they managed to work with those people. It happens so much on the forms… I just cringe."
You also need to consider the company culture and the personal qualities the employer wants to see. Look through the information the employer provides again. Are there images and life stories of successful candidates? What do they say? Do they talk about how much commitment they give to their job or how they like to have a life outside?
You can’t fake genuine enthusiasm
But this doesn’t mean you should just quote an employer’s website back at them. You will have to work at developing your employability. And if you are struggling to think of examples to demonstrate how good you are for a job it’s worth thinking about whether it’s the right role for you.
Fiona at LSE says that students will often declare an interest in a certain job but when probed a little deeper will reveal that they actually know little about what the career is like.
"You have to consider whether the career will match your interests," says Fiona. "If you are applying for something you genuinely know about and have an interest or passion for then this will show."
Hazel Mowbray, 22, graduated with a first in International Relations and History from the London School of Economics. Last year, she was selected as the Real World 2005 Graduate of the Year for her outstanding achievements and dedication to a range of causes while at university.
She has recently returned from Berlin after three months working for Transparency International, an organisation involved in anti-corruption work. While there, she was involved in interviewing her successor. "When I was interviewing, some faces would light up when I asked about what they hoped to achieve in the role," she says. "They clearly respected the job and brought an energy to it, rather than seeing it as something that they could take energy from. You could tell they were right just from the questions they asked at the end of the interview."
"You can’t fake genuine enthusiasm. It just shines right out of you. It is obvious when a candidate has thought deeply about the job and their suitability for it."
Make me a star!
5 Steps to Boost your employability
Too many students still haven’t grasped this. "Unis are very safe places, so it’s important to spread your wings by getting involved in activities where you will develop skills, such as persuading people," says Fiona Sandford, head of the LSE’s careers service.
"Few graduates spend time thinking about what they have to offer," says Carl Gilleard, the chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. "But it builds up your confidence – vital when competing for jobs." As a former recruiter he has sat through many interviews. "There were two words I’d hear which really depressed me," he says. "’I've only…’ If you use this as a prefix to anything you’ve done then the impression it makes is always negative."
Step into the employers shoes
Find out what the recruiter and the vacancy are all about and tailor your application to show how your experience and skills put you in a good position to meet their needs. Take this feedback from one ‘star- struck’ pharmaceuticals recruiter in Brown and Hesketh’s research: "She’d done her homework, knew all about us and thought very seriously about what she could offer us. She hasn’t just turned up and rattled off her skills list"
Your ability to shine can grow
Learning to sell yourself is a skill that can be acquired and honed. "You should use every opportunity to build these skills," writes careers expert Dr Peter Hawkins in ‘If Only I’d Known’ (www.heacademy.ac.uk). Suggestions include booking yourself on to a presentation skills course, joining a debating society, and seeking mock interviews at your careers service.
Effort = Result
Bear in mind Brown and Hesketh’s conclusion… that it is often the small differences, "such as the way a candidate phrases a response to a particular question" that make the ultimate difference.