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Listen up! Your degree is not enough

Advice, CV advice September 14, 2007

Listen up! Your degree is not enough

Employers want a whole lot more on your CV, such as skills and experience. It might seem like they are asking the impossible, but read on, as Nancy Groves explains

It’s not what you do… it’s the way that you do it

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.

Picture the scene. You’ve arrived for your evening shift at the student union bar and your manager is nowhere to be seen. The beer barrels need changing, a tray of lager is lying in a sticky mess on the floor and the rugby team, fresh from a day of sporting triumph, is jostling to order a celebratory round of pints.

It’s going to take patience, good people management and a large dose of enthusiasm to get through the evening in one piece. And these are all the skills that graduate recruiters look for in potential candidates. 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. In short 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 before are coming through higher education," says Sean Russell, director of the careers service at Birmingham University. "If you don’t get involved in other activities and skills development, you risk being left behind."

More than 60 per cent of university students now leave with a 2:1 and with government policy aiming to get 50 per cent 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, careers director at Oxford University and president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS). 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. Placed in charge of housing-sector recruitment at her company, she 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 high-street retailer Monsoon throughout uni 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 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 Tony -Butler. "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 Sean Russell, "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."

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. Or as graduate recruiter, Suzie Howard advises in If Only I’d Known. "Bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like mad."

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