As most of you will have spotted it was the Summer Fair this week and I decided to go, notebook in hand (how retro!), ready to ask the recruiters one burning question: “What makes an applicant stand out?” Now, I don’t think there’s any mystery as to the merits of a good application – evidence of research, motivation, experience, skills and a reasonable ability to pull it together in grammatically sound English. But ‘good’ may not be quite good enough. In a competitive job market, you can’t just go through the motions and cross your fingers. To really get noticed you’ll have to follow some clear rules…
One size doesn’t fit all
This might seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many students take the “one size fits all” approach. You need to understand the standards and norms that apply to the sectors you’re interested in. CCG – a multi-disciplinary consultancy – will pay far less attention to work experience (*stop press*), than your subject modules. They expect to see “a detailed summary of relevant modules” and will sift and select by academic criteria. Focus on technical, not ‘soft,’ skills. Use the same approach with a management consultancy or PR firm, and you could come unstuck.
Sometimes it’s the surprising elements that stand out. Mattioli Woods – a leading pension consultancy – are looking for the usual (good degree, extra-curricular involvement) but one thing they really prize is office experience. Spend a month or two in an office, developing office and administrative skills and you’ll be much more employable. Despite claims to the contrary not all Gen Y are highly proficient with MS Office; a few weeks spent grappling with the more sophisticated Excel functions could make all the difference!
Take the time and trouble to research prospective employers and find out a) what they expect and b) what they value. Use all the resources at your disposal to find out more: online film clips, case studies, alumni events and career fairs.
Make your experience count
Although (structured) internships seem to be the holy grail of the graduate job world, some of our recruiters take a far more nuanced view. Don’t assume an immediate disadvantage because you haven’t had one. The team from Eaton Corporation – a global engineering firm – look favourably on candidates with SME experience and noted that internship experience can make (some) candidates lazy with their applications. Getting an internship is a huge boost to your employability but it won’t give you a free pass. You still have to do the legwork and extract meaning and value from the experience. Try not to play down or undersell part-time jobs or less glamorous work placements – great examples can come from seemingly mundane experiences
Consider the culture (and we’re not talking art!)
It’s not enough to show that you have the right skills and experience for the sector/company/role – this will get you to the starting block, not the finish line. As our Bloomberg recruiter commented, too many applicants focus on the sector – “I want to work in banking/accountancy/marketing/law” – and don’t really consider that there’s often as much variation between companies, as there is between sectors. And the result: generic applications. To really inject some life into your application you have to show motivation and a “forensic grasp” of the culture. How? Well try these for starters:
- Find out *everything* you can – start with the website and then drill further and deeper. Check business news, press releases and keep up to date with current affairs. If you can’t differentiate between companies, how do you expect recruiters to differentiate between applicants?
- Talk to people. Without exception ALL of the recruiters I spoke to said that this is often the missing link in candidates’ applications. There’s only so much you can glean from online or print info – if you limit your research and horizons in this way, you’ll never get a real insight into the company culture. As Hitesh from Deloitte noted, there’s certain info they (deliberately) hold back and you won’t get it through osmosis!
Step outside your comfort zone
Don’t play it safe – stretch and challenge yourself. A good number of the recruiters are looking for students with an enquiring, curious mind-set who are open to experience and flexible in approach. The NGDP team is keen to find candidates willing to “break down their own barriers and overcome self-limiting beliefs“. If you’re a ‘glass half empty, life is unfair, woe is me’ type of person then you’re screening yourself out before you apply.
The representatives from ALDI are interested in go-getting students with a competitive spirit – although would be “Apprentices” can stay at home! – and a proven track record of “trying new things and pushing the boundaries“. Reflect on your experiences to date and try to extract the unique and unusual – find a new angle or interesting anecdote. This was a great little gem: “use your differences at strengths“. It seems clones are out, individuals are in.
Think depth, not breadth
I think this is particularly reassuring, as we know how many students feel intimidated by the (perceived) application gold standard: prestigious internship(s), captain of the volleyball team, 500 hours of voluntary work, society president and predicted a First. Well, guess what… most applicants fall some way short of this and still get offers. Who’d have thought it!?
It’s certainly true that employers expect you to do something at university and all of them highlighted the importance of extra curricular participation, but – and this is a pretty big but – they are looking for commitment, dedication and “follow through” rather than range. One of our recruiters had spent seven years on his local rugby team, joined a further club at university and worked the same part-time job for five years. This would seem to counter some of the advice out there, but substance generally trumps style.
- Be genuine – “we can spot a fake”
- Find the connection – “don’t just say what you did”
- Show us you want it – “and tell us why”