The time to start planning ahead for a graduate career is from when university starts (or even before). This may seem extreme, but every day I speak with graduates who wish they had been given this advice when they started university. You need to visualise how your CV should look when the time comes to apply for graduate roles- and then work towards it.

For any new students who are reading this, or any of my contacts who have sons or daughters who are going to university, I hope this blog will be useful. It’s based on my thoughts as someone who sees hundreds of student and graduate CVs a week, and who regularly speaks with employers. There are tips on what I feel makes a good profile when it come to applying for vocational student work, or graduate roles, and how to work towards this.

I don’t want to put a downer on things: a couple of weeks after starting university will be ok; I’m sure you will have a lot on in Freshers week! And you don’t need to do everything at once, some of it can be done gradually over the time that you are at university.

The perfect plan would look like this (though of course not all courses have a year-long work placement, and will be 3 years not 4):

First year: part-time job alongside your studies. Summer- vocational internship.

Second year: part-time job alongside your studies. Summer- vocational internship.

Third year: Sandwich placement

Fourth year: part-time job alongside your studies.

Not everyone will be able to do all of this, and in truth only a small percentage will have this profile. But anything that you can do will increase your chances of getting a graduate job.

Getting some kind of work experience would probably be the most important thing, and is something to look at asap.

Employability skills and how to develop them:

Employability is a word that you will hear often over the next few years. it basically means the skills needed to make you more ’employable’ and help you to get a job. The sooner you start on this the better. A lot will come through part-time or seasonal work experience, but also from a variety of other means.

It will not be easy balancing work with your studies, but it will be a good exercise in time-management and planning- and will hopefully be well worth it when the time comes to apply for graduate jobs. Having said that, if you are not finding it easy then you can step back and concentrate on your studies- your health is the most important thing.

Your degree on its own is not guaranteed to get you a graduate job:

When applying for graduate roles your degree is very important, but the overall picture is key. I would go as far as to say that I, and the vast majority of the employers that I work with, would much rather see a graduate with a 2:1 (or sometimes even a 2:2) and work experience, than one with a 1st and no work experience.

When I recruit for a graduate job I often receive hundreds of applications, and some really stand out. Some of the reasons may be: related work experience; professional association membership; demonstration of interest in the area; voluntary work; non-vocational work; related work done as a hobby; and continued learning in your own time. All things that show a work-ethic, commitment to learning, and an interest in the industry.

Many others have nothing on their CV apart from the degree, and they often find it difficult to get a graduate job.

University careers services:

There is generally a lot of support available, but the onus is largely on you to make the most of the resources; and then act on the advice that is given.

I would strongly recommend that you make an appointment with a university careers advisor: they will have loads of advice and guidance for you. And make use of books, courses, and publications, that are available.

I would also advise setting aside some time to do work on developing your employability skills each week. Whether it be 30 minutes or an hour. Make sure you stick to this as it is very important. Maybe book it in your diary, as you would a lecture.

And remember that although you will see and hear a lot about the big graduate schemes, these are not the be all and end all. SMEs offer great opportunities.

Vocational experience:

Industry experience offers a huge advantage when applying for graduate jobs, and if I was choosing a degree to study I would pay particular consideration to those with an embedded placement. That is not to say that the majority of graduates who do not have a placement are not in contention for graduate roles-  far from it. It just means that they need to shine in other ways. And the graduates who do have the experience still need to prove that they are the best person for the position at interview.

Not all students will know what they want to do when they graduate, and some choose a course that is broad for this reason. If this is you, then a particular role advertised may spark your interest. And you could be suited to a range of career types

For those who do have a specific career in mind, it is a good idea to try and get some vocational work (particularly if it is one of the niche industries where only a small percentage of graduates will get associated work).

If you are not doing a placement then perhaps look to do a summer internship. Though, there is a lot of competition for these, and things like previous work history are taken into account (also perhaps other things that show an interest in the area). You may be applying for an internship only a few months after you have started your course, so try and get some kind of part-time work lined up quickly (it doesn’t need to be related to your degree. This blog explains more).

Remember that applying for these internships and placements is like a practice run for when you are applying for graduate jobs, and all part of the learning process. If you were not successful, build on this for next time- especially if you are given specific feedback. Work on any areas that need improvement.

If you do get an internship or placement, make sure you take note of things you have done in the role, particularly achievements. This will be important when updating your CV. Even better, create a CV now and update it on an ongoing basis.

If you get a vocational internship then that’s great, and it will give you an advantage when applying for graduate jobs. But if you don’t  then please don’t be disheartened; most graduates don’t get one, and plenty still get good jobs.

For some career types, you can develop your own work experience. For example, Marketing. If you don’t have any relevant experience you will find it very difficult to get a Graduate Marketing job. If you can get an internship or placement that would be great. But not everyone can. You can get experience in other ways: for example, by offering voluntary services to a small business, charity, or university society.

You could plan a marketing strategy; write content; create and send mailers; set up social media channels, and track the results to see how effective the actions have been. This will look great on your CV, especially if you can show results in measurable terms (% increase in followers etc).

Professional associations:

Membership of professional associations is a good idea. For example SME Graduate Employment partner, the Women’s Engineering Society.

Whatever your field of interest, there should hopefully be something relevant, and a quick google search can often provide more information. Or you could ask your lecturers, or careers team.

Often the associations will have student memberships, and they can be very good for networking and keeping tabs on latest news and developments. Sign up for newsletters and publications.

General work experience:

Non-vocational work is generally a minimum requirement when applying for graduate roles (and will almost certainly be needed when applying for vocational work). All work experience is valuable in helping develop your employability skills; whether it be a part-time Saturday job, cleaning, catering, or anything else you have done.  It shows that you have experience with a commercial business, something that is hugely important to most employers; many are cautious about whether someone who only has academic experience will adapt to the working environment. Things like side hustles, voluntary work, and university society work, are also good.

Occasionally I hear from students and graduates that they have been advised that such work is not relevant for a graduate job, but this is not true. Any work that you do is relevant.  It will help you develop skills, and will be valuable when supporting competency based answers to interview questions (these are often best related to work experience rather than university work). Be proud of your work experience – and get it on your CV.

I used to be Manager of a betting shop, and employed many undergraduates in part-time jobs. It was great to see them grow in confidence and develop a range of skills. They were then able to give examples in many work-related areas, including: teamwork, working under pressure, numeracy, communication, prioritisation, handling difficult situations, and many more.

And don’t underestimate the importance of showing that you can hold down a job, with all that entails – including having a reference.

Personal interests and ongoing learning:

For many roles it is also a huge advantage to show personal interest and ongoing commitment to learning in the area. Though it’s best to focus on your studies to start, then some of this can come later in time.

Computing related roles are a great example. It could be learning new technologies, or working on projects. And having a GitHub repository to show work you have done. Read books, or look online for free courses, or invest in ones with a cost if you can afford it. Or practice coding for fun, there are sites that will give you a daily challenge to solve, for example.

Many job adverts will ask for someone who is keen to continually learn and develop, and this really demonstrates this. It also shows you have a genuine interest.

A similar approach can be taken to all other degrees to varying extents.

University societies:

These are a good way to meet people, and can also help with developing a range of skills. Especially if you take on extra responsibility for organising or promoting things: this can be added to your CV.

LinkedIn:

I would strongly advise setting up a LinkedIn profile- and using it. A lot of recruiters and employers actively look on LinkedIn for suitable candidates for jobs. A LinkedIn profile is essentially an online CV. You can find out more here

Matthew Parry,
Director. SME Graduate Employment

Email: matthew@sme-graduates.co.uk Telephone: 0370 774 9500

This blog is also covered on:

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SME Graduate Employment is a specialist student and graduate recruitment agency covering permanent jobs, placements, and internships across the UK. Most job types and business sectors are covered.

You can see student and graduate jobs advertised here Student and Graduate job vacancies (sme-graduates.co.uk) and read more blogs and advice to help develop your employability skills here University student and graduate employability advice and tips (sme-graduates.co.uk)

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