If you’re applying for a graduate job with an SME you may be curious about how the role of a recruiter works. There is a lot involved, but essentially, businesses pay recruiters to find people that they can’t find themselves. And to narrow down the large number of applications to a manageable number who can be interviewed; with the ultimate aim of finding the one who is the best match. It’s not an easy process, especially where there are a lot of strong applicants. Sometimes little things can make the difference.

An employer (or the agency who is representing the employer, and putting their reputation on the line according to which candidates they put forward), is looking for someone who can do the job, wants to do it, and who has the commitment to stay long-term. Various factors are taken into account.

Taking on and training a graduate requires a significant investment in time and money. If a business only takes on limited numbers of graduates, it’s a huge blow if one leaves after they have spent time and money training them up.

It’s important to get a good mutual match: an SME won’t want a graduate who can’t contribute effectively due to lacking essential key-skills; or who will take their job as a stop-gap (or a way to get experience), and leave after a year, meaning they have to start the process again. It’s also not fair on the unsuccessful graduates who would find the role ideal for them. And equally, it’s important that you get the right role for you. 

This is why it’s important that you demonstrate that you want, and are suited to, THAT job, not just A job. 

This blog covers how applications are assessed, and how you can increase your chances of being successful. This applies to recruiters, but also if you are contacting any businesses directly.


A large part of the service a recruiter offers to businesses relates to the sourcing and screening of applicants for a graduate job; this can take a lot of time. But applications are usually assessed as and when they come in, so if someone fitting the profile is found then they may be booked in for an interview quickly. I would always recommend moving quickly with your application, and replying to any communication from the recruiter. 

You may hear of huge numbers of applications for graduate jobs. It can sound scary, and may even put some people off applying. But I can guarantee that you will not be in competition with everyone who applies.

For most graduate jobs a high percentage of applicants will be ruled out immediately. They may not have the right degree; or maybe lack an essential skill or piece of knowledge; their application could be sloppy; or the business may not be able to provide sponsorship for international graduates. It could be one of many reasons.

The most applications I have had for one job was over 1,500 for a Marketing job in London. Most applied to me; others I proactively found and approached. More generally, it could be dozens to hundreds (though the big graduate schemes get a lot more).

The example above? Only around 30 were in real contention, so around 2%. And less than 10 really stood out.

The odds don’t sound so bad now, do they?

If you are a good fit for the required criteria, and you are interested in the job, then please don’t let the numbers put you off. Go for it: put a good application in, making sure the key criteria are covered on your CV, and you could be a contender.

The employer does not have time to interview everyone, they want the ones who are most suitable and interested. The aim is to create a shortlist of the best and most suited so they can be interviewed. Various factors go into determining who is on that shortlist.  Similarly, the recruiter cannot speak with everyone; they will speak with ones who are the strongest match for the required criteria.

The initial application needs to demonstrate suitability and interest. If someone does not fit the key criteria then they will generally not be called. Those who do look a good match on paper will be contacted to progress their application, with a call to discuss further and expand upon some of the key areas. 

Generally, between 1 to 5 will make it through to the employer interview stage. For example, if there is a pool of 100 who apply for a graduate job, and 5 are to be interviewed, then each applicant has a theoretical 5% chance of being selected for interview. However, in reality many have a 0% chance, as they do not have the right skills, degree, or knowledge. Others have a 100% chance as they are such a good match. 

There are many others who lie in-between, and who look very similar on paper; for these in particular some extra time invested in the application can significantly increase their chances. If key areas are not covered in the application I will generally give these students and graduates a second-chance, and ask them to send me more information. Some do this, but many don’t. Others send what is obviously a standard cover letter that they use for all applications.

The whole point is that it needs to be specific to each job. It doesn’t need to be anything hugely in-depth, certainly not a cover letter, but it needs to at least cover the key criteria requested in the advert. You can find out more here. 

It’s very easy to apply for individual jobs now, and it can takes seconds through a job board. Every day I speak with people who have applied for jobs without reading the advert, and it’s soon clear that the job is not what they want. It’s important to make sure that the job you are applying for is genuinely of interest, for your benefit as much as the employer.


If you do get the call from a recruiter and it goes well, you will find out more about the role and the company, and then will be asked to have a look through the company website, think a bit more about the role and why it’s suitable, and add anything else to the CV that you can with this knowledge. It could be expanding on something that has been discussed, adding something to the CV that was not on there initially such as a piece of experience, or maybe referring to a project you did at university that was particularly relevant. Ultimately, it’s about adding the finishing touches and demonstrating why you should be one of the few who should be selected for interview over all the others. 

If there is a reason why you may not be able to do it quickly then please let the recruiter know. In many cases a call has gone well, and I have said to the person that they were in contention for the shortlist, and asked them to make these changes; but they then returned the CV days later, with a brief sentence added, and key criteria still not covered. It doesn’t really demonstrate enthusiasm, and it can also be seen as a possible negative indicator for the speed and quality of work if they were in the job. 

Please also remember that any communication with a recruiter or employer may be taken into account, particularly in roles where communication is required, as it could be seen that this is how your communication would be in the role, including to business customers.  I often get emails with ‘text speak’, or lazy writing- for example replying to an email with ‘Hi,’ with no name used (even sometimes on the first email); or spelling mistakes and no punctuation. This can look sloppy.  I wouldn’t rule out someone automatically for doing this, but I know plenty of employers who would. It may seem a little thing, but it will not take much longer to check before you press send, and it will come across as a lot more professional.

If you are asked for more information or to expand on something it will be for a very good reason – so be clear and polite with any answers (and don’t be defensive or hostile). Remember that the recruiter is an extension of the business, and has been trusted to find the right people for them.

Generally, the most suitable applicant will get the job. Not everyone can be successful, so some very strong applicants will miss out. It may be that you were a very good match, and did everything right, but someone else just edged it. It’s important to keep going as there will be a job out there for you. 

Not being successful can be disheartening, and the temptation may be to send as many graduate job applications as possible, but conversely this may decrease your chances of getting something- or certainly the job you most want. A ‘spray and pray’ approach is not targeted and relies on a lot of luck. 

If you are in this situation my advice would always be to keep applying, but try and remain as focused as possible. You need to set aside a good amount of time to apply for jobs; but make sure its quality time, focusing on the roles you most want and are most suited to. 


Another thing to bear in mind is location. In the view, and experience, of many SME employers there are a number of difficulties and potential issues involved with relocation; not least the temptation to take something closer to home if it comes up (when you start, or during the application stage). Or getting homesick and leaving.

It’s not to say that those who need to relocate (or have a long commute) will not be considered, but if there are strong applicants who are already based locally they will generally be preferred. Remember, an SME may only take on one graduate in a year or more. Unlike the bigger graduate employers who take on many, and may be more open to relocation as they need more people.

Unless its a niche area (or something that is ideal for you for many reasons) I would question whether it’s worth applying for vacancies all over the country, as this can have a huge impact on your time, and quality of applications. 

If you are not in the area but do have connections there, and are specifically looking to relocate there, make sure this is mentioned on your CV as this makes a big difference.

If you are applying for a job in another area please do consider it carefully before applying. Think of housing and relocation costs, support networks, etc. If push comes to shove and you get an offer, will you realistically be happy to relocate? I would suggest thinking about it before you even apply.

If commuting, up to an hour is generally ok; much more can be an issue in the long-term. In terms of distance, this varies according to where you are (with density of people and traffic). 10 miles in Cumbria is a lot different to 10 miles crossing London or Birmingham. This needs to be taken into account. Commuting can take it’s toll. and people can end up leaving when something closer comes up. Every graduate who has done this said the commute would be ok when they started, but things can change. And it can be tempting if something closer comes up, it’s human nature. So many employers are wary of people who need to commute too far, as the percentage chance of them leaving is increased.

If you plan to commute, research if this is feasible. Are you happy to do this, including in the long-term?

I would advise looking to see how far away the location is; online or in a  map book, it takes seconds. Then look at cost and time involved in commuting before you apply. It may be tempting to just send the application off, then worry afterwards- but what’s the point in that? Often you will find out that it’s not going to be feasible. But many graduates will apply for jobs without doing this, meaning they end up disappointed.

One graduate told me that she would commute from East London to Southampton for a 24k salary graduate job. Not only had she not looked into time and cost, but she didn’t even know where Southampton is, and was shocked when I told her it’s 86 miles away. That may be an extreme example, but I have hundreds more where the location was 15 or 20 miles away. The same principle applies.

Also, think of how it will look: if you have not considered location before applying, then it can give an impression of not being organised and committed, which could potentially have an impact if you apply for another job with that recruiter.


If you are already working it may not be so easy to spend a lot of time on searching for a new graduate job; but if you want to get something more suitable then you do need to invest that additional time. And again, being selective with applications can help. If you are not working, and have no responsibilities, then please bear in mind that a full-time job is around 40 hours or so; investing even half of that in job searching, and learning additional skills, can really help.

Some approach looking for work and developing new or existing skills as a full-time job in itself, setting their alarm and getting to it at 9am or so. This approach is, I feel, the best one to take; particularly as it also helps to maintain some structure. That may not be for everyone, but either way, you need to invest significant time in your job search. And remember to keep it focused. 

(Please note that I work with small to medium sized businesses, who generally recruit as and when they need someone- so the process will be different in many ways to big graduate schemes). 

 Matthew Parry,
Director. SME Graduate Employment

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

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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