As the final months of university approach, revising for exams will seem like the most important thing in the world. But while studying is indeed vital at this stage, its equally imperative to spend some time looking ahead to what comes after finding a job.
For many, the workplace seems a world away from being a student and making the transition can be tricky. Elena della Rosa, an Italian national currently working as a teaching assistant in London, summarises the difficulties faced when starting a career. The biggest challenges for me related to not knowing who to approach when looking for work, how to approach employers, how to use the language and how friendly or formal to be, she says. It was very challenging to sustain interviews and understand what was expected from me.
Della Rosas concerns are common for those trying to get a foot on the career ladder. This is why an understanding of what employers want is a key asset for graduates when it comes to securing a role. For example, a student who finishes his or her final exams with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their subject but little business awareness or clear idea of what they want to do next is not the student who will most impress a prospective employer. Business employers look for flexibility and business awareness, says Nannette Ripmeester, managing director of Netherlands-based career consultancy Expertise in Labour Mobility. They want someone who understands what business is about, which is primarily making money.
Know your sector
Knowledge of your particular industry or sector is something that all employers will appreciate and probably expect in a prospective employee. An accountancy candidate who does not know who the big four accountancy firms are, for example, is unlikely to impress any potential employer. A student who knows which business sector they plan to work in can do much to build their knowledge of that industry before graduation, through part-time jobs, work experience and reading trade magazines and newspapers.
Are you experienced?
Work experience is a great asset to any CV, even if its not in a field that is directly relevant to a graduates chosen career path. Those who take on mundane jobs while studying, such as working in a bar or as holiday staff in a shop, will show a potential employer they are willing to do what is needed to earn money, rather than only being prepared to do what they find interesting. And there are lots of skills that are relevant to all jobs, even those that are seemingly unconnected. Students should build on who they are, their experiences and what they can bring to an organisation, Nannette Ripmeester explains. If you have worked in a restaurant, emphasise that you have experience of the services sector, of working in a time-pressured environment.
There are other ways in which students can gain useful practical experience and skills. Being on the committee of a student society will often involve dealing with money, sometimes handling a pretty impressive budget if it has involved organising a large-scale event such as a drama society play, a sports teams summer holiday tour or an end-of-year ball. Showing that the budget was adhered to, particularly if there are specific examples of where sacrifices had to be made because the budget was limited, is a sure way to impress a prospective employer and to prove a willingness to understand that jobs have boundaries.
Graduates are also advised to keep their expectations realistic. Few graduates go straight into a career and find themselves able to do exactly what they want, says Jennifer Cole, head of emergency management at the Royal United Services Institute (www.rusi.org), a UK think tank that researches defence and security issues. We often take on graduate interns but its usually as a research assistant on an ongoing project. This may not be their primary area of interest, but the researcher theyre working for needs their help and the more willing they are to give it, the more likely they are to be taken on full-time when a position becomes available on a project they are more interested in.
Another way students can demonstrate that they are prepared to do whatever is asked of them is by gaining an even spread of marks over all the modules or papers that made up their course. A student who has good marks in all but one paper, when that paper should have been no more difficult than the others, may be giving out a signal they arent prepared to put in sufficient effort to something that doesnt really interest them. If poor marks in some modules are balanced out by a much better than average mark in another, employers may interpret this as being an indication that the student is easily distracted by something they find particularly interesting, and may neglect other work because of it.
How students present themselves to employers is also important, as Jennifer Cole explains. Its important to spend as much time on a job application as you did on your application to university, she says. We get sent too many applications that are littered with spelling mistakes, or which start off Dear Sir/Madam when the name of the person they will be working for was in the job advert. If the student hasnt taken the time to run a spell check or to read the job advert properly, they dont give a very good impression. We also get sent a lot of covering letters that list skills and experience which have no relevance to the job being advertised, and which are obviously a standard letter the student is sending out to several employers. They would be better off sending out fewer applications but spending more time on each one, to show the employer that they are genuinely interested in that particular position.
After all, a student may well spend more time in their first job than they did on their university course, so getting it right can be just as important. With as much drive and application as was shown then, finding the right job should be just as easy and just as satisfying.