I have been involved, one way or another, in graduate recruitment, for the last ten years. I spent my final uni year applying to grad programmes, attending assessments, and chewing my nails as I awaited an answer. After some decidedly varied interview experiences, I joined a great scheme and became a 'buddy' to other new grads in the years after. Later, I became an assessor of potential new grad joiners - and even designed the talent days and assessment centres we used to select candidates.
And I promise you, those assessment days are as nerve wracking whichever side of the interview desk you're on.
The truth is, though, that there is a fairly simple formula, across many industries and companies, which, with a little time and effort on your part will help you to impress recruiters. Interested?
Before you apply
- Match the skills required
There is broad agreement across graduate recruiters, about the skills that make for a great grad catch.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US, the top three skills are the ability to work in a team, to solve problems and make decisions, and to communicate effectively verbally. Whilst the college you attend and the major you choose do have an influence, the real skills that businesses are looking for are transferrable and behavioural; any required technical expertise can be fined later.
You're already great at these things, right? So now you have to show the match to the employer.
Reflect these skills in your resume or application, describing the voluntary experience, internships or other extra-curricula activities you've done in terms of the experiences that are sought after in the particular business you're looking at.
Perhaps you helped to arrange a graduation ball? Or should I say, you coordinated a team of 10, preparing a plan and making supplier decisions, before communicating and liaising with college authorities, volunteers, and local businesses to deliver a result.
Applying for graduate roles is not a time to be a shrinking violet, so understand what your potential employer is looking for, and show them how well you match their needs.
- Gain market knowledge
Understanding the sector you're interested in working in - both on a macro and micro level, will set you ahead of many candidates. You're aiming to identify the trends, challenges and opportunities, understand the business' place in the market, and have a view on its strengths and weaknesses. If that sounds like a full time job in itself, don't panic.
To understand the sector on a broad level, find relevant trade and industry websites, magazines and industry bodies. Look for any research they have done recently on the trends, challenges and opportunities facing the industry. Read the executive summaries (but make sure you do understand the points you're absorbing!)
Follow some, or even all, of them on Twitter and keep an eye on the headlines for any interesting development that impacts your industry.
If you get the change to be involved as an intern, a summer role, or a volunteer, in the relevant secret, jump right in - it's perfect exposure!
To get to know the company you're interested in, take a personal approach. Sure, you can, and should, scour the corporate website for any useful titbits, but a far more effective way is to find some current or previous employees to talk to.
Start with your network, your friends and family - do you know anyone who works for the business at the moment? Depending on how broadly your Facebook connections stretch, a simple search might turn up someone already in your network who can help you.
Reach out on LinkedIn to connect with relevant people who may be second or third level connections already, send them a personal message explaining your planned application and ask if they can share any advice or insight.
Depending on the type of business, you could even just pop in to a branch and see if anybody will talk to you - if you're polite, honest and enthusiastic you might be in luck, and your proactive research will knock the interviewer's socks off.
At interview or assessment:
- Show what you bring to the party
First and foremost, to impress a recruiter, you need to know yourself. Be able to articulate your unique selling points, the behavioural skills, experiences and passions that you can bring to the business.
And remember, you're looking to show your long term potential - grad recruiters, in their own way, are peering into a crystal ball to see if they can see you as a director in ten years, or a board member in fifteen.
They will watch your agility with problems and people, your drive to achieve results, and your ability to thrive in a rapidly changing environment.
These skills are part natural personality traits, and part learned, or developed through experiences - usually outside academic life. You can't effectively plan or train to show these behavioural skills if you don't have them - so be confident, be your authentic self and throw yourself into the experience (even if you do find yourself trying to build a spaghetti bridge, or design an effective parachute for a boiled egg.)
- Share your passion
Authenticity is key in graduate recruitment. If it's simply not you to volunteer to chair an activity or be the time keeper, then don't feel obliged to do so during an assessment centre. The recruiters will see through you, and it will distract you from the most important task of the day - showing them what is the authentically excellent you.
Find the right, authentic, way for you to show your passion for the role. Get excited. Generate ideas. Have an opinion. Support others, and see any group tasks as an opportunity to collaborate, not compete.
In interviews share the research you have done, and your skills and background that make you a perfect fit. Describe yourself as a 'whole' person - it's ok to share weaknesses (development areas) as well as strengths!
And don't forget to mingle, talk and make the most of the non-planned time. Talk to the assessors and other candidates at lunch, grab any volunteers or managers available, and really get as much as you can from the day.
At the end of it all, the recruiters are looking for what makes you different to everyone else. What makes you unique, and what that uniqueness can bring their business. The academic experience you share with the other candidates might well be similar, but the life experience you have gained through your uni years will certainly be unique. Grab as much life as you can whilst you study, and graduate recruiters will love you for it.