A Guide to Applying for Graduate Jobs

Recently I was asked by a North American friend for some advice on getting a head-start in the graduate job market.  Yeah, I asked the same question.  Why me?  Needless to say, I was flattered.  The following is based on my response.

The process is a hard one indeed.  And it’s tough getting your foot in the door.  The competition for graduates today is very different from what it was before the recession.  Back then, graduates shopped for jobs.  Now, we take what we can get.  Therefore, the bar has been set much higher.  So you have to try that much more harder to set yourself apart from the competition.

My CV and cover letter have taken many forms over the years and I’ve made countless re-edits and new drafts.  It is a continuing process, but you begin to figure out what works and what doesn’t.   But there is no real method to churning out a foolproof set that applies to every recruiter.  Each one has their own preferences for what they want to see.  Many don’t even read cover letters, however, a proportion of those won’t even look at you unless you’ve submitted one.  It’s a tough and confusing game.  But don’t fret, there are ways to stand out and get noticed.

The resume is the easy part.  The cover letter, that’s what causes the headaches.  From the recruiters I’ve talked to, if you don’t make your cover letter specific to the firm you are applying to, don’t even bother submitting one.  This can be a daunting task.  It can take hours. But I’ve developed a cover letter which requires only minimal adjustment, IMO, to make it sound specific, and that’s all you need.

The cover letter is basically a narrative of your experiences.  They don’t want your life story.  And the key is to show what YOU can bring to the firm.  It’s not enough to say what you’ve learned from your experiences.  You need to highlight transferable skills and competencies that apply to the job.  Look through the advertisement and find out what exactly the recruiter is looking for.  Your recruiter will read through your cover letter and tick off the boxes of what they are looking for as they go.  Fall short or fail to mention one, and that could cost you getting to the next stage.  Check out JobSite’s useful guide on constructing a top notch cover letter.

Next up: stay relevant.  You may very well have learnt a lot from your summer job managing a restaurant, but if you’re applying for a biotech research position, the recruiter may fail to see how that makes you the ideal candidate.  It sucks really.  I bet most banking firms take one look at all my bar experience and throw my CV right out the window (and into the recycling basket).  Even though it shows a plethora of skills relevant to the job.  If you are lacking in related work experience, the most you can do is just highlight as best you can what you achieved in the role and pray they take notice (that’s what I do).

I had on my CV that I finished my term as Student President under budget, and that I had increased profits and revenues as Bar Manager.  A contact of mine who was reviewing it for me sent it right back asking, how much under budget, how much of an increase?  Employers love to see defined results.  If you can give easy to understand measurements of your success, it reflects very well.  Furthermore, simply saying you are independent, a born leader, and a great communicator is not enough.  It is very important that you give examples showing how you are indeed these things.

As for my CV, I’ve pretty much designed it on my own.  And it differs a little from what you see in North America.  I don’t include a section on my personality, nor my career objectives.  These should easily shine through in your cover letter and through your work experience.  If your relatable work experience is lacking for the job you are applying to, focus more on your academic accomplishments.  I don’t know of any websites really for CV building, you can try the following:

A very good resource for getting your CV looked over is the careers office at your university.  They sit down with you and tell you how to improve it.  You may not think a university careers advisor knows much about careers advisement, but surprisingly, they do.  They meet with tons of companies and know what they are looking for.

I recommend also finding a book on getting a graduate job.  I just finished reading The Graduate Jobs Formula: Improve your employability and land your dream careerby Dr. Paul Redmond, a University of Liverpool careers advisor, and I wish I had read a book like it prior to entering university.  But that would have been impossible, since it’s focused on the post-recession job market.  Thankfully, you can read a lot of its pages through Amazon UK’s “Look Inside” feature here.

I highly recommend you “Look Inside”, and if you like what you see buy it.  Just click on the book cover image.  Read it all.  It’s even more useful if you haven’t begun university yet.  Follow it word for word, and you’ll land your dream job no problem.  But be prepared to work for it.  There is a great set of commonly asked interview questions in the back that I have found extremely helpful to prepare for interviews.

As for finding the graduate job advertisement in the first place.  I’ve had a hard time finding ones in North America.  “Graduate programmes” are not as common it seems among American and Canadian companies.  Here, getting a proper graduate job is like getting paid to do a masters at the University of “Insert Corporate Entity’s Name Here”.  You study, you write exams, but you also do real work for the company.  These programmes can last 3 years.  If you are in NA reading this, I suggest you once again report to your careers office and ask where to find graduate-level jobs.  If you’re reading this from the UK, Milkround and Prospects are fantastic resources.

Also, get on LinkedIn and make a profile.  It’s handy for building a professional network and finding contacts.

Books mentioned in this post:

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