What can I do?

Many graduates leave university without thoroughly considering what they can do or what they might like to do. By figuring out your strengths early and factoring them into your job search, you’re more likely to be successful at the job you land – and you’re more likely to love that job. 

Understanding your strengths

Some sectors value certain skills above others but broadly speaking, most employers are looking for similar ‘soft’ skills from their graduate recruits. It is likely that they will not be looking for a huge number of technical skills, because these can be taught at a later stage. 

In the ISE Student Development Survey 2019, employers reported resilience, managing up, leadership and commercial awareness as the areas they found graduates to be lacking the most. If these are development areas for you, what can you be doing now to turn them into strengths and provide strong examples to share at interview?

The importance of work experience

Research by High Fliers (the company behind The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers) consistently repeats warnings that graduates with no previous work experience are unlikely to be successful during selection. This work experience does not have to be directly related to your graduate career choice as there are many transferable skills.

But what if you have no work experience? I coached a graduate a couple of years ago who had an outstanding academic track record but couldn’t get beyond the application form stage. We quickly identified that this was due to her lack of work experience. Sarah had thought that her voluntary work experience and university activities wouldn’t be relevant. When we looked more closely at these, it was easy to identify some unique examples which showcased her transferable skills and provided much stronger answers for her applications. 

Extracurricular activities 

Most students get involved in activities which aren’t directly related to their course. This provides a wealth of opportunities to highlight interesting and transferable skills during the application process.

Look out for opportunities to take on responsibility within these activities. For example, you could be in charge of increasing membership numbers, providing evidence of influencing and sales. Sports clubs provide great opportunities for teamwork and leadership. Being a course rep would highlight communication skills and perhaps an ability to deal with conflict. When you start to think of your hobbies in this way, it’s easy to find transferable skills. 

Don’t restrict your activities to only what’s available. If a club or society doesn’t exist, create your own! This would be a great way to demonstrate innovation, influence employers (perhaps to secure sponsorship) and lead a team. Or you might have a side hustle going on outside of university – even better if it’s something with a tangible output (a store on eBay that makes you £500 a month, for example). 

Getting clear on your career plan

It’s vital to have a clear career strategy that helps you to identify and acquire the skills, qualities and experiences you’ll need. Are you clear on the skills, qualities and knowledge you already have? Once you know these things, you can match them to the job roles you’re interested in. 

  • What skills and qualities do I have?
  • What am I good at?
  • What do I need to develop?
  • What are the requirements for the job I want to secure?
  • What are my own job requirements?

Being able to answer these questions will allow you to really sell yourself at an interview and showcase what you can bring to the job and the organisation. Be realistic and focus on your  strengths, rather than exaggerating skills you don’t have.

Career options

Figuring out which job roles will suit you best and how to apply your skills and qualities can be the most difficult part of setting your career plan. Think of your options and review them against your values and preferences:

  • Which job roles best suit my skill set?
  • What areas could I see myself working in?

What if you don’t know what to do? Visit your careers service. The careers advisers will be able to help you think through your career options and share information showing what other graduates from your course did.

Your values/company values

Give some thought as to what characteristics in a prospective employer are important to you. The culture and work environment will be key to your happiness. Another important factor is work-life balance and the degree of flexibility on offer might be something you wish to explore. Does the organisation have the right paths to allow you to develop your career? The level of training, development and progression on offer should help guide your choice. 

As well as competencies, employers are putting more emphasis on values, but it can be difficult to work out what your values actually are. It might feel much easier to simply list skills and then try to manipulate these into values. But skills and values are different things. Values are lasting beliefs or ideals about what’s good or bad and desirable or undesirable. You can find a list of organisational values with a little bit of digging on an employer’s website. If you can’t find them, you could always get in touch to ask if they have a document they’re willing to share with you. 

But before looking at the organisation’s values, establish your own – then you can make a comparison. You can find lots of online exercises to help identify your values – there is also one in my book. 

Once you have a clearer understanding of which values matter to you, you can identify your best employer match based on what they stand for. You should also find it easier to answer application form and interview questions, identifying the ones that are linked to values.

When you are clear on what you want to do, your next step is to start your job search and ensure you can impress a prospective employer with a strong understanding of their sector, company and the job. In the next issue, I look at how to conduct an effective job search including how to research an organisation, how to conduct yourself at careers fairs and where to find jobs. 

About the Author

As a former graduate recruiter at John Lewis, Sophie Milliken is now Managing Director of SRS, a graduate recruitment and employability consultancy.

She has worked with employers such as M&S, JP Morgan, Expedia and AXA to design and deliver their graduate recruitment campaigns. Her company is also the leading provider of assessment-centre simulations for universities and has trained over 25,000 students at these events.

Sophie has been a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development since 2013 and was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts in 2019. Her first book, From Learner to Earner – a recruitment insider’s guide to achieving graduate job success, was published in August 2019.

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