Six tips for structuring your job hunt after graduation
How to stay motivated, organise your time and maintain a healthy balance in your life while applying for jobs after university.
Setting yourself specific tasks to focus on each day will help to break your job hunt down into smaller steps and prevent you feeling overwhelmed.
Searching and applying for jobs after you finish university can be challenging. Very few people secure the first graduate job they apply for, meaning that you’ll likely need to juggle multiple recruitment processes and motivate yourself to keep going in the face of rejection. You may never have previously encountered a stretch of time that has no known end date or externally provided structure, so it’s up to you to plan your job hunt. But with this comes flexibility and freedom: a chance to take control of how you prioritise your time and work out what you want out of life. Our advice will help you take some of the stress out of the process, job hunt productively and stay positive about the future.
TARGETjobs spoke to a number of graduates who have been through the job hunting process after leaving university. The exact amount of time they spent job hunting varies, but they each took between three and 18 months from completing their degrees to starting their first graduate-level jobs. Below they share their experiences, top tips and thoughts about what they could have done differently.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting recession may lead you to make some changes to your post-university plans. Taking a look at our articles on job hunting during a recession and during a pandemic, as well as the advice in this article, should help to guide your thinking so you can create a structure and plan that's suitable both for you and the current state of affairs.
1. It’s OK to take time out first
Don’t be afraid to postpone your job hunt if that’s the best option for you. Jake studied computer science and artificial intelligence at Aberystwyth University. He says: ‘It’s normal to want a little bit of a break after uni; you’ve been moving around like a nomad for three years and it’s one of the most stressful times in your life, so like many people I knew, I gave myself a very generous break after I finished my degree.’ Most of the other graduates we spoke to also allowed themselves some free time after completing their degrees – whether that was just between finishing exams and graduating, or for the next three or four months.
It’s a good idea to communicate with your parents about how much time you are planning to take out before starting to apply for jobs, otherwise they may assume you’re putting off job hunting indefinitely and get frustrated with you. Read our advice for getting on with your parents if you move back home after university.
People take time out for many different reasons. You could use it for a specific purpose such as volunteering or travelling, which could be anything from a few weeks to a full year. Alternatively, you might simply need to clear your head after studying, spend time with your family and reflect on what matters to you, which may ultimately help inform your career decisions. However, it’s not advisable to spend every day binge-watching Netflix to put off thinking about the future, especially if this period of relaxation lasts more than a month or two. Whatever you do with your time out, make sure you can present it positively to prospective employers when you do start applying for jobs.
2. Create a routine that works for you
It’s worth dedicating sections of your day to job hunting while allowing time for breaks and exercise. Keep track of the different opportunities you’re applying for and which stage you’re at in each recruitment process – writing them all down in a log is a good idea. Setting yourself specific tasks to focus on each day will help to break your job hunt down into smaller steps and prevent you feeling overwhelmed. This was a common theme among the graduates we asked:
- Siobhan, a history graduate from the University of York, says: ‘I would get up early and set myself targets, eg to complete an application or to find five jobs and add them to the list to apply for.’
- Julia, a politics graduate from the University of Warwick, says: ‘Sometimes if I wasn’t feeling motivated I’d ration out a few steps I had to do each day. For example, I’d set myself mini deadlines like “I’ll write the cover letter for these two roles today and redraft my CV to make it relevant tomorrow”.’
- Ashley, an English literature graduate from the University of Exeter, says: ‘I tried to block out time to focus on different things. So I would spend an hour or two in the morning looking for, and shortlisting, jobs, then follow that up with a block of research, and then in the afternoon would tailor CVs and try and send off an application. Trying to keep to this pattern gave my day a degree of structure. Admittedly, it was punctuated by a lot of tea breaks.’
3. Adapt your approach as you go along
How many jobs should you be applying for? There’s no right or wrong answer and the graduates we spoke to had varying responses. Some applied for roughly the same number every week, while others found that it fluctuated according to their motivation levels, what vacancies were available and whether they were attending and preparing for interviews rather than applying.
Regularly review how your job hunt is going and change your strategy accordingly. For example, if you are sending off lots of applications but never hearing anything back, it might be worth putting more effort into a smaller number of applications and tailoring them more specifically to the employers. Or if you have free time after you’ve applied to the vacancies that you find most appealing, try applying to a few others as back-up options. Sometimes you can only gauge your progress by reflecting on it later, as these graduates demonstrate:
- Alice, who studied French at the University of Nottingham, says: ‘It was difficult to know how long to spend on applications. I probably could have spent less time perfecting them and increased the number of jobs I applied to. However, that’s easy for me to say with the benefit of hindsight.’
- Ashley told us: ‘Looking back, I think one thing that I didn’t manage well was that, when I got an interview, I’d put all my other applications completely on hold and spend a week focusing on the interview. I potentially wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping all of my application plates spinning, as it were.’
4. Don’t take rejection personally
Most of the graduates we spoke to mentioned that being told they were unsuccessful, or not hearing back at all, made them feel demotivated or bad about themselves. Ashley says: ‘Some applications would go well and I’d get through to the interview/assessment centre stage, while others would be met with cold, hard nothing. After nearly 20 years in formal education, not having a sense that I was actually getting closer to an eventual goal was hard.’
Try to view job hunting as a learning process, taking into account any feedback you receive and using it to improve your technique. That way, any applications for which you are unsuccessful will serve as practice for future opportunities. Also, don’t hang all your hopes on one job, even if it seems perfect for you. Julia says: ‘A lot of time was spent waiting to hear back from jobs I had been in touch with that I didn’t get in the end – it would have been better not to get too attached and keep applying for other roles even if one was moving forward positively.’ Receiving job offers from multiple employers is not usually a problem, so don’t hold off on applying to back-up choices because of this possibility. Read our advice on how to handle multiple job offers.
5. Have a life outside of job hunting
Factor in some time each day or week to exercise, socialise, pursue a hobby or even top up your work experience. It will provide some structure to your life, get you out of the house and potentially help you develop skills that graduate employers seek.
‘I would tell my past self not to feel guilty when I wasn’t actively job hunting,’ says Ashley. ‘When I’d take a day to meet with friends or read a book, I’d feel like I was procrastinating the day before an essay deadline. You need balance when job hunting, otherwise you’ll wear yourself out and you’ll not be able to put your best foot forward when it does actually come to applying.’
Making long-term regular commitments (such as part-time jobs, weekly voluntary roles or activities such as a drama group or sports team) may be difficult as you’ll need to fit the activity around interviews and may need to drop everything to start your new job at short notice. It might be easier if you’ve previously done something in the local area that you can go back to, but if you don’t there are still options open to you. Short-term or one-off volunteering opportunities are sometimes available.
Seasonal (eg summer or Christmas) or casual work is a good option to earn some money without making a big commitment. Alice suggests: ‘If you’re looking for temp work to tide you over between graduating and finding a graduate job, try and find the sort of work you haven’t done before to broaden your experience. For example, if you’ve worked in a restaurant, try to find some office work. Temping agencies can help you with this.’
There may also be something you can do yourself at home to simultaneously boost your CV and give yourself something to enjoy outside of job hunting. For example, you could start a blog if you’re interested in a career involving writing, or build your own website to develop your coding skills.
6. You’re not alone
It’s common to feel lonely or inadequate when you’re adjusting to post-university life and the ups and downs of job hunting – especially if several of your friends have already secured jobs. Try not to compare yourself to others, because everyone’s experience is different: they might be going into a less competitive career sector or have known what they wanted to do from an early age.
Remember, also, that your fellow job-hunters may be feeling a similar way to you, even if they appear more confident. Siobhan says: ‘Speak to any friends who haven’t secured a job about their job search (and have a rant about the companies that haven’t got back to you if you need it!) and maybe spend some time applying together. Even if you’re looking to gain totally different roles, you can motivate each other and talk things through.’ If your friends don’t live nearby, check in on them regularly and arrange a future meet-up to give yourselves something to look forward to.
Ask someone to check over your CV and each covering letter or completed application form before you apply. They’ll help you spot any typos or other errors, plus getting a second opinion will boost your confidence. As well as discussing with friends, you may find it helpful to involve your parents in your job hunt and ask them for advice. Your university careers service is also a good port of call for application and interview advice. Most careers services continue to support alumni after graduation, and if you aren’t able to attend face-to-face appointments they may be able to help remotely.