When to apply for graduate jobs during a pandemic

Find out when to apply to be in with the best chance of getting a place on a graduate scheme that starts in the autumn after you graduate.

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When do you need to start applying for graduate jobs is something that we are often asked at targetjobs.

According to the 2021 Cibyl Graduate Research UK survey, which asked 67,688 students and graduates about their job-hunting plans, most final-year students planned to (or had already started to) apply for their graduate careers in September to January – 11% in September, 12% in October, 13% in November, 10% in December and 15% in January. A further 13% had decided to wait until August.

But is this too late?

The answer largely depends on whether you want to apply for a formal graduate programme or an individual vacancy.

Graduate job deadlines: when is it too late to apply?

Graduate programmes typically start in the autumn after you graduate and the recruitment processes for these tend to involve several stages and can take months; deadlines are often set in November and December.

Individual entry-level and graduate jobs are typically advertised as ‘immediate start’ vacancies, which (as the name suggests) means that they would like the graduate to start as soon as possible and so are often aimed at those who have already graduated or are in the final months of their course. The recruitment process tends to be more rapid. However, some follow the same recruitment timetable as the large graduate employers, as outlined below.

The traditional recruitment timetable for graduate schemes can be summarised as follows:

  • Most employers offering formal graduate programmes open for applications in September/October , with a view to graduates starting work the following September/October.
  • Many employers set application deadlines in November and December . They may well extend the deadline or reopen the vacancy if they do not receive a sufficient number of quality applications.
  • In some sectors, such as investment banking, deadlines are fixed – although an employer might do a bit of top-up recruitment if their job offers aren’t accepted. Generally speaking, if you miss deadlines in these sectors, you have missed the boat until next year. The law profession typically has fixed deadlines, but works on its own separate recruitment timetable.
  • Some employers do not set a deadline and keep their graduate programmes ‘open’ all year or have ‘ongoing recruitment’ – but they still expect to receive most of their applications by Christmas . By the spring and summer, typically only the less popular schemes in the less popular locations tend to still have vacancies; more popular programmes will have been filled.

Those recruiters who set deadlines in November and December typically hold first-round interviews and assessments in January and February. Assessment centres are usually held in March and April and job offers made in April, May and June. However, each employer runs its own timetable depending on the nature of its process and its resources, so may not follow this timing exactly.

Search for graduate vacancies at any time of year

As a number of employers advertise individual graduate jobs on an ad hoc basis and employers with graduate schemes can reopen them later in the year, you haven't totally missed your chance if you didn't apply in the autumn term. Keep checking the targetjobs job search for the latest vacancies.

Do you need to get a job application in well before the deadline?

You don’t need to hurry and cut corners to get it in as soon as the applications open – but you should be prompt and get in a researched, tailored and proofread application as early as you can.

Last year, in the midst of the pandemic and lockdowns, we saw many employers open up for applications and then have to close early because they received more high-quality applications than they knew what to do with. This year the signs are that application numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels, with comparatively few employers closing their jobs early and bringing forward their deadlines.

Keep in mind that some employers do wait until the deadline before assessing all applications, but some start reviewing them before the deadline and start making interview offers and it does no harm to be at the front of the queue. It’s also worth noting that recruiters may question the time management skills of those who submit an application at 11.59 pm on the day of the deadline, especially if it is full of errors!

Should you delay applying for graduate jobs for another year?

The Cibyl survey reveals that the pandemic’s effect on the jobs market has changed students’ and graduates’ plans:

  • 42% of students and graduates said they were more likely to look for a graduate job straight out of university (16% said they were less likely and 42% said it didn’t affect their decision)
  • 34% of students and graduates said were more likely to study for a postgraduate degree (18% said they were less likely and 47% said it didn’t affect their decision)
  • 22% of students and graduates said they were more likely that they’d go travelling (45% said they were less likely and 33% said it didn’t affect their decision).

Lots of people around you – family, lecturers, careers advisers, friends and so on – will have a view on when you should start job hunting. But the truth is that this is something that only you can decide, with some proper self-reflection. If you pushed us for some advice, though, we’d say that taking time before you apply for graduate jobs (or start up your own business) can be a good thing if you want to pause to:

  • discover what career is right for you
  • develop your skills and knowledge (which could be via postgraduate study, taking online courses or gaining work experience
  • gain more industry-specific work experience to enhance your CV
  • look after your mental well-being.

If, however, your sole reason for not applying for jobs is either procrastination or a fear of the competition (or a bit of both), we sympathise but would urge you to take the plunge (you may well find that the level of competition is even greater next year anyway).

Are you considering doing a masters? There may be very good reasons for this, including the desire to pursue a different career path than your undergraduate degree equips you for – but first check out our answers to the five questions to ask yourself before doing a masters in a pandemic and reflect whether it will help you get to where you want to be.

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