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International students' guide to job hunting in the UK

Guide to job hunting for international students

Find out more about your graduate job options in the UK and abroad, the recruitment process and the skills you'll need, and how to secure work experience while you're studying in the UK

Jump to: What is the recruitment process for jobs in the UK? | Work experience for international students | Tips for international students seeking work outside the UK

If you’re an international student looking for a graduate job in the UK after you finish your studies, there are two main types of vacancy to consider: graduate schemes and direct entry.

Graduate schemes are typically offered by companies that are looking to recruit a number of graduates each year into a range of areas, such as finance, IT, human resources and marketing. A graduate scheme will usually last for between 18 months and two years. Applications for these schemes tend to open in September each year; some deadlines fall as early as November, while others remain open until March. Early applications are always advised, though. If successful, you’ll usually start your scheme the summer after you graduate.

Alternatively, you could look for a job suitable for a graduate – the direct entry route. Direct entry jobs are often with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that do not need to hire a significant number of graduates every year, although larger employers do advertise some entry-level jobs. There is typically one permanent graduate position in a specific area up for grabs, and these vacancies can crop up at any time of the year. An immediate start is normally required so you’ll need to wait until you finish your degree to apply for these jobs.

If you’re not sure what you want to do after you graduate, our advice on what you could do with your degree will give you some starting points. You should also make the most of your university careers service and the guidance and information about potential careers that it can offer you.

Can I get a job with my student visa?

If you are studying in the UK under a student visa (previously called a Tier 4 (student) visa) and you’re looking for a job for after you graduate, you will likely need to apply to switch to a different type of visa, such as a skilled worker visa. This may require you to fulfill a number of criteria, such as having a qualifying job offer with an authorised sponsor employer. When looking for graduate schemes and jobs, be sure to check whether the opportunity and the employer meets the requirements for your visa.

What is the recruitment process for jobs in the UK?

Most graduate employers design their own, individual recruitment processes to fit their priorities and the specific skills they’re looking for; however, they all tend to feature similar steps. You can expect to complete a combination of the following:

  • online application form: traditional forms involve filling out your personal details, educational history and work experience, answering questions such as ‘Why do you want to work for this company?’ and/or uploading a CV; strengths-based forms involve a simple application form followed by a series of video tests.
  • CV and covering letter: you could be asked for these as well as or instead of an online application form.
  • psychometric tests: this stage could involve an online personality quiz, a numerical, inductive or verbal reasoning test and/or a situational judgement test. Alternatively, especially if the employer is running a strengths-based process, you may undertake ‘immersive experience’ video tests, which give you a number of scenarios and ask how you’d respond.
  • games-based assessments: sometimes used instead of traditional ability and aptitude tests.
  • telephone interview or video interview: the first interview usually focuses on your general competencies, skills and enthusiasm for the job, while later interviews may also ask about your ability to do the job, commercial awareness, knowledge of the employer and strengths and values.
  • assessment centre: possible tasks include group activities, a presentation, a case study and a final interview.
  • technical interview: some roles, such as in engineering, may require a technical interview as part of the assessment centre or on a different day.

Smaller organisations tend to only use two of these stages – the initial application form or CV and covering letter, followed by an interview conducted either face to face or via a video platform – whereas larger organisations may well cover all of the stages outlined above. Your university careers service will be able to advise you on and help you practise for each step of the recruitment process.

Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s likely that many employers will conduct most, if not all, of their recruitment process virtually or online. So, you may have a number of video or phone interviews instead of face-to-face interviews and be invited to a virtual assessment centre. Like an in-person assessment centre, this will involve completing a number of assessments and tasks designed to assess your competencies and strengths. You will also typically have the opportunity to ask questions and find out more about the employer. Employers that have held virtual assessment centres in 2020 include Thames Water, EY, KPMG and the NHS.

How will the pandemic affect your job hunt?

The coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting consequences on the economy, will likely have an impact on your job hunt in 2020 and 2021. Many employers will, in accordance with government advice, be running their application processes, graduate schemes and internships remotely – this means that you could apply for a job, carry out interviews and start working from home, without the need for relocating or commuting.

However, the negative economic results of the pandemic might mean that your job hunt will be more challenging than it would have been previously. The number of young people looking for work has increased by a great amount over the past year. A November 2020 report by the Office of National Statistics reported that, from July to September 2020, there were 602,000 unemployed 16–24 year olds in the UK actively seeking work. This is an increase of 101,000 compared to the same period in 2019. While these will not all be university graduates and they will be applying for all sorts of different jobs, it’s highly likely that there will be more competition this year for graduate jobs and schemes.

At the same time, there may be fewer jobs to apply for in 2020 and 2021. Different job sectors have been affected by the pandemic in different ways, and employers in some sectors (such as in the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors) may have slowed or ‘frozen’ graduate recruitment as a result. Other sectors, however, will have been able to operate without significant disruption.

In order to get ahead of this increased competition, it’s even more important to focus on getting good academic results and to seek out opportunities to build up your skills. The skills that you’ve developed from your degree and as an international student, such as language skills, teamworking and adaptability, will certainly come in handy, but won’t be enough on their own to get you a job. Find out more about skills and competencies, and how you can develop them below.

How to present your skills in applications and interviews

The UK graduate job market is highly competitive, even more so during the pandemic. As well as strong academic results and English language skills, graduate recruiters are looking for a range of skills and competencies, often including the following:

  • teamwork
  • communication
  • initiative
  • problem solving
  • resilience
  • time management

You are likely to need to give examples of when you’ve used these skills (sometimes referred to as soft skills, employability skills or transferable skills) in your applications and at interviews. Competency questions are very common, such as ‘Tell me about a time when you [solved a problem/worked in a team/met a tight deadline]’.

You can use examples from your work experience (more on this below), extracurricular activities (including university societies or sports clubs) or studies (such as a group project or presentation undertaken as part of your degree). During the pandemic, social and university society activities are likely to be disrupted by the need for social distancing on campus. However, while opportunities may be more limited, there will still be ways for you to get involved and grow your transferable skills. You can look for alternatives that can be carried out safely or, where appropriate, develop your organisation and adaptability by planning them yourself.

Think about which skills have been strengthened by your experience as an international student: flexibility and adaptability, problem solving and initiative all spring to mind. Your language skills and experience of different cultures can also help you to stand out, especially in teaching, finance, business, travel and hospitality, law and the public sector. International employers are particularly keen to hire students who can speak more than one language.

Work experience opportunities for international students

It is becoming more and more important for students to gain some work experience. As well as helping you figure out what job you want to do when you graduate, it will make you more employable in the eyes of graduate recruiters and help you develop key skills such as teamwork and commercial awareness. It may also be a good opportunity for international students to develop their English language skills in a professional environment.

Most international students studying in the UK on a student visa will be able to carry out some work, but it is likely that there will be restrictions. For example, while you may be able to do a placement year or an internship, you may be unable to work a part-time job for more than 20 hours a week during term time. These conditions may also depend on your sponsoring institution. When looking for work experience, be certain that you know how much work you are able to do as not doing so may prevent you from obtaining further visas for the UK.

You may want to apply for the following types of work experience, which are usually in an area directly related to your degree or the career you want to go into:

  • summer internships. These typically last between two and three months in the summer vacation and are aimed at second-year students, but some employers may accept first-year students.
  • industrial placements, sometimes also referred to as a placement year or year in industry. These form a part of some undergraduate degrees. You’ll spend a year, usually just before your final year, working for a company.

Some employers will be able to run in-person internships in a ‘Covid-safe’ workplace, other organisations are now running virtual internships and work experience, while some will have had to cancel their work experience opportunities this year.

Virtual work experience will allow students to gain first-hand experience of an employer from home, wherever they are in the world. The structure, content and length of these opportunities can vary widely, but will include work and activities designed to give you a taste of working life and to inform you about the employer in question. Some opportunities may be shorter than they usually would, for example, many vacation schemes with law firms this year last for one week instead of two. However, be reassured that employers will likely be understanding about the difficulty of finding work experience during the pandemic.

The application process for all work experience and placements are often the same as the graduate recruitment process outlined above. Completing a summer internship or industrial placement might lead to a graduate job offer from the employer.

You can find these opportunities through the TARGETjobs internships search, your university careers service and your university department’s industrial placement officers.

Other options that aren’t directly related to your degree but will help you develop important skills include:

  • a part-time job, either in the evenings or at the weekend, for example in a supermarket or restaurant.
  • vacation work, either in the UK or your home country. Tourist attractions often need more employees at peak times, for example.
  • voluntary work with a charitable organisation, usually unpaid. Your university may also offer volunteering opportunities.

You can find these opportunities through:

  • your university careers service
  • the Students’ Union
  • local businesses, which may advertise on job websites, in local newspapers or in shop windows
  • recruitment agencies
  • your university’s Rag and Action societies
  • volunteering organisations such as Volunteering Matters
  • your local council for voluntary service (CVS) and volunteer centres

Tips for international students seeking work outside the UK

After completing your studies in the UK, you may want to return to your home country to work or try living somewhere entirely new. You could apply to a multinational company with operations all over the world or, if you have your heart set on one country, you could look for local employers in that country. You could work for one of its large, national employers or a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME).

Lots of multinational companies advertise their vacancies on TARGETjobs. You can browse all of the current job openings or restrict your search to just international vacancies.

Other useful sources of information and advice include:

  • Your university careers service.
  • The professional body for your industry. There are more than 80 professional bodies in the UK, covering industries such as engineering, finance, management and health.
  • Embassies and high commissions in the UK. You can browse their websites or pay them a visit in person (in London).
  • Large recruitment agencies with vacancies all over the world.
  • The websites of the companies you’re interested in.

Networking can also help you secure a job outside the UK. If you are hoping to find work in your home country, network with any contacts back home, such as previous employers, friends and family, especially if you are there in person during university holidays. If you want work in a completely different country, do you know anybody who currently works there or has previously worked there?

You can also expand your network. Your university may run careers events to put you in touch with employers, such as virtual careers fairs or networking sessions. Your careers service may be able to tell you about any international fairs or events coming up and professional bodies often run networking events. You should join LinkedIn if you don’t already have an account, join your university’s alumni association and begin networking online. The British Council also runs a number of groups around the world for UK alumni.

This article was last updated in December 2020.

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