essential skills and competencies

Be on top of the basics: essential skills and competencies

You need to show employers you've mastered essential skills such as writing, reading, numeracy, presentation, organisation and the ability to work under pressure.

Graduate employers place a lot of emphasis on finding candidates with the right skills and competencies for their organisations. There could be very specific skills, abilities and knowledge needed to do the job. However, complementing these are general competencies and behaviours that are essential for successful working. These basic skills are often overlooked by candidates, but they are the things recruitment professionals want to see evidence of.


For some reason some students – arts students particularly – believe that long and complex words make them seem smarter. Sadly this is not the case. In fact it misses the whole point of writing, which is to communicate information to someone without having to be there to explain it.

Many graduate recruiters ask you to submit online application forms but also want you to attach a CV and covering letter. You need to show that you can write clearly and succinctly in all these different formats. Spelling and grammar mistakes will count against you.

More writing tips for CVs and applications for graduate jobs


Much like writing, this is a skill you should have built up over the years. However, if you dropped mathematics after GCSEs you may need to brush up with a bit of basic numeracy. If you can’t answer 7 x 8 instantly this means you!

If you need evidence that you can do the sums then try looking at your student budget. Figuring out how a weekly rent, along with bills, food and spending money, will affect them is one of the main ways students use numeracy, especially if some costs are split or shared with housemates.


Literacy is all about reading and understanding. You can show your literacy skills by following instructions on an application form for a graduate scheme to the letter. If you are invited to an assessment centre, you may be set an exercise in which you are given a set of documents to read. You might then have to produce a summary report, or come up with recommendations based on the documents. This is a test of both your comprehension and analytical skills.


This skill set is closely linked to communication. What is important here is the ability to visually or verbally present information in a way that is accessible to your entire audience. Examples of presentation skills include any time when you may have addressed a group of people. If you have spoken to a club or society, in a seminar or as part of an event, you could use this as evidence.

Read tips on how to give a great presentation at a graduate assessment centre


This skill involves sorting information or objects so that they are easy to find when they are needed. Time management is a good example of your organisation skills. Think about how you plan a revision timetable – allocating blocks of revision time to different subjects, and weighting them towards which exams come first and which ones need the most studying.

Juggling study and part-time work can also give you examples of your organisational skills to use in your job applications and interviews. You can use technology to help you get organised too. For example, you could clean out your email inbox, tidy up your online footprint, or coordinate calendars with colleagues and classmates.

Find out what to say if you're asked how you prioritise your time at interview


Employers want to recruit candidates who are resilient, and the ability to overcome setbacks will keep you going during your job hunt. At some point or other, many graduates will start to feel fatigued by looking for jobs. The most important thing here is to keep at it. As more than one sportsperson has said: ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’ You might not be getting interviews from your applications, but if you don’t apply at all, you never will. The more effort you put into applications – and in particular the more effort you put into each one – the more likely they are to be successful.

Ability to work under pressure

This is about keeping calm in a crisis and not becoming too overwhelmed or stressed. It is practically impossible to finish your education without taking exams, and these are a good starting point if you need to demonstrate this skill. If you are part of a sports team, or drama group, then these can also be used as examples. You will have had to perform in front of an audience, and the other members of your team will have been relying on you to do your part.

Tips on how to answer if an employer asks how well you handle stress


In the workplace you need to strike the balance of being confident in yourself but not arrogant. You should also have confidence in your colleagues and the company you work for. This is something that will come across in a job interview. You will feel nervous, but if you engage fully with the employers, and remain upbeat, then your confidence should come across.

Employers want people to have a bit of get-up-and-go. Working life presents many challenges and you need to show employers that you're the kind of person who will find a way through, even when the going gets tough... and stay cheerful-ish.

Read advice on how to overcome your nerves and boost your confidence

Top tips for developing the skills employers want

  • Make the most of university life and extracurricular activities to develop your general skills.
  • Plan early to get relevant work experience and voluntary work which will give you transferable skills that will make you work ready. You could get involved in volunteering through the #iwill campaign, which promotes social action among young people aged between 10 and 20. Have something lined up for each vacation, and get ready for formal placement and internship applications at the beginning of your second year.
  • Religiously record the skills you gain and work experience activities you do so that you can pull out good examples on applications and in interviews.
  • Network! Use family, friends and contacts to get work experience and to find out more about career areas that interest you.
  • Visit your university's careers service: find out whether it runs any employability skills sessions; sign up for relevant courses and workshops; get help from a careers adviser to write a CV that really showcases your competencies and abilities.
  • Take advantage of careers fairs and employer presentations. Talk direct to recruiters to find out what they look for.
  • Always do your homework before applying for jobs. Employer research will help you identify the skills and competencies a particular organisation places most emphasis on. In turn, you can tailor your application so that it stands out. As a starting point, use the employer hubs on You can also practise psychometric tests online in preparation for the assessments you may be set as part of the recruitment process.

Exclusive events for TARGETjobs members this autumn