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Resilience: the ability to cope with setbacks

Many graduate employers look for resilience in their graduate hires, as it enables recruits to cope with change, problems and stress. Find out how to develop this essential quality and how it will be assessed by recruiters.
You are not expected to be superhuman. Sometimes one of the best actions you can take is to ask for help.

Resilience is the ability to face setbacks, unforeseen events, obstacles and failures without allowing them to dominate, derail or destroy your life. It is not about being unaffected by stress or pressure; it is about recognising when you are affected by it and having coping strategies to manage it. Your levels of resilience can be increased and improved; resilience is not a static quality.

Why is it an important skill to cultivate?

Well, to state the obvious, higher levels of resilience are better for your overall emotional and mental welfare.

Starting your ‘first proper job’ is a time of great change and it is likely that you will have huge challenges to deal with, which could range from learning from mistakes at work to relocating to a new area. Although you will receive training on the job and many employers run stress management or resilience workshops and offer mentors, these challenges will have less of a negative effect on you if you have already enlarged your ‘inner pool’ of resilience.

Candidates who have higher levels of resilience are likely to have higher levels of problem-solving skills and self-awareness, and both qualities are attractive to recruiters.

It’s also true, however, that job hunting itself requires high levels of resilience. It is very rare for a candidate to be offered the first and only graduate job they’ve applied for; it is likely that you will have a number of rejections and only resilience and self-belief will ensure you continue to apply.

How to become more resilient

Developing your resilience is a very personal thing; there is no one-size-fits-all technique. You will need to experiment to find what works for you. You can find a range of resources online and through your university.

If you are not sure where to start finding what works for you, consider:

  • seeing if your university runs any resilience or stress awareness training days
  • attending as many practical careers workshops run by your careers service as possible: as one careers adviser told us, it allows you to try something out and fail at it within a safe environment
  • reviewing your life and thinking about times when things went well and not so well. Identify how you responded: what helpful or unhelpful actions did you take? What have you learned about yourself?
  • remembering everything you have achieved so far to date: it can help bolster a positive, ‘can do’ outlook
  • identifying successful strategies to keep calm and investigating problem-solving techniques (some people find mindfulness, meditation and positive visualisations helpful, while others don't).

Which employers and industries particularly seek resilience in candidates?

Unsurprisingly, those employers that particularly want resilience tend to be in those sectors with higher levels of stress and longer hours – for example in:

  • the medical/healthcare professions and other frontline public sector roles
  • investment banking
  • law
  • retail and hospitality
  • logistics.

It is also extremely likely to turn up in job descriptions for any graduate management role. However, most jobs involve dealing with some kind of pressure, so it would be reasonable to expect your resilience to be assessed during any recruitment process.

How do graduate recruiters assess resilience during the recruitment process?

It is possible that you will be asked a question about resilience in the application form – one law firm has previously asked ‘Describe an occasion when you found yourself dealing with an unexpected situation. How did you demonstrate your resilience?’ – but it is more likely to be assessed at assessment centres and during interviews.

Assessment days involve stepping into the unknown and so they are by their very nature a test of your resilience, even though recruiters usually go out of their way to be friendly. How you deal with the unknown may be further tested in case study exercises. For example, you may be given a scenario and then, a few minutes later, you might be given some new information that could alter your decisions.

Interview questions that are designed to assess your resilience include:

You are not expected to be superhuman

Just to re-emphasise: you are not expected to be perfect and to never be affected by stress nor by setbacks. One of the best actions you can take is to know when to ask for help.