Be on top of the basics: essential skills and competencies
You need to show employers that you've mastered essential skills – such as numeracy, communicating clearly, organisation and drive – if you want to get a graduate job.
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 when writing their applications and answering interview questions, but they are the things recruitment professionals want to see evidence of.
Even jobs that you don't think involve 'numbers' usually require some level of numeracy. So, unless you studied a maths-based degree, you'll probably need to brush up on some basic maths. If you can’t answer 7 x 8 instantly, this definitely means you!
Most large graduate employers will assess your numeracy skills through an online numerical test, usually at the application stage. It is vital that you practise online ability tests in advance of sitting them for real because they are often used to sift out unsuitable candidates at the application stage.
Some students believe that long and complex words make them seem smarter. Sadly, this is not the case. In fact, the whole point of good writing in the workplace is that you communicate the right amount of information in a way that is easily understood; you shouldn’t need to be there in person to explain it!
At the application stage, you can demonstrate the clarity of your writing when composing answers to application form questions, a CV and/or a covering letter. At an interview or assessment centre, you may be asked to complete a writing task, such as providing written recommendations after reading a case study.
You need to show that you can write clearly and succinctly in all these different formats. Spelling and grammar mistakes will count against you.
Clear verbal communication
This is closely related to clear writing and essentially assesses whether you can convey verbally the points you want to make in a way that is appropriate to your audience. Your verbal communication skills will come across in your interview answers and in how you interact with the people you meet during the recruitment process, such as the other candidates at assessment centres.
However, your verbal communication skills will also be assessed if you are asked to give a presentation at an interview or an assessment centre.
Don’t worry: the recruiters make allowances for nerves!
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 and analyse.
Unless you are applying for an IT job that requires specific programming languages, employers will merely expect you to be familiar with common programs and apps (such as Microsoft Office). It will also be an advantage if you can show that you are capable of learning to use a bespoke piece of software quickly.
You can demonstrate your tech savviness by including an ‘IT skills’ section on your CV – or by providing details of how you used a bespoke IT system when writing up your work experience on your CV or on an application form.
This skill is essential for managing your workload: it essentially means that you sort, order or prioritise your time, tasks, information and tools to ensure that you deliver what you need to on time.
How you plan your studies or juggle study, part-time work and extracurricular activities can give you examples of your organisational skills to use during recruitment processes. For instance, you could write about your examples in a covering letter to prove that you could cope with the demands of the job; you could also use them to answer interview questions about how you would prioritise your time in the workplace.
Your organisational skills may also be judged at assessment centres. You might be asked to complete an in-tray exercise. However, your organisational abilities will also be gauged through how you structure a presentation or whether you are the one keeping time or taking notes in a group exercise.
Stamina, drive and self-motivation
Employers want to recruit candidates who can cope with the demands of the job (for example, if you take a job in the City that you are able to work long hours). They also want those who have the persistence to see a task through, no matter what obstacles you encounter and no matter how long it takes.
Examples of your stamina and drive can come from any activity that has taken effort and persistence to see through: for example, taking part in a marathon, turning up to every practice session of your football team, carrying out a mundane or repetitive part-time job, or completing a dissertation or research project as part of your degree.
You can write about your drive or persistence on a covering letter or use them to answer interview questions such as ‘Tell us about a time when you’ve seen something through to the end in spite or setbacks’ or ‘How do you respond when something you try doesn’t work out the first time?’.
In fact, although you probably shouldn’t mention it at interview, one of the best ways to develop your stamina and resilience is to continue to apply for jobs, even in the face of rejection!
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/cast will have been relying on you to do your part.
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.
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. Have something lined up for each holiday, and get ready for formal placement and internship applications at the beginning of your second year.
- Network! Use family, friends and LinkedIn to get work experience and to find out more about career areas that interest you.
- 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.
- Visit your university's careers service: find out whether it runs any employability skills sessions; sign up for relevant courses and workshops; and get help from a careers adviser to write a CV or LinkedIn profile that really showcases your abilities.
- Take advantage of careers fairs and employer presentations. Talk directly 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 targetjobs.co.uk. You can also practise psychometric tests online in preparation for the assessments you may be set as part of the recruitment process.
The recruitment process and being assessed fairly if you have a disability
If you have a disability and require a reasonable adjustment to the recruitment process so that your skills are assessed on a level playing field with other applicants – for example, if you have dyslexia and would benefit from extra time to read case study documents or write reports – it is probably wise to inform recruiters as early as possible so that they can make suitable adjustments for you.