What The Apprentice can teach us about getting a graduate job

The Apprentice 2022 has taught us five key lessons about what to do – and not to do – during the application and assessment process for a graduate job. Let’s review.

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You can learn a surprising amount about how to behave at an interview or assessment centre by watching BBC's The Apprentice . Alan Sugar, with fellow recruiters Karen Brady and Tim Campbell, evaluates 16 candidates who are competing not for a job but the advice and guidance of a multimillionaire businessman and a £250,000 investment in their own business (this year's winner, Harpreet Kaur, will be able to plough her winnings into her dessert parlour business, Oh So Yum ).

In The Apprentice , of course, the assessment day lasts for 12 weeks instead of the usual half day, and everything is in person, unlike many virtual graduate assessment centres .

‘You don’t get furloughed, you get fired,’ Lord Sugar declared in this season’s opening episode, bringing the show into the Covid era. The formula is familiar, however: each week the candidates are divided into two teams (Team Infinity and Team Diversity) and given a business task. The team that makes the most profit will win; on the losing team, someone will be given their marching orders. It has its detractors, but The Apprentice still entertains over four million viewers a week – and a bonus is that you can look to it for careers advice! Here are five key lessons we’ve learned this season:

1. Pay attention to detail (aka sweat the small stuff)

You’ve heard it many times, but we’ll say it again: check your application and CV for any errors. Then check them again. Team Diverse certainly wished they had taken the time to check a few details during the video game episode. Tasked with creating a video game and asking clients to invest in it, they made two massive blunders: their game, set in the arctic, centred around the heroics of their central character while he saved penguins and other animals threatened by climate change. Alas, as one prospective client pointed out, penguins don’t live in the arctic – they live in antarctica. An embarrassing mistake. The error that ultimately lost them the task, however, was the misspelling of the name of their video game, 'Artic Saviour': omitting the first ‘c’ in 'arctic' hinted at a sloppiness prospective buyers couldn’t overlook.

Spelling mistakes on your CV or your online application form will not impress recruiters, especially, if, as in the case of The Apprentice candidates, the mistake is made in a key word, such as the name of the company you are applying to (yes, it happens!). Don’t let yourself down with something a careful proofread could have fixed.

2. Never underestimate the power of good communication skills

In week 3 Team Diverse lost the task, failing to create a tasty new non-alcoholic drink. They underwhelmed in their pitch to buyers, and their overly peppered and peachy drink was simply unpalatable. But the lack of spice was not the reason Lord Sugar showed Navid the door this week (a decision that didn’t sit well with all viewers). ‘Navid, you say you have lots of ideas,’ he summarised, ‘but no one listens to you. There's gotta be a reason there.’

Poor communication skills will let you down at all stages of the recruitment process – from how you present your CV, to your online application, to how you interact and engage with interviewers and other candidates at an assessment centre. Listen to others, and ensure you are listened to by being respectful, clear and articulate. If you have the best ideas in the world but cannot convey them in a compelling way, you’ll struggle to convince recruiters that they should select you, particularly for graduate roles that require working with clients.

3. Demonstrate your critical thinking skills – and use common sense

It is without a doubt one of the worst ever failures I've seen in this boardroom,’ Lord Sugar stated in week 4. In a challenge that involved the candidates catching fish and then selling it in bulk to hospitality venues and as street food to members of the public, Team Infinity were the losers. There were two reasons: they forgot to mention to their hotel client that they’d caught 7kg of fresh crab, hence missing out on a great sales opportunity, and they made the decision to add expensive, unnecessary ingredients to their street food (garlic mayo and rocket) arancini, hence reducing their profit margin.

If you’re given a business or case study exercise during the assessment process, take the time to get any sums correct, and use common sense when it comes to spending (what to spend a budget on, and how much to spend). Recruiters are not trying to trick you during these exercises – they want to see that you can understand the basics of a situation and come up with a potential solution to a problem.

4. Show off your leadership skills (and at the very least, participate)

‘Being quiet will not get you anywhere,’ is advice almost all recruiters echo when discussing participation in group exercises at assessment centres. In week 6 of The Apprentice – when candidates had to devise and lead tourist activities in North Wales – Amy let herself down by ducking the role of project manager, as she had done all series so far. Lord Sugar was not impressed: ‘You must give me a little bit of credit to smell who is playing it safe,’ he said.

Make sure you highlight any leadership roles or positions of responsibility in your job application. Recruiters don’t expect you to be ready to be a CEO, but they do want to see that you can take control or responsibility when necessary. During a group exercise, if you feel you can direct the group and keep things on track, don’t be afraid to step up. At the very least, make sure you participate.

5. Learn from your mistakes

In the cruise ship challenge (episode 1), the boys’ team created a logo for their cruise that resembled too closely something you’d find in a toilet – after a heavy night. Even if the rest of their ad and message, targeting middle-aged passengers seeking wellness and pampering, had been compelling (it wasn’t) the brown wave with feet was simply too unpleasant and lost them the task. Incredibly, in episode two, they made the same mistake again! Tasked with designing an electric toothbrush for children, their brown ‘Wiffy the Wizard’ brush bore too much of a resemblance to a log – if we’re being nice, the type you find in a forest; if we’re not, once again, the kind you find in the toilet.

There are two job-hunting lessons here. Take a step back and look at what you’re presenting to recruiters, whether that’s your CV, your appearance or an example of work. And if an interview or assessment centre doesn’t go your way, take on any feedback offered, and think about how you could improve the outcome next time. If there’s a clear reason why your graduate job application was rejected (and sometimes there isn’t), ensure you don’t repeat the same mistake.

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