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What you need to know about preparing for that all important new job

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By John Wheatcroft

A generation ago students who had graduated the previous year but never quite managed to make the break after the best years of their life were a common sight around the university. Manning the campus bars was a favourite activity.

You don't see them so often these days. From the moment they arrive at university, modern students are much more "savvy" about the need to think about what they are going to do next than were their parents' generation.

This is a process which, increasingly, begins as soon as students arrive as freshmen. It's not something that gets put on hold until the final year, when the realization dawns for students that a wider world awaits, whether they are ready to greet it or not.

Patricia Rose, director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, says: "Here at Penn, our undergraduates are indeed very career-minded.  We typically start working with them in the second year of their four-year programme.  Most have a résumé by that point, if not before."  

Here's something that students will hear again and again from career advisors: employers spend only the briefest of periods browsing over résumés to see what they make of the candidate. Unfortunately, perhaps, this isn't some urban myth put around to shake up complacent students; it really is true.

Employers might also make use of keyword search tools which will reveal the candidate's general suitability for a job. These, then, are two early hurdles at which many candidates fall. The corollary, of course, is that by producing a smart, well designed résumé which clearly meets certain criteria, students are already putting themselves ahead of many competitors – because, make no mistake, the job search is a competitive activity!

One size does not fit all

If, however, you think that a single résumé will do the trick, you are selling yourself short.

Andrew Ferguson, assistant director of business, community and enterprise at the University of York, England, says: "These days, students need to have multiple CVs [curriculum vitae, as résumés are known in the UK], there is no 'one size fits all'. In certain industries, different approaches will be more fashionable. In advertising or marketing, you might be able to do something more off the wall – we had one student attaching a tea bag to a job application.

"In any case, many bigger players have done with CVs altogether, so that everything is done via an application form."

Many universities now have student mentors who can help undergraduates with preparation for job applications. They are that much closer to the process themselves, having gone through a few of these hoops more recently.

Jayme Scally is a PhD student in York, researching the development of cultural competencies of American students living abroad. She has a first degree from Gettysburg University, Pennsylvania, and an MEd from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. She is also a graduate teaching assistant, mentors students and does one-to-one work on résumés.

Jayme believes that American students are more "savvy" about the need for good résumé preparation, although the British are catching up.

She says: "Perhaps one reason is that the US economy has been struggling a little longer, the economic downturn affected America sooner than it did Europe. Students therefore felt the effects and realized that they had to work harder on their résumés."

Image: resumeEveryone knows that employers want to see some evidence of "hinterland", that students have interests and hobbies beyond their areas of academic expertise. A generation ago, it might have been enough to say "In my spare time I enjoy such and such a pursuit…".

But now applicants need to work harder at showing how such endeavors will help them at work. A passion for vacation archaeological dig work or student drama productions might well reveal a "rounded personality" but that is not enough.

Jayme explains: "Students need to understand that what they have done at university [through extra-curricular activities as well as course work] gives them transferable skills which they can show to employers. They have to push to make those connections clear to employers."

And she takes Andrew Ferguson's point about multiple CVs one step further. "Even if students are applying for similar jobs, say with investment banks, there will be a need for some fine-tuning. They will need to emphasize different things for different companies.
"The culture of companies is not the same, even when those firms are operating in similar spheres. Also it's important for students to remember that the same people are applying for the same jobs – so if you can pull out something to show how you have targeted a firm specifically, that will make an impression."

Stimulating the job application process

At York University, the annual York Awards are a simulation of the entire process of applying for jobs.

Andrew Ferguson says: "The York Award was the first of its type in UK higher education, starting out in 1998.  Since then most of the Russell Group [a body of 24 British research universities] have developed similar initiatives and they have become more of a 'hygiene factor' than a unique selling point.

"There is some evidence that students with the York Award are more likely to be in graduate jobs six months after graduation.  However, it might also be argued that those students motivated enough to become involved in the Award while undergraduates are those most likely to be in that situation anyway so it couldn't be argued that there is a causal link between the two things."  

Most universities have websites which provide help regarding the nuts and bolts of style and design in résumés. The University of Pennsylvania has some useful advice on this point: while some features will be common to all résumés, design is more flexible: font style, sizes and margins may be adjusted to accommodate information, so long as the résumé does not become too packed or cluttered.

Students should always bear in mind Polonius's words to Hamlet: "to thine own self be true". Avoid the temptation to exaggerate, or to be plain dishonest. Employers are smart when it comes to spotting dissemblers and at Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, falsification of data is considered to be a violation of academic integrity.

An emphasis on skills and capabilities, rather than a timeline of events, is one perfectly acceptable approach to writing a résumé. This has some obvious appeal. In the same way that a journalist always homes in on the "angle" to a story then gradually provides the information according to its relevance or interest, the functional approach can catch the eye of an employer.

On the other hand, it does require a sure touch to ensure that all the necessary angles have been covered. And employers will always be on the look-out for any evidence of inactive periods which are not properly accounted for.

If in doubt, the more traditional "working backwards in time" approach has its advantages. It is one with which employers are familiar. Bear in mind that you should not necessarily give the same weight to different periods of your life – and that some thought and common sense must be applied to where the cut-off point is placed.

The interview: a good first impression

Even an undergraduate who went straight from high school to university will at some point have been subjected to the ordeal of interviews – whether to get into college itself or for casual work.

Certain rules apply to any interview, but what is new is the level at which students will be operating now in their interviews for career jobs. It's a big leap and involves a lot of homework.

Image: Job interviewThe University of Pennysylvania advises students to spend time reviewing organization websites, and on familiarization with the company: its various divisions, mission statements, history. What are the most important trends and issues currently affecting the company itself? How is it affected right now by the economy? What's good for one industry might be bad for another.

Can you speak the language of the industry? When I was interviewed for my first job on a newspaper I was asked how I felt about joining a contracting industry. For some reason, I thought this was a question related to union membership.

Fortunately, I worked it out – the most logical answer was the correct one. Regional newspapers in the UK were going through a difficult patch in the 1970s (although nothing to compare with the dire situation now) and there was much talk about paper closures and job losses.

At the same time, students need to think about themselves and how they might fit into a particular job or industry. Employers want to know about ambitions and goals, and well-defined career objectives.

A professional approach is important whatever form the interview takes. Via Skype, applicants should treat it as if they are actually in the room with interviewers who can see everything, including the family pet if it should make an unwanted appearance. They can also hear friends or relatives asking if anyone wants a cup of tea! The family should know what is going on and keep out of the way.

Telephone interviews are a rising phenomenon, in part at least due to growing competition for jobs. Often they are preliminaries to the "proper" interview. With interviewers unable to see, the applicant can of course refer to notes. This can be a great help for ensuring that all the messages get across.

On the other hand, no-one wants to sound as though they are reading from a script. Tone of voice is exceptionally important when interviewers have no visual contact; they need to be aware of the interviewee's enthusiasm – some people reckon that smiling when you speak helps to keep the right upbeat tone. And make sure that, when arranging to call or be called, there is no confusion over time zones.

Finally, although these are things everyone has learned about in high school days, it does no harm to remember all those little issues to do with arriving in good time, appearance, making eye contact and avoiding inappropriate gestures.

Touching the mouth while talking might render speech indistinct, while the interview panel's body language expert might view nose or ear scratching as a sign that the applicant is being economical with the truth, rather than merely nervous.

Mind you, nervous would be bad enough. Shrinking violets might do best to settle for some bar work.