Why your non-academic experience is your most valuable asset

Got a degree? Great. But it’s your non-academic experience potential employers are after.

Penguin’s decision to scrap the requirement for a degree reminds us just how high non-academic experience ranks when looking for that first graduate job.

In scrapping this requirement, the publishing house joins PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst and Young, and Deloitte, who have each changed their recruitment policies over the past year so that those who apply no longer need a certain A-level grade or grade of degree.

Deloitte and Ernst and Young have even stopped recording certain information on their job application forms so that recruiters have no idea where candidates went to school or university.

This is quite a statement given that these companies are among the biggest single recruiters of graduates each year.

But why this trend in graduate recruitment? Because employers are beginning to realise that academic achievement, noble as it may be, measures only one type of intelligence.

A degree doesn’t demonstrate business awareness

A degree was once considered the gold standard in measurement for skill and talent but employers now realise that all it measures is the ability to think.

Of course, if you want to become a physicist or to follow a teaching or medical career then a degree is still a fine thing to do.

Other than that it doesn’t form the mainstay of the set of skills required to get a job. It cannot tell an employer very much about a person’s resilience, interpersonal skills or teamwork abilities. And it certainly cannot demonstrate practical business awareness.

The skills developed through academic life are so very different from those needed in work life.

As Penguin acknowledges, if it wants to survive into the future then it must make publishing more inclusive, it must make room for people from different backgrounds who can appeal to readers everywhere.

That means people with demonstrable cultural awareness, creativity and entrepreneurial skills.

What does this mean for you if you’re at university and/or about to graduate?

It means you need to evidence lots of skills other than academic achievement. This is what graduates ought to have been doing all along – and certainly must do now. You must work on your non-academic achievements.

The starting line has shifted. Graduate starting salaries have become very competitive rising to as high as £41k for some positions.

Last year there were a record number of paid internships on offer, over 13,000. For many graduates, the recruitment ladder is difficult to step on.

In fact, the most recent Highfliers research reported a repeated warning from previous years – that graduates who have had no previous work experience at all are unlikely to be successful during a recruiter’s selection process and have little or no chance of receiving a job offer from a graduate programme.

Many employers now offer work experience to graduates in their first year at university.

How to strengthen your non-academic experience

adults volunteering to gain non-academic experience

If you want to strengthen your non-academic experience, you need to start doing work experience from day one.

Employers want to know about the skills and attributes gained from non-academic pursuits.

Here are some examples of non-academic achievements:

  • Internships
  • Travelling
  • Volunteer work
  • Extra-curricular activities – such as being the president or part of the committee of a society on campus
  • Hobbies and interests – such as playing a musical instrument or playing being a part of a sports team
  • Starting your own business

I once heard a recruiter explaining how she screens candidates. She doesn’t look at where they went to school or university but where they went on holiday.

It is important that you include your extracurricular activities in your job applications.

Now, what this all means is that your graduate CV must look very different. It must reflect your out-of-uni, non-academic achievements first, those that show what you’ve been doing aside from studying.

You must now begin to place equal, if not greater emphasis on building a rounded set of skills and abilities as early as possible. It’s about exposing yourself to those opportunities that will truly develop and enhance what you have to offer.

Furthermore, you need to be prepared to talk about your examples of non-academic achievements and be able to elaborate on the transferable skills you have gained from them in job interviews as you may be asked to: “tell me about your extracurricular activities and interests”.

Here at Graduate Coach, we have reviewed hundreds of CVs from students and recent graduates.

A lot of people who have come to us for help often believe that they do not have any examples of non-academic experience or achievements.

However, once we provide some 1-2-1 coaching we usually discover how they can draw out transferable skills from their extra-curricular activities and non-academic achievements that are related to the jobs they are applying for.

If you need some help with the following, contact us on: +44 (0)207 014 9547 or via email on: gethelp@graduatecoach.co.uk

  • writing an achievements-based CV
  • Applying for graduate jobs
  • Training for interviews

Related Resources

  1. Read this blog post on how to use your work experience to help you to get the job you really want.
  2. Watch this video on how to differentiate yourself from other candidates to hear directly from a graduate recruiter why it is so important to have non-academic experience.

Book a FREE 15-minute career coaching call with Chris Davies, the founder of Graduate Coach, who has 8+ years of experience helping hundreds of students and graduates to get the job of their dreams!

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6 Key Employability Skills for Graduates

In this post, we share 6 key employability skills for graduates. Regardless of what degree you studied or what career field you want to go into, graduate recruiters will be looking for evidence of these key skills. 

It is vital that you demonstrate these 6 key employability skills in your CV, cover letters and interviews. 

Even if you haven’t gained work experience yet, you should be able to demonstrate these skills. You’ll have gained these skills from your academics, extracurricular activities or voluntary experiences.

1: Communication 

Graduate recruiters are looking for graduates with excellent communication skills

Communication is defined as: “the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing or other mediums.” 

You’ll need to demonstrate your ability to communicate throughout the entire application process.

How graduate recruiters will assess your communication skills:

  • By the examples that you give on your CV and in your cover letters.
  • How you answer your interview questions (your verbal communication skills).
  • Your body language/non-verbal communication during job interviews.
  • How you interact with other candidates during group assessment centre tasks.
  • How you answer competency-based questions relating to communication.
  • Your active listening skills.

You can show your ability to effectively communicate in the following ways:

  • Public speaking
  • Written work/creative writing
  • Working in a public-facing or customer service role
  • Taking part in a group presentation at university

2: Teamwork

Key Employability Skills for Graduates

Teamwork is a fundamental employability skill for graduates.

You’ll need to prove that you are a team player.

In the workplace, you’ll need to be able to work effectively as part of a team.

Graduate employers will be looking for your ability to share your ideas, listen to others, and contribute to the overall success of the team.

How graduate recruiters will assess your teamwork skills:

  • Evidence of your ability to work as part of a team on your CV and cover letters.
  • Situational judgement tests
  • Working as part of a team during group tasks in assessment centres.
  • Competency-based questions during interviews.

You can demonstrate your teamwork skills in the following ways:

  • Working as part of a team during group assignments at university.
  • Being a part of a sports team.
  • Internships or work experience.

3: Organising and planning

Next up in our list of key employability skills for graduates is organising and planning skills.

This involves showing your ability to prioritise your work efficiently and manage your time productively.

Organising and planning skills may be referred to as time management or prioritisation skills on graduate job descriptions.

Your time management skills will be assessed throughout the entire graduate recruitment process.

Ways you can improve and demonstrate your organising and planning skills:

  • Make sure that you send off your application well before the deadline.
  • Take on extra-curricular activities and part-time jobs to demonstrate your ability to balance your academics with other responsibilities.
  • Get an internship in a fast-paced environment.

4: Problem-solving

The ability to solve problems is one of the key employability skills for graduates.

You’ll be expected to be able to take a logical, analytical and creative approach to solve problems.

Problem-solving is all about making sense of a situation to come to an intelligent solution.

In the workplace, you’ll be continuously solving problems and resolving issues.

Therefore, graduate recruiters will be keen to assess problem-solving skills in candidates.

How will graduate employers assess your problem-solving skills?

  • Competency-based questions in interviews.
  • Asking hypothetical interview questions.
  • Psychometric testing.
  • Game-based recruitment assessments.
  • In-tray exercises.

The IDEAL problem-solving technique

IDEAL is an acronym for breaking down what you need to do to solve a problem.

  • Identify the problem/issue
  • Define the challenges
  • Examine your possible solutions
  • Act on an agreed course of action
  • Look at the outcomes of the actions

5: Professionalism

You’ll be expected to behave professionally in the workplace.

Potential employers will be looking for your ability to:

  • Manage your own learning.
  • Pay attention to detail.
  • Accept responsibility.
  • Demonstrate commercial awareness.
  • Respect others.
  • Show integrity.

Your level of professionalism will be assessed throughout the application process.

6: Working on your own initiative

The ability to use your initiative is another one of the key employability skills for graduates.

Using your own initiative is vital in the workplace.

When you are asked interview questions about using your initiative, recruiters will be assessing:

  • If you can work independently
  • Your ability to understand problems and create a plan to resolve it.
  • If you can come up with new ideas

During your graduate job interviews, you may be asked: “Give me an example of when you showed initiative”.

Here’s a post on how to answer interview questions about using your initiative.

You should be able to draw upon an example from your work experience, academics or your extracurricular activities, to demonstrate your ability to show initiative.

Key Employability Skills for Graduates: summary

To summarise, the 6 key employability skills for graduates are:

  1. Communication 
  2. Team Work
  3. Organising and planning
  4. Problem-solving
  5. Professionalism
  6. Working on your own initiative  

These are all transferable skills that all graduates should be able to demonstrate throughout the graduate recruitment process and in the workplace.

The skills listed in this post are soft skills. Some graduate schemes/jobs will be looking for specific hard skills in addition to these.

These specific skills will be listed in the job description.

Put together an employability skills portfolio to demonstrate the value that you can bring to an organisation.

Before you go, check out our online courses!

When to apply for graduate schemes

Knowing when to apply for graduate schemes is vital. You want to ensure that you send off your graduate scheme applications as early as possible to give yourself the best chances of success. 

In this post, we’ll share when to apply for graduate schemes and outline some top tips on getting in your applications on time. 

Before we get started, it’s worth highlighting that graduate schemes are different to graduate jobs

Check out our post called “what is a graduate scheme” for a detailed overview. 

When to apply for graduate schemes if you are in the final year of your degree. 

If you are in your final year of university and are looking to get yourself a graduate job before finishing your degree you’ll need to start sending off your applications from September. 

This is because most graduate recruiters open their applications between September and January.

The majority of graduate programmes have September start dates. So if you’ll be applying well in advance so that you’ll have your graduate scheme lined up after your graduation.

In order to avoid disappointment, it is best to apply early as many companies recruit on a rolling basis. 

This means they will start processing applications as they are received. 

Also, it’s a good idea to get your application in as soon as possible as some companies will start inviting candidates to interviews and assessment centres straight away.

Some companies will start running assessment centres as early as November. So applying early can make a huge impact on the success of your application.

Finally, if you are in the final year of your degree, it’s best to send off your graduate scheme application early before your workload intensifies. 

Key takeaway: start applying early in the graduate scheme recruitment cycle to avoid disappointment.

When to apply for graduate schemes if you’ve already graduated 

If you have just graduated, you may need to wait until the next graduate recruitment cycle starting in September. 

So if you graduated in May, for instance, you may need to wait 4 months before you send off your graduate scheme applications.

If it’s been a while since you graduated, you may be wondering if you are too old for graduate schemes. In short, the answer is no, however, check out our blog post on this topic for more information.

Alternatively, you may decide that you want to apply for graduate jobs instead of a graduate scheme.

The difference between a graduate scheme and a graduate-level job is that graduate schemes tend to be highly structured training programs often with rotations. They are designed for graduates in their early career. 

Graduate-level jobs are also entry-level jobs for graduates however, they won’t have a highly structured training scheme and do not usually require you to rotate across different departments.

Employers recruit for graduate-level jobs all year round. So if you’ve just graduated and would like to start your graduate search straight away, you can look out for graduate job opportunities. 

The recruitment process for applying for jobs designed for recent graduates may be slightly different from the graduate scheme application process.

Most graduate scheme applications require candidates to complete:

Graduate job applications may include some of the above stages.

If you are going down the graduate job route, we can help you with your job applications.

Tips for getting your graduate scheme applications in early 

When to apply for graduate schemes

Start your research during the summer.

During the summer holidays before your final year of university, start researching. (If you’ve already graduated, start planning ahead so that you are prepared for the next graduate scheme recruitment cycle).

Juggling your job hunt with other commitments such as uni or work will be challenging.

You can make the process much easier by putting together a shortlist of the graduate schemes you wish to apply for in advance.

Then it’s a good idea to create a template for your CV and cover letter. Having this template ready will make it easy for you to tailor for each position during the application process.

Tip: remember, graduate employers will be looking to see evidence of key employability skills such as communication, teamwork, ability to use your own initiative and more. Be sure to demonstrate these skills in your graduate CV.

Be strategic

Only apply for the graduate schemes that are suited to your career goals, skills and interests. 

If you need help deciding what career is right for you, consider signing up for our one-to-one coaching programme

When it comes to applications for graduates schemes, quality is better than quantity. 

Some applications take a while to complete, so start them early, and make sure that you do not rush them. 

Balance sending out your graduate scheme applications with your studies

If you are still at university and are hoping to get a place on a graduate scheme before graduation, you’ll need to balance sending off your applications with your studies. 

Map out your time efficiently to ensure that you have the time to send off high-quality applications whilst also meeting your academic deadlines.  

Tip: Don’t rush your applications. Some applications will take longer than others. Some will just ask for basic information and a copy of your CV. Others may require you to list off all of your work experience and module grades to date.

Keep track of deadlines

Create a spreadsheet listing out all of the graduate schemes you wish to apply for with details of when the applications open and close. 

Once you know when applications open, set yourself reminders in your calendar to send your application. 

Tip: some companies allow you to set reminders so that you’ll receive an email when the application opens. 

When to apply for graduate schemes: summary

We hope this post has given you a better understanding of when to apply for graduate schemes! 

If you would like some support finding the right graduate scheme for you, check out our career coaching services. We help students, graduates and career changers.

Also, if you’re interested in a career in technology, check out our guide about technology graduate schemes.