Why your non-academic experience is your most valuable asset

Feb 8, 2016

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 to 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

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 such as internships, travelling, volunteer work, extra-curricular activities, hobbies and interests.

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. If the candidate is the sort that holidays in Spain every year, then this is not the person she is looking for. He is too predictable, boring, unadventurous and likes to stay in his comfort zone. She is looking for someone who goes mountain climbing or skiing, who treks around the world and wants to hang out with the locals and get to know the culture.

Now, what this all means is that your graduate CV must look very different. It must reflect your out-of-uni 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.

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