Is a First Worth It?

There is a rumour going around university that I’ve been hearing since my first lecture and that I’ve yet to see any proof of. Everyone believes it, despite having no clue as to where the idea started. The rumour I’m talking about is that a first class degree at university isn’t worth the hassle; all you need is a 2:1 and you’re home and dry, ready to take on any career you want after graduation.

In my final semester at university, and possibly a bit too late in my degree to really make use of the findings, I decided to investigate whether a first really is worth the hassle. Should anyone sacrifice other aspects of university life to attain the highest classification? Is it really worth spending late nights (which turn into very early mornings) in the library, declaring a self-imposed Facebook exile and generally avoiding all social interactions that do not focus on seminar presentations or tutor meetings? Will a first really make that much of a difference in the job market?

A simple scan through graduate schemes and job adverts makes for some pleasant reading. Most only state that a 2:1 degree is necessary for an application to be considered, with some schemes such as Teach First and the Civil Service graduate schemes even considering applicants who gained a 2:2 classification. A few emails sent out to former Nottingham students and the outlook is even more promising. The majority state that they are in good careers after graduating with a 2:1; one is even on a graduate scheme with a 2:2 degree.  So far the rumours appear to be true: a first isn’t a necessity.

However, before you get too excited about job prospects with an average 2:1, there is more to this than meets the eye. After many interviews with employers, graduates and careers advisors, the same response keeps arising. They all mention the role of extracurricular activities and work experience.

In the current job market, the need to outshine others applying for the job is essential. Applicants have to show that they’ve gone above and beyond what is normally expected of a university student. Evidently, if you’ve managed to get a 2:1 but have been on the committee of a society, been actively involved in student media and held down a part-time job, you’re showing that you’ve got skills that employers are looking for and are therefore far more employable than someone without these activities.

Stephen McAuliffe, director of the Careers and Employability Service here at Nottingham, explains that “whilst a first shows that you have achieved academic excellence and have the skills that employers are looking for, it is the ability to show how you can deploy these skills that will make you stand out”.

For example, if you can illustrate that you have used your research, organisational or logistical skills in an environment that will be similar to what they are expecting from you in the job, you will instantly be more employable. This could be something as grand as a work experience placement with their company or even something as fun as organizing socials for your rugby team. Each of these experiences show that you have used the skills that a degree instils within you in a practical way that companies find beneficial.

These ideas are all backed up by employers. In a recent poll on the Association of Graduate Recruiters website, an overwhelming 93% of graduate employers said that they would prefer to hire someone with a 2.1 and work experience over someone who achieved a first in their degree.

Mohit Malik, campus manager for the Royal Bank of Scotland, explained that RBS have similar criteria when recruiting graduates to their company and said that “now, more than ever, these experiences are very important”. With the current unstable job market and the fact that 25% of 2011 graduates are now unemployed, it would obviously behove undergraduates to make themselves more employable. He continues, “Companies are looking for people who can make a quick start to their graduate career and have been proactive enough to get some work experience, which in turn provides them with key skills needed in the corporate world, differentiating them from the crowd”.

This need to be a well-rounded applicant is even more apparent in the dreaded interview. On the phone or in person, candidates need to be able to reel off a list of achievements and fit them to the criteria required by the company. Unless you’re incredibly persuasive and a fantastic orator, managing to show how your degree is the best example of everything the employer is looking for, such as working with others, solving problems and taking the initiative, employers aren’t going to be happy with answers only revolving around your degree; employers are looking for a variety of responses from a multitude of activities.

Malik Mohit highlights this point well when discussing the typical answers to the question “tell me about a time you have worked in a team and faced difficulties”. He suggests that the usual response revolves around a university project with one member not pulling their weight and whilst that is still a good response, “when a candidates gives us an answer based on work experience, it’s a different approach from the norm and one based on an environment similar to which they are applying for”.

Another common interview question revolves around something such as “so what else did you do beyond your degree?” and if the only response you have is to either look blankly at your interviewer (“there was something beyond my degree?”) or say something about your ability to drink your body weight in Starbucks coffee and Red Bull on all-nighters then you may as well get up, shake the interviewer’s hand and leave.

Other interviewers will instead focus on a candidate’s drive and commitment to the company itself, something that they cannot glean from a degree classification. Carl Gilleard, Chief Executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, explains that if a candidate can demonstrate their determination to work for a company, they are instantly more employable. For example, when asked  “How soon can you start if offered the post?” one candidate says not until they can arrange transport, but another says immediately and highlights how they have thought about this problem already, they are showing the motivation and enterprise that companies require ? there is clearly no question about who will get the job.

Whilst some employers may be impressed with the sheer intellect and drive that a first requires, most employers are looking for the whole package. A degree teaches you some of the key skills that are at the top of every employer’s wish list: teamwork, presentation, hard work etc, but it is imperative that a graduate has shown ways that they have developed these skills far more in a non-academic environment. Someone with a good degree (from a good university, often an unwritten subtext), with a CV full of examples that highlight how they have developed these skills, shows a lot more than the academic prowess that a first class mark typifies.  A first is an amazing achievement but should not be the reason for not participating in other activities and it will not guarantee you a job on its own

Unless you’re one of those superhuman university students who manages to get a first and does a ridiculous amount of extracurricular activities (speaking for the vast majority of the student population, we want to know your secrets), employers will almost always choose someone who shows that they can deploy the skills that they have learnt at university in a way that will benefit their company.

Lucy Kenderdine

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10 Comments on this post.
  • Employed Nottingham Graduate
    15 May 2012 at 17:04
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    “In a recent poll on the Association of Graduate Recruiters website, an overwhelming 93% of graduate employers said that they would prefer to hire someone with a 2.1 and work experience over someone who achieved a first in their degree”

    Says it all really. I know from personal experience of speaking to many grad job interviewers, a degree alone, regardless of your mark isn’t enough for most grad schemes.

  • Do you really need a first-class degree? | Ones to Watch
    15 May 2012 at 22:51
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    […] article here. Share this:FacebookTwitterShareRedditDiggStumbleUponPrintEmail Tagged as: 2:1, career, degree, […]

  • finalist
    15 May 2012 at 23:21
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    The trouble is that I’ve been going to graduate scheme assessment centres, and all the people there seem to be these superhumans who are getting 1sts, are the president of at least one society, do volunteering, have done work experience every summer and play university level sport!

    So it seems the “2:1 + extras” graduates will find all the places have been filled with the “1st + extras” graduates!

  • Dave J
    16 May 2012 at 09:14
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    Don’t let it get you down, finalist – generally you always tend to hear from the ones with firsts plus extras because they love to advertise that fact – not necessarily an attitude you want to aspire to.

    The key is not to see ‘extras’ as just ‘I was social secretary for a society at university’ – while great, that’s also not massively useful because the next question asked in an interview will be ‘how has this prepared you for this job?’. You do NOT want to say “Well, it shows that I’m dedicated and passionate and willing to put the time in and happy to get involved etc.” – right now employers want you to demonstrate that you’ve experience of managing a project from beginning to end, or that you have the discipline to always meet deadlines and work in a high pressure environment (with multiple, very specific examples). Just having those positions isn’t enough, you need to demonstrate that you’ve developed skills that will be directly applicable in the job you’re applying for.

    I know people at university who’ve spent years doing just about ‘everything’, supposedly to embellish their CV, but I bet they’ve got little to nothing to say about anything specifically that they’ve worked on. By contrast, I only did one other thing at university – Impact – and I didn’t need to talk about anything else at the interview.

    Lucy’s exactly right – being well rounded is really important. And I’d always recommend places like Impact: friendly and welcoming, and great socially, but also a genuine working environment with a tangible end product that you can take into interview and say “You want evidence of my skills? I did this”. Depth of involvement in ‘extras’ is more important here, not breadth.

    The key is not to see ‘extras’ as just ‘I was social secretary for a society at university’ – while great, that’s also not massively useful because the next question asked in an interview will be ‘how has this prepared you for this job?’. You do NOT want to say “Well, it shows that I’m dedicated and passionate and willing to put the time in etc.” – right now employers want you to demonstrate that you’ve experience of managing a project through to completion, or that you have the discipline to always meet deadlines and work in a high pressure environment (with specific examples)

  • Dave J
    16 May 2012 at 09:15
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    Please ignore the repeated paragraph, the ‘comment’ box on here is ludicrously small so it’s hard to keep track of where a comment is going!

  • GRB
    25 May 2012 at 12:29
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    GRB are currently hosting a poll on exactly what graduates think gives them an edge in the job market and it isn’t a 2:1 or above but internships/work experience. Have you say on the poll on our homepage.

  • Third Year
    1 June 2012 at 15:03
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    This mindset is old hat and needs to be changed. The number of students getting firsts has gone up 50% in the last five years. Applications are more competitive than ever. People have firsts and engage in much more than the average person. It’s not superhuman. They manage their time more and are a lot more clued up then the average student.

    Your primary goal should be to get contacts. Most people I know in top career positions are either those with firsts and extras, or have contacts (or both). If you’re armed to the teeth with contacts, which is the easiest and most secure way of getting internships or a full-time career, your degree classification becomes secondary. You can do this in your extra time, whether or not you’re aiming for a first. Don’t be afraid to go to networking events or conferences and get some business cards. People generally want to give the job to someone they know. This is what I’m doing and it works.

    Alternatively, it’s not difficult guys, work hard and then play hard! All about learning how to manage your time effectively.

  • Alan M
    2 June 2012 at 10:38
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    I have to say that I certainly took the attitude that work experience was more important than grades, so long as I achieved a 2:1 that is. I worked every holiday and much of the semesters in jobs related to my degree. I didn’t particularly need have to work during semesters as I had saved during the summers but I knew it was important for my CV. I know that I received summer placements based on my work experience rather than grades. I haven’t been a particularly active participant in extra-curricular activities and realised I was a little light on this so I attempted to improve this in my final year, and my grades have always been in the 2:1 region. Personally it is my belief that employers consider the degree as a given, a piece of paper that pretty much anyone applying for them will get, it is the work experience and extra-curricular activities that make really make the difference.
    I have also recently been to assessment centres and the competition is tough but most of my answers to interviews have been based on work experience, mainly because this shows what I am really like, I personally believe that this is the most advantageous way of impressing the interviewer, even using examples from less relevant jobs but it at least shows my commitment to work.
    With the job I have accepted I know for a fact that I was offered the job ahead of at least one person who stated he was expecting a 1st, I have always stated that I expect a 2:1. I actually don’t believe that they considered my grades at all, it certainly wasn’t brought up at the interview, so long as it is at least a 2:1. I would have been much more concerned at achieving a 1st with no work experience. I know not every company will be the same and different industries will have different attitudes.
    Finally the main problem I have actually found in applying jobs is the request for a specific number of UCAS points. Having taken a different route to University I have low UCAS points and what I have found is that many companies disregard an application without considering other aspects. I realise this is simply for logistic reasons as they are receiving so many applications, but for me it is extremely frustrating.

  • First class and minimum wage
    27 December 2012 at 03:02
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    A decade down the road from my degree I can say extracurricular activities are considerably more important than degree class.
    Getting high marks in exam in really not much use in for employers.

  • near
    10 November 2017 at 11:10
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