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.