From Year Three to Square One

You’ve heard the rumours. Heard the frightened whispers of those embarking on a year abroad, seen out of the corner of your eye the knowing glances passed between lecturers. And sadly, your worst suspicions are correct. Outside of the University of Nottingham, the real world continues to exist. It’s cold, unsympathetic, and generally requires a lot of effort. The real world doesn’t know the meaning of the terms ‘Cr-isis’ or ‘Ocean burger’. It doesn’t even find your Chuck Norris poster funny. And for many of you reading this, it’s currently beckoning you with a gnarled, icy, humourless finger. Freshers, take note: third year will creep up on you without you even noticing, and the importance of exams and respectable extra-curricular activities will be overshadowed for many of you by the lure of another night getting messy on the magic juice. Suddenly the future won’t seem bright, or even a jolly Strongbow-like shade of promising orange. It’ll be a murky, soul-splicing hue of unknowable grey. You are going to have to leave university. And you are going to have to get a job. Sooner than you think.

During an average three year stay at our university, careers advice is in bountiful supply for any UoN student. But many will spurn said advice for at least the first two years of their higher education experience. The beginning of year three however – with the very real prospect of unemployment at its end – is something like crunch time in terms of making decisions about ones professional future. Perhaps the premier source of careers advice for students on campus, the Centre for Career Development (CCD) remains an unexplored, mysterious architectural anomaly to many of us. Not everyone is naturally inclined to venture up to the top floor of the Portland building and seek it out for themselves, but it might be a wise idea to tackle that intimidating staircase sooner rather than later in order to get good at what is arguably the most daunting part of the job-seeking process: the interview.

With university lifestyle often living up to the leisurely reputation cultivated for it by the media, it is no surprise that the majority of students will find the transition from the social ‘bubble’ of campus life to the realities of the competitive working world a difficult one. In days past, when the majority went straight out of school and into a job, hard-knocked and practical graduates from the University of Life wouldn’t have faced too daunting a challenge composing themselves for an important interview. But party-loving graduates from the University of Nottingham and other universities across Britain might find posing as a fully-functioning adult for the benefit of potential employers somewhat more of a struggle. And with 2.5 million unemployed in Britain today, never has the masquerade been more essential. The statistics alone are enough to give the average student stomach cramps: currently, according to graduate recruitment specialists MeettheRealMe.com, 69 candidates are applying for every UK graduate job going. Put another way, that means that there 68 other ex-students to prove yourself better than every time you send off a CV. And if you’re lucky enough to secure an interview facing those odds, the pressure to then secure the job is palpable.

First, the all-important prep: “It may seem a cliché but when it comes to securing that all important second interview, failing to prepare really is preparing to fail” says Mark Fels, director of Meet the Real Me. “A CV can tick all the right boxes, but if the candidate doesn’t make the right impression, the first meeting will spell the end of their success.” Even if your CV isn’t overwhelmingly impressive, at least do yourself the favour of keeping it honest. Instead of embellishing the truth with the odd few fibs, talk up and emphasize the interesting, relevant things you have done, even if they’re in short supply. “Don’t understate your achievements and strengths,” advise the CCD. “Go over your application form or CV, identify the highlights and try to weave them into your answers.” If telling a few white lies about the odd climb up a mountain, gap year of charity work or society presidency to stand out from the crowd still seems tempting in theory, know that any fibs or exaggerations are bound to be found out with speed and ease by your interviewer. According to a recent survey by CareerBuilder.com, 57 percent of employers say they have caught a lie on a candidate’s application, and of those employers who did unearth said untruths, unsurprisingly, 93 percent didn’t hire the candidate.

Even working under the assumption that three years is time enough for a student to cobble together a decent CV, that still leaves the problem of the interview process in itself – a veritable minefield of potential faux-pas. Be sure to thoroughly research your employer of choice, or expect an awkward silence of excruciating length when your interviewer asks why exactly it is that you want to work at their company, or where you see yourself fitting in to their team. “Find out if the company has been in the news recently and why, and look at the organisations website to get an idea of their recent developments,” suggest those at the CCD. “And every time you are asked a question ask yourself “What are they trying to find out from this?””

The stereotypical party-loving, layabout student not being a figure renowned for an enthusiasm for hard work or eloquent conversational style, interviewers are going to be looking for evidence that you are an interviewee that breaks the mould. Enthusiasm-wise, even if the position isn’t one that has you bursting with excitement, it’s best to fake it and act as if you’re really interested in the role anyway. Keep in mind that while today the job looks boring, tomorrow it might strike you as a great stepping stone to a position elsewhere, or a good opportunity to bulk up your CV. “In this economic climate when there’s fewer jobs and more graduates looking, it’s possible that although looking good on paper they’re not offered the role just because they don’t convey enthusiasm, excitement or a sense of urgency that a company is looking for,” advises the UK’s Graduate Recruitment Bureau. “Make sure you leave an interview conveying a strong desire, energy and enthusiasm to work for that company. You should leave having the interviewer thinking you want the job, even if you don’t.”

Striking the right conversational tone in an interview is a difficult skill to master, but one that’s probably better practised and perfected sooner rather during the interview in question. “Make the interview more of a conversation,” say the CCD. “It’s an opportunity for you to find out about the company, so don’t be afraid of asking questions yourself.” But take care not to get too comfortable: a one-to-one conversation with an employer whose trust and money you wish to secure can be dangerous territory for the student who has been conditioned to fire off ‘banterous’ responses to the simplest of statements. Even the most offhand use of a singular word can be a sticking point for potential employers. Daft as it may sound, calling the interviewer ‘mate’ is cited by Mark Fels of Meet the Real Me as one of the top ten most common mistakes that graduates make during an interview; yes, despite casually using the term to refer to everyone and their auntie during three or more years of university, the interviewer is in actuality rarely their interviewee’s mate, and thus will baulk at being referred to as such. The wider world is seemingly a far more literal place than a student might suspect.

And what’s coming out of your mouth isn’t the only thing to keep in check in order to avoid a disastrous interview. Whilst being the annoying person who turns up to a lecture fifteen minutes late will make you look like a meandering idiot and earn you filthy looks from lecturer and fellow students alike, it won’t cost you your degree (Impact accepts no liability if turning up fifteen minutes late to a lecture actually does somehow end up costing you your degree). But turning up five or more minutes late to an interview will almost definitely cost you the job. “Arrive at the interview at least 10 minutes early,” advises Fels. “This gives you the chance to read over your notes and relax, while showing the employer you’re punctual and reliable.” Similarly, failing to turn up in suitable attire won’t earn you an invite back to a place of work. For all the attention and Jack Wills-related kudos that wearing that winning combination of pyjama bottoms and Havaianas around campus will earn you, not kicking the dressing-down habit and taking a similarly casual approach to dressing for interview isn’t advisable.

Although the average student is unlikely to commit so hideous a dress-code faux-pas, many of you might find the umbrella term ‘smart casual’ a little vague and unhelpful at times. A good rule to go by is this: never worry about overdressing. “If you’re not sure, dress smartly. If you’re in a t-shirt, jeans and trainers and everyone else is in a suit, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb,” Fels continues. “If you’re in a smart suit and everyone else isn’t, the interviewer isn’t going to mind. In fact, they’ll respect you for the effort you made, which is good!” And it’s not just the garments that you’ve chosen to drape your personage with that matter during an interview, but how you handle that personage too. “Body language is a form of non-verbal communication, so it’s important you don’t give off the wrong message” advises Fels. “Sit up straight, retain eye contact, place hands on lap, and don’t fidget or fiddle with a pen or your CV.”

All these dos and don’ts are simple enough to appreciate on paper, but out in the cut-throat world of employment, such simple-sounding tips can be more difficult to apply than it would seem. “It’s natural you should feel nervous, but try to show you can manage it” say the CCD. “But don’t go to the other extreme and seem too laid back… just be yourself!” So strap your keeno hat on and actually try to do all the stuff that you’ll want to be able to say that you’ve done, and then you won’t have to lie on your CV later. Take full advantage of advice tailored to the needs of those approaching graduation, like that from the Centre for Career Development, whilst it’s so readily available. You can practice and hone your interview technique at the CCD, with people who’ve seen hundreds just like you heading out into the world of work before. Laddish, lazy and leisurely habits picked up at university are, as common sense might tell you, best left out of a professional environment. Unless you possess an incredibly entrepreneurial spirit and manage to carve a niche for yourself as a professional lad.

Visit the UoN’s Centre for Career Development online at www.nottingham.ac.uk/careers.

Gabriella DeMatteis

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3 Comments on this post.
  • Joe C
    6 October 2010 at 06:56
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    I’ve been at Nottingham long enough to remember paying for clubs with actual money at their stalls – hopefully I’ll graduate in 2012. CCD is really great, they are useful for not just looking for jobs after graduation but I’ve used them to go over personal statements for various things. Also, when I’ve been they’ve been giving away free folders that they were no longer using – it’s a place well worth visiting.

  • GRB
    6 October 2010 at 08:34
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    In the light of the flat jobs market we are on a mission at GRB to kick start a job hunting strategy in Year One at Uni. By the time students graduate they will have a job in the bag and avoid the panic that can ensue in the months post graduating which can lead to graduates entering unsuitable roles for their skills and abilities. Our Student Career Planner will soon be launched on http//www.grb.uk.com.

  • Nic
    18 January 2011 at 01:40
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    “…seen out of the corner of your eye the knowing glances passed between lecturers. ”

    In my case, they didn’t even bother to be this subtle. They brought in a guest lecturer who so kindly told us that he had no idea why we’d bothered to go to uni, he wouldn’t hire us and no-one else would either. Nothing like being told to give up on graduate jobs before you’ve even started!

    Anyway, it sounds obvious and it’s easier said than done but the key thing in my opinion is not to get demoralised. It’s hard because as you say, the world is cold, grey and hostile compared to university but if you feel it hates you, determine to beat it. And whatever you do, don’t listen to the media. They’re not interested in reporting positivity of any kind. And believe it or not, there are jobs out there. They’re just no going to be handed to you.

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