Fast Track: How to make yourself stand out from the pack

Academic achievement is not the only thing to catch an employer's eye - but it is still important. By Hugo Foxwood
Click to follow
BRIGHT SPARKS always find some way of impressing potential employers: usually, they're the ones with job offers piling up around them as fast as revision notes pile up around their third-year contemporaries.

Anecdotal evidence abounds on how to get ahead in the employment game. One Edinburgh student reputedly telephoned a top investment bank and asked to speak to the chairman's secretary. The student ordered the secretary to put him through to the chairman, stressing that he had very urgent business which could not wait. Being duly put through, he informed the chairman that he had a very important proposition for his bank. No, he couldn't discuss it over the phone; it would have to be in person.

The chairman cancelled several appointments and invited the mystery caller to lunch where he peremptorily demanded to hear about the important proposition.

"Well it's quite simple," the cheeky undergraduate said. "You give me a job." The deal, according to legend, was struck there and then.

All right for some, you may think, but what about the thousands of less daring students who haven't the confidence to pull off such a stunt? What can you do to make your CV stand out among the thousands that land on the desks of graduate recruitment co-ordinators?

"Initiative is one of the qualities that makes a graduate stand out," says Clare Walton, recruitment manager at City solicitors Lovell White Durrant. While Bob Beauchamp was an undergraduate at St Andrew's University, he bought a half-share in a small business. When it came to the selection process, he says, his small business was a major theme in almost every interview. Lovell White Durrant offered him a position and then sponsored him through law school.

Jessica Hudson graduated from Bristol University in 1997 to take up a position at Schroder, the investment bank. "What made me stand out was that I had done so many unusual things," she says. "I had worked for a headhunter in Hong Kong and taught English to handicapped children in India."

Kate Bromfield, graduate recruitment co-ordinator at Goldman Sachs, looks carefully at an applicant's outside activities because they can indicate an "ability to organise oneself and get on with others". Her company will even consider candidates with lower second-class degrees if their other achievements are impressive.

Academic brilliance doesn't do any harm though, and even GCSEs may be significant. It's usual to apply for positions in the December of your penultimate university year, so second-year exam results matter; if you get an offer, they may have been more important than the final degree itself. The subject you study isn't important. Goldman Sachs has even been known to employ a medical student, but your interest in finance should be evident somehow. Getting work experience is an excellent way to show this. To get a summer internship at one of the big investment banks is very competitive, and you need to apply around March; but with a going rate of up to pounds 400 a week, they're probably some of the best holiday jobs around.

However, don't be discouraged if the rejection letters start coming in: different companies look for different things. You should maximise your chances by "blanket bombing" companies with applications.

But what will make you stand out at interview? Knowledge about the company will impress, and talking in an informed manner about up-to-date company issues. You can search for press cuttings on a business through a filing system known as Macready Index cards, available at the London City Business Library.

You will inevitably be askedwhether you have any questions about the company - saying "no" implies a lack of interest, while asking questions can be an opportunity to show off your research.

The standard interview question is: "Why do you want to work for us?" You might try writing out your reply to this beforehand so that it's fluent, passionate and convincing rather than hesitant and meandering. In general, be wary of humour. What's witty to students can seem pretty foolish to professionals. But when you're asked what your greatest weakness is, it might just be possible to make your intended boss laugh by answering "chocolate".