The number of graduates applying for each job has doubled since 2009, as three successive years of university leavers struggle with an over-saturated market.
Figures out today reveal that although the number of available jobs is slowly increasing, the largest employers now receive an average of 83 CVs for each single vacancy, with some top companies inundated by as many as 150 applications per job.
Following two years of economic hardship employers can choose from a much larger pool of graduates, many of whom have missed out during previous hiring windows.
The new figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), which surveys more than 200 employers twice a year, show that before the global economic crisis hit three years ago the same employers could expect to receive 31 applications for each vacancy, and in 2009 the figure was still a comparatively small 49.
The number of CVs sent in for each vacancy is now the highest on record. But commentators said the graduate job market is starting to show signs of recovery with a slight increase in average starting salaries and a small growth in the overall number of jobs.
Companies in the survey reported that they were intending to increase their starter salaries by two per cent to £25,500. The number of jobs available, meanwhile, is expected to rise 2.6 per cent this year on top of a much larger 8.9 per cent rise the year before.
But competition for graduates looking for top jobs is more intense than ever. Employers are increasingly resorting to online tests and phone interviews to whittle down the number of applicants.
The banking sector may have taken a battering in the court of public opinion, but financial services are still by far the most popular employers. Investment banks and fund managers can now expect to receive more than 232 applications for every place. The next most popular industry is energy, water and utilities with 187 applications for every vacancy. Three-quarters of the companies surveyed insist that a 2:1 degree is the minimum requirement for the CV to make it past the first round.
London and the South-east continues to dominate the graduate recruitment market, offering more than half (54 per cent) of all vacancies in 2010-11. More vacancies (14.6 per cent) are likely to be offered in accountancy than in any other career area.
"But there are some very encouraging signs for graduates," said AGR chief executive Carl Gilleard. "Not only have starting salaries increased, albeit slightly, the number of vacancies continues to increase which can only be seen as a good sign. I am cautiously optimistic about today's findings, which provide a welcome indication that the graduate recruitment market is beginning to overcome the impact of the recession."
Richard Irwin, head of student recruitment at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Britain's largest private graduate recruiter, told The Independent that the latest figures suggest students are hedging their bets by sending out larger numbers of CVs.
"We have seen an increase in the number of applications from students in postgraduate positions," he said. "But I think the sheer number of applications – which far outstrips the number of students graduating each year – shows that students are trying to send out as many applications as possible. That might seem like a good idea but I'd actually argue that those who send fewer, but more focused and targeted CVs, tend to do much better."
The figures suggest that the number of new graduate jobs is now rising at a significantly higher rate than the wider job market, which remains stagnant. According to the Office for National Statistics, the total number of vacancies in April stood at 469,000 – a tiny 0.02 per cent increase on five months previously when the number of jobs available was 468,000.
Graduate prospects are also to be addressed in a Government White Paper on higher education that is expected to be published today. Among the proposals are likely to be moves to allow more private universities to open in the UK.
It is also expected to propose making universities publish data on the quality of teaching, facilities and how well their graduates perform in the job market. This data would be published in an easily accessible format to allow students to compare universities based on how their graduates perform, among other measures.
Scott Bryan, 22, graduated last year from York in politics
"I had two weeks at a marketing firm and after that, they offered me a six-month freelance contract. But in April, it was terminated at very short notice. It's been quite a knock to the confidence, to be honest. A lot of companies want really exact experience. I think I've applied for about 80 or 90 placements."
Joseph Donaldson, 21, has just completed a degree in music at Goldsmiths University. He is working in a shop while job hunting
"I've been looking at some internships with people who write music for adverts, but other than that there isn't much around. My friends studying less specialised subjects have had slightly more success."
Jonny Mallinson, 25, from London, graduated from Bristol University in politics and philosophy before doing an MA in international relations
"Despite my extensive further education, I am getting interviews but being leapfrogged by people with a few years of experience in the industry. That is all employers seem to want now. I wish somebody had told me that before."
Victoria Lam, 23, graduated from Southampton University in 2010 in film and English
"I have managed to secure some running work on sets but they usually last only a few months and pay £65 a day. Nor do they come along very often. In between that I have done three internships to gain experience. But none ever seems to lead to a real job. If I don't get work by Christmas, I will move to Hong Kong."