Careers fairs: Don't dilly-dally on the way to a job

With over 80 applicants per graduate vacancy, Jessica Moore explores the best ways to stand out

Today's students keep one eye on the present and the other on the future, hoping to maximise their chances of success both at university and in the workplace.

The good news is, "There are graduate jobs out there," says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR). His organisation's summer survey reflects this, with recruiters in engineering, retail, IT and telecoms, the public sector, and consulting all reporting more vacancies for graduates in 2012/13 than they did the year before.

This positive picture is framed by Jenni Joplin, general manager at the graduate career resource Milkround. "Even through the worst years of the recession, we had clients – including some FTSE 100 companies – that weren't filling their graduate vacancies," she says.

So what are your post-uni options? "It's drilled into a lot of students that they should head to London and get on a graduate scheme – but that isn't the only, nor necessarily the best place to start" says Joplin. Internships, work placements, graduate-level jobs, working gap years, and opportunities for further study – including both academic and professional qualifications – are all solid alternatives. In fact, Isherwood notes that only around 40 per cent of graduates end up on formal graduate training schemes. "Some industries are more set up for those than others," he says. "Look carefully at the sector you're interested in, so that when you meet an employer you know what you're talking about and can demonstrate you're motivated."

Such research can lead you beyond the obvious vacancies too, highlighting opportunities at smaller companies as well as the major players. "We're keen to widen graduates' views," says Chris Phillips, UK information and research director at the international graduate careers media company, GTI Media. "It's often hard for students and graduates to see beyond the big names, because they're the ones that come on campus to do presentations and attend careers fairs; they're the brands. But there are only about 250 large regular graduate recruiters in the country and they don't have anywhere near enough vacancies to go round. We're trying to focus student minds on alternatives; intelligent, cutting-edge, high-growth small and medium-sized organisations that could offer an incredibly interesting career."

More information and advice is required here, Phillips acknowledges. "Saying 'you can work for a smaller company' is meaningless; we need to tell students and graduates which companies exist in their sector." University careers services can help highlight opportunities, as can job boards such as iJobs.independent.co.uk, and sites including TARGETjobs and Milkround.

Meanwhile, Anne-Marie Martin, director of the Careers Group, University of London, lauds the benefits of graduate internships. "These are becoming a tried and tested way of graduates getting jobs," she says, recommending Step (step.org.uk), a UK-wide student placement programme. "Employers and interns can see if they suit each other without any obligation at the end of it." Often, this leads to a permanent job offer.

As for when to apply, don't dilly-dally. "Leaving it until after you've graduated is a risky strategy," says Phillips. "It's better to identify some careers and companies that interest you and submit some applications before then." To those who worry this could compromise their grades, Phillips shrugs. "Graduates will be expected to multi-task when they get a job – so I don't think it's too much to ask that they do so in their final year."

Don't forget to juggle in extra-curricular activities, jobs and voluntary work too. To develop your CV, gain as much work-relevant experience as you can and think about how to articulate what you've gained from it. With the AGR's summer report showing an average 85.3 applicants per graduate vacancy, you need to stand out. Do that by tailoring your applications. "Don't just have one CV," advises Joplin. "Consider what each individual recruiter will be looking for. Employers can tell straight away when you haven't put the effort in, and no one is going to take a candidate on unless they know they've worked hard for it."

Of course, it's easiest to feel confident when you feel right for the job, so only go for roles that fit your skills and talents. Phillips says, "Students are more successful if they make a smaller number of well-chosen, targeted applications."

As for those who haven't yet decided on a career, don't panic – the TARGETjobs 'Careers Report' is a set of free online psychometric tests that produce a report and profile based on your individual responses. This will suggest potential careers for you, selected from a database of about 500. It also gives you a chance to practice online psychometric tests, which a lot of employers use as part of their recruitment process these days.

Arming yourself with relevant information and knowing where to find opportunities will vastly improve your chances in the competitive graduate job market. Just be sure to think carefully, apply wisely, and approach each application with a focused and positive attitude. Motivated graduates can go a very long way – and that's as true today as it ever was.

'Prepare sensible questions'

One-to-one conversations with prospective employers can provide unparalleled insights into the world of work – not to mention valuable introductions. Enter the careers fair, a place for work-ready students and graduates to meet talent-seeking employers.

"We always advise students to prepare for careers fairs in advance," says Chris Phillips, UK information and research director at GTI Media. "You're not there browsing for inspiration. Think strategically. Find out about the companies that are going to be there before you go, ask them sensible questions, come away with a business card. If you seem engaged and knowledgeable, employers will want to know your name."

Overcome any shyness by reminding yourself that the companies attending have paid for the privilege of meeting you too. "You aren't 'bothering' them," Phillips stresses "In fact, they'll be genuinely disappointed if you don't approach them."

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