I t's a jungle out there, if you believe everything you read. Graduates are roaming the hostile terrain in search of elusive jobs, tripping over masses of applications, all the while unsettled by the howls of bleak employment statistics somewhere in the tree tops. Possibly. But whatever the true extent of the graduate careers slump, one thing is certain: if you're heading out into the jungle, you need to be well prepared with a glowing CV, all the information on the employers you're interested in, and a focused approach. And it's never too early to make a start.

"It's vital to start preparing early," confirms Claire Cawthorn of Teach First, an initiative that places high-achieving graduates into the classrooms of difficult schools to teach for two years. "There are fewer jobs available, and they receive huge numbers of applications. Anything you can do at any point in your academic career to make yourself stand out is going to be crucial." It's no longer enough to have a strong academic record, she says. Instead, Teach First, and many graduate employers, want to see evidence of core competencies such as teamwork, communication, problem-solving, confidence and creativity. "Employers are looking for someone who brings something else to the table in addition to an excellent academic career," Cawthorn explains.

Personal preparation

Obviously, you need to work hard at the academic side of things. But how can you go about constructing a compelling life story outside of the lecture hall? Ironically, to stand out from the crowd it helps to be part of one – membership of a society or sports team is one of the easiest ways to distinguish yourself, according to Stephen Ward, careers and skills adviser at Warwick University. "Students should get involved in the widest possible range of extra-curricular activities, societies and volunteering once they arrive. It adds to the fun of university, and gives you the opportunity to develop employability skills."

This is more than just prospectus propaganda. Extra-curricular activities and work experience broaden your skills, but also help in the slightly murkier task of whittling thousands of applications down to the interview shortlist and giving candidates something to talk about on the day. "Interviewers aren't going to spend an hour talking about whether you got a 2:1 or a 2:2," explains Adrian Thomas, head of resourcing at Network Rail. "They're going to talk about how you managed or achieved something. If you were part of a society, played for or captained a team, then you're going to have more opportunities to show how you as an individual made a difference."

CV-worthy extra-curricular activities come in all shapes and sizes, so don't worry if you never captained the extreme javelin side or didn't spend a summer knitting wing warmers for a Nepalese pigeon charity. Anything, including the part-time job you had to make some extra cash, can carry weight if you talk about it in the right way. "A job at McDonald's can still show initiative and self-improvement," says Cawthorn.

Professional preparation

Having spent all that time getting the grades and the life skills to make you employable, it's equally important to be prepared when it comes to the business of applying for jobs. This means doing your research at the start, and making sure you're approaching the right companies. Employers and recruiters alike agree that however many applications you send off, it's important that each one is focused on the company in question rather than part of a vague, hopeful mail-splurge. Sean O'Connor is a director of the engineering careers website Gradcracker, and sees plenty of examples of how not to do it. "It's easy to go on to a website and fire off a load of CVs, and it's almost as if graduates are taking a scattergun approach. Employers are getting inundated with CVs: don't waste your time or theirs. Make sure you're a good fit for the company."

Deciding whether or not a company is right for you means checking their website, finding out about their values and what the roles they're advertising entail. Careers fairs are an ideal way of meeting employees face to face and getting the inside story. Once you know the company, you can see how your skills and experience might be relevant to them. "Be very honest about your strengths and weaknesses, motivations, interests, and how they marry up with the opportunities employers are offering," advises Tammy Goldfeld, assistant director of Manchester University's Manchester Leadership Programme, careers and employability division. "It's important to apply for the right kinds of jobs, so preparation is about identifying sectors that interest you."

Careers services

Pulling all of your skills, research, grades and experience together into a neat package labelled "Employ me" can seem a little daunting, but your university careers service can help. They won't lead you by the hand, but they can assist in a number of ways, all of them free.

Many careers services offer one-to-one sessions with students, help with writing CVs and filling in applications, and information on job vacancies; but the service they provide goes beyond that. "Many students make the mistake of avoiding the careers service if they don't know what they want to do yet," according to Goldfeld. "It's perfectly fine to come in and say, 'I don't even know where to start'. There are professional staff who can help."

Another benefit is that careers services often have excellent links with employers, who recognise the value of the work they do, and of course the fact that they are a direct channel to the graduates they need. Says Thomas: "We tell them all the opportunities we're going to have available, the types of skills we're looking for and the approach we'll be taking to selecting. Students should really make full use of that." He also makes the point that a careers adviser can cast an independent eye over your CV or application.

The best time to take advantage of all these facilities is throughout your time at university, but all is not lost if you're a recent graduate – most (including Manchester and Warwick) offer access to all their resources for several years after graduation.

Make it easy on yourself

Keeping your academic work sharp, stuffing your spare time with extra-curricular activities and work experience, thoroughly researching prospective employers and taking full advantage of the careers service will ensure you're well prepared and will help you stand out from the crowd. But don't be daunted if that sounds like a lot: employers stress that they're looking for potential, not superhumans. "We don't expect people to arrive fully developed," says Cawthorn, a view supported by Julian Aquari of the careers website Monster. "Employers want to see someone who will grow and progress from the person they are in the interview," he explains.

Finally, you can make things easier by getting the basics right. Bad spelling or simply not answering the questions on the form might seem obvious roads to ruin, but they're apparently taken by many applicants. Putting your name on your application is good, too – a detail some applicants to Network Rail omit. The same degree of self-sabotage is known to happen at careers fairs: turning up hungover – or even still drunk, as some have elected to do in the past – probably won't help your chances of landing that dream job.

Thomas advises turning up looking smart, with an idea of the companies you want to speak to, carrying fresh CVs and cover letters tailored to individual firms. In other words, even the most basic preparation can improve your chances. That hoary old cliché about failing to prepare and preparing to fail is all too true in the graduate job jungle – so take the time, and you'll reap the rewards. "Don't be frightened of managing your career," says Goldfeld. "You just need to go for it."

www.networkrailgraduates.co.uk www.teachfirst.org.uk www.gradcracker.com www.monster.co.uk