In the high-flying world of finance and big business, the race for graduate positions is especially fierce; partly thanks to the inherently competitive nature of the corporate environment, and partly because the rise of student debt levels has ensured that a career chasing the big bucks is even more appealing. It's no coincidence that this year's new graduates voted PricewaterhouseCoopers top of their employer wish list in a survey of the top 100 graduate employers; nor that a total of three out of the top five in the list are accountancy firms.

If you're seeking a career in finance, business or management consultancy, you can't rely on a degree in accountancy or business studies to sail you through. Most graduate positions involve on-the-job training and therefore accept graduates from all degree subjects and disciplines. This means that the focus is on your result rather than your subject, with many firms also taking A-level results into account.

Many of the larger firms will take good results at degree level and A-level for granted; it's therefore your ability to stand out from the crowd as an individual that is crucial. Ambition is a key driver within these industries and you need to show that you are willing to run that extra mile in order to succeed.

At the same time, you may not want to appear too ruthless. People skills, such as teamwork, negotiation and communication, are highly valued within these industries, and the notion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is high on many business agendas these days. Several companies, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, now also assess CVs for evidence of a willingness to contribute to the community at large - such as volunteer work.

Be aware that different companies will prioritise different skills, abilities and experience, according to their corporate ethos and employee requirements. It is in your best interests to find out what these priorities are, not just so that you can make sure you demonstrate the relevant qualities and experience, but also so that you can be certain that you really want to work for the company. Employers in this sector are often critical of candidates who have not adequately done their research.

Pre-application preparation is the key to success - and the earlier the better. Search company websites, use your university careers service and read the business pages of newspapers to keep up-to-date with the latest issues. Analyse yourself for evidence of key qualities that are useful in these career areas, such as decisiveness, enthusiasm and leadership. Consider any challenges you may have faced in your life and how you dealt with them.

Career fairs, such as the University of Manchester's upcoming specialist Finance, Business & Management Consultancy Fair, can provide many invaluable opportunities for you to carry out some thorough research into a variety of different organisations all at once, and learn more about what employers are looking for. You could also make useful industry contacts: individuals who can give you advice and will often appreciate the opportunity to put a face to the name on an application. Networking is a valuable skill to have in business; the more contacts you make at an early stage, the better.

One of the best ways in which you can stand out from the crowd is by gaining relevant work experience. Being able to display commercial awareness and career management skills gives you a significant advantage in this sector. It also demonstrates your interest in and commitment to that field.

Many companies offer work experience and placements at careers fairs. Or you could impress potential future employers by volunteering your services for a short period of time, or asking about the possibility of shadowing a current employee, so that you can learn more about the job. University careers services can often help with this.

Remember, becoming a high flyer in big business may be about attitude, but it's not about arrogance. Being able to "talk the talk" in an interview is useless if it's obvious that you haven't prepared. Devote time to researching your options and potential employers and you'll go a long way towards proving your abilities in your future career.

Rowena Forbes is party of The University of Manchester's Careers and Employability Division
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