Skills to make CVs sparkle

Work experience is never a waste of time and often a career necessity

You might think that getting a degree, having reasonable A-levels, playing tennis for your school and listing reading and voluntary work as your favourite hobbies would be enough to make your CV shimmer. You might think so, but then so do the other 400 people who have applied for the same job. Ipso facto, it usually isn't.

You might think that getting a degree, having reasonable A-levels, playing tennis for your school and listing reading and voluntary work as your favourite hobbies would be enough to make your CV shimmer. You might think so, but then so do the other 400 people who have applied for the same job. Ipso facto, it usually isn't.

What work experience is required, however, varies greatly between companies. "The small to medium-sized companies rely much more heavily on work experience as a guide to which candidate to employ," says Tom Hughes, managing director of the online graduate recruitment agency Milkround Online. "The larger companies, such as Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, are not so interested in work experience. They are more interested in assessing people's ability themselves. But then they have the money, the staff and the infrastructure to do so."

Smaller companies find work experience useful because it indicates that an individual has acquired skills above and beyond those taught by university. As Hughes puts it: "Credible work experience demonstrates to employers that a graduate has had the rough edges knocked off them." It shows them that a graduate has been weaned off their student habits. "If someone has done decent work experience, an employer knows that they are able to turn up to work on time, five days a week, and work - all things that university may well not have taught them. It also shows that they can use a computer and answer the telephone in a professional manner."

These things might sound minor, but Hughes thinks that they can tip the balance in favour of one graduate. "They are all skills, they are all needed, and they all take time to teach. And quite simply, the employer would just rather that somebody else taught them."

What work experience is required of a graduate also varies depending on the sector they want go into. The core professions - doctors, teachers, nurses, dentists, lawyers, engineers - do require work experience but usually a limited amount, and usually only to secure a place at university. Once on a course for these professions, work experience will come as part of the package.

And even at the university applications stage it is not as important as you might think. "It is not essential that people have work experience for us to interview them," says Dr Martin Hughes, director of medical studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge. "We interview every applicant who meets our GCSE requirements - we are one of the few places which do so. We consider it is the only fair way. Although, to be honest, we don't really see anyone who hasn't done any."

Even in less vocational areas, such as accountancy, work experience is not vital. "It certainly isn't the case that we will simply bin CVs that have no work experience listed on them," says Sara Reading, assistant graduate recruitment manager at the accountancy firm KPMG. "The applicant may well have done other equally valid things with their time, such as sports or a voluntary work."

Which is not to say that any work experience you have done is null and void. "If someone does have relevant work experience, that can be a help," says Reading. "It can show career motivation and that they have an idea of what is involved in working in an accountancy firm."

However, it is in industries such as media, publishing and PR that work experience really comes into its own. Mainly because in these areas there is often a lack of clear application procedures. So a large part of getting a job in these industries involves simply being in the right place at the right time - and that means work experience. "Slave labour is still the way into the media," says Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow. "You have to be willing to do work experience. And unfortunately you have to do it for nothing."

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