Welcome back, and happy new year to you all! I hope you had an enjoyable and relaxing break, and that you are refreshed and ready to go into the Spring term.

The January/February period is particularly important for employability, as most graduate schemes and postgraduate scholarships have their deadlines during this period, along with summer/year-long internship schemes. There will be posts over the next few weeks aimed at students in each stage of study with suggestions on what you can be doing now, and over the coming term, to be honing your employability prospects for the future.

To that end, I’m happy to bring you the first post of the new year: a guest blog from Thomas Knight, a former student of the School of History and now working with Lloyds Banking Group in finance security, on his experience of applying for, and securing a place on, a highly competitive graduate scheme.

Applying to a graduate scheme can seem a daunting and time consuming task. However, if you approach it in the correct way it can be achieved with immense efficiency – allowing you to concentrate on your studies! Graduate recruiters chiefly look for evidence that you are a well-rounded candidate – someone who displays a good blend of academic ability, has an active extra-curricular life and displays a desire to learn. Make sure you illustrate why this is you in every answer!

The most common first stage of most graduate applications is online tests, which are often psychometric, numerical and reading based. The best means to approach these is through regular practice and revision. In addition, the tests generally test your ability to time manage rather than necessarily your ability to get every question correct. Therefore, your approach should focus on being able to establish the patterns and types of questions you’ll face rather than stressing over getting every question correct. As a history student, chances are you haven’t worked with numbers since you were 16. Don’t worry though – since most employers test the same skills you don’t need to redo GCSE maths, rather, try and focus on percentages, ratios and fractions. The online tests are the stage that most candidates find the most difficult to get through (this was also the case for me) but with practice and approaching them in a methodical way, you will pass.

Usually the next stage involves some form of online/video interview [a quick note – the CES is holding a training session on video interviews on Tuesday 24th January). This takes the form of a pre-recorded set of questions being displayed on the screen followed by you being given a set time limit (often 30 seconds) to answer each question. The best means to approach these is to ensure that you use the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action and Resolve) to enable you to fulfil each of the core competencies which the employer is looking for – the careers service will be able to help you use the STAR method. Crucially, for each question you should ensure that you use a different example for each response. Remember, the key here is not just answering the question correctly, but also differentiating yourself from the thousands of other students applying for the same position as you – keep it varied and interesting. The best examples are generally those outside of your studies: if you’re a student ambassador, course representative, work part-time or volunteer regularly – make sure you mention it!

The final stage will be a day long assessment centre or, for smaller companies, just one interview. The assessment centre will test a variety of skills sets: team work, time management, situational judgement and your ability to solve complex problems. To give you an example, the assessment centre for Lloyds Banking Group involves a writing exercise, team building problem solving task and a one-to-one interview – thus enabling you to illustrate your strengths in a variety of ways. The great thing about assessment centres is that each of the tasks is weighted to enable you to do exceedingly well in one section and less well in another. In short, it is the overall cumulative score from all aspects of the day which determine whether you are offered a position or not. Therefore, ensure that you know where your strengths are and ensure they shine through. For example, if you are nervous about interviews which are one-to-one, ensure that you maximise the opportunity to do well in a team building task.

In summary, the key to success throughout the process is:

  • Recognising where your strengths are and ensuring that they shine through.
  • Differentiate yourself from the thousands of other applicants: if you volunteer or work part-time, mention it!
  • Answer competency questions using the STAR method.
  • Be yourself: employers know when you are behaving in a way which is not natural to you.