Employability and Graduate Jobs: A Glossary | Top Universities

Employability and Graduate Jobs: A Glossary

By Piotr Łuczak

Updated November 11, 2016 Updated November 11, 2016

The task of finding a graduate job after university can be challenging enough, but sometimes it can be made even more daunting by the jargon used by employers, universities and the media alike.

What is this elusive “employability”, and how do you get it? How does a “virtual internship” work? And what exactly is the difference between a “hard” skill and a “soft” one?

We’ve put together a simple guide to the words and phrases you need to understand when preparing to apply for graduate jobs, whether you’re still in the process of choosing a degree course, or about to complete one.

Aesthetic skills

Being able to present yourself well – i.e. dressing appropriately for an interview.


Apprenticeships are agreed periods of work-based training, usually full-time and paid (if not very highly). Apprentices often work towards a vocational qualification, and are generally in more hands-on roles.

Basic skills

Also referred to as “generic”, “key” or “core” skills, basic skills are not specific to a particular job, but needed by most employers. Most graduate jobs require relatively high levels of the following basic skills: literacy, numeracy, basic IT skills, and good communication.

Co-operative education (“co-op”)

“Co-ops” are work placements provided for students through partnerships between a university and business or other organization. These are usually assessed, allowing students to gain course credits as well as an example of their employability skills.

Cover letter

A short letter sent along with your CV/ résumé when applying for jobs. Today this is usually submitted in the body of an email or as an attachment, rather than as a physical letter. It usually includes a brief explanation of why you’re applying and an outline of your suitability for the role. (For advice on common cover letter mistakes to avoid, read this post.)

CV (curriculum vitae)

Referred to as a résumé in some world regions, a CV is a summary of your work experience, education and other skills and qualifications to date; used to give potential employers a quick overview and highlight personal and professional strengths.


According to a 2010 report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, employability is “the ability to be in employment, and, in particular, the set of characteristics that increase the chances of an individual being in work.” It may also include the ability to stay in employment, and progress up the career ladder. (Read a few more definitions of employability here.)


The term “entrepreneur” is usually used to refer to someone who launches a new business or non-profit venture, sometimes taking on financial risk to do so. Entrepreneurial skills amongst graduates can appeal to existing companies and organizations when setting up new ventures or developing existing ones.

Erasmus work placement

A work placement completed with funding from the European Union’s Erasmus scheme (recently re-launched under the Erasmus+ brand) which promotes student mobility within Europe. Placements must last between three and twelve months, be relevant to the student’s course, and be in a participating European country. The term Erasmus is an abbreviation of the European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students.

Experiential learning

This means learning through experience. As part of a degree program, experiential learning could include work placements, but also practical projects completed within the university.


This is sometimes used interchangeably with “internship”, but an externship usually refers to a work experience opportunity arranged by a university, rather than by the individual student. This could be a work placement, visit from a professional, job shadowing or a research project in collaboration with a business.

Graduate job

The term “graduate job” may refer to any job that requires a degree, or more specifically to a job that is part of a company’s graduate scheme – a formal training scheme, typically lasting one or two years.

Hard skills

In contrast to “soft skills” (see below), hard skills are not about interactions with people, but refer to an individual’s ability to complete technical and mental tasks – for example, being able to handle complex data, knowing how to use relevant software, or operating a machine.


While often used interchangeably with “work experience” or “work placement”, an internship usually refers to a “white-collar” job. Internships are often paid (the issue of unpaid internships has reached high profile in many countries recently), and may last significantly longer than work experience placements.

Job shadowing

This is a type of work experience which involves observing a professional going about his/her normal work routine, to get an idea of what the role is like.


A mentor is an experienced professional who is assigned to a “mentee” (less experienced) to advise him/her on how to achieve career goals.


A placement is a period of work experience which is a required part of a course, often to help students develop key employability skills and apply their course learning within a professional context. The student may or may not have a say in choosing the placement.


Not the sports kind! A referee is someone who can provide you with a reference – a formal letter (or email) sent to a potential employer to support your application. Employers will usually ask for at least two referees, who could be past employers, work experience supervisors, and/or university tutors.

Sandwich course

A university degree course in which students spend one year out of the university, either on a work placement or studying abroad. The year in work/abroad is usually the penultimate year of the degree.


Similar to cooperative learning (see above), but based on serving the local community in some way, by working with non-profit, philanthropic, community and public sector organizations.

Soft skills

Definitions vary, but generally soft skills are interpersonal – how good you are at getting on with people, communicating, making a good impression and the like. These are often at least equally as important as hard skills (see above).

Specific skills

Skills needed for a particular job or sector of employment. For example, in interior design, specific skills could include creative flair, artistic ability and knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD) programs. Employers usually include a list of the most important specific skills when advertising job vacancies.


A start-up is a new company, still in the early stages of development.

Think tank

Think tanks are organizations that conduct research in a particular sector, such as education, healthcare or finance, providing advice to governments and/or businesses. Those studying to higher levels (such as master’s or PhD) may be especially well-suited to graduate jobs within think tanks.

Transferable skills

Skills gained in one type of role that can be transferred to another. For example, analyzing complex data as part of a degree course is a skill that could be transferred to many future jobs.

Work experience

Often used interchangeably with “internship” (see above), this refers to a period of work at a business in order to gain experience of that industry. Work experience may be paid or unpaid.

Working gap year

gap year is a year out of education, usually before starting university, in order to earn money and/or gain experience. Working is one way to spend this time; other popular gap year activities include travelling and volunteering.

Virtual internship

An internship you can do from anywhere, by using internet, email, phone and other media to communicate and submit work.

Ready to start your graduate jobs search?

This article was originally published in June 2014 . It was last updated in November 2016

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