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Graduate Jobs: What Employers Look For

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Competition for graduate jobs is high, but knowing what employers look for in new hires can really help you stand out. We spoke to graduate employers around the world to find out what’s most important to them – find out what they said.

1. Academic qualifications

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First, graduate employers do of course look at applicants’ academic qualifications. As well as checking how impressive your grades are, or the level of education you’ve reached, employers will also consider how well matched your academic qualifications are for the role in question.

Dr Ursula Vogler, head of human resources at KPMG Austria, says: “An education in a FAME subject (finance, accountancy, management and economics) would be a very good start for a career at KPMG in any of our three major lines of business, which are audit, technology and advisory.

“To work in audit, finance and accounting knowledge is absolutely essential. We’re talking about balance sheets, international finance reporting standards, company corporate law – we have a standardized test, in fact, to check that applicants have the required knowledge. Working in tech would also require some sort of tech specialization.”

For some graduate jobs – particularly research-based roles – a Masters or PhD may be required. Otherwise, Vogler says a graduate-level degree is not usually essential, but may be helpful if it’s in a highly relevant specialization.

2. The right soft skills

Academic qualifications may get you an interview, but at this stage something else takes priority: showing you have the right ‘soft skills’ for the role. In most cases, this will involve showing qualities such as self-motivation, professional communication, team work and problem-solving abilities.

It may also be worth doing some specific research into what values are most important for the graduate jobs and companies you’re applying to. What soft skills are most relevant? Will you be communicating with clients regularly face to face, or spending most of your time analyzing data? Does the role require you to work as part of a closely knit team, or will you have to operate mainly independently?

Alfredo Linares is senior director for talent acquisition at pharmaceutical company Pfizer in the Asia-Pacific region. He highlights some of the main soft skills he looks for: “We value individuals who are proactive in seeking opportunities, work well in a team atmosphere, engage in creative risk-taking and problem-solving, and value continuous learning and development. Moreover, we seek out inspired new talents who share our core values and mission of making the world a healthier place.”

Meanwhile Dr Ursula Vogler lists a slightly different set of qualities: “We’re looking for people who want to learn, both in terms of specific knowledge and personal development... It won’t come as a surprise that we’re also looking for people who are ready to work hard, to do what needs to be done. And we expect those who work with us to be self-starters who can rely on and motivate themselves. No one is going to hold their hand.”

So doing some research into the company’s core values and work ethic could certainly pay off. Show you’re a good fit for both the role and the broader company culture, and you’ll definitely tick some important boxes!

3. International experience

Third, graduate employers do value international experience, so if you’ve spent time studying or working abroad, make sure to highlight this – and what you gained from it – in your graduate jobs applications.

In a QS survey of 10,000 employers in 116 countries, 60% of respondents said they would give extra credit to graduate applicants who had studied abroad – and of course international experience is especially highly valued by employers operating across multiple countries and markets.

“We prefer international students because of their broader mindset; the attitude and maturity they acquire,” explains Linares. “It shows that they are able to organize themselves, and are interested in being in surroundings other than their usual ones. They are interested in the world, in short.”

Add on cultural understanding and language skills, and it’s clear that studying abroad can provide considerable advantages in the job market. Just remember to explain how your international experience will help you to fulfil the graduate jobs you’re applying for, and be as specific as you can. Again, it’s all about showing how well you match the position.

4. A targeted job application

Fourth on the list of things graduate employers are looking for: a clearly targeted job application, showing you’ve done plenty of research into the company and the role. Of course it’s also essential to ensure you submit all the documents requested, within the deadline.

This can mean a large time commitment, as Linares emphasizes. “Applicants need to approach their graduate jobs search as if it were a full-time job. They need to make sure they are tailoring their cover letters and résumés to the jobs they are applying for.”

Vogler echoes this advice. “If candidates give the impression they don’t care where they work, it doesn’t make a very good impression on us. It’s also important to make clear what exactly it is you want to do within the company. KPMG is a huge company, and we’re not able – or willing – to read minds, so if you can’t show you’re willing to be proactive enough to research and identify possible roles, then you don’t really stand much of a chance.”

5. Ambition, and flexibility

Finally, one of the most-asked job interview questions must surely be: “Where do you see yourself in five/ten years time?” Employers usually try to get a sense of the career path applicants have in mind – which again can help them assess how well a candidate fits the current job opportunity.

So showing you’ve got ambition and that you’ve considered how the role will fit into your longer-term plans is definitely important. But at the same time it’s worth retaining some flexibility, both when searching for jobs and when presenting yourself.

“My advice for applicants is to be as flexible as possible when looking for opportunities,” Linares says. “For example, students who want to work in marketing sometimes only search for marketing roles, not realizing that they may also be interested and qualified for a business development role that may require a similar skill set.

“We want our colleagues to think broadly about their careers as there is neither one single path nor vertical path to develop in an organization – rather there are many paths, many roads.”

This article is adapted from a piece published in the QS Top Grad School Guide 2013/14.

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Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversees the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edits the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributes to market research reports including How Do Students Use Rankings?

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