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How Can Students Make Themselves ‘Work Ready’ at University?

By Chloe Lane

Updated March 5, 2021 Updated March 5, 2021

The 2020 Global University Employability Survey produced by HR consultancy Emerging, revealed that 28 percent of respondents believed that the purpose of university was to produce ‘ready-to work’ graduates.

But how can graduates ensure that they’re ready for the world of work and what are graduate employers looking for from graduates?

We spoke to four graduate employers about what they look for in a candidate when hiring and what they would like to see more students doing at university to prepare themselves for the workplace.

“Graduates should change their attitude to work”: Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, MD and Founder of Clearly PR

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

Paul MacKenzie is the managing director and founder of Clearly PR. He frequently hires newly qualified graduates as he feels that students learn a variety of core skills at university which can be effectively used in the workplace.

These skills include teamwork, debating, collaborating on projects and undertaking in-depth research in an almost-investigative manner and presenting their key findings to peers. 

Mackenzie said the biggest challenge facing graduates in the workplace today is their attitude to work.

He said: “Graduates need to recognize that work is just that – work. It is hard, demanding, challenging, and rewarding in equal measure; career progression doesn’t come automatically once a period has been served. 

“A degree will help get your foot in the door but it’s what you do and how you apply yourself thereafter that determines the pace at which you can climb the career ladder.”

MacKenzie’s top three tips for making yourself ‘work-ready’ are:

Demonstrate that you know what the employer is looking for

When applying for a role, “identify three or four of the key skills that are highlighted in the job description. Then consider those that you acquired and developed during your university career and match them accordingly,” said MacKenzie.

This doesn’t have to be through work experience. Employers just want to see that you have these key skills, whether they’re gained through a university society, work experience or a university project.

Ditch the clichés

“One guaranteed way to kill any chance of being invited for interview is the overuse of clichés on your application,” said MacKenzie.

He said: “Ditch the ‘fast learning dynamic team player with excellent communication skills and a strong attention to detail’ hyperbole”

These are “CV killers” and lack substance, revealed MacKenzie. Employers want to understand who you are, what motivates you and how you would fit in with the company.

Show commitment to your career

MacKenzie said: “If I receive an application from a graduate who has spent the last three years studying a degree in Chemistry yet they’re looking to work in public relations, my initial reaction is likely to be, ‘Huh?’

“However, if that same applicant can show they took steps to familiarize themselves with our industry then they will get my attention.” 

For example, students might do an internship at a similar company or take an online course in a skill needed for their chosen career to show their commitment to a particular career path.

“Improve your writing and telephone skills”: Charlotte Nichols, Managing Director of PR and marketing agency Harvey & Hugo

Charlotte Nichols

With more than 15 years’ worth of experience in the public relations and marketing sector, Charlotte Nichols frequently hires graduates for her marketing agency, Harvey & Hugo.

Although she is a big fan generally of hiring graduates, she does feel that there is often a lack of work readiness in graduates.

Nichols’ top tips to boost employability are:

Get some work experience

Going out of your way to gain some work experience at university can be a great way to stand out from other applicants and get a foot in the door.

Polish up your writing skills

“Almost every job requires writing in some form, and I find the basics of spelling and grammar are missing in a lot of grads,” said Nichols. She adds that she often notices spelling and grammar mistakes even in applications from students who have studied essay-based subjects at university.

Don’t be afraid of the telephone

Nichols said one thing she’s noticed amongst graduates is a tendency to feel uncomfortable using the telephone. This is something she said students should work to overcome at university.

She said: “Email isn’t a problem, but it’s rare to find a graduate who isn’t afraid of picking up the telephone to answer a business call.”

“Work experience helps develop much needed skills”: Arjun Thaker, CEO at Trident Worldwide

Arjun Thaker

Warehousing and logistics platform Trident Worldwide, recently launched a paid internship scheme for graduates.

The CEO of Trident, Arjun Thaker, said the company is looking to hire quick learners with lots of enthusiasm and a desire to make their mark on the growing company.

He revealed several ways students can make themselves ‘work ready’ at university:

Get real life experience of the workplace

Although needing work experience to get a job after university can often feel like a Catch-22 situation, many of the skills needed in a workplace – such as being able to adapt quickly to changing situations – can best be learnt through work experience, explained Thaker.

He said: “In university, people can become book smart and understand the industry, however, the real-life experiences of the workplace allow people to develop much-needed skills such as being personable, being able to articulate strongly, and overcoming challenges.”

Develop the right mindset

“Instead of focusing on the problem, it is important to have the mindset that will find the solution,” said Thaker. He added that this is something often developed through work placements.

It’s also good to view failure as a learning experience rather than something negative, he added.

“Graduates need hunger and ambition”: Carlene Jackson, CEO of Cloud9 Insight

Carlene Jackson

Work experience is a great way for graduates to show that they understand the business environment and that they know how to engage with clients, said Carlene Jackson, CEO of tech company, Cloud9 Insight, which offers internships for students and graduates.  

Jackson said: “I work in an environment where people skills matter, so someone that can demonstrate good relationship management skills would fit in any professional services business. They would get along as a team player and be engaging with clients.”

Jackson revealed that in the interview process, she looks for a graduate with hunger and ambition – “having a degree is just the start.”

She said: “Their ambition to learn in the work environment and their own self-motivation and mindset will be the biggest determinants of their success." 

While at university, Jackson said you should do the following things to boost your employability:

Update your LinkedIn profile to gain experience

LinkedIn is a great way to find experience in your chosen industry. Jackson explained that gaining experience within an industry gives you a chance to learn about the challenges, nuances and business model of the industry.

To find this work experience, Jackson said: “Ensure your LinkedIn profile is up to date with a professional image and say within the profile that you are looking for work experience in the area of your ambition.”

Find a career mentor

Career mentors can offer useful advice on career options, how to plan your own path and give insight into how their own career has progressed, revealed Jackson.

This mentor might be a family friend, or a contact you’ve developed from university. Jackson said: “Many universities offer voluntary society work. You can gain great skills and a wider network of contacts from taking up these leadership roles."

This article was originally published in December 2020 . It was last updated in March 2021

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Written by

A Content Writer for TopUniversities.com, Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. She enjoys writing articles about a wide range of topics for a student audience. 

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