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What you need to know about getting on to a grad recruitment programme

Recruiting graduates is an effective way for companies to identify talent early

Graduate programmes usually run for a year or two and participants can expect to learn about different aspects of the company’s departments and operations

Graduate recruitment programmes can provide training, money and an opportunity to build your network.

They’re not necessarily the right fit for all graduates. But, if the idea piques your interest, what do you need to know about them and what’s the best way to secure your place on one?

Graduate programmes: What they’re about

Career psychologist Sinéad Brady works with individuals looking for work, as well as with companies looking to hire the best talent.

“Graduate programmes are structured, large scale and tend to be offered by larger companies” she says. “They offer peer support and training, and the programmes are well-run, with clear information provided on what you can expect to be doing. You work hard and you get exposure to different areas in the company, as well as access to a large network in the organisation.”

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Graduate programmes usually run for a year or two and participants can expect to learn about different aspects of the company’s departments and operations. There is also a strong focus on learning and mentorship; indeed, many companies hire students who did a third or final-year internship with them as part of their degree, as they see a chance to hire and nurture talent that may choose to stay with them.

Although they have traditionally been associated with the “big four” audit firms, the number of companies offering them has risen in recent years. Third-level career offices today report that engineering, retail, infrastructure and transport firms now run programmes.

“You can go in at a junior level on a graduate programme and potentially move quite quickly through the ranks,” Brady says. “These programmes run in-house and they offer robust access to learning and development.”

The programmes tend to run in cycles, usually with two “milk round” intakes, including one in spring and one in autumn.

Aisling Conroy, career development manager at the University of Galway, says graduate programmes often appeal to students who want to work in one of the big four accounting and professional-services firms or one of the top law firms, and that they can provide valuable training.

Of course, they’re not for everyone. Some students may prefer an entry-level role in a smaller organisation, as they may carry more responsibility and provide graduates with more freedom to carve out their own role.

“Graduate programmes tend to be heavily promoted, so students sometimes feel that is all there is,” Conroy says. “Graduate programmes, however, are only a small percentage of where our students go, with most moving on to work in small to medium enterprises, rather than big corporations.”

Today’s graduates often want to work for a company that aligns with their own values, Conroy says.

“A lot of the companies running graduate recruitment programmes, particularly the large corporations, are quite focused on equality, diversity and inclusion, as well as sustainability, and this is important to younger people.”

One of the common misconceptions is that an accounting firm will only hire business graduates, or a legal firm will only hire law graduates. In reality, graduate recruiters hire from all disciplines, irrespective of what someone studied for their primary degree. A big professional-services firm, for instance, is just as likely to hire a science or arts graduate as they are a commerce graduate. This is because they are interested in the academic, personal and social skills that students acquired during their time in college.

Graduate recruiters know that applicants are usually young and, by definition, don’t have a lot of work experience, so they don’t expect them to have a detailed, glistening CV. Firms will take into account not just a student’s final grade, but the projects that they took part in, the clubs and societies they were involved in and any work or volunteer experience that they did.

It’s far from a proud boast, and perhaps it’s because we are a small country, but Ireland can be a harder for people who do not have professional connections. Although networking exists in every country, a lot of jobs in Ireland come through referrals, and that invariably benefits graduates from wealthier families who might know of a journalist, solicitor, school principal or accountant who can refer or recommend them.

There are exceptions but, by and large, graduate recruitment programmes tend to be more merit-based. Each application is generally assessed on its strengths, not on whether you went to a fee-paying school or whether your dad plays golf with the boss of an accounting firm.

Getting on that graduate programme

Brady says graduate recruitment programmes often come to the attention of final-year college students who are under exam pressure and, consequently, they don’t always know what they are about or what they involve. There are many companies you could apply for a job in but graduate recruiters want to know what interests you about their company, she says.

“You should know your career story and why you are applying for it,” she says. “The reason should not be because everyone else is going for the programme. Be very clear about why you are applying and link back to research you have done on the company’s strategic objectives. For instance, you might say that you saw that their gender pay gap is closing or that you feel they stand out because they are investing money into sustainability.”

Applicants should also have a good overview of the company and, as they are likely to work across multiple departments, they should have at least some understanding of them. With this in mind, it is important for them to find out as much as they can, whether by attending employment fairs, reading up on their values and mission statement or looking at their social media.

Also, check the news: has the firm featured in recent news articles? Whether the coverage was positive or negative, applicants should be up-to-date on any developments in case it arises at interview.

Graduate recruiters may receive hundreds of applications, so applicants who are serious about getting that role need to make their application stand out – for the right reasons.

“We review thousands of CVs and we ask employers what they do and don’t want,” Conroy says. “Spelling or grammar errors can see a CV thrown in the bin because it suggests a lack of attention to detail. Don’t just use spellcheck tools; get someone to proofread your application – they don’t have to be in your career area.

“Two pages is enough, as students should not have a CV longer than that. Make sure the CV is targeted to the role you’re applying for and think about what is really relevant. A good recruiter wants people who want to work for them, so they will immediately spot when someone has made a targeted application.”

It always helps to refer back to the keywords in the job description and to use them in your application because, increasingly, recruiters are using artificial intelligence tools to pick this up, Conroy advises.

Applicants should also ensure that their LinkedIn profile is up-to-date and that there is nothing on their public social media that they wouldn’t want an employer to see. That could be a series of photos on Instagram where you’ve had one too many, or an ill-judged political post on Twitter; remember that their own employees could face disciplinary action for misuse of social media, so they’re unlikely to hire someone who raises red flags for them.

Most college career offices, including the University of Galway’s, will support graduates for up to three years after they finish their degree. Many of them have access to useful tools, such as the University of Galway’s AI-based CV builder, which can ensure that the right keywords are used.

Recruiters don’t often ask for a cover letter any more but many career experts say it can be a good way of summarising your value, explaining what interests you about the role and, ultimately, standing out from the crowd.

“It’s a good opportunity to get your motivations across and to once again hit the right keywords,” says Conroy.

If applicants get past the first round of screening, they may face assessments and tasks, as well as a competency-based interview. Conroy says third-level career offices can help graduates to navigate this.

“Read the job description carefully, as you should be able to answer whatever questions come up. Remember the STAR framework, which allows you to show examples of where you have performed well before: this is where you talk about a work situation you were in, the task or problem that you faced, the action that you took and the result or outcome of that action.

“Students have to apply for so many jobs but if you see one that you really want you should pull out all the stops. If you show your research, it will stand out,” Conroy says.

How to make the most of it

“Your next job is about your network, your skills and your ability” says Brady. “You should know the strategic objectives of the organisation that you work in, including where they are investing and what drives their business. You should also be visible in [the company’s] networks, as that is where you get to meet people from all levels of the organisation. It doesn’t mean you have to sit on every committee and panel; be strategic and pick the ones that interest you.”

Being open to learning is important too.

“It is okay to be curious and to ask questions – such as, over the course of the programme, what are your options and what is the potential for growth?” Brady says.