Grad Week: Taking stock of your skill set

Pandemic ‘a game-changer’ that has proven how adaptable graduates can be

Should graduates apply for jobs which they may not feel qualified for? Photograph: iStock/Getty

Should graduates apply for jobs which they may not feel qualified for? Photograph: iStock/Getty


The actor Liam Neeson famously conveys the advantages of enjoying a “particular set of skills” during a phone call with the man who has kidnapped his daughter at the beginning of the 2008 thriller Taken.

While the stakes for graduates and job seekers may not be quite as high as they were for Neeson and the man foolish enough to mess with his family, identifying skills, then developing and utilising them, remains an essential part of the job-hunting process.

“University is one of life’s fantastic adventures,” explains Dr Aisling Flynn of Maynooth University’s experiential learning office. “It enables you to expand your horizons, knowledge and skillsets, and grow as a person.

“While you will gain academic and specialist knowledge during your studies, it is also important to identify the numerous transferable skills you will benefit from.”

First, develop self-awareness. Reflect on how you have spent your time, your interests, likes, dislikes, what skills you used, how you can improve further, and what you would like to do more of.

Second, consider how ongoing reflection can give you food for thought as regards the future career direction you could consider taking. Be mindful of your strengths and weaknesses but remember that these can evolve as you learn, adapt and improve.

Third, complete a skills audit. It can be incredibly useful to do an inventory of the experiences you are most proud of and the skills you have honed as a result. Consider where the gaps are and what activities you could get involved in to upskill and bridge these gaps.

A useful starting point is GradIreland where they list key skills associated with each degree.

University College Cork head of career services Eleanor Donoghue says the Covid-19 pandemic has been “a game-changer”, but has also illustrated how adaptable people – and graduates – can be.

“When you think about it, you have successfully learned to adapt to new situations all your life,” she says. “You learned to ride a bike without stabilisers; you learned to transition to third-level learning; you learned to quickly adapt to online learning. The list goes on and on.

“You may have already worked in several part-time and summer jobs during your time at college, done some volunteering at the weekend, engaged in student activities on campus or have been part of a club or society.

“You will have gained a unique perspective, a set of skills and workplace knowledge from each of these, and it is these skills, attributes and abilities that have contributed to the adaptable person you are today.”

Donoghue also says graduates should reflect on moments on or off campus when they organised events. “This is a great way of overcoming a lack of real-world relevant professional experience,” she says.

“Employers recognise this, which is why they value all experiences. Not only do these types of skills demonstrate your cultural fitness for a company and work environment, but they also show what you can contribute.”

On clubs and societies, Maynooth’s Flynn adds: “Be sure to highlight to employers how you made your mark on the club or society that you were involved in, and try to quantify that impact. Did you recruit new members, create successful events, fundraise for a specific cause, etc.”

Donoghue says the same principles apply to extracurricular activities undertaken outside of college.

“Like any other work experience, these will give you business awareness and an understanding of how organisations work, and being able to articulate what you understand about work environments will contribute to your future success,” she says.

“The past four years at college will have enabled you to develop a broad set of skills, beyond disciplinary content, which will have supported you to become independent and creative thinkers, digitally fluent, socially responsible, and effective global citizens who are resilient, ambitious, and highly flexible.”

World of opportunity
Marie Laffey, head of the career development centre at NUI Galway, says there is “a world of opportunity” in terms of free courses online.

“We would encourage students to check these out and see how they can add to their skills and experience with micro-credentials in courses offered by LinkedIn and Google Digital Garage,” she says.

It is also key to remember the importance of transferable skills, those things that could be useful in almost any walk of life, according to Venita Murphy of Dublin City University’s careers service.

“Even outside university, you might be part of a sports team or have a part-time waitressing job or be working for a charity, and those things can help you develop some key soft skills that employers look for, such as communication, teamwork and organisation,” she says.

“Also, think what skills you are not as confident about how you can develop them further if you think they might be required in the line of work you want to go into.

“Employers are looking for well-rounded individuals nowadays who pursue activities on top of their degree, so hobbies and activities are a great way to develop some of the key skills required. These include leadership, problem-solving and so on.

“When you’re applying for a job, you have to remember that a degree is just not enough anymore. Your experiences and activities are what will make you stand out. What is it that you are doing that will make them want to interview you?”

On that point, all the experts agree it is crucial to not undersell yourself when applying for a job. Brendan Lally, a careers adviser with the University of Limerick, says “a lot of us in Ireland find it hard to blow our own trumpet”.

“We are culturally adverse to this, and maybe brought up not to do it,” he says. “Sometimes you hear that your work or grades will speak for themselves.

“Well, yes, they may help you get an interview but everyone needs to be able to sell themselves at interview. I often hear ‘I have a mental block about selling myself’, or ‘I just cannot do it’.

“I normally reply something along the lines that in all other areas of your life you can probably stay in that humble space, but for the hour or 45 minutes at interview you need to set that aside and sell yourself.

“Otherwise, accept that you are okay with the next person coming into the interview taking that spot. Nobody wants that, so if selling yourself is a problem you’ll definitely need help from your careers service by booking a consultation.”

Maynooth’s Flynn says that while it is “very important” to present the best version of yourself to employers, it is also important not to try to be “someone you are not”. Think of yourself as “” she says, “your own personal brand”.

“Authenticity is something employers admire,” she continues. “What value can you bring to an organisation? What skills can you offer a future employer that will be of benefit to them?

“Always draw on evidence to substantiate the claims that you make. It is crucial to have relevant examples that bring your skills to life and highlight your quantified impact, such as enhanced productivity, growth, savings, improvement made etc.”

By the same token, there is the question as to what jobs to apply for, and should graduates apply for jobs which they may not feel qualified for? “A ship is safe in the harbour but that’s not what it’s built for,” says UL’s Lally.

“Firstly there is a gender difference at play here. While both genders browse jobs similarly, they apply to them differently. Research shows that, in order to apply for a job, women feel they need to meet 100 per cent of the criteria while men usually apply after meeting about 60 per cent.

“To answer the question directly as a former graduate employer, yes they should. But to qualify that answer, I would say everyone must look closely at the criteria in the job advertisement.

“Normally you will see essential and then desirable skills. Essential is just that. If you do not have them, then perhaps this role is not for you. Whereas if you are missing many of the desirable skills then I think you should still apply.

“Employers will look for as much for their euro as possible and so will list nearly everything possible knowing that they are unlikely to get too many that match everything listed exactly.

“I think more than half of successful graduate applicants would admit in confidence that, while they are thrilled at their job offer, they are suffering from imposter syndrome to some extent.

“This normally subsides as they progress in the early months through their new graduate role provided they get the support needed. Many companies will say that they hire for attitude and train for skill.”

Setting the bar
NUI Galway’s Laffey says it is important to set the bar high, but “so too is being realistic in your expectations”.

“Start by assessing the job requirements,” she says. “How much can you meet? If a student hits 60-70 per cent of the requirements, then I would encourage them to apply for the role. Think about it like this – you could ace the interview. You could impress an influential member of the panel. They could be looking for potential, and they could see it in you.

“They might not be looking for the finished article. The job spec might be a wish list and if you follow the other advice while in university then you can score well in the interview.

“Also, never forget, there could be other roles in the organisation that might suit you. It’s just that they haven’t been advertised yet.

“Unfortunately, there will always be occasions when you are not shortlisted. So, make sure to ask for feedback on why you did not make it through to the interview. This will help you to identify where you need to improve.”

She adds: “And back to the realistic expectations; some roles require specific professional qualifications and experience. These are classified as essential, so you must meet these requirements to be shortlisted for interview.”

Flynn says graduates should “absolutely” apply for jobs they don’t feel qualified for. “A job description presents the essential and desirable criteria that an employer believes that a successful candidate will require to perform the role,” she says.

“Remember that this is the employer’s ideal candidate for the role and, in reality, there is rarely a perfect match. An employer will accept that they may not find a candidate that meets every criterion but are keen to appoint someone who fulfils the majority of criteria highlighted.”

Flynn says: “While some essential criteria might be non-negotiable, having a positive and enthusiastic attitude, coupled with a strong interest and a willingness to learn new skills may convince employers to overlook one or two criteria and consider your application.”