Welcome to the big bad world!

The world can be a daunting place for graduates but there are steps you can take that will help

Welcome to the big bad world! It sucks but you’re going to love it – hopefully.

Some students will be dragged from college kicking and screaming, but others are aching to get into the world of work, independence and money. Either way, it can be a little daunting, so how can graduates and graduands (soon-to-be graduates) best prepare themselves for the world of work?

1. Know yourself

Who are you? It can seem like a deeply existential question best suited to philosophy graduates, but knowing yourself is the foundation of any career, says Brendan Baker, head of Maynooth University's career development centre. "What are your interests, values and attributes? Research from Oxford University, which looked at core skills for the 21st century, identified creativity, innovation, communication, flexibility, social skills and leadership as among the most important traits."

When a graduate understands themselves and what motivates them, they’ll have a better sense of what kind of job or career is right. Do you like working as part of a larger team? Is money a key driver? Do you enjoy blue-sky thinking, or are you all about logic and numbers? Do you want to work with the general public?

Thinking ahead matters, too. “Look at the medium-term and where you’d like to be in five years’ time,” says Baker. “What will interest you, what are your options and what sort of promotional opportunities will you have?”

2. Identify your skills

“Your time in college will have provided you with a thorough grounding in your chosen discipline, but while you have the academic knowledge, you also have research, writing or lab skills,” says Baker. “Be able to name them and give examples. If you have worked with the public, you might have strong customer service skills. Or you might have strong attention to detail and great business acumen. When you understand yourself, you will also have the confidence to say: ‘I am a problem solver, leader and communicator’.”

3. Use the career services

How can a graduate or graduand know themselves and their skills? "Take advantage of the support and market insights available through their college careers service to build your CV and interview skills," says Gary Anderson, global future talent programme manager with Jacobs Engineering. "This can make a real difference in preparing to secure work post-education."

Baker, who is a former chair of the Association for Higher Education Career Services, says college careers services are under-utilised everywhere in the world. “Any student can go to the career services – even if they know what they want to do – for sector and labour market information, connections with employers and one-on-one sessions with trained careers advisers. We can do psychometric tests including interests assessments and personality tests which can help students to gain some self-awareness and insights into what they’re ready for.”

Barbara McGrath, managing director of the Brightwater recruitment group, says it's a good idea to try and develop a good working relationship with the college careers service. "If they're aware of you as more than just a college ID number, they'd be far more inclined to recommend you to potential employers or alert you to new opportunities coming up prior to them being posted on college boards."

At this time of year, of course, graduands can be inclined to focus on the exams, but it’s never too late to pop into the office and ask for an appointment.

Careers services can also point students towards graduate fairs that are organised by the institution itself or the annual GradIreland fairs held throughout the year (GradIreland.com/events).

4. Build your network

"The power of networking can't be underestimated," says McGrath. "Use LinkedIn to connect with business leaders who speak at college events or who you met at job fairs or networking events. When linking in, always add a note with your request to connect, such as: 'My name is X and I really appreciated your guest lecture at UCD Law Society last Thursday. I'd really like to connect.' There's nothing more annoying to a business professional than LinkedIn requests with no note or explanation as to why they should connect with this person. A polite request is always to get an acceptance or note back. Remember, LinkedIn isn't Facebook or Instagram; it's a professional networking site and should be used as such. There has to be a commercial strategic reason for sending the request."

5. Have a CV that lures interviewers

The CV is the window to your professional abilities and ambitions, so keep it sparkling clean.

“At this stage of your career, it shouldn’t be too long, but it should be professional and follow a basic template,” says McGrath. “Have your personal details up top, followed by educational details. If you’re awaiting exam results, simply state your degree, university and expected result. There’s no need to list all your subjects unless a module is of particular interest to the sector you’re applying for. And list any work experience you’ve gained and the skills you’ve developed from it – if you’ve worked in hospitality, explain that this has developed organisational, communication and time management skills.”

Cover letters should be tailored and relevant, while you can never be too prepared for an interview, says McGrath. “Practise psychometric tests online, but remember that they’re only indicators and shortlisting tools for very busy HR departments. Then, look up potential interviewers on LinkedIn to see where they work in the organisation; this will help you prepare for questions. Make sure you’ve researched the company, both online and in any trade publications, so you’re aware of exactly what they do. Always be polite and follow up with an email thanking them for their time.”

It’s also a good idea to follow up after the interview. “Graduates can get carried away and apply everywhere. Keep a note of where you’ve applied, and follow up after an interview or even a rejection, asking for feedback so you can learn from the experience.”

6. Internships and work experience

Jacobs takes on about 400 interns each year and, says Anderson, they strive to offer permanent roles to strong performers. “An internship can often transition into a graduate role and place on a graduate recruitment programme. Finding an internship can be challenging but it’s not insurmountable.”

Baker echoes this. “Summer internships work both ways: it gives an employer eight-12 weeks to see if the student is a good fit, and it gives the student a chance to see if it’s what they really want to do.”

Graduates who have secured relevant work experience during college will also stand out. “A three-month summer placement is an ideal way to achieve this, allowing graduates to test their intended career path to build up skills, understanding and connections in their relevant field,” Anderson says. “This is particularly important where graduates may feel uncertain about the direction they wish to take in their career.”

7. Keep it clean

Baker recalls an apocryphal story about a job applicant who went online to tweet about she aced the job interview and would probably be offered it, even though she was barely interested. Think ahead: don't be like her. And it's generally a good idea to be cautious of what you post on publicly accessible social media sites – just ask Australian rugby player Israel Folau, who was sacked for his anti-gay Instagram posts.

“If you’re a social rights campaigner or trade union activist, that’s fine, and most employers have no issue with their staff caring deeply about issues, but it could be a problem if it would interfere with the day-to-day job,” says Baker.

8. Follow up

“Many graduates take a rejection letter as the final say, but sometimes the volume of applications means that potential employers narrow down the parameters and you don’t make the cut,” says McGrath. “If those on the final shortlist don’t accept the job, then HR has to go back to the drawing board, and they’re more likely to call someone who has taken the time to write, thank them for the interview and reiterate their keenness to work for that organisation.”

9. Be brave

“Don’t be afraid,” says McGrath. “Try everything now. At graduate level, be brave and look for roles that interest you and where you feel you could add value. This is a time when you explore your options, whether in different sectors or moving overseas. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or take on new responsibilities. Treat every day as a learning experience and you’ll go far.”