As graduate job applications reach record levels, it’s relevant experience that will set you  apart from other candidates, explains Michael Barnard from milkround.com.

The UK Graduate Careers Survey 2012 revealed there has been a record number of graduate job   applications this year totalling 360,000. Combined with a third of students researching their career options in the first year of their studies, and more than two-fifths of finalists making job applications to graduate employers at least 12 months before leaving university, students seem to be mapping out their career paths sooner than ever before.

This is even reflected in the drop in graduates seeking a gap year: just 12 percent of the 17,000 finalists quizzed in the survey intended to have a break after their studies – the lowest proportion in its history. These findings indicate the extent to which graduate job aspirations are becoming prominent thoughts throughout the course of university studies, and suggests gap years are being viewed as a luxury career break.

But among all the career planning and application writing, the practical element should never be overlooked: experience. Employers feed off experience when reviewing applications and conducting interviews – it’s crucial that you have the experience to match your ambitions, and getting that first opportunity to gain experience should be a priority.

One way is to start out in a very basic role which doesn’t require any previous experience, and use it as a stepping stone. Examples of these include office admin roles, bar work, customer service, telesales and so on. Recruitment agencies are often a good source for these types of roles. Other places to look are Job Centres and especially university career services.

As well as entry-level temp jobs, a lot of volunteering and extra-curricular activities are also open to people with no prior experience. There’s great diversity in the volunteering sector, in terms of the roles you can perform, and the organisations you can work with – from a homeless outreach charity on the streets of London, to an international relief agency in the developing world. And the same diversity applies obviously to extra-curricular activities. These can be a great way to gain the skills which are demanded by employers. You will often find that you are able to get involved at a more responsible and senior level when doing voluntary work compared with an entry-level job.

All these tactics will enable you to build your portfolio of skills, and add substance to your CV, but they can, crucially, help you discover what you’re interested in, what you enjoy doing and your options entering the world of work. You’ll find the experience you gain will give you confidence when compiling CVs and completing applications forms, but you should also aim to be able to speak articulately about what you got out of a particular experience, and how it makes you the kind of candidate they’re looking for as this will be important at interviews.

You should also use your experiences strategically: if you are clear on your career direction, you should choose temporary jobs and extra-curricular activities carefully to try and build the particular portfolio of skills and experience that’s required in that field. In this way, you can work towards entering a career using different jobs as stepping stones.

Essentially, experience can set you apart from other candidates and with record numbers of graduate job applications being completed this year, it seems the need for experience is going to get greater. Whatever university stage you are at, work at gaining relevant experience into your career plans.


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