Advice & resources for graduates

How to stand out to recruiters

When you first enter the job market it can be hard to know how to present yourself professionally. Most people look around to see what others are doing and copy them. I get it, it’s a safe strategy. The problem with this approach is that by copying everyone else, you guarantee you will blend in when what you really want to do is stand out. And the way to stand out is by being different.

Applying for jobs is basically a marketing exercise. The goal of marketing for a brand is to differentiate their product in some way and persuade people that they should choose it over a competitor’s offer. See how this parallels with applying for jobs? 

For you to do this in the job market, you must present yourself as a more compelling prospect than the other candidates applying for the same jobs as you. The best way to do that is to create a compelling narrative around your unique set of strengths. 

In marketing, this is called a value proposition. In the job market, you need your own value proposition, (aka the reason why people should hire you.)

To create your value proposition, start by identifying your main strengths, skills, interests, and experiences that set you apart from other people. You don’t need lots of them. Quality is better than quantity. Four of five is enough to create a unique set of attributes that will allow you to differentiate yourself from other people. 

Once you have come up with your unique set of desirable qualities, write out an elevator pitch (a couple of sentences that can be spoken or read in under 30 seconds) that covers these key traits, the kind of work you are looking for, and what you bring to the table. Don’t use generic terms (e.g. I’m passionate, hard-working, etc.); everybody uses these. Get specific and inject your personality into it. Don’t try to please everyone with this pitch statement, craft it so it makes you stand out as a good fit for the kind of roles you want to apply for. Be bold.

This is a good talk from an NBS alumna on how to make yourself stand out to recruiters, which goes into more detail about this stuff. She also has a book. Don’t buy the book; all the best takeaways from it are covered in this talk.

Once you have your elevator pitch nailed, make sure you have it written down, saved somewhere, and memorised. You can use it in lots of different contexts. It will be a good starting point for the personal summary at the top of your CV, and you can use it to answer the inevitable “Why should we hire you?” question at job interviews.

A quick word about social media. It will really help you to have at least one professionally-minded social media account. For most people this is LinkedIn. Twitter is great too, and any platform can work if you use it in the right way. A professionally focused social account will help you to network and get on people’s radar. Regularly posting content related to your area of work shows that you are engaged with your field. Creating original content to share your thoughts is the strongest type of post to make, but if you will struggle to this regularly, share valuable content you have found on the internet so you maintain an active feed. Even if you just go the LinkedIn route, posting regularly will help you stand out better than just using it as an online CV as most people do.

LinkedIn strategy

Here’s a strategy that works for building a network on Linked In:

Follow hashtags on topics you are interested in. Use them to find conversations you would like to be a part of and join in the discussions by adding a personal perspective or something of value.

Look at the profiles of people involved in these conversations. When you find someone you want to connect with, send them a DM. Don’t just hit the Connect button – send them a short message. The best way to write your message is to find something they have recently done, such as a project they have delivered, a milestone they hit, or a new job they landed (look at their posts) and congratulate them for it. Then say you are looking to work in their industry and that you would like to connect. Never ask for anything. Just pay them a (non-creepy) compliment and ask to connect. E.g.

Hey, I saw your post about how well your Medium articles are performing – that’s awesome. I am just about to graduate, and I’m looking to work in the same industry as you. I’d love to connect.

That’s all you have to do. Most people will accept your request, and, one by one, you can build your network. The benefit of this is that you start seeing their posts in your feed, so you can be involved in the same conversations as them. They will also start seeing your posts, which puts you in their mind. Then, if you ever need to reach out to them at a later date, you won’t be a total stranger, and they will be more likely to help you.

This is not a short-term payoff strategy. I’ve had connections that didn’t lead to anything for years, then one day an opportunity would come along, and suddenly one of my connections would turn out to be the perfect person to reach out to, or vice-versa, and we would help one another. Often the best way a contact can help you is by introducing you to someone they know. Networking is a long game. Put the work in and be patient.

LinkedIn content strategy

As well as being involved in conversations around other people’s posts, you also need to post your own content. LinkedIn has lots of easy ways to share things you have achieved, like certificates, but the default posts it makes aren’t very engaging. You can do better by writing your own posts.

Not sure what to write? Think of the kind of content that gets your attention on social media and emulate that. Here are some simple ideas to get you started:

  1. Weekly round-up posts – share what you have been up to this week. It doesn’t have to be anything big. Regular updates show that you are actively engaged in your area of interest.
  2. Sharing things you have learned – e.g. Here are three things I learned from working on project X.
  3. Documenting your progress with a project or long-term goal. Don’t just post final outcomes and achievements. People love to follow someone’s journey, so share works in progress. Nobody expects you to be the finished article. Plus, when you post the final outcome, people who have followed your progress will be more invested in it.

Your CV

You should maintain an up-to-date core CV. Don’t use this generic CV when applying for jobs. Use it as a starting point to create a tailored CV for each role you apply for. The main thing you may want to change on each version of your CV is your personal statement. Tweak the details to make them more relevant to the role you are applying for. Look at the language the recruiter uses in their job advert, job description, and person spec, then mirror this language in your CV.

Your CV should have zero mistakes or typos in it. Create a free account and cut and paste your text into a Grammarly document to edit it. It is a much better spelling and grammar checker than MS Word and even makes suggestions to improve your writing.

When you submit your CV, send it as a PDF. This will ensure the formatting doesn’t get messed up when it is opened on a different computer.

Applying for jobs

Every job role you apply for will have two documents associated with it:

  • The Job Description
  • The Person Specification

The job description describes the main duties a role covers. This will give you a sense of whether the job is appealing to you. Managers also use this document to evaluate the performance of whoever is in the role. 

The person specification describes the attributes applicants for the role should have. This is a far more important document when it comes to job applications. The more closely you match the person specification, the more likely you are to be asked to attend an interview. Therefore, you should very intentional about how you complete your application.

Make sure you clearly address how you hit every point of the person specification in your application. Sometimes it can feel like you’re being too obvious. But trust me, you’re not. All the recruiter knows about you is what you tell them, so spell it out. The easier it is for them to see how you are a good fit for the role, the better your chance of getting hired. 

The criteria on a person spec sheet is usually split into two categories; essential, and desirable. You must highlight how you meet all the essential criteria in your application. You can get away without meeting every single desirable quality, but the more you don’t meet, the lower your chance of success.

Once you’ve written your application, you need to proof-read and sense-check it. It is best not to do this on the same day you write it. You will be amazed how sleeping on it and coming back with a fresh pair of eyes can help you notice things that are missing or could be phrased better.

Your job application should have zero mistakes in it. One silly typo can be all it takes to stop you from getting shortlisted. Instead of writing your answers directly into the application form, write them in a word processing app and save the document. This has two advantages:

  • It feels less final, so you feel less pressure
  • If the application form crashes part-way through, you don’t lose your answers because you have them saved in a document

Don’t do your proof-reading and editing in your saved document. Instead, cut and paste your text into a Grammarly document to edit it. It is a much better spelling and grammar checker than MS Word and even makes suggestions to improve your writing. Clear writing is a product of clear thinking and a well-written application really makes you stand out.

Once you’re happy with the edited text in Grammarly, cut and paste it back into your word processing document and save it. Now you can cut and paste your answers into the application form with confidence.

When writing job applications, remember that the information you provide shouldn’t just be about you. It should be about what you can offer the hiring company. Position yourself as a problem solver because companies hire people to solve problems for them. Make your strengths and passions clear.

Think about how to frame your experience. It can be hard to have much relevant experience in your early career. Still, all roles have transferrable skills that can be adapted to be relevant in seemingly unrelated roles. For example, if you are applying for a sales job and have previous experience as a waiter, you can connect the two. Both involve listening to customers, understanding their needs, and recommending things they would like by highlighting how they meet their needs, so emphasize these aspects of your previous experience.

Look at the language each company uses in their job advert and communications, then echo it in any written communication you send them.

When looking for vacancies, think about what kind of company culture you want to work in. Would you prefer to be in a large or small company? A fast-paced, target driven culture or a values-led culture?

Don’t take it personally if you don’t get selected for an interview. Popular roles are usually overrun with applicants. To make the hiring process more manageable, sometimes only a random selection of applications are considered. So, just because you didn’t get shortlisted doesn’t mean you weren’t a good candidate. Successful job applications is really a numbers game. You just have to stick at it until the law of averages works in your favour.

Preparing for interviews

Companies hire you to do a job, and jobs are usually about solving problems. So, frame yourself as a problem solver in your job application and interview. This George Clooney quote is a good mindset to be in when you apply for a job or attend an interview:

Recruiters want to get a sense of who you are, not just what you are capable of doing. Put your personality into your applications and your interview answers. Being professional doesn’t mean being bland. The more you can express yourself (while remaining appropriate), the better. Tell stories, share your experiences. Don’t overdo it, but dropping in a couple of anecdotes can go a long way to making you more relatable and memorable than other candidates.

There are a few things you absolutely must do in preparation for an interview:

Research the company. Find their strategy and mission documents on their website and memorise the key points. Try to weave references to them into your answers; it shows you have done your research. You want a sense of the company culture, their purpose, where they are at, and where they are going. In the interview, you want to communicate why you care about their mission and how you can contribute to it. Don’t give generic answers, tailor what you say to what you know about the company.

Look at their social media. This will give you a good sense of the company culture and what their current priorities are. Again, use this insight to frame your answers and show why you would be a good fit for the company. If you know who the people on your interview panel are, look them up on social media, especially Twitter. This will give you a sense of what they are like and will help you figure out how to relate to them during the interview. It also demystifies who they are, which can do a lot to calm your nerves in the interview.

Prepare an elevator pitch that covers who you are, what you care about, why you want to work at the company, and why they should hire you for the role. This is critical. At every interview, you will be asked some variation of why you want to work there or why they should hire you. Being able to give a strong, confident answer can be the thing that gets you the job.

Prepare five or six examples of your real-world experience that demonstrate your most relevant strengths, skills, and knowledge for the role. Interview questions are often phrased as “Can you give an example of when you have done x?” Having a strong set of examples to rely on is the key to giving compelling interview answers. Structure your answers using the STAR technique:

  • Situation: provide some context for your example
  • Task: outline the task you were given
  • Action: describe what you did to achieve the task
  • Results: explain the positive impacts that resulted from the actions you took

Expect a curveball question. Common curveball questions include things like:

  • If you could be an animal, which one would you be?
  • What three things would you have on a desert island with you?
  • Tell me how you load a dishwasher?

These may seem like fun questions thrown in to lighten up the interview, but there is more going on. Interviewers ask these questions is to get a sense of your personality and how you think, so answer in a way that shows a cogent thought process. 

For instance, if you are asked the animal question, a bad answer would be “I’d be a dog because I love dogs and I have one.” That does not illustrate your personality or a thought process.

Better answers provide some insight about you, your thought process, and your values, for example; “A lion, because I would have no predators, which would give me a sense of calm and control of my environment.” Or; “A starling, because I would have the freedom of flight and could travel around Europe because of my seasonal migration patterns.” 

Try to make your answer reflect the traits that relate to your role. For instance, the lion answer might be good if you applied for a leadership role, but no so good if you need to be a team player.

Similarly, a bad answer to the dishwasher question would be; “I put stuff wherever it fits until it is full, then I turn it on.” A better answer would be; “I stack the main area from back to front so I don’t have to reach over plates at the front to put things behind them. Large plates go on the left and smaller items go on the right so I can maximise the use of space and make things easy to stack when I remove them. And I separate out the cutlery into knives, forks, and spoons as I add them to the basket so they are already organised when I go to put them back in the drawer.” This shows you have a detailed, organised thought process for executing tasks, which is a great trait for an employee to have.

Curveball questions are almost impossible to prepare for, so don’t bother. Instead, pause for a moment and think about why the interviewer is asking them and what they are looking for before you answer. Are they trying to see if you are creative, organised, logical, or something else? Not all interviewers ask curveball questions, and those that do often don’t put much weight into how you answer them. But for some, the way you answer a curveball question might be the thing that gets you the job.

If you are invited for an interview, the hiring manager must think you are capable of doing the job, on paper at least, based on your application. Interviews are time-consuming for a recruiter and only a small number of applicants are usually interviewed. So congratulate yourself for being selected. 

Interviews are mainly about probing deeper into the information on your application, getting a better sense of who you are, and seeing if you are a good fit for the company. So, don’t be overly focused on proving you can do the job – you’ll get a chance to do that if they give you an unseen task to perform. Instead, focus on showcasing your personality, showing interest in the company, highlighting your key attributes, what your thought process is like, and how you would approach your work. Companies don’t always hire the most competent person on paper. They hire people they want to work with. Being conversational and relatable creates a good impression that counts for a lot.

If there is an opportunity to contact someone at the company for an informal chat before you apply for the role, take it. It gets you on their radar and helps you stand out against everybody who didn’t bother to call them and only sent an application form. Don’t be shy in making a follow-up call after your application or interview if you haven’t heard back from the company within a reasonable timeframe. It shows you are interested in the role. Being proactive in life is usually better than being passive.

Job interviews are like exams; it is impossible to over-prepare. There will always be things you prepare for that you don’t get a chance to use, and there will always be things you never expected and weren’t prepared for. That’s just the way it is. Interviews take practice. Don’t be hard on yourself if the first few don’t go as well as you hoped. Use them as learning experiences so you can be better next time.

Figuring out your career path

Working out what you want to do is hard. If you know exactly what you want to do already, good for you. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Most people don’t figure out what they want to do until they are well into their thirties. Plus, it’s hard to plan too far ahead with careers. The world is changing so fast that the job you will want ten years from now probably doesn’t even exist yet. 

Use your early years to try lots of things, gain experience, and figure out what you do and don’t like doing. Worry about money later. Get lots of broad experience early then focus on going narrow and deep on what you want once you have figured out what that is. 

Gaining experience and skills that will set you up for a satisfying career and pay off later is more important than earning as much as possible early on. Get the experience first and build a network. The money will come later.

Here’s an article I wrote on things to consider when evaluating career opportunities. It includes an exercise you could try to help you figure out your values and identify companies that would be a good fit for you.
figuring out your career is complex. You can simplify it by thinking about four different things:

  • What you are good at
  • What you love
  • What the world needs
  • What you can get paid for

Ideally, you want to find a job that ticks all four boxes. This concept is known as Ikagai. The diagram below explains the Ikagai concept. Do some reflection around these four qualities and see what you come up with.

For more detail on career planning, I highly recommend reading a book called The Squiggly Career, written by NBS alumnae. In case you hadn’t guessed already, it explains that career paths do not follow a straight line but meander all over the place based on the opportunities presented to you. By being intentional with your choices you can have more control over where that line goes. The book is full of thought exercises that can help you figure out what you want to do, which roles will and won’t be a good fit for you, when you should change job, etc. 

Bonus content for anybody pursuing a career in marketing

My area of expertise is marketing, so I tend to mentor marketing students. If this is you, you may find these resources with up-to-date technical info on how modern marketing works useful:

Learn SEO. When you Google something, how often do you go past page one of Google’s search results? Hardly ever, I bet. There is a marketing joke that goes:

Q: Where is the best place to hide a dead body?

A: On page two of Google’s search results because nobody looks there.

Getting the front page of Google’s search engine results page (SERP) is make or break for a lot of businesses. To get there, a business’s web content must have strong SEO. So, SEO skills are in great demand.

Here’s a list of good SEO resources for self-learning online. 

A great website for in-depth learning about SEO. I wouldn’t even bother looking anywhere else, except maybe the guy’s YouTube channel. He is SEO Yoda.

Keep a swipe file. A swipe file is a folder where you save examples of marketing campaigns or adverts that you like. Save anything you see with a strong campaign slogan, artwork, or clever copywriting in your swipe file. If a social media ad makes you want to click on it, save a screenshot of it to your swipe file. 

Building a swipe file will help you in two ways. Firstly, you will have an archive of adverts that you can look through and deconstruct to understand what makes them work. This will serve as a source of inspiration that will help you in your own work. 

Secondly, a common question in marketing job interviews is “What recent marketing campaign have you been impressed by, and why?” By keeping a swipe file, you will be able to nail this question. It also won’t hurt to mention the fact that you keep a swipe file. Recruiters will be impressed that you are so engaged with the world of marketing. 

That’s enough about finding and preparing for jobs. Now I’ll highlight some useful things to know once you have one.

Business communication

When you first step into the world of work, it can be difficult to know how you are expected to communicate. The thing is, there is no single standard, universal style. Every sector has its own language and methods of communication, and every business has its own internal culture that will be reflected in its communications. So, I can’t give you a cookie-cutter template to follow. But there are some universal principles you can apply that will allow the emails and documents you write to come across as professional.

Being able to write well is a valuable business skill, regardless of your role. Business happens on the clock. Time is precious and everyone is bombarded with information. So, the easier you can make it for someone to understand the key points you are making, the better. The means keeping things simpleclear, and concise. These pointers from David Perell, who runs an online writing school, are an excellent set of guidelines for effective business communication:

21 tactics to being a better writer. This guide is focused on writing articles for the web but much of the advice applies to writing uni essays, job applications, emails, and general business writing.

Clear writing is a product of clear thinking and practice. Remember to run everything through Gramarly before you send it out.

Working methods and productivity

There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes. Similarly, there is usually more than one way to approach work projects. Everybody has a different style of working that fits their natural tendencies. If you try to work in a way that doesn’t suit you, you will make things more difficult than they need to be. Only you can figure out the best working methods for you. As a starting point, I would suggest discovering the right productivity system for you then building a workflow around it. This quick quiz is a simple way to figure out the right approach for you.

Some key behaviours that will help you thrive in the workplace. Follow these and you shouldn’t have any problems:

  • Build good relationships and be respectful and supportive of people
  • Work with the end goal in mind
  • Listen and pay attention to what people are saying and doing
  • Contribute your own ideas
  • Don’t play the blame game. Own your mistakes as well as your successes, but make sure you learn from them and don’t repeat them
  • Know your circle of competence and don’t be afraid to ask questions when you don’t know something
  • Meet your deadlines
  • Under-promise and over-deliver. It is much better to manage someone’s expectations then send them something better than they were expecting than it is to get someone’s hopes up by promising something amazing then failing to deliver it
  • Don’t worry about being perfect. Good enough is good enough and done is better than perfect
  • Be patient. You have to prove yourself and win people’s trust in order to progress. Success and promotions don’t happen overnight

Personal effectiveness

Some things that I have found help me to be effective in work and life:

Never stop working on improving yourself. Nobody is ever the finished article. Aim to adopt a growth mindset and try to identify areas where you have a fixed mindset.

Develop a note-taking system. I can’t stress enough how valuable this is. It’s hard to remember everything we learn. Capturing useful information in a note-taking system is like having a second brain you can refer back to whenever you want. I recommend creating a free Evernote account and saving useful information from books you read or podcasts you listen to in it. They have a phone app so you can take notes on the go.

The value of doing this might not be obvious straight away, it shows up five or ten years later when you have a huge archive of searchable notes instead of a bunch of information you once knew but have since forgotten. It is also a really good way of engaging with ideas and identifying connections between them. If you’re unsure about this, commit to trying it just for one month and see if the habit sticks.

If you want to get into the weeds on setting up an effective note-taking system, here’s a couple of articles to get you on your way:

An article on the PARA note-taking system. It is part of a series, some of which is behind a paywall. Just read the free articles – they will give you enough info to set your system up.  

An article on taking smart notes. This gets a bit over-complicated with the details. The main takeaway is the use of bolding and highlighting. This works well when combined with the PARA system on a platform like Evernote.

Document your achievements. Each month, write down the main things you have done, what impact they had, and what you learned by doing them. It’s super-helpful to refer back to. You can use what you capture to update your CV and elevator pitch, post on LinkedIn, or to plan answers to interview questions. Documenting your achievements is useful for building confidence because it makes it easy to see how far you have progressed. Don’t be embarrassed by your previous achievements when you look back at them. Be proud of where you are now and how you have evolved.

Do self-reflection exercises. A weekly review and annual review are game-changers for self-awareness, problem-solving and personal development. What you learn by doing them informs so many other things. You will be able to fix problems in your life more quickly, seek out opportunities for which you are a good fit, and perform better in interviews. When you know the kind of roles you are best suited to, you are more likely to succeed at getting them and will perform better and enjoy them more when you do. Self-awareness is a meta-skill that underpins everything else.

Your weekly review can take any format you like. If you want to see the questions I use for mine, read this article.

General advice

In your twenties, don’t worry about chasing money. Go after experiences, skill and knowledge acquisition, and relationships. They will compound and pay long-term dividends that dwarf an extra couple of grand in your early years.

Don’t try to plan too far ahead. Opportunities build on one another and it is hard to see more than a couple of steps ahead. Life is like a tree. You start off at the trunk then take a continually forking path throughout life. It is impossible to know which branch you will end up at when you start out. A good understanding of your natural traits, strengths, and weaknesses is better than a firm plan. They will help you know which path to take when the branch forks.

Build a strong network. Almost all the big opportunities in my life came through knowing other people. Maybe you have heard the phrase “your network is your net worth.” It’s true. You can’t do it all alone. People like to work with people they know. The more people you know, the more opportunities you will have.

Capture positive feedback whenever you receive it. If someone compliments you for something you did or identifies a strength you have, make a note of it. It will help you understand your skills profile and is something you can refer to in job applications and interviews.

Don’t worry about making mistakes. Learn from them and move on.

Ask questions. Don’t worry about looking stupid or drawing attention to the limitations of your knowledge. In your twenties, it’s easy to think that people in, say, their forties have it all figured out. By the time you hit your forties, you realise that nobody has it all figured out. The smartest people know the limitations of their competence and are happy to admit what they don’t know. Asking someone who knows the answer is the quickest way to learn. 

A book recommendation to finish: Managing Oneself. It’s author, Peter Drucker, was a legendary business consultant and author who wrote forty books in his lifetime. Though only the size of a postcard and less than sixty pages, it is a treasure trove of insights about how people should think about themselves, their careers, working relationships, and the second half of their lives. You can read it from cover to cover in about an hour and come away with an absolute feast of food for thought. It may not give you all the answers but it will definitely help you ask the right questions.

Don’t be a stranger

If you want to stay in touch with me, you can follow me on Twitter and/or connect with me on LinkedIn