Nail that job application and interview: Six top tips for graduates

We have a lot of experience of recruiting graduates, writes Richard Bryan. Here are some of the key things we know employers are looking for.

University is over – and armed with your degree you are hoping to make that first step onto the career ladder.

It’s a very exciting time. There are countless opportunities out there – but also lots of tough competition from other new graduates.

So how do you make yourself stand out from the crowd?

At Qa Research we’ve had 20 years’ experience of recruiting university leavers.

In that time we’ve regularly come across job hunters whose application or interview has been let down by a lack of preparation.

So we thought it might be helpful to share the best ways to impress a potential employer.

Tip 1: Make your covering letter shine

First impressions count. And your first contact with a company is often the covering letter that goes with your job application.

Letters with spelling mistakes or glaring grammatical errors are likely to end up on the reject pile. So too are those which are clumsily constructed and ramble on.

By contrast, a well-written, error-free letter will ensure you clear that first hurdle.

How to impress

  • spend time redrafting your letter until it is concise, focused and free of errors
  • use your computer’s spell checker or a dictionary
  • ask a diligent friend to read through your letter, make corrections and offer advice on tightening up the structure and getting the tone right.

Tip 2: Do your research

Before writing your covering letter, spend an hour reading the company’s website. It will be time well spent.

Employers want to know that you are engaged with the work they are doing. Demonstrate that with references to specific company projects or fields of expertise in your introductory letter.

That will see your application leapfrog those by graduates who have sent in a generic letter, which could have gone to almost any employer.

How to impress

  • do your research: look on the company website, read its social media feeds, search for press articles
  • make this obvious in the covering letter, with a specific reference to the company and its work in your first paragraph
  • consolidate this by citing a specific company project and relate that to the job specification

Tip 3: Keep your CV short and to the point

Your potential employers will be busy people. So don’t burden them with the first draft of your unedited life story.

Far better to keep your CV concise, including only the information pertinent to the job on offer.

How to impress

  • limit your CV to two pages
  • arrange the information into sections with clear headings – Education, Skills, Experience etc
  • use bullet points for clarity
  • ensure all information is relevant to the job specification. This is particularly important when considering what extra-curricular activities and outside interests you choose to list. These should demonstrate the qualities your employer is looking for, e.g. initiative/ leadership/ team skills. If they don’t, take them out

Tip 4: Preparation is everything

You’ve followed the above advice and produced a letter and CV sharp enough to secure you a job interview.

Now’s the time to put the real work in.

Here are three questions that you should anticipate in any interview:

  1. What do you know about this company?
  2. Why do you want the job?
  3. What are your strengths and weaknesses?

You need answers that stand out by way of their clarity, originality and knowledge. Invest a few hours in honing them.

How to impress

  • your answer to question 1 should convey your in-depth knowledge of the company’s most positive attributes in a few short sentences. Draft and redraft your answer until it zings
  • make sure the answer to question 2 demonstrates your passion for this area of work
  • prepare an answer for question 3 which proves your strengths match the job spec, while your weaknesses can be improved by your willingness to learn

Tip 5: Create a compelling presentation

Many companies will ask you to undertake a short presentation on a relevant topic at the interview stage.

Here is your chance to shine. Follow a few key pointers to score top marks.

How to impress

  • allow yourself plenty of time to prepare a structured, compelling presentation
  • make sure you stick to the brief and the time limit
  • look for ways to showcase skills relevant to the job spec, eg demonstrate your proficiency with data if that is a core requirement
  • use a mixture of media, including eye-catching images
  • rehearse so you are articulate, informative and can hold the attention of your interviewing panel

Tip 6: Ask the right questions

Candidates will almost always be asked if they have any questions at the end of the interview.

This is your last test. Be ready. That way you can avert the danger of saying nothing.

How to impress

  • prepare a question which shows thoughtfulness and commitment
  • for example, ask about training opportunities, the company’s aspirations or a specific project or client

Follow these tips to give yourself the best chance of impressing prospective employers and really get going with your career. Good luck!

Richard Bryan is Managing Director at Qa Research: