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4 ways to stand out from the crowd as a graduate
Only 3% of students who apply for a graduate job will be successful – find out the 4 key things graduates are lacking and how you can stand out from the crowd.
E pluribus unum—out of many, come one—is best known as the traditional motto of the United States of America, but it’s also a fairly good description of the graduate recruitment process. According to the most recent report by the Australian Association of Graduate Employers, each graduate role generates an average of 33 applications. Once one takes into account that a fraction of candidates are eliminated at each stage of the selection process, it emerges that, of the 200,525 applications submitted in 2018 for 2019 graduate programs, only three per cent led to an offer of employment. Out of many, come three in a hundred.
As a graduate presented with this data, the question you’re probably asking yourself is: if I’m one of thirty-three candidates jockeying for a single job, how can I make myself stand out? Fortunately, the findings of the AAGE report suggest a strategy.
When assessing candidates, employers do consider some predictable criteria. For example, almost 60 per cent of employers assess each candidate’s academic performance and consider this metric to be ‘very important’ or ‘quite important’. Similarly, 97 per cent of employers considers teamwork skills to be indispensable. So far, so good: but that’s not the whole story.
The AAGE report asks employers to identify not only the skills they consider to be of critical importance but also the skills that graduate applicants are most likely to lack. Therein lies the window of opportunity: for while it’s important to know the attributes that are desirable and common (lest one be the only candidate without, say, evidence of communication skills), it’s more advantageous to be a candidate who possesses an attribute that’s desirable and rare. In this article, we’ll cover attributes from both categories, with an emphasis on less common qualities that you can cultivate in a bid to stand out from the crowd.
The three skills employers look for (and, in most cases, find)
According to the AAGE survey, one hundred per cent of employers prioritise the identification of graduates with strong communication skills: 89 per cent consider them to be ‘very important’, and eleven per cent deem them ‘very important’. This could explain why, of all the application assessment techniques, behavioural based interviews are most common (used by 90 per cent of employers), followed by group interviews (71 per cent).
Communication skills include techniques such as active listening, appropriate body language, assertiveness, presentation skills, and the effective giving and receiving of feedback. Given their importance, you should definitely brush up if you feel your communication skills need improvement. However, unless you’re a comms whiz, it doesn’t seem likely that communication skills alone will help you to distinguish yourself: of the employers surveyed by the AAGE, only eleven per cent felt that communication skills comprised the attribute most lacking among candidates.
Some 97 per cent of surveyed employers identified the ability to work in a team as a ‘very important’ or ‘quite important’ skill. Successful teamwork requires one to be skilled at communication, leadership, conflict resolution, problem-solving, giving and receiving feedback, and identifying important goals.
Often, teamwork is assessed within the context of a group exercise, with 68 per cent of employers using such exercises during their candidate selection process. And, while the data doesn’t support the conclusion that all graduates are teamwork champions, it does suggest that few are notably abysmal: only five per cent of employers said that ‘teamwork’ was the skill that candidates were most likely to lack. In other words, don’t fail to develop the skill, but also don’t expect to be distinguished by your possession of it.
Interpersonal skills are sought after by 96 per cent of employers, and only five per cent consider them to be amongst the skills that candidates are most likely not to have. This means that it would be far more striking not to have interpersonal skills than to have them in spades. So, if you’re in doubt, make sure to brush up on interpersonal skills like confidence, communication, assertiveness, empathy, and conflict resolution.
The four skills employers look for (and wish they could find more easily)
Understanding of their organisation
Almost 80 per cent of employers consider it important that candidates have some understanding of the organisation at which they’re applying for a job (only four per cent don’t consider it at all). This would seem to be understandable expectation—certainly, a review of the most common interview questions turns up a range of examples (from “What can you offer our company?” to “Why are you interested in this role?”) that presuppose a candidate’s familiarity with both the position for which they’re applying and the overall goals of the organisation that will employ them.
It may come as a surprise then that, despite the obvious benefits of learning as much as possible about prospective employers, some forty per cent of graduates are judged most lacking when it comes to an understanding of their target organisations. Here, then, is a clear opportunity for savvy graduates to stand out from the crowd, especially if they happen to be applying for jobs with the 29 per cent of employers who assess the organisational knowledge of candidates and consider it to be “very important”. In short: make sure you understand as much as possible about the organisation at which you’d like to work before making an application.
If you’re (a) aiming for a job at a company that values well-informed applicants and (b) able to distinguish yourself from other candidates who are conspicuously unaware of what that company does, then, simply by doing some preparatory research, you’ll have given yourself a huge head start. So, how can you go about developing an understanding of your target organisation? Here are four approaches:
- Visit the company’s website and pay special attention to any sections that deal with its history, culture, and values.
- Make sure you understand the main challenges and opportunities facing the organisation. For example, if you’re hoping to work in the property team at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, you might try to learn some basic facts about the domestic property market, such as general trends in Australia’s capital cities.
- Focus on familiarising yourself with two or three major projects in which your target employer has been, or is, involved. For example, if you’re hoping to get a job at Ashurst, you can make note of a few significant mergers or acquisitions that the law firm has supported. Similarly, if you get offered an interview with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, you could briefly review its current policy objectives.
- Get the inside scoop by visiting the GradAustralia website, where you can read tips offered by past graduates who successfully applied for work at your target organisation. Simply search for the company, click on graduate reviews, and then sort the reviews to find advice on topics such as the recruitment process, the company’s culture, and even the type of questions you can expect during interviews.
Remember, it’s already an obvious advantage to know as much as you can about a possible employer—but to develop a contrast between yourself (well-informed) and the four in ten candidates who don’t know where they are during the interview? That’s priceless.
According to the AAGE survey, about 35 per cent of candidates for graduate jobs are most lacking in commercial awareness, which is defined as a general understanding of business and, in particular, the various factors that affect a specific industry.
Just under half (49 per cent) of all employers consider commercial awareness to be ‘very’ or ‘quite’ important. While the report doesn’t specify which employers they are, one can reasonably assume that many of them hail from industries built around commerce and business—that is, organisations from the banking, financial services, and insurance industry; the accounting and professional services industry; the consulting industry; and the commercial branch of the legal sector. Of course, employers from other industries may also assess the commercial awareness of candidates, especially when filling in-house roles related to finance and business.
Given that 35 per cent of candidates are noticeably lacking in commercial awareness, your demonstration of the same attribute promises to give your application an edge, while also making it clear that you’re engaged and well-informed. So, here are some tips on how to develop your commercial awareness:
- Identify the industry to which your target employer belongs (if you’re unsure, look them up on the GradAustralia website). Seek to know which significant events or trends have affected this industry in recent years. For example, if you’re aiming for a job with Rio Tinto, a mining company, you should familiarise yourself with the status of the resources boom. It’s also important to know the role your target employer plays in that industry: is it an established giant, a disruptive newcomer, or something else entirely?
- Prepare for interview questions designed to probe your commercial awareness. These could be specific to your role: for example, if you’re interviewing to be an investment banker, you may be asked about the relative merits of debt and equity. Alternatively, interviewers may ask general commercial questions, such as “what do you think are the key qualities of a successful company?” or “what would you do if you could change one thing about our business in order to make it more competitive?”.
- Review the questions that are most commonly asked during interviews in your industry. Here, the GradAustralia advice portal is invaluable: select your industry and scroll down to the ‘getting hired’ section to find advice that’s tailored to your professional ambitions.
Resilience—the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and setbacks—is ranked as ‘very important’ or ‘quite important’ by 80 per cent of employers. Yet, 17 per cent of candidates are most lacking in this critical skill. Granted, resilience is more dispositional than organisational understanding or commercial awareness, but this doesn’t mean you can’t make a concerted effort to boost your own resilience using evidence-based techniques. For example, the Mayo Clinic offers advice such as being proactive, learning from experience, developing strong, supportive relationships.
Within the context of a job interview, one way you can demonstrate resilience is by highlighting a past experience in which, though things didn’t go to plan, you were able to maintain a positive attitude and seize upon a learning opportunity. You can prepare such an anecdote using the STAR technique, then store it away like an ace up your sleeve.
The concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) was popularized in a best-selling book by Daniel Goleman, who defines it as “the ability to identify, assess, and control one's own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups”. According to Goleman, emotional intelligence has five components: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Though this model is somewhat controversial (researchers disagree about the components of EQ, and whether or not it deserves study as a discrete concept), a general consensus has emerged that high emotional intelligence correlates with positive outcomes such as academic achievement, workplace performance, and psychological well-being.
As such, it’s not surprising that employers look favourably upon candidates with standout emotional intelligence: 78% of them consider it to be ‘very important’ or ‘quite important’. However, employers also state that 16 per cent of graduates are most lacking in EQ. Granted, being part of the emotionally intelligent 84 per cent mightn’t seem like the best way to get a competitive edge. But perhaps that’s a misleading number: it could be that employers are more likely to perceive candidates as most lacking in discrete aspects of emotional intelligence (hence the report’s finding that, according to employers, 11 per cent of graduates are most lacking in communication skills, 5 per cent in interpersonal skills, and 3 per cent in self-management).
In any case, the value placed on emotional intelligence is a reminder that one should focus on developing the skills that comprise it. Along with commercial awareness and an understanding of your target organisation, high EQ could win you a place among the 21 per cent of graduates about whom employers told the AAGE: 'no skills found to be lacking.'
Applying with confidence
As a graduate applying for competitive jobs, you won’t always know who you’re up against. However, thanks to the AAGE report, it’s possible to get a sense of what qualities are most (and least) common among your cohort. By focusing on the four desirable but rare attributes—understanding of an organisation, commercial awareness, resilience, and emotional intelligence—you can develop qualities that will help you stand out from the crowd and thereby increase the chances of you making it into your graduate job of choice. For tips on how to do so, don’t forget to check out GradAustralia’s advice portal.