Knowing how to find a graduate job, becoming familiar with the work and doing it well is a good start to your career. But to make the most of your abilities, to make progress in your career, and to have control over the direction your career takes, you need to do more. You need to ensure that your skills are noticed and valued both within the organisation you work for and outside it. The way you project your skills is part of your career management, as the impact you make on others will determine how far and how fast you progress in your job.

Practical steps to graduate skills

When you have a good idea of your present talents and strengths, you can see how these fit in with your career aims. You should build on your strengths and eliminate any bad habits that stop you performing. The aspects to concentrate on are those that most affect your work. So if you have several skills that need improving, choose to tackle first the one that will make the most difference to your performance in your current job. Some, such as timekeeping can be remedied with basic changes, however, some such as software knowledge gaps may require formal training.

You also need to present your strengths in the best possible light, so they become an important part of your image. Don't underestimate any skill you have that is of benefit to others. Highlight it by improving on it and drawing attention to it through demonstration. That way you will be subtly making sure as many people as possible appreciate it.

In today's changing world you need a variety of skills. The first step is to conduct a graduate self assessment and decide which skills you already possess. You should then consider which are your strongest ones and which ones you like using most.

1. Self-reliance skills

  • Self-awareness
  • Proactivity
  • Willingness to learn
  • Self-promotion
  • Networking
  • Planning action

2. People skills

  • Team work
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Oral communication
  • Leadership
  • Customer orientation
  • Foreign language

3. General skills

  • Problem-solving
  • Flexibility
  • Business acumen
  • IT/Computer literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Commitment

4. Specialist skills

  • Specific occupational skills
  • Technical skills
Graduates Talking

Your career goals

Your first objective is to work out exactly what you want to achieve in your working life, both short- and long-term. Do you want to get on the promotion ladder of your current company and be MD by the time you're 30? Or do you want to make sure you're in line for a good pay rise? Do you want to get as much experience as you can in your current job in order to get a better job elsewhere? Discover what is motivating you to develop yourself and use all available opportunities to your career advantage. That 'something' is your goal - that's where you want to be.

Creating the right image

One of the best ways to achieve your goals is to get noticed by the right people, for the right reasons. How you are noticed - how others perceive you - is your 'image'. Think of it as your skills package and how you present it. Personal branding is not just to do with how you look, but is about your attitudes, expectations, abilities and how you manage relationships at work.

Being able to answer these questions effectively is of intrinsic importance in creating the right image to employers.

  • How well organised am I?
  • Do people trust me?
  • What are my leisure interests?
  • How do I cope with pressure?
  • How do I keep myself well informed?
  • How do I react to criticism?
  • How do I adapt to new situations?

Graduate skills employers expect

All jobs require an employee to have certain skills and attributes that enable them to do their work properly and effectively. Graduate jobs in particular are conspicuous in their need for such qualities. To be truly employable, the graduates who fill these jobs should be capable of doing not only their own job, but at least a hundred others besides.

They must possess a portfolio of skills such that they are flexible enough to adapt to any number of roles and situations. To adequately understand employability, you should take some time to think about what these sometimes abstract skills and qualities actually mean within specific job roles.

As well as the standard qualities such as:

  • Work experience
  • Degree classification
  • A-level grades (or equivalent)
  • Computing/IT skills and numeracy
  • Employers also look for a number of other attributes, such as
    • Verbal and written communication skills
    • Enthusiasm
    • Personal/transferable skills
    • Self-reliance

How to develop skills at university

It's important to learn subject-specific and vocational skills. Many careers require that you have certain, often practical, skills and knowledge before you start working e.g. medicine, engineering and teaching. Therefore, by pursuing these careers and degrees you will automatically develop specific skills with minimal additional effort.

It is also necessary to develop general, softer employability qualities. Such qualities include: communication, team working, problem solving, etc. Taking a university degree in itself will help you to develop some of these qualities, as will some of the additional activities that go on at universities and colleges.

How university can affect your employability

In a perfect world, the university you attend would make no difference to your subsequent employability. In this kind of world, a 2:1 in English from the highest ranking university would mean exactly the same as a 2:1 in English from the lowest ranking university. Of course, in reality, this is not the case.

For the right or wrong reasons, there is a hierarchy of universities and colleges, largely based on tradition but also on particular strengths and weaknesses, which moves employers to favour certain institutions and reject others. Regardless of whether or not it is a legitimate recruitment practice, the truth is that courses do vary a great deal between institutions. Different syllabuses, teaching staff, facilities, and levels of student support and so on mean that the defining characteristic of a university degree course tends not to be the subject but the institution.

But why will the university you attended make such a difference to your future employability? It might help to break the general concept of employability into two: actual employability and perceived employability.
Actual employability is the collection of skills and qualities that an employable individual has about them. While it is largely down to the specific person, individual universities have differing effects on your actual graduate employability skills because they each have their own unique set of characteristics.

Perceived employability is the element of employability that is largely out of your hands, otherwise known as 'reputation' and it is defined by the beliefs and opinions of employers of your institution. These opinions/judgements can be based on traditional views, league tables and personal experience, either first-hand because the employer has studied there, or from employing other graduates from the university.

The skills graduate recruiters want

Many online registrations will ask you to give specific examples detailing different aspects of your skills portfolio (e.g. "tell us about an occasion when you worked as part of a team"). You are also likely to face similar questions at interviews. Recruiters might also ask you what you have learnt from your experiences and how you would put your newly developed skills into action in different circumstances.

Make sure you do not undersell the experiences you've gained whilst at university. Working in a bar or managing a busy shop will help you to develop key communication, negotiation, teamwork and customer service skills.

Enhancing your graduate skills

In the current competitive environment, employers increasingly expect transferable skills "to come with the graduate package". Get ahead of the game by reviewing your experiences now.

As more and more people leave university with a 2:1, employers expect students to be able to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Whatever your career plans, it's likely that potential employers will expect you to demonstrate a range of skills. The way that you present your experiences could give you an advantage over other candidates.

Employers are generally looking for well-rounded candidates, although some more specific careers may require additional skills or background knowledge. You can research this by looking at information from employers, industry organisations and specialist careers publications. It might also be useful to talk to people working in the industry.

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