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Advancing your chances of a top graduate job

By Charlie Ball

Charlie Ball has been Head of Labour Market Intelligence for more than 20 years at JISC, the UK’s digital, data and technology agency on tertiary education, research and innovation. His wealth of varied expertise in the field of graduate employment makes him an authoritative voice of advice for graduates, new and not-so-new, looking to boost their job prospects in today’s market. We asked Charlie to give us his top tips for graduate success.

At present, the UK graduate labour market is reasonably strong. Although there has been a downward trend since last year, that trend is relatively shallow and by normal standards the labour market remains robust.

At the time of writing in late 2023, the Office of National Statistics noted that there were around 988,000 unfilled vacancies in the UK, 40 to 50% of which are at graduate level. There were

• 45,000 vacancies in IT
• 36,000 in financial services
• 91,000 in professional services
• 179,000 in health and social work
• 67,000 in education – to all intents and purposes all at graduate level.

Many of these jobs, of course, are not at entry level (indeed, we have a particular issue with the supply of mid-career professionals right now), but as they are filled, vacancies at the bottom of the experience ladder become free as workers get better-paid roles to replace those who have moved on. Many of these unfilled roles will become, in time, opportunities for new graduates.

The reason the graduate job market is stronger than our current economy might suggest is that for the last few years we have been battling shortages of skilled workers in many sectors. COVID, which caused many workers to leave the workforce, is one reason. The success of hybrid working, meaning that the economic damage to hybrid sectors from COVID was much smaller than expected, is another. Shortages in tech, health and, increasingly, education get the most coverage but professional services and finance also struggle to get graduates into many jobs (especially smaller businesses in these industries). Indeed, the Bank of England, in their autumn quarterly summary of business conditions, noted that worker shortages in professional services, IT and engineering in particular were so severe that it was actively harming those industries’ abilities to operate as effectively as they could.

Of course, this does not mean that it is easy to get a job; it still requires effort, patience and even a bit of luck. So, how can we maximise our chances of getting a job? Here are some tips.

1. Talk to the experts

The UK higher education system has the best careers advisory network in the country, and, arguably, the world. Use it, use it as much as you can; take advantage of everything they have to offer. At UofG, Careers, Employability & Opportunity can empower you to reach your potential, and is available for two years from your graduation date. You can attend masterclasses in all aspects of the recruitment process from job searching, CVs and application forms to interviews and psychometric testing. Do it all, that’s what they’re there for, and many students – the ones going for the same jobs as you – don’t use them. You can continue to attend employer events and after the two years, you can still be part of UofG's thriving alumni community on LinkedIn.

2. Magic robots won’t help as much as you think

ChatGPT and similar artificial intelligence (AI) programs can help you write great CVs and covering letters. And everyone’s using them, right?


'Everyone’s using them.' You know what that means? In the last six months, employers have seen applicants switching to AI for their applications en masse – which means they get hundreds of applications that are all almost exactly identical. And what happens when all your applications are identical? The ones that aren’t stand out even more. So use AI to help with your CV – it’s really a record of achievement – but nobody makes the case for actually giving you the job like you do. A good covering letter or application written without AI (or if you’re really good, written with AI but so you can make it look like it isn’t – but not many are that good yet) will stand out even more.

What this also means is that businesses are getting back into face-to-face more. You can’t bring a robot to an interview (yet). So what does it really mean that 'everyone’s using AI' for their applications? It means you’d better brush up on your interview technique, as that’s just got more important.

3. Do your research and don’t be afraid to get in touch

Usually in job ads, there’ll be a bit saying 'for further details, contact X'. Contact X. Ask a couple of sensible, easy questions about the company or department – even just say "I’m really interested in this job, I’ve done X and Y (a couple of things; not your whole life history) and I think they match the sorts of things you’re looking for. Does it sound like I could apply for this?" Your recruiter will immediately mentally put you in the pile marked 'shows a bit of initiative', and that’s the pile you want to be in. Don’t forget to put in your application why you want this job at this company. You’d be surprised how many applicants spend so much time speaking about why they are great that they forget to mention why they want to work there.

4. Don’t take it personally

Many, possibly most, of your applications will fail. This is not, by the way, advice to put in loads of applications in the hope one will stick – believe me, employers can recognise when you’ve done that. But you’ll apply for jobs you won’t get. We all do. You might really want some of them. But don’t take it personally, just ask for feedback and if you get it, apply it, make sure you write a decent application that reflects who you are and what you want to do, and eventually it will come right for you.

5. Don’t chase your 'dream job'

Possibly the least helpful myth of the jobs market is the idea of a 'dream job'. If dream jobs existed, I’d be getting paid for sitting on a beach watching cricket and drinking cocktails right now. Most graduates don’t settle down into their 'final' (or main) career until a decade or more after graduation, and most of the time it’s not so much about the content of your job as about a job with an organisation with your kind of values and culture and people you like working with. If you do get that sort of thing straight after graduation, well done you, but don’t sweat it if you’re not really sure what you want to do or take a while to find your way into the jobs market. That’s normal.

This article was first published January 2024.