Firms want to recruit well-rounded individuals who have clearly developed relevant foundational skills. They will look at your participation in and experience of a range of activities across professional, academic and non-academic domains. If you only have academic experiences to demonstrate your competencies, this may not present you as a well-rounded individual and may suggest that you would not necessarily fit with the firm’s culture or interact well with the firm’s employees. In contrast, if you have only non-academic extracurricular experiences to draw from, a firm may doubt whether you have developed the ability to perform and interact with others in a professional context.
On that note, I was rejected from my very first interview because the interviewer felt that I had not accumulated a sufficiently broad range of experiences. They reached this conclusion on the basis that I hadn’t used any academic or professional examples to demonstrate my skills during the competency interview.
Try to accumulate a broad range of experiences, including taking up positions of responsibility and getting involved in university societies and university (or local) clubs and initiatives. This will give you the opportunity to develop your knowledge, skills and confidence (and draw upon this personal development on your application forms and during interviews), plus you’ll probably have a far richer university experience as a result. Ultimately, you should constantly be asking yourself whether your university is in any way different because you were there, and whether your contributions enhanced other students’ experiences.
As well as pursuing your passions and hobbies, you should try to dedicate some of your free time to developing your commercial awareness. Remember, your commercial awareness is tied to your employability, so you should see boosting your commercial awareness as another key aspect of boosting your employability.
If you have undertaken work experience – regardless of whether it is paid or unpaid, or as an intern in a professional services firm or as an office assistant or shop assistant – this will boost your employability. Through such experience, you will likely be able to demonstrate that you have a strong work ethic, you are able to commit to an organisation and that you have accumulated at least some experience interacting with clients, working in a team with colleagues, adhering to deadlines and balancing multiple responsibilities.
Have you worked in the family business? Have you worked in customer services, perhaps as a checkout assistant or a bartender? Have you already visited firms in the industry to which you are applying (even if only for a few hours or for an informal office visit)? I listed working in a small office, working in the music industry, completing a paper round and working at Waitrose (pushing trolleys) as examples of my previous work experience, alongside more relevant industry experience (such as firm office visits). Many firms felt that these examples demonstrated a strong work ethic and that my decision to embark upon a highly pressurised career was better informed as a result of the comparison that such work experiences provided.
Making the most of holidays
If you have not secured an internship, or have an internship that takes up only a proportion of a university holiday, start thinking about how best to use any free time you may have. Many firms in interviews will ask how you have spent your 3 – 4 month summer break and “watching Netflix” is never a great answer. Use your time off to do something interesting – something that sets you apart from other candidates – as this will provide firms with an insight into your character.
For example, are you the kind of person who uses your initiative and drive to actively pursue your passions and interests? Do you have a desire to experience different cultures? Are you committed to nurturing your personal growth and development? Do you push yourself by leaving your comfort zone from time to time?. If you want firms to believe that the answer to these questions is “yes”, then make sure you evidence it with the way you spend your free time.
As mentioned above, carrying out professional work experience can be a good use of your time off. However, there are also various summer programmes that can look great on your CV and be a lot of fun (e.g. government-funded study programs or placements at summer camps through agencies such as Camp America), as well as an increasing number of “virtual” insight experiences and mini internships. Alternatively, there are a broad range of volunteering and charity initiatives available, both domestically and abroad, that could provide unique and interesting experiences, whilst also enhancing your employability.
If instead of formal or informal work placements you decide to spend your summers travelling, this can present you as a motivated individual with an interest in experiencing different cultures.
Academic and commercial activities
Consider joining and actively participating in academic societies. Your university may well have a Commercial Law, Finance, Debating or Business society that you could join, as well as a society linked to your degree subject. If your membership leads to you attending particularly interesting presentations or participating in skill-enhancing interactive case studies, then you could use these experiences as examples to demonstrate to firms that you put your free time to good use.
Participating in the likes of Young Enterprise, Duke of Edinburgh, Model United Nations or interactive business challenges/case studies at school or during your degree could also reflect positively on you, so perhaps sign up for similar initiatives if you feel that your CV is lacking. Particular modules or group work exercises that you have undertaken whilst studying can also provide interesting talking points during interviews and deliver an insight into how you have developed your knowledge and capabilities.
Positions of responsibility
Firms need to know that their employees can effectively take on responsibility and subsequently manage their time effectively to ensure tasks are completed to the standard required and within the deadlines set. Taking up positions of responsibility at university whilst maintaining a strong academic performance can really help to demonstrate this ability.
Try to join the executive committees of the university societies and clubs that most interest you. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Finance Society, Music Theatre Society, Ice Hockey Club or a charitable society. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a first year representative, President, Club Captain or Head of Marketing. The premise is the same: these experiences give you scope to prove to firms that you have the ability to handle responsibility and to demonstrate what you are capable of achieving if given the chance.
If at school you were selected as a Prefect, Ambassador or Head Boy/Girl or you were elected/appointed onto some sort of student liaison or event committee, this counts as a position of responsibility. If you have ever taught or mentored (be it Maths, Music, English or Dance) this can similarly evidence your ability to handle responsibility. The same applies if you have been selected as a firm’s campus ambassador.
Other extracurricular activities
It is easy to get involved in non-academic extracurricular activities, at least on a casual basis and at a non-competitive level. You can even be a complete beginner. I was never good enough to get into the official university football team, but this didn’t stop me from setting up a 5-a-side football team. Ultimately, you want to demonstrate that you have a range of interests and the motivation and initiative to pursue them. You want to prove that you’re willing to remove yourself from your comfort zone and try something new. I once even attended an American football training session, but the less said about that the better!
Trying to “cram” commercial awareness right before an interview isn’t an ideal approach, as you’ll likely only pick up a shallow understanding of the commercial topics that you read about. If your understanding is shallow, you’ll also likely have little interest in what you’re reading about and discussing, which won’t come across well during an interview. It’s better to get into the habit of building your commercial awareness on a regular basis, and even 5 minutes per day can make all the difference. You’ll be surprised at how much more interested you become in business news and commercial concepts more generally once you have started to understand the bigger picture.
© Jake Schogger / City Career Series 2020
This article is an excerpt from City Career Series’ Application, Interview & Internship Handbook. This provides a comprehensive guide to boosting your employability, researching careers and firms, networking and LinkedIn, writing successful CVs, cover letters and applications, tackling competency, strengths-based and motivation questions, enhancing your commercial awareness, preparing for interviews and assessment centres (including virtual assessment centres), and converting internships. It is available from https://shop.citycareerseries.com and Amazon.co.uk.
Jake Schogger studied Law & Business at the University of Warwick from 2011 – 2015. He founded publishing company City Career Series whilst still at university and has gone on to sell approximately 50,000 handbooks designed to help students secure City careers. He also trained as a lawyer at City firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, before leaving the City to focus on advising start-ups and scale-ups on a range of commercial, employment and fundraising matters.