Saturday, 25 September 2010

Group Exercises: "just be yourself" - the right advice?

One of the most intimidating parts of an assessment centre for a lot of graduates is the group exercise. The interview and inbox exercises are within your own sphere of influence so there is less of the unknown about them. But the group exercise, with up to 8 other unpredictable individuals that you don’t know, can be very difficult.  It is also the one that is often a 'deal-breaker' for recruiters and hiring managers. Ultimately on a day-to-day basis, you will be working in a team in the job and so your ability to work constructively with others will be fundamental to your success as an employee.

There are many good websites who document very well the different types of group exercise that you might face and what to expect for each, so I don’t want to cover that again here. (At the bottom of the article, I have provided links to some sites that do this).  What I want to go over is how to act during the exercise to really show yourself in the best light. Everyone always gives the advice of 'just be yourself', but in a pressurised environment with everything riding on it (if its your dream job…) then that is more easily said that done.

If at all possible, try to participate in a group exercise before you attend one that is for a job that you really want. If you're invited to an assessment centre that probably isn't for your ideal job, definitely go along. The experience will be invaluable. It is extra challenging if the first g.e. that you participate in is the one for the job you really want.

Typical group exercise competencies. 
Group exercise can be used to measure a number of competencies, but the core ones will almost always be teamwork, communication and problem solving/analytical ability. Let's look at some practical examples of how you can demonstrate these:

Demonstrating teamwork: 
- Make sure everyone is comfortable. Be the one who breaks the ice. You can start this long before the exercise itself - e.g. waiting in the lobby downstairs. A group that are comfortable / have gotten to know each other a little will often do better as getting to know the personalities gives you an idea of how to work with people.
- Make sure everyone is equipped. If there are post-its, paper, highlighters, pens, etc, in the room then they are there for a reason. If no one has touched them, then bring them to the centre of the circle and distribute
- Remember peoples names and address them by name through-out the exercise - this is pretty simple and really puts you in a good light in the eyes of the assessors. I highly recommend it.
- Bring in the quieter members who are not participating. I've met some grads who think "well I definitely did better than him" because they spoke a lot more than someone else. But what would have made them look good would be getting that person to talk more, not talking more than them….
- If you're strong enough, trying to timebox the talking of the really loud members of the group, especially if they are causing the group to get off-point or are clearly intimidating other
- realise your own strengths and weaknesses and don't take on a task that you are unlikely to deliver on

Show yourself to be a good communicator: 
- REALLY listen when others are talking. Don’t be writing, don’t be thinking of what you are going to say next, just listen. It is very clear to the assessors when someone isn't listening. It takes real concentration on your part because there are so many things going on, but it makes a big difference to the impression of you that the assessor take away.
- When you contribute, add real content / new material. Don’t repeat what others have said, don’t always just develop the ideas of others. Add some new material.
- Try to express your ideas concisely. 
- Be open to others disagreeing and accept that occasionally you might say something incorrect. We all do. It is a sign of a good communicator who can accept and move on from this.

Be a good problem solver:
- If there is numerical analysis involved, there is an opportunity to undertake calculations to come up with the data the group need.
- If there is a lot of 'material' to analyse, coming up with an approach or methodology rather than just jumping into the task
- Agreeing a template / data capture methodology before jumping into a task
- Asking the right questions of the group throughout the exercise in order to facilitate getting to the right answer

Want to take a risk?
There is a tendency amongst graduates to want to take on one of the 'roles' that often are necessary in the team exercise - the scribe, the timekeeper, or of course, the leader/project manager. There is of course an element of being able to demonstrate your capabilities if you have one of these roles. However, sometimes forgotten is that they are also all fraught with danger. If you do take on one of these roles, take care not to fall into the following traps:

- Reminding people of the time at inopportune moments. You need to judge carefully the moments that you interrupt to do this. Lots of times in wash-up sessions with hiring managers after the exercises, I have heard comments like "they were almost there, almost at the answer, and Joe Bloggs kept saying 'we need to move on'… how frustrating for them!"
- Doing it wrong - it happens all the time. "We have 10 minutes left" when infact you only have 5 can really cause the group to miss their deadline and fail a task. If you're going to do it, make sure you have a good watch/phone and do it right.
- Getting hung up on it. You still need to contribute a lot to the discussion/activity above being timekeeper. I guarantee that this alone will not get you through the exercise with flying colours.

- If the scribing is on a flipchart/whiteboard and you have to stand up, you are immediately out of the 'circle' of people. It is extra-difficult to be included and heard if you are physically away from the group.
- Writing notes / slides / flipcharts is a very personal thing - everyone will have a slightly different style / way they would do it. Inevitably there will be someone who says "no, do it this way, or that way" and try to take over. Do not let them do this! Stand your ground. If you are the scribe, be the scribe. Don’t be a pushover.
- Not leaving enough time to create a tidy presentation / taking too much time to create a presentation - both dangerous territory.
- Writing notes quickly on what everyone is saying will keep you extremely busy. But again, this alone will definitely not get you through the exercise. You also need to be participating. You need to be a very strong multi-tasker to scribe and participate to your full ability in the exercise.

Project manager / leader:
The dangers of being the project manager are well-documented (just watch a couple of episodes of The Apprentice! - why do you think they always include the project manager in the boardroom? Even if failure is not your fault, the blame will often lie with you regardless). Key things to watch for are:
- Forcing your own ideas on the rest of the group 
- Listening to other people's ideas, but then when it comes to implementation / presentation, just using your own anyway
- Major danger: appearing culturally unaware and not including people from ethnic minorities to the same levels as those from the same ethnicity/background as yourself. Likewise for gender equality.
- Putting in place a project plan that because of the time it allows for each task causes the team to fail despite the fact that they had the right ideas and the right skills.

If you keep in mind all of the above (ok, so that's a lot to keep in mind, but hopefully I've given you some ideas of how to act in the exercise…), then you should shine in the group exercise. Be careful in particular of any exercises that involve talking about diverse groups of people - e.g. the common one of 'only 3 places in the lifeboat, who shall we save'. If you hear yourself using language like "too old" "too young" etc, then you are on dangerous ground… be careful!

Any particular questions on the intricacies of the group exercise, just let me know….

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Application Forms... don't you just hate them?

It is that time of year where on top of a looming final year project, a mountain of work and trying to enjoy your last year at Uni, monstrous application forms for companies await you. Trying to maintain a balance between doing them as well as you can, doing the right number of them, and keeping track of deadlines and what you've sent where can be a nightmare… here's my take on application forms.

Why do companies use them?
1 - BECAUSE they are frustrating and take forever to complete. Many of the top companies figure that if you can't be bothered spending 3-4 hours filling out an application form to them correctly, then they can't be bothered with you either. It is a filter that applies to applications before you have even hit the submit button. The top IBs that receive tens of thousands of applications would receive hundreds of thousands of applications if it was as simple as just emailing them your CV. Unfortunately, despite the last couple of years of turmoil, that is still the reality of the market.
2 - They allow us to compare like-for-like. With the variety of CV formats and styles available, in particular across different countries, the application form process offers a fairer way for all applicants to provide the same details to the employer in order that they can assess their suitability for the roles available.
3 - They allow the auto-filtering to work. If everything is in the same format, it is easier for systems to filter out candidates that don’t meet the required criteria.
4 - They allow companies to pull Management Information together quickly. E.g. How many people applied from Cambridge? How many people applied with Maths degrees? How many people applied with 3 As at A-Level? This allows us to target more carefully on campus - e.g. if no one applies from LSE, then we do more promotion on campus there the next year….

Answer the Question Asked
I know you have heard this again and again and again, but it is the crux of a great application form. When you start into a paragraph, and it is sounding good and you're into the flow of writing and you get to the end of your 400 words and it sounds FANTASTIC, it's a great feeling. But then you look back at the question and you think…. Mmm… well, it wasn't quite what I was asked, but it sounds great, and its close enough, so I'm sure they'll like it anyway. We wont!  Please, please answer the exact question asked.  It is very frustrating for us as recruiters too to read a great paragraph and think "this could have been a great candidate, but they didn’t read the question… so 'reject'".

Think competencies
Most questions will have a competency behind it that they are trying to assess. Figure out what this is and then make sure that you address this competency in your example, rather than just explain a story of what happened without necessarily proving that you did demonstrate that competency during the activity.  Try to use a variety of examples across your answers. Read through all of the questions before starting and fit the example to each question before you start. This avoids getting to the last question and realising that the example you used for the first question is better suited to another.

Apply early? Apply last minute? Does it matter?
Most grad programmes that I have worked having received up to 50% of their applications during the last 3 days before the deadline. When you look on jobs boards or agency websites these days, all jobs will generally have a deadline that is a week or ten days away. And then after that deadline has passed, the job will promptly appear re-posted with a new deadline the week after. That is because lots of people will only apply when pressed to do so - i.e. when a deadline is imposed. Agencies/companies know this and that is why there is always a deadline...
The reality of this is that when you apply late you are in a very big pile of late applicants. If you apply early, you show that you are keen, on-the-ball and organised enough to get your application in early. This does not necessarily imply an advantage - there are definitely companies who don’t take any action until the deadline has passed (even though they all say they doing rolling recruitment) as they provide CV books to the business at that stage.  However, to some extent you make your own luck and there can be instances where an early applicant is 'luckier' than a last-minute one who is one of many (e.g. a place comes available on a fast-track scheme, invites to a company event are sent out to early applicants, etc).

If anyone has any specific question on application forms that I can help with, drop me an email on

Any ideas for future blog topics also welcome!

Monday, 20 September 2010

CLMs: Career-Limiting-Moves

There's been a well-publicised case lately of a high achiever who blew an internship (and given the level of media coverage, possible a career in finance might no longer be on the cards....).  Most of you will do really well on your internships, but we all make mistakes and in the very small world of financial services (believe me, it is...), mistakes can be very costly.

It doesn't matter who you are amongst your friends, at your university, in your hometown, etc... when you're working in the City or in management or strategy consulting, or many top 100 firms these days, you are one of many, many high-fliers. Yes, you can do very well, and yes the potential to do amazingly well is  definitely there... but you have to start at the bottom, like everyone else. An internship is a great opportunity that many would kill for.... don't do anything you'll live to regret.

So, what specifically, can be a CLM?  There are a few that I've seen quite a few times...

- Don't go off in a huff when you are told your development points during the mid-way review. Trust me, we all have them. Don't try to argue your way out of them. Take them onboard and work at them. If you don't you will fall into the 'doesn't take feedback well' category, and may very well find yourself without an offer at the end of the day.

- Don't consider the initial easy tasks you are given as being beneath you. You need to build trust and belief in you. You don't necessarily get this by default. This is the case in most new jobs in life, not just when you're an intern. Impress step-by-step and you'll soon find yourself with plenty to do.

- Don't get so drunk that you harass members of the opposite (or same) sex on a night out. Word spreads very quickly, chinese whispers often apply and unfortunately exaggeration often takes place and you go from being an overly-friendly person who had a few tequilas too many, to a sex-pest. If the HR team get wind of it, you could get your marching orders and potentially have to give up your aspirations of a career in finance.  Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because its not an 'official' night out, it doesn't count. Any nights out with colleagues count as ones you need to be careful of

- Be culturally aware. Just because you don't find particular comments or language offensive, doesn't mean someone you are with wont take offense.

- HR/recruiters are very conscious of the atmosphere/group mentality of their class of interns. Often what makes people want to return to the company is the friends they've made and the fun they've had, as opposed to just the work / the company. Anyone or anything that might upset this 'harmony' will come to their attention quickly. Like a rotten apple threatening to damage the rest of the fruit bowl, they will remove it quickly...

- "Romance" often ensues between interns. Keep it out of the office and away from the ears of HR. Equally, don't gossip with HR about any activity you have heard about.

- If you are invited out with the business on the same evening as an intern event, go with the business (if it cant be moved). The business/line will be the ones who decide your future, not HR and not the rest of the interns. Those types of invitations are not usually issued again if declined....

These CLMs are not that difficult to avoid... don't be the intern in your class that makes one. There is always at least 1 in every 50 in my experience....

Friday, 17 September 2010

I know what you did last summer (and unfortunately it wasn't an internship)…

If you spent your summers lounging on a beach in Bali, skiing in New Zealand or Inter-railing across Europe, then you're probably sick of hearing now that the only way to get a graduate job these days is to have a relevant internship. And even more sick of hearing about students who've done one every summer for the last 3 years and have a jam-packed CV.  Well, I wont lie to you - it definitely helps. A lot. But that's not to say that all is lost and that the only way to get on a graduate programme is to have an internship. However, at the start of your final year, you should take some immediate action to make sure you have enough on your CV/application form. Keep in mind that many of these will need to be submitted by Christmas, so planning to do loads in your Easter break is really too late if you want to secure something to start immediately after your graduation or in the months thereafter.

In order to beef up your CV in the absence of an internship, think about: 
- Volunteering, especially if it will allow you to develop a skill relavent to the role or industry in which you want to work
- Other work experience - in the evenings, on weekends - that is relevant to what you want to do (even if it needs to be unpaid)
- Take extra classes (e.g. learn chinese, do a media nightcourse) 
- If you're interested in banking & finance, set yourself up with a virtual trading account to see what you can do - makes for a great talking point at interview 
- Start a qualification relevant to your desired career (CFA / CIPD / CAIA… the list is endless). 
- Write a blog in a relevant area of interest to your job (and I don’t mean one that tells us what you had for breakfast every day… one with a real following of likeminded individuals).
- Look into open days, career days, spring weeks that you might be able to attend - many companies run first-come first-serve events for students, it's just finding out who and where can take a bit of research. Visiting careers fairs and talking to the recruitment staff can help a lot.
- Do some relevant reading - find out what the key text books are on courses that are relevant to your chosen profession. You can include a list of reading on your CV, especially if what you are studying is not directly related to your chosen profession, to show that you have been doing extra study. Be prepared to be questioned on them at interview if you mention them.

Look at what you already have 
I spoke to a student not that long ago who was despairing of the fact that he didn't have an internship and instead had worked at his local Chinese restaurant for the summers and part-time during terms. He was so disparaged by this that he did not even want to include that experience on his CV as he felt it wasn't worth it.  However, having discussed the experience with him further about what he did, it turned out that he did all the accounts for the restaurant, was responsible for arranging the staff rotas, cashed up at the end of the night, and was regularly supervising other staff when the owner was away.  Written up correctly, all of this is great to have on your CV.  If you don’t have an internship specific to the role you are after, examine the jobs that you have done and pull out the transferable skills that you have learned along the way.

It's no time to be picky. Tap into your network of family and friends. If you can get yourself even 1 week of unpaid work over the mid-term break in something relevant, then that can lead to 2 weeks somewhere else at Christmas and together they add weight to your application. You can put future-dated internships on your CV if they are definitely secured.  If can't get to the end goal immediately, break it down into baby steps and you will get there.

Other options to consider:- 
If you're really not hopeful of getting a role (e.g. if you are applying to one of the top firms, who will be very oversubscribed), then consider one of the following:

- apply for a summer internship rather than / as well as graduate positions 
Whilst some companies will only allow penultimate year students to apply, many will accept applications from final year students. If you manage to secure one, if you do a really great job, you might be lucky enough to be kept on in the place of a graduate who drops out last minute (there are always a few every year).

- apply for a year-long industrial placement Again, sometimes these are aimed only at courses with a placement included, but I have seen graduates recruited into these roles following graduation plenty of times. And again you could be kept on, or apply for the graduate position at that firm whilst you are working there and if you are doing a good job, you have a great chance of being kept on.

- think about a Masters 
You might need to go on and do a Masters or a Diploma. If your major concern is getting relevant experience, try to do one that has an internship or time in industry as part of the curriculum - there are more and more that feature some weeks in industry and this can be a great first step in the door…

… and keep that in mind. What is important here is getting your first step in the door somewhere so that you can show what you can do and hopefully impress and do a great job. After that, no one will care whether you were surfing Bondi til dusk or negotiating M&A deals 'til midnight, they will want you on their team.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

What REALLY happens to my application?

Most of you will have some idea of what happens to your application or CV once you hit 'submit', but it strikes me that no true 'insiders guide' is really that without actually taking you through the steps that your application will take before they come back to you with a yay or a nay.

Obviously the process is slightly different for each company, but broadly speaking, the journey is usually pretty similar...

So... you hit submit / go / complete.... most companies that recruit more that 30 grads these days have a system that manages the applications. The most common ones are by GTI and WCN, but also Taleo or Stepstone to name but a few of the big players.

Those systems have a few key features that are used:
1 - they flag anyone that doesn't meet the minimum requirements when it comes to degree results (i.e. less than 2.1), A-level results (300-340 is often the min), etc.  If you have a genuine 'legitimate' reason for results that don't meet the minimum (e.g. illness or death of close family), then it can be difficult to flag this appropriately. Even if you add it to your cover letter, etc, then if they have a system like this, you will get rejected before anyone even looks at your letter.  If you do have a circumstance like this, it is worth writing to HR (if you can get a response) or visiting them at a careers fair to ask the question.
2 - they help identify star/key candidates. Based on the criteria you have completed, they can flag 'top 10%' candidates to a recruiter. e.g. a combination of a particular uni, with an internship, with certain results, might get you classified as a 'top candidate'.  This functionality allows recruiters to get to the top candidates quickly without having to go through the whole pile of applications. These are the candidates that everyone will want, so they want to get back to them quickly, get them in for interview, and, if appropriate, get jobs offered quickly. The system helps with this.

Once the system has 'done its stuff', a lot of firms will have a review by the graduate recruiters. They are looking for evidence such as:
- strong uni and degree
- strong modules and results
- interesting internship
- evidence of extra-curricular activities
- overall good CV structure, good grammar and spelling
- good cover letter with evidence that effort was made - personalised and tailored

If you get through that stage, then the final stage is a review by the line/the business.  This is the major hurdle... after this, you're in for an interview and you can really show what you can do and not be relying on a CV to represent you anymore...

The CVs will be supplied to the business according to their preference. Some are happy to log onto the system and review them online. However, lots like to get paper copies so that they can review them in some 'spare' time - e.g. in a meeting where they are only passively listening, on the train, on a business trip, etc.  Or some just block book an afternoon with their team and blast through 500 CVs together making piles of 'yes' 'no's and 'maybe's.

They will be specifically looking at the detail on your CV around your internship and your modules and really judging whether the skills and modues you've developed are relevant to the area they recruit in. Often if a CV is good but not quite right for this particular area, they will flag to HR that it needs to be sent elsewhere / put in someone elses 'pile'.

No matter what anyone tells you, and no matter how 'slick' the process is, there is an element of luck required at this stage. The things that can influence your 'luck' are:

- the 'Halo' effect:   if you have a similar background to the reviewer
- if you have an interest that is of interest to them... (sailing, shooting, boxing, ballet...)
- if you did the same degree / went to the same uni as the reviewer
- an internship at a company they used to work for

Unfortunately CV reviewing is subjective, no matter how many guidance notes a company has. There are ways to make your own luck - I've mentioned many of these in my other blogs... (e.g. visiting them at careers fairs, etc).

I hope the above highlights HOW important your CV/cover letter/application are. It doesn't matter how good you are, how many people say you are amazing and will have no problem getting a job, etc etc. The CV is the golden ticket to getting in the door....

Very few companies will provide you any feedback specific to your CV. This is partly because they may not know - 98% of the time, the business will just send back the CV with a 'no' - they wont give a reason.  Equally, for legal reasons they don't want to go into the detail as to why they rejected you incase you sue them for some reason...

I hope that gives you a flavour of what goes on 'behind the scenes'. Once we as recruiters have the pile of 'yes' CVs back, the excitement starts. Somewhere in the pile are the 400 stars that we will hire for this year.... let the search commence!!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Some straight talk on Cover Letters

I get a lot of questions at this time of the year about cover letters and what we look for in cover letters. There is an art to writing cover letters, but ultimately there is no right answer. What one recruiter likes, another recruiter might not, and so there is an element of luck to writing in the style that appeals to the person who reads your letter.

The other thing to keep in mind of course is that they might not even get to your letter if you don’t have a good CV, but that's for another blog… Personally, I like a letter that is well-structured, well-worded, to the point and makes an impact with the opening lines.

Remember that the CV and cover letter together are just a key to get in the door for an interview. If the key fits, it opens the door. Once the door is open, it is how you perform at interview/assessment that will get you the job, not the CV.

Physical structure 
Before I get on to talk about the content of the letter, some comments on the physical structure to be careful of:
- 8pt is the absolute minimum size to go to. 10pt is perfect. 12pt is possibly too big - try getting more content onto the CV by using smaller font
- Don’t use a Word header and/or footer for key information, especially not for your personal information. Headers are notoriously troublesome for printing. And worse, when a CV is viewed in outline/normal mode in Word, you can't see the headers at all so recruiters think you forgot to put your name on your CV, which results in an immediate rejection obviously…
- Don’t use logos or emblems from your previous employers/universities. They might make it more eye-catching, but they also show lack of commercial awareness: you're not allowed to use the emblem/logo of a company without their explicit written permission.
- Using PDF. More and more grads are converting their CV to PDF before sending in. This is fine with most recruiters, and indeed is often easier to read/manage than Word. However, a word of caution: if you've made any small spelling mistakes that a recruiter might be willing to forgive if they are in a good mood, they can only correct them on your behalf if they can edit the document (which usually means Word). If they can't edit it, they are unlikely to put you forward to the business because it will a) make them look bad and b) the business are most unlikely to be as forgiving.

1 page or 2 pages? 
Check the website of where you are applying to (look in the FAQ section). If you are applying to one of the major banking or consulting firms for example, the majority request 1 page. If you are applying to somewhere that takes a relative small programme of grads on board, they might be less strict about this criteria. Realistically, the majority of graduates should be able to get their experience onto one page with the right structure and succinct content description. If you do more than 1 page, be sure to number the pages and include your name on both pages incase they get separated.


The cover letter needs to answer the question why are you applying to us, why this particular role, and why should we hire you. I'm sure there is a long, complicated and multi-strand answer that you could provide - life doesn't tend to be very straight-forward when it comes to choosing for our future. However, you need only provide a straight answer - don’t try to give all the background as to why after years of soul searching you've decided that e.g. marketing is for you.

Every sentence needs to form part of the answer to each of the three key questions. Again, they are:- 
- why are you applying to us, 
- why this particular role, 
- why should we hire you

So, let's look at some of the most common lines we see in cover letters. 

"I am a second year student studying management at Bath." 
Does this really contribute to the answers?  In my opinion, it doesn't. It provides background, yes; but it could do more as a sentence to contribute. E.g.
"As a second year management student at Bath, I studied a module in macroeconomics, and became interested in pursuing a career in fundamental econometrics."
This sentence provides the background of your degree and university, but also why both have influenced your applying to this role.

"Having read the description of your Risk Management graduate programme on your website, I believe I am a good match to the skillset that you require."
Again, this sentence is fine, but it doesn’t really contribute towards answering the questions. Try: 
"My modules in financial statistics and corporate finance at Imperial have equipped me with skills which, having reviewed the programme description on your website, I think would make me a good match for your Risk Management graduate programme."
This adds value in that it justifies both your interest in and your suitability to a particular programme.

Grab attention 
The first paragraph of your letter is definitely the most important. First impressions are key when reading a cover letter. If the first paragraph hasn't caught the readers attention, then if it’s a large pile of applications (which is often is), then they might well not even bother with the rest.
Take a step back from everything you know and have learned about writing cover letters. What is the one thing about you that you think gives you the best chance of being chosen for an interview? Whatever that is, you should try to get it into the first paragraph.

There are a few ways to catch someone's attention in the first paragraph. Mention:- Something impressive - a (ideally relevant) scholarship/prize/award that you have won Something different - an overseas semester, an unusual internship, a key position in a society Unusual reason for applying - if you have something to mention that might be different to the usual reasons A contact name - if you met someone at a fair who impressed you and you remember them by name, mention it.

Don’t be obvious 
Definitely no to including any of: "I read the Financial Times every day." "I have always wanted to work for your Firm since I was young." (or any iteration of that)
"My father worked in banking, therefore I want to work in banking."

Don’t finish badly. 
The graduate recruitment process at most major firms is a well-oiled machine. They will process your application as soon as they can, within the bounds of their process. Don’t demean a good letter by appearing needy/arrogant/annoying/presumptuous/over-eager/desperate.  Don’t sound like you assume you will get an interview. Don’t provide a million contact details - put the standard ones on your CV and the top of your cover letter and leave it at that. Some examples of this are:

"Please contact me as soon as possible to discuss further" 
"Please call me at your earliest convenience" 
"Call me asap so we can discuss how I can help your firm." 
"I can be contacted on <this email>, <this mobile>, <this home number>, <this skype name>, <this twitter address>" etc.
"Please call me urgently to arrange an interview." 
"I look forward to speaking with you further at interview to elaborate."

Once you've written your cover letter, share it with some friends/family whose opinions you respect. It can be good to get some feedback from a third party. However, as I mentioned at the start, cover letters are very subjective, so don’t try to incorporate everyone's opinions, or you will end up with a very muddled letter.

And that includes not following all of my advice if it doesn't suit you, or you don’t believe it. That is absolutely fine - this is just my opinion. The next recruiter you talk to might well tell you something completely different.

If you want any help with your cover letter, I'm happy to take a look and provide some feedback. You can email it to this address: 
Please let me know in your email any particular concerns you have about it so I can address them...

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The best way to finish your internship

So you're finished a tough summer internship with long hours (for both work and social reasons!) and you are taking a well-earned break before facing into what will likely be an equally tough final year at uni.

All very understandable! But if you want to save yourself hours and maybe even days of hard work later in the year, I'd highly recommend taking a couple of hours to review what you're done for the summer, whilst it is fresh in your mind.

First off, practicalities. 

Make sure you have:
- your internship line managers full name, email address and contact phone number (and ideally mobile phone number also)  (you'll be surprised how quickly you'll forget...)
- the contact details of anyone else you worked closely with
- HR contact details (e.g. the recruiter who hired you, or the name of the person in the company who you contact for references)
- your P45, or know when it is going to be sent to you
- if you did a mid/end of internship appraisal, make sure you have a copy and file it carefully somewhere you wont lose it

Record your experiences
The internship will be one of the key experiences you will use for answering competency-based questions at interview. Take some time to remember specific incidents or examples whilst they are are still fresh in your mind.

Remember that the best examples for competency questions are often examples of when things went wrong (and you helped resolve), where something wasn't working (and you put a new process in place) or in a difficult team (where you helped resolve disputes). Don't focus only on the 'day-to-day' things you did during your internship as often they are not necessarily the richest vein of information.

These 1-off occurences are also likely to be the ones that fade in the memory more quickly - in particular the detail about what happened, which are the details that you will need to recall at interview to make it a really strong example.

Join the a world of professionals
Create a LinkedIn profile and update it with details of your internship. In the last 18 months in particular, there has been a significant increase in the number of people and recruiters in particular using it.

You'll hear a lot in your career about the importance of networking. And now that you have joined the professional world, you have started to expand your network. Keep in touch with the friends you've made. As you are all interested in the same industry/area, it's highly likely that you will cross paths again and potentially help each other out along the way. Believe me, it's a very small world out there!

Useful materials
Within the bounds of what is allowed under your agreements with your internship employer, keep copies of an work you have done as it is very useful to read it through before interviews.

Some work to cover off all of the above activities will really be of use to you come November/December time when you are trying to prep for interviews along with studying for exams, final year projects and making the most of your last year at uni.

Monday, 6 September 2010

University Careers Fair Series: Part 2 - Preparation

In a world where there are always a thousand things to do, it is easy to overlook preparing for a careers fair in advance. I know I didn't when I was at uni. After all - what's to prepare? You just rock up and ask the same questions at each stand....  But in all honesty, if you are going to go, it is worth taking an hour or two in the weeks before you go to think about what you are going to do there. It could make a big difference to what you get out of the day.

Some things to think about:
- Who's going to be there?
- Who am I interested in?
- What do I know about them?
- What don't I know about them that would:
a) help me decide if I want to work there
b) help me figure out which programme/role would be of interest
c) make me sounds knowledgeable about the company if invited for interview
- Who is attending that I haven't heard of? Who are they? Are they someone I have overlooked?

Make a note of the physical positioning of the hall / area. If you are planning to arrive early (which you should) go to the furthest away from the door companies first as they will be quietest early on and likely to give you more attention. It also shows real interest that you are targeting them.  Last year, I met a young man at a Cambridge fair. We were on the top floor of three and the fair opened at 1:00pm. He was first at our stand at 1:01pm and was incredibly well-prepared, motivated and knowledgeable. He made a great impression on me and I made it my mission to get him an internship with us, which he did as the business found him just as impressive when they interviewed him.

For companies you are interested in, DONT ask the following questions because 1) the information is always on their website and 2) if you ask them, they are liable to lose interest in you because it is therefore clear that you haven't bothered to look before you visited them:

- Do you do internships?  (If I had a pound for everytime I was asked this at a fair, I'd be a rich woman).
- I'm studying engineering/maths/languages/marketing, what can you offer me?
- Do I have to have a 2:1 to apply?
- When is the closing date?

Find out the answers before you go if you are really interested in the company. When a graduate or intern asks a specific question. e.g. "I'm interested in your Retail Graduate Programme which starts in July next year. Can you tell me more about the three weeks training that you offer and what is involved?"

As opposed to what regularly happens - a graduate walks up, reads what written on the stand before me for key words and says "I'm interested in....your....Asset Management graduate scheme..."  There is a world of difference in the impression that graduate makes.  And believe me, recruiters remember names and faces. It's the job.

Make sure that you are attending the right fair for the companies that you are interested in. Fairs are often categorised both by industry and by profession type. e.g. somewhere like BSkyB, who offer a huge range of graduate programmes, might well be found at a fair for Media type companies. But they could equally be found at an Advertising/PR/Marketing fair, an internship fair, a technology fair or a finance fair. Don't focus exclusively on the industry fairs as the profession-type fairs might be more suitable for what you are looking for.

You should also check out your university careers office website - they often have guidance as to how best to prepare for careers fairs.

Friday, 3 September 2010


Do you "weak speak" on your CV?

I've noticed a trend whereby in an effort to be completely honest about their achievements on their CV, many graduates are actually detracting from them because of the wording they are using. Use of "weak speak" language on your CV can significantly reduce its impact on a recruiter and often does not do justice to your achievements or deliverables. 

Weak speak is especially damaging when it is the first half of each of your sentences / bullets where you explain the tasks you did / responsibilities you had during your work experiences. Words or phrases to watch out for are: 
- "Assisted" - "Helped with" - "Helped out with" - "Worked with" -"Under the supervision of.." - "Supervised by"

Keep in mind that for the vast majority of your career you will probably work in teams to deliver things, and you will have a manager / supervisor / team leader. If you look at CVs from more experienced candidates, you will not see lots of "Worked in a team to…." on there.  Don’t devalue your achievements by spreading the credit for it before you've even explained what it is. Obviously I am not talking about trying to take the credit for delivering something major when you were in fact making the tea for the team, but if you were involved in delivery, then don’t down-play your involvement. If you want to call out that it was as part of a team, do it in the second half of sentence, not in the first half. The first half is the half that has the biggest impact and is the half that captures attention. 

Some examples:
Weak speak: "Worked as a summer intern in a team that looked at data output to figure out what the issues were in the system"
Stronger: "Diagnosed issues with system interfaces by examining large amounts of data for patterns and making recommendations for changes, seeking input from more experienced team members during the activity."

Weak speak: "Was a member of a team who organised a concert for 1,000 people raising £3,500 for charity." Stronger: "Organised a concert for 1,000 people in the role of Marketing Manager in a team of 5, raising £3,500 for charity."

Look to use words like developed, delivered, managed, executed, recommended, examined, devised arranged, persuaded….. These are all action verbs which have impact and suggest that you made real change.  I won't go into detail here about using action verbs as there are loads of articles already available out there. Here links to some good ones. Use to find variations on a word rather than reusing the same one repeatedly.

"Weak speak" is also something to watch out for when you get to interview stage. Overusing phrases like "I suppose…", "I guess…", "I think…." retracts from you appearing confident and decisive.
Do an analysis of your CV to see if you use too much 'weak speak'…. Small changes could make a big difference.  

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Great CV quotes...

I do my best to help grads along with their applications, but unfortunately sometimes grads do not help themselves. I cannot put a CV forward to the line that will make it look like I haven't read it. And whilst I do occasionally (only very rarely) correct a spelling on a CV, usually I don't have the time, or the CV will be in PDF so I can't change it anyway. 
Some of my favourite quotes / mis-spellings from CVs recently are listed below. I know that when you have been over it a thousand times and you are almost blind from looking at it and re-wording it again and again, that it is easy to miss simple things. That is why it is really essential to have a fresh pair of eyes on it.

"I am an experienced user of the internet"
Really? Amazing.

Oh come on!

"I have worked at Macdonal’s as a supervisor".
I'm sure you got some great experience and skills. Just a shame you can't spell it.

"Refrences available on requst" 
Does he have something against 'e's?

"I believe I will be as brilliant as the Credit Suisse people, if I have the chance to work with and learn from them. Therefore, I would contribute my all enthusiasm and energy to Credit Suisse."  
Unfortunately I was not working for Credit Suisse when I reviewed this CV...

"Persuaded Prat A Manger to sponsor us"