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Is University Worth It?

No…

… if you don’t want to start your working life in debt

In April 2016, it was calculated that UK students now face the highest levels of student debt in the English-speaking world. Even in America, where it’s well known that you have to pay through the nose, students on average owe between $29,000 and $32,600, compared to our £44,000. Plug those numbers into a currency converter and weep.

It’s become normalised in our society to head into the world of work with thousands of pounds of student debt dragging you down. Sure, as loans go it’s relatively pleasant; you don’t have to start paying money back until you earn above a certain wage – currently £21,000 for higher fee payers – and because it’s automatically deducted from your pay cheque, you don’t have to think about it much.

Even so, watching money disappear from your account can make you feel a bit bitter. Plus there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever earn enough to pay of your debt in full – in fact, the government calculated when they put the fees up that 45% of graduates never would. This means that nearly half of all graduates will spend 30 years in debt, at which point their remaining debt will be written off.

Being in debt is never a nice place to be, and there’s nothing wrong with deciding it’s not what you want.

 

… if you’re only going because other people think you should

Everyone has that family member or friend who seems to have more ambitions for you than you do. And that’s fine – if it’s what you want, too. But just because Nancy is going to Exeter for Economics and thinks you should so come with, doesn’t mean you should up sticks and follow. We all have to follow our own path. Sometimes uni isn’t part of that, and that’s okay. Uncle Harry will forgive you if you don’t go to his old college at Durham; your self-belief and career might not.

 

…If you don’t think what you’re getting is worth £27K

A university degree should make you more employable and give you access to resources you can’t replicate at home. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Not all universities are created equal; a recent IFS study found that female graduates from the UK’s bottom-ranked institutes were earning, on average, less than non-grads. Subject also plays a role. Those who study agriculture, mass communication and veterinary science degrees earn vastly less than economics grads. So if tending God’s creatures is your passion, maybe university isn’t the best route for you.

And what about the humanities degrees? Even at a well-respected university, with minimum contact hours and none of the high-tech resources STEM students benefit from, it’s easy to feel like you’re paying £9,000 a year for a library card. Sure, independent research fosters transferable skills. But you don’t need a professor sending you angry emails to go down the library and open a book – and if you do, what are you doing studying arts anyway?

“University prepares you for the world of work,” they say. The recent CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey would disagree. 44% of Scottish businesses reported shortcomings in graduates’ levels of “business and customer awareness”, and 36% complained of a lack of relevant work experience. The grads feel the same. A similar study from Aviva shows that over a third of university graduates regret taking their courses, and almost half believe they didn’t need a degree to get where they are in life today. So why should you pay £27,000 for three years of study, when you could spend that time developing actual, relevant expertise?

Finally, we’ve all been taught that university grads earn more than their less educated counterparts. But if that’s true, half of recent grads wouldn’t be moving back in with their parents. In fact, hourly wages for graduates fell 20% between 2008 and 2013. Graduates in their late thirties may still earn 1.6x more than those who left school at sixteen, but they are part of a previous generation when a university education was rarer and more well-respected. Today, this wage gap is closing fast.

 

… if you haven’t considered your alternatives

Real talk: we’re a graduate recruitment company. We’ve helped thousands of graduates get jobs that they wouldn’t have been able to apply for without their degrees, so we see the benefits of university every day. But we also know full well that degrees aren’t the only path to success, and it’s important that school leavers know what their options are.

Everyone should have the right to go to university, but it’s not always the right choice. Apprenticeships – paid trainee positions directly within your chosen industry – are experiencing a huge comeback. The ‘earn while you learn’ approach appeals to a lot of young people who already know what they want to do. The government agrees, pledging to produce three million apprenticeships by 2020.

Similarly, school leaver schemes at companies such as Deloitte, Mercedes and Sky pick up students just after A-Levels, promising graduate-level qualifications with none of the debt. These positions are easier to secure at eighteen than at grad level, and promise real experience in your chosen industry.

And if none of that appeals to you? Take a break before uni. Have yourself a gap year. Students who take time off after sixth form often show increased motivation when re-entering education. If it’s good enough for Malia Obama, chances are it’s good enough for you!

So don’t assume uni’s the be-all and end-all. It’s just one route to success, out of many. Leaving school is a time to consider all your options. Make sure you choose the right one for you.

 

Susanna Quirke writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment firm which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse graduate jobs London, visit our website.

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If The Shoe Fits: Dressing For Interviews And The Workplace

Don’t know the difference between black shoes and brown? You’d fail your investment banking interview before it even started. Take our advice on interview and workplace dressing, and you’ll look sharper than Patrick Bateman on a good hair day.

 

Interviews

Perhaps you’re up for a City job, or you’re a budding graphic designer. Just as different companies impose different dress codes on their employees, every new job description requires a fresh approach. So what to wear for that all-important meeting?

Let’s start at the far end of the scale: life sciences and investment banking. If you’re up for a job in a highly corporate field like this, don’t skimp on the detail. Studies show that black shoes, well-fitting suits in blue or grey, and dark socks are a must. For boys out there a beard, whether culturally-motivated or otherwise, can reduce your chances of that job offer. Girls, I’m sorry, but wear heels. The aim here is to show that you’re a good ‘fit’ for the interviewer’s workplace. Walking in with a bright yellow tie/eyeshadow and flat, brown shoes is like taking a secondary school class dressed as Katie Price – inadvisable.

For less formal business and banking roles, similar rules apply. A job interview is not the time to drag out that novelty Bugs Bunny shirt your mum bought you for Christmas. For companies with a smart casual or more formal dress code, go for a suit. Wear a pale shirt, probably white or blue, with dark socks, black shoes and a sober tie. Ladies, don’t be whipping out that vampy dark lipstick; you want to look natural but enhanced. Play up one feature at most, and subtly at that.

For a company with a ‘casual’ dress code, they will usually warn you of this beforehand. Do not be fooled – if you turn up in a crop top and hot-pants, you will be judged. Boys, avoid hoodies and sweatpants; you’re not Mark Zuckerberg. Safe bets are trousers that aren’t jeans; girl can opt for a knee-length skirt. If you want to wear something shorter, layer it over opaque tights – your interviewer wants to see your potential, not your thigh gap. No stomachs, no cleavage, no ankles, no back-flesh. If the interviewer doesn’t specifically say to ‘dress casual’, play it safe and don a suit.

As a general rule of thumb, whatever the role you’re going for, make a little more effort than the company’s dress code demands. Recently, on the Today Show, top CEO recruiter James Citrin was asked how a graduate can best dress for an interview. His answer? “A grad should do her homework and then be 25% more formal than the prevailing dress culture.” So do your research into what they’re looking for, and surpass it – but not by too much.

 

The Workplace

Congrats! You got the job. Now to navigate the office politics, the water-cooler gossip and… workplace dress codes.

There are, roughly-speaking, four classes of workplace dress code: business formal; business casual; smart casual; and casual. Recently, more formal companies have been gravitating towards the relaxed end of the scale. Accenture and PwC have both implemented ‘Dress For Your Day’ policies, where employees dress as required from day to day, and JPMorgan Chase has switched from business formal to business casual. What’s important is that you find your employer’s policy, Google it mercilessly and work within those guidelines. Looking out-of-place at the office is a major faux pas, after all.

That said, it’s important to bring a little of yourself to the mix. You’re not a corporate clone; people want to see the real you. Whether it means wearing a patterned tie, or donning a red lip, you’re not at interview stage anymore – play with your work outfit and try to find something that is on-brand you.

On the subject of high-heels… Ever since PwC sent Nicola Thorp home for wearing flats, the heels-in-the-workplace argument has raged. We think that, in a casual or smart casual environment, flats are best for our go-getting girl grads. Comfy heels that can see you through the day are also good. However, in a more formal workplace, sometimes heels become necessary. You don’t have to wear them all the time, and please don’t lame yourself with a five-inch stiletto. But for meetings and other formal occasions, heels are often judged as appearing more ‘in-place’ than flats – and ‘in-place’ means ‘professional’.

Finally, it’s important to look and feel good – and not just because that cute gal in accounting might walk past your desk. Thanks to something social psychologists term “the halo effect”, we assume that people who look good also possess other positive qualities. I’m not saying you need to look like Tom Cruise. But if you want to seem committed, capable and intelligent at work, make an effort.

So there you go! There are some interesting studies on workplace dress codes, proving that different styles of outfit promote different styles of thinking. But, as a grad recruit, your most important job is to fit in and excel. Don’t let some fashion faux-pas stop you nabbing that tasty interview, and your dream job.

 

Susanna Quirke writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment firm which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse graduate jobs London, visit our website.

 

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Study Yourself Employable: Five Ways to Attack the New Academic Year

Maybe you’re a fresher, taking your first steps into the brave new world of tertiary education. Maybe you’re a finalist, peering over the barricade into the maw of full-time employment. Whichever it is, you need to start thinking about your employability – however unsexy that may sound.

Make your time at university count with our five-step essential guide.

 

  1. FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT TO DO

It sounds obvious, but few students actually know what they want to do with their lives. Work it out, and fast. Students who know what career path they’re aiming for after university are more motivated, focussed and ultimately successful in their job applications.

University is a wonderful time to feel lost, make mistakes and discover yourself. Make sure that, in amongst this chaos, you’re also thinking about your future.

 

  1. WERK UR MEDIA

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linked-In… There are better uses for your newsfeed than resuscitating that hilarious Sean Bean meme from years back.

Market yourself. Start at uni, and you’ll avoid a painful re-branding process later along the line. Get a grip on your privacy settings. Half of employers Google their candidates before interview, and they don’t want to see those embarrassing fresher pics of you, half-naked, swigging Jack Daniels from a shoe. Keep your profile pictures innocuous, and your Insta cute rather than sexy. Check out Kanye’s Twitter, do the opposite, and you’ll be fine.

Once your online presence is nicely censored, it’s time to start building your online brand. Not on LinkedIn? Fix that. Want to be a writer of any kind? Get on WordPress. Link your articles back to your social media, and your clicks will rocket. Find conversations on Twitter relevant to your career path and engage.

Channel Destiny’s Child. Make sure people in your future industry are familiar with your name, however distantly. That way, when you walk into their interview room months along the line, you’ll have already laid the groundwork for a stunning application.

 

  1. NOW DO ACTUAL WORK

We don’t mean the academic kind – though that might help too. Eight out of ten students currently work part-time to help fund their studies, but that job is doing a lot more for them than bringing in the cash. A part-time job at uni shows you can juggle commitments, develop your skillset and – crucially – get on in a daily workplace.

And employers aren’t fussy. Work experience, vacation internships and volunteering all count. People who spend their holidays in employment, whether paid or not, are perceived as more dependable candidates than their less enterprising counterparts. Proving that you already have work experience counters regular complaints of a lack of commercial awareness, time management and initiative in graduate applicants.

Some students even choose to set up their own business. This is the ultimate symbol of a self-starter and looks highly impressive on any CV, whether the enterprise tanks or not. If you can run your own company while in full-time education, what can you do as a permanent employee?

 

  1. BOOST YOUR EXTRA-CURRICULAR

That’s right. According to a study of 500 UK SMEs, 70% believed that extra-curricular activities – that includes sports, music, volunteering and travel – are a vital part of a grad’s job application. In fact, two in three employers placed as much or more emphasis on an applicant’s extra-curricular than their academic achievements.

People who partake in extra-curricular fields such as expeditions, societies and artistic pursuits regularly demonstrate improved creativity and self-motivation. They are perceived as self-starters, able to advance themselves within a company more easily and quickly than those with narrower skillsets.

So get out there and get moving. If you want to be in politics, get involved with your student union. If you want to be in music production, set up a club night. It doesn’t even matter if it’s unrelated to your future career – just do something.

 

  1. NETWORK

I know, I know. It’s every student’s worst nightmare: the ‘schmooze social’. But be there or be square; often, the biggest regret graduates have re:university is not making the most of networking opportunities.

There are plenty of ways to do it. Go to the events advertised by your university. Prepare well and work the room. Email people you’ve met, or even haven’t met – a feedback email sent to a visiting speaker or academic you’ve seen, along with a suggestion to get coffee or link in, can work wonders. You can even keep a spreadsheet tracking who you’ve met and where.

“Follow the three-D rule,” advises Georgina Kilner, head of Henley Business School’s postgraduate programmes. “Do it now, do it every day and don’t worry about punching above your weight.”

Meeting people in the flesh should always be your end-game aim. This is how you make a good impression, practise your people skills and boost contacts. So embrace the awkward convos – you’ll get free alcohol out of it, if nothing else.

And there you have it. Five ways to turn your time at uni into an employer’s dream. This is one of the most important periods of your life – don’t waste it on booze and parties.

 

Susanna Quirke writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment firm which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse graduate jobs London, visit our website.

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Case Studies: The Low-Down

What is a case interview? To quote from the MIT Careers Handbook, it’s a situation where “you are introduced to a business dilemma facing a particular company. You are asked to analyze the situation, identify key business issues, and discuss how you would address the problems involved.”

Sounds challenging. But while case interviews are designed to push you, they shouldn’t make anyone faint in fear. Here’s a step-by-step guide that will have you tackling case study questions with confidence.

 

The basics

The main qualities that case studies assess are your ability to process information, evaluate risks, solve problems and deal with unusual situations. They can be on any topic and take pretty much any form – though many involve some form of maths. What they will always do is pose a complex, sometimes even unresolvable problem.

Apart from practising some previous examples, there are a few tips you can take on board. Always think aloud. This is not an exam but an interview; you are expected to voice your estimations and decisions. Work with the interviewer, not against her – if you’re lucky, they’ll help rather than hinder you in your discussion. In fact, you might be judged negatively if you shut the interviewer out; you want to prove you’re a team player, don’t you?

Prepare well. Check the company’s site beforehand, in case it has some sample questions available. Read through some famous cases from the past and try to understand how experts reacted to them. For estimation challenges, it helps to know some basic statistics (e.g. the world population in billions) but you can’t learn it all, and they won’t expect you to.

Finally, take your time. The interviewer would rather you took a careful, considered approach to a problem than rush to give a quick answer. With these questions, it’s all about the process.

 

How to answer a classic case study question

“A supermarket chain has noticed a decline in its profitability. They have hired you to find out why this is and to recommend and implement a solution.” (example from TargetJobs)

I hope you read that carefully, because being clear on the question is your first challenge in a case study. Listen to what is being said, take notes if necessary, and make sure you have a visual reference if a number slips out your head.

Ensure that you understand any technical terms. In this case, your prior research should have taught you what ‘profitability’ and ‘cost-effective’ mean – but in this case, it would also help to know ‘gross profit’, ‘net profit’ and ‘operating margin’. If you don’t know what something means, ask. Better to admit your lack of knowledge than reveal it through a bizarre calculation or response.

In the case above, the obvious first step is to work out why the profitability of this supermarket is declining. Suggest reasons to your interviewer, compiling a list, and possibly calculate which you think is the most likely.

The second action is to determine how to resolve each of these issues. If, for instance, the supermarket’s operating margin has risen, resulting in a decline in profits, you need to find a solution that will compensate for the additional costs.

Finally, determine any possible obstacles to implementing your strategies. If possible, find a way around them! If not, this step will at least show an awareness of common business problems and avoid your looking naïve.

 

… and a market sizing one

“How many people are wearing trainers on their London commute on any given morning?”

This kind of question is called ‘market sizing’. It challenges you to reach a general number based on well-informed ‘guesstimates’. Nobody expects you to get this right, as such – the process, and the way you tackle the question, is much more important than the answer. Basically, interviewers want to see how you tackle a difficult problem, and whether you can apply logic to an unfamiliar challenge.

Start by clarifying your terms. For example, does ‘wear trainers’ mean wear trainers all the way or just for part of the commute? Does the ‘London commute’ include students and children going to school, in all zones? You need to be very clear on the parameters within which you’re working.

Then, break down groups and numbers. You might know that the London population is about 8 million. Of these, you might estimate that 4 in 5 commute to school or work every day. So our commuter number would be 6.4 million.

If necessary, sub-categorise according to MECE principles – i.e. ensure that your sub-groups are all mutually exclusive, and collectively make up the whole. For example, let’s say you wanted to sub-categorise London commuters. Your groups may be:

  • Bus commuters
  • Overground commuters
  • Tube commuters
  • Boris bike commuters
  • Drivers
  • Walkers

However, there is overlap here; somebody could use both the overground and tube to reach work every morning. So these groups are neither mutually exclusive nor does their sum total equal the total of London commuters. You’d do better to go for:

  • Those who walk more than 2 miles in total on their commute
  • Those who walk 0.5 < 2 miles in total on their commute
  • Those who walk less than 0.5 miles in total on their commute

Then apply any calculations to these two groups separately, factoring in any unique issues. For example, people are less likely to wear trainers if they are walking less than 0.5 miles, but are very likely to if they are walking more than 2 miles. Apply these rules to the entire process, and you’ll come up with something close to the truth.

Case studies are not something to be frightened of. They are an opportunity to demonstrate the tenacity and independent thinking that makes you a great candidate. If you work things through as logically as possible, according to the above principles, then you will do well in the eyes of your interviewer. So get going – and good luck!

 

Susanna Quirke writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment firm which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse the graduate jobs London has to offer, visit our website.