Students, this is how you can stand out from the crowd in a very competitive job market


The employment market is saturated with graduates who have good degrees and the right qualifications. So the question on many recruiters’ minds is: what else can this candidate offer?

Employers have been reporting a “skills gap” in graduates for a few decades now and there is research to support its existence. Many employer’s feel there isn’t enough overlap between the contents of degree programmes and the skills that transform recent graduates into successful employees.

So with the number of graduates steadily rising – and competition getting tougher – it’s more important than ever that students know how to improve their employability skills.

There is evidence that work-based learning can help to remove employers’ concerns and make graduates more employable. So the savvy student should be undertaking a number of opportunities to build up their CV through work experience. But of course, not all opportunities are created equal, so it’s important students seek out the right sort of experience that recruiters will look favourably upon.

What employees look for

When it comes to employability, universities are keen to support student development beyond the classroom – and research shows that a number of strategies can help to achieve this. These range from careers advice, networking and mentor support, as well as internships, extracurricular, off-campus work or co-curricular activities (these tend to be on-campus work associated with degree programmes). Then there is also paid work. But which is a best option for a busy student to pursue?

CVs are the main form of employability assessment used by recruiters and employers. And research suggests that academic qualifications and work experience are both important.

Existing research, for example, shows that internships can help students gain important insights into the workplace – including how to communicate effectively – but they can be highly competitive. Volunteering roles on the other hand are generally less competitive and can also help students to develop different skills – such as resilience and moral engagement. While extracurricular activities can provide additional skills and experience which can be closely related with an area of study or interest.

Certainly good academic performance combined with extracurricular activities has been shown to predict a high level of perceived employability. However, there is a lack of research directly comparing how different types of work experience might be evaluated.

What the research says

Our new research study investigated academic, employer and student assessment of a series of fictional CV excerpts. Each excerpt was based on a social science student with a 2:1 degree classification but varying work experience.

The CV excerpts allowed us to manipulate three key aspects of work experience: duration (six months versus two years), type (internship versus volunteering) and location (extracurricular versus co-curricular). Although previous research suggests that opinions of student employability can differ, our results found that students, academics and employers were similar in their assessments.

We found that extracurricular activities were viewed more positively than co-curricular activities overall. Internships were viewed more positively for graduate level positions compared with volunteer experience. And duration did not have an impact on employability evaluations.

What this mean for students

When it comes to making yourself employable, you can’t be expected to do everything, so you need to be selective in your work experience. Based on our results, it seems extracurricular activities that take place off campus are to be recommended above co-curricular activities. So it might be better to work as a project assistant for a charity than spend time as a class rep. Internships may also prove more useful than volunteering, though it should be noted that internships are generally more difficult to get hold of than volunteer positions.

It’s also worth considering that a long term placement is not necessarily going to be better for your CV than a series of short term placements – so worry less about how long the role will last, and more about what the role involves.

Ultimately though, as our study shows, employers view all work experience as important. So if in doubt, some work experience (of any type) is always going to be better than no work experience at all.

>Author Bios: Amy Irwin is a Lecturer in Psychology and Gabi Lipan is a PhD Candidate in the School of Psychology both at the University of Aberdeen