As we approach our tenth year in business, we have reflected on some of the things we have learned about working with graduate candidates.   This constant learning helps us understand what starting out in the world of work looks like to a graduate in transition between their student life and their professional life.

This means we are well placed to build trust, rapport and relationships with our candidates, helping communication between your graduate recruitment team and your dream new hires.


1. Every candidate wants to progress from university to a career

Without exception, students who have spent 3,4, or even 5 years at university want to progress to a career.   With the increased burden of student debt, this comes across loud and clear when we speak to candidates.  Whilst some might not be ready for all aspects of professional life, they all want to start the next chapter of their lives and for most this means starting their career in some way.

These candidates are ready, willing, and able to jump in.  What can you do during the recruitment process and induction to harness this enthusiasm and get the working relationship between your organisation and this fresh young resource off to a great start?

The future financial burden of student debt will be very present in the minds of your candidates.  What can you do as an organisation to make them feel secure?  Even something as simple as timely offer letters and very clearly communicated terms and conditions would help with this.


2. Most students do not have a clear view of what they want to do post university

Employers understand this from a philosophical perspective, but in practice expect every candidate to come to an interview demonstrating a clear undivided passion for working for that company.  The reality is that most students don’t really know what they want to do yet, or know what they are a good fit for.  Neither do they know all the opportunities that are out there for them.   This can be more prevalent amongst Arts students; however, many are very driven to succeed.

As an organisation can you be more open-minded about the required level of focus and passion at interview stage?  Can you alter the expectation that a graduate will leave full time education with a fully formed idea of how they would like their career to develop? What information can you provide in your recruitment communication that will genuinely inspire young minds and make them want to find out more about your company and the different job opportunities within it?

It’s your job to engage them as well as nurture their budding career choices.


3. All candidates are different and have their own strengths to offer an organisation

Sometimes we talk to two people studying the same course, at the same university, who are on track to achieve the same grade and they can be entirely different personalities with different strengths to offer a company.  It’s important to have exploratory conversations with candidates, ask probing questions about what motivates them and what do they enjoy doing as a way of seeing beyond the academics.


Strengths-based interviewing and assessment is growing in popularity with graduate recruiters.  Questions are designed to find out what students have a natural aptitude for or what they love to do.  The idea is that an employee who is engaged and energised will be much more likely to perform well in role.  Interview questions can be wide ranging but seek to identify what candidates are most proud of, how others might describe them, what they like and dislike.


When using strengths-based interviewing a recruiter will also be looking out for non-verbal cues and communication; tone of voice, body language energy levels, for example, is the candidate demonstrating high energy or speaking in an excited tone?   Questions are often asked relatively quickly and without much probing, to get a natural and genuine response.


Because this type of interviewing helps the candidate feel that a genuine effort has been made to get to know them and their strengths, it often doesn’t feel like such a failure for them if not ultimately successful.  Candidates understand why they wouldn’t be right for the role, and are left with the impression that your organisation cares about putting people into roles that they enjoy and where they will excel.


4. They love real, meaningful feedback

overall, students are inexperienced at interviewing, psychometric testing or assessment centres.  Most of them have been in education for their entire lives and have only ever received feedback on their written academic work.  Regardless of the outcome of a selection process they are always thankful if you offer them meaningful feedback on their (behavioural) performance through the process.   Even if they are not right for the role you are currently recruiting for, a candidate may choose to keep watching your organisation and re-apply later if they have had a positive experience.

Of course, don’t forget that every candidate is a potential – or even an existing – customer.  Leaving candidates with a positive impression of your business is always desirable.


 5. Digital natives still like talking to people

Generation Y have grown up with mobile phones, social media and technology.  This means that they research companies they are applying for on Glassdoor, Youtube, Facebook and Linked-In.  They want to be able to complete psychometric tests on their phones or submit an application form via a tablet, and they don’t expect to fill out lengthy written competency questions as part of an application.

Despite their immersion in a more technical world, they still want the personal touch through the recruitment process; they want to speak to a human to have their questions answered.

Recent work with the next generation (Generation Z or iGen) who were born to Gen X parents since 1996 has shown that this generation – whilst never knowing a world without constant interconnection via technology – desire more face to face contact than their predecessors, with authenticity in communication being highly valued.  This generation has also grown up knowing only economic change and instability and those already in the workforce and studying (anecdotally) tend to be much more pragmatic, serious, and stable than their predecessors.  A hard work ethic and concern about safety and security is coming though.  All this remains to be seen of course, however it would be a mistake to assume all young people have the same drivers.   Generation X parents seem to be raising their children with a more ‘figure things out’ approach than the previous generation of ‘Helicopter’ parents.  This generation will also be more entrepreneurial – seeing this as a positive approach to life and work.

If you are reviewing your recruitment process, automating for efficiency, or adding high-tech solutions and elements, don’t forget to include some high touch steps in your process.  Giving candidates access to and contact with a human could make all the difference in keeping people engaged and can prevent candidates dropping out of your process.


6. Exceptional talent comes in different shapes and sizes

Most UK employers expect to find their top talent at Russell Group Universities, they are drawn to candidates with strong academic backgrounds, internships, and a healthy amount of extra-curricular activity in their CVs.  At interview, these candidates can reference good grades, some understanding of the working world from an internship and example of teamwork from playing sport.  There is no doubt that top ranking universities are the place to find some outstanding talent.  However, many 18-year olds are reconsidering university choice, opting to go to a university closer to home, they may have family responsibilities or they are simply influenced by friends who are staying local.  We have learnt to stay open minded about this subject and keep a check on a social bias.

The next generation to join the workforce will be the most diverse in history.  People from much wider social groups have had access to higher education.  iGen identify themselves as much more gender fluid, and in their lifetimes the UK has seen its second female prime-minister and the US its first African-American president – and these are not seen as exceptional.

At a recent AGR conference on diversity and inclusion a spokesman from the Lloyds Banking Group spoke about what they are doing to ensure they are accessing high potential talent from Universities outside the Russell Group.  By looking at the context that students attained their A levels, they have been able to identify high achievers from schools where the average grades are lower.  These are children who were the best in their schools, and who are doing well in their University careers but who perhaps just missed places at Russell Group Universities because they were in non-selective secondary schools where BBB was the highest score in the school.  They are also acknowledging that BME applicants from poorer backgrounds are less likely to apply to Russell Group due a lack of confidence and external influences as well as economic reasons.

Severn Trent have also found that after scrapping A level requirements, university restrictions and making their application process much simpler, their intake for this current year included 12.5% of people who would have been excluded in previous years.  They have also managed to reverse the deficit of applications from BME and female candidates.


7. Appetite for continuous learning

One of the questions that graduates most commonly ask us about future employers is “what is the training and development plan?”  After two decades in education, students have a history of learning, and expect this to continue in the organisation they join.  They want to know what the learning opportunities are, what they can do to support their early career progress and its vital that you have this in place and share this information with your candidates.


8. Student pace does not equal professional pace

Most applicants for graduate roles are – don’t forget – still students!  They have other pressures and time constraints such as academic deadlines, presentations and exams and their priorities can shift quickly from job-search to academic achievement.  Perhaps they have a part-time job, financial worries and – of course – the famous student social life!

They may not demonstrate the same sense of urgency that we have come to expect in the professional world, but please don’t automatically assume that this reflects their passion or interest levels.

If you leave a student a voicemail you may not receive a response immediately, it doesn’t mean they are not interested or don’t want to speak to you, they are simply not accustomed to the same pace or perhaps style of communication.  If a student is not in a lecture at 9am, then it is likely that they are in bed, so again, don’t expect to get a voice at the other end of the phone first thing in the morning!  Patience and understanding of their world is useful.


9. Real Insights into real companies

Students crave authenticity from employers, they want to engage with companies on a personal level and hear specific details about the role they will be doing and the environment they will be joining.  They frequently ask questions like “what will I actually be doing in the job?”.

As a graduate recruiter we have learned that the more information we can share about values, atmosphere, what kind of team they will be joining and what the day to day demands of the role are likely to be, then the more engaged and energised potential applicants will become.

At the beginning of your campaign, try to communicate as much of this kind of information as possible to your recruiters or directly to applicants.  You will come across to candidates as transparent and trustworthy.   This can help fill the expectation gap that can arise between employers and graduate hires.


10. Being valued creates engagement and loyalty

There is a stereotype that Gen Y/Z have high expectations from their roles; they want a good salary, good work/life balance and a stimulating job. In our experience, this candidate pool are also looking to make a contribution; they crave purpose in the form of delivering on the job.  For example, we spoke to a candidate that we placed on a supply chain graduate scheme 9 years ago, he’s with the same organisation and progressed up the ‘ladder’.  We asked him “why have you stayed all these years?”, he said, “because I’m still delivering, I’m still making a noticeable contribution and that makes me feel good about myself”.

In the case of this person, his contribution had been recognised and valued.  This had resulted in him stay in the organisation for a further 9 years – and counting – after joining as a graduate.  He not only feels good about himself, but about the organisation.   If your goal in hiring graduates is to nurture future talent for the business, then this needs to start from day one in order to reap the longer-term benefits of retaining highly engaged employees.