Don’t waste your time on graduate schemes (here’s what you should be doing instead)

Don’t waste your time on graduate schemes (here’s what you should be doing instead) | Photo courtesy of Daniel Gies

Earlier this week I received a phone call from a mother who wanted me to prepare CVs and application forms for her two children that would guarantee them success on graduates schemes.

One of the bright young sparks wanted a position in investment banking and the other a more abstract role in humanities.

I explained to mum that while my team and I were indeed experts at carrying out CV makeovers and writing application forms, there was no way that I (or any other CV writing organisation for that matter) could guarantee that they would land these positions, it just wasn’t possible.

This turned out not to be what mommie dearest wanted to hear as I never heard back from her again.

Now although this phone call was unusual in that it’s not every day that I get mums ringing me up on behalf of their offspring, the request itself wasn’t.

Every year I come across many fresh-faced graduates (and some not so fresh) who come to me hoping that I have a secret formula that would grant them fast-track access to the graduate position of their dreams.

Here’s the cold truth – I don’t.

Graduate schemes are like winning the lottery

Graduate schemes are like winning the lottery | Image courtesy of Jeremy Brooks

Graduate schemes are like winning the lottery – it *could* happen to you, but it might be better to have a back-up plan…

Like those ever-elusive million-pound lottery wins, graduate schemes are absolutely fantastic if you can get them:

  • You gain instant prestige for beating off very stiff competition;
  • You get to build your skills and climb the career ladder quickly;
  • You have a whopping starting salary that most adults still aspire to;
  • You typically get to try out a number of different roles which will give you an idea of what you like/don’t like;
  • You’re in a position to make valuable contacts that could pay off later on in life;
  • You may get offered a permanent position at the organisation if you particularly excel.

But the truth is not many graduates can get on to graduate schemes and there simply aren’t enough positions to go round anyway. The average graduate job attracts 73 applicants and graduate schemes even more – thousands of students apply each year and only around 10% manage to secure such a position.

Top accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) earlier this year reported receiving 200 applications a day and an estimate of 30,000 overall for their graduate scheme – even though they only had 1,200 open positions.

What’s the alternative…?

If you’re a recent or aspiring graduate despairing about where to find your first job, don’t waste your time applying for graduate schemes - here’s what you should be doing instead:

1) Skip the queues and go straight in

If your heart is really, really set on working for a Top 100 company, then your best bet might be to find another way in by applying directly – i.e. making a speculative application (Target Jobs have a useful guide on how to do this successfully).

Some 70% of jobs are not advertised and although tapping into this hidden job market takes courage and much initiative, when done correctly you can enjoy the greater rewards that come with queue jumping.

2) Turn your focus to smaller companies

SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) are just like those stereotypical high school geeks in those predictable teen movies – they may not look as good as the hunky football player* on the outside, but inside they’re real gentlemen (*feel free to substitute hunky football player with “busty cheerleading captain”).

SME jobs can give you the same experience as the “big boys” and better still, they are likely to be more personal and give you greater responsibility quicker than in larger companies.

Many SMEs are begging for quality graduate candidates to love and cherish for life (or at least a few years) so if it’s a long-lasting fulfilling career marriage you want, this might be a far more attainable option for you. Check out Instant Impact Interns for paid internships and graduate positions with SMEs.

3) Take any paid job you can get in your field

Unless your university degree was funded by very rich parents, chances are you now have a massive student loan debt to pay off so now’s not the time to be overly fussy.

While you’re looking for that perfect role, take any paid job you can get in your field – even if the pay’s slightly lower than you would like. Climbing the career ladder is like climbing the property ladder – the earlier you can get your foot on the first rung, the more financial (and other) rewards you’re likely to reap in the long run.

4) Work for free (as long as it pays)

If long-term pay-off is more your thing than short term instant cash gratification then work experience is the way to go. When I graduated in 2004 with a Creative Writing and Film Studies degree from London Metropolitan University, my dream then was to become a journalist and work for a mainstream newspaper. I was able to secure a two-week work experience placement at The Guardian in various departments which later on reaped many benefits, including freelance writing opportunities and a paid job a few years down the line.

I know working for free gets a lot of bad press these days but it really does have its benefits. The key is to be savvy enough to know the difference between gaining valuable work experience and something to add to your CV, and you being exploited outright.

Two weeks or even a month of free labour is one thing, but beyond that you’re entering into the danger zone of exploitation – particularly where you’re in a position where you’ve been given set hours and responsibilities and you’re performing work that adds value to the company without pay. Those are warning bells – heed them and get out!

5) Work for yourself (and make it pay)

More and more graduates are turning to freelancing and entrepreneurship as a valid means of employment, either in between or instead of a regular job – the “gradpreneurs” have been coming and still are! If you have a skill, talent or hobby that you’re pretty good at, someone out there wants to pay you for it so get yourself registered on sites like People Per Hour or Elance and get to selling yourself (your skills, that is…).

So there you have it – there’s absolutely no reason to mope around longingly after a graduate scheme when there is a whole world of alternative opportunities out there waiting to embrace you!

Your turn: These are my views of course, but I’d love to hear yours – do you think graduate schemes are still worth the hassle? You can leave your comment below…

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photo credits: ~dgies & Jeremy Brooks via photo pin cc

  • Amy J Burton

    I think both techniques are worthwhile, I’ve recently graduated and landed a job at a local firm. Without the experience of filling out grad scheme forms and telephone interviews I would not of had the confidence and knowledge of the experience required for a starting position and the expectations of most employers. So I would say don’t dismiss applying to graduate schemes, you never know who will read your application. Just do some research first.

    • mildredtalabi

      Hi Amy, thanks for sharing your experience and congratulations on landing a job so quickly! I do agree that the experience of applying for grad schemes can help to build confidence and knowledge of what employers want, but I do also think the same could be said for applying for any job. Grad scheme applications in particular are very time consuming so I wouldn’t personally recommend doing it just for the experience.

      • Amy J Burton

        I ended up applying to over 45 positions from Nov 11 to Jun 12, only 15 were grad schemes. The advantage to applying to grad schemes is that the end dates tend to be before anyone graduates meanwhile jobs tend to have a month or less meaning more pressure when you need the money most. I also believe that most graduates should contact companies they would like to work for and see if there are “non graduate” positions in the pipeline. Getting noticed in a pile of CVs is tough with so many graduates around. Really like the fact that you have said about ditching the grad scheme as a lot of people believe it is the be all and end all for graduates in current market.

        • mildredtalabi

          Brilliant advice Amy

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  • Zesh


    Brilliant article, what advice do you have for people graduating in the summer of 2013. You talk about the hidden jobs market, should students graduating in 2013 wait until they have graduated to start sending their CVs around, or should we really be doing this now? Should we email SMEs asking if they have any graduate opportunities for 2013, even though students are currently in their final year? Also where do we find this hidden market, or is it very much the case of using the internet, finding companies and emailing?

    I hope you can reply,

    Regards :)

    • mildredtalabi

      Hi Zesh, thank you very much – I’m glad the article’s been useful to you.
      In terms of advice, I’d recommend you read post here – She started her job hunting nine months before she graduated and as a result was able to start full time work just a month after leaving university so NOW is a good time for you start! Especially when it comes to building an online profile – this can take a while before it yields good results so the sooner you start, the better. Read my post here on the hidden job market for tips on how to find it. All the best & keep me posted…

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  • Ashley Hewins


    I just graduated in Media Communications and am looking into going into advertising. However none of the larger, more interesting companies have any positions open and all their grad schemes aren’t open until September. Is it worth applying to the grad schemes, then getting a job at a smaller firm, then if i get a position in the grad scheme leave my job for it?

    Look forward to hearing from you,

    • Mildred Talabi

      Hi Ashley, there’s no harm in applying for grad schemes as long as it’s not the ONLY basket you’re placing all your eggs in, so to speak.

      But it’s worth remembering that although the larger firms may be more appealing because of their size and position in the market, smaller firms are often able to give you a lot more hands-on experience so you could actually be better off in the long run working for a smaller firm upfront.

      So go ahead and apply for the grad jobs, but also apply for jobs you genuinely want within smaller companies so if things don’t quite work out, you still win as you’ll be in a job you enjoy.

  • J.D.S

    As a graduate of 2013, this is really helpful, much appreciated!

    • Mildred Talabi

      Great, glad to hear it, thanks.

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  • T.O.O

    Hiya, just wanted to ask as an international student graduating this summer what are my chances? I’ve been applying since october 2013 and still havent gotten anything. I guess chances are even slimmer when you are an international student trying to pursue the graduate scheme route in the Uk? appreciate your reply, Thanks