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Dipping your toes in the shark pen - tips for first time job seekers

For those looking for their first job after leaving college or university it pays to be aware of the mistakes that most people make in the first two to three months of a job search, says author and career coach John Lees.

First timer mistakes in job hunting

The biggest error is generally pitching yourself at large targets too soon. For example, registering with employment agencies when you don’t know what roles you are chasing marks you down as someone who will be difficult to help. Emailing out a vague, untested CV to all your contacts gets similar results. Sending out a weak CV you haven’t market tested is asking for instant rejection. Applying for jobs where you’re unlikely to get shortlisted leads to early knockbacks, which can easily dent interview confidence and cause you to start tinkering with your CV and downgrading your ambitions. So you need to do your preparation first.

Enrich your catalogue

Employers get tired of hearing empty claims, but they are interested in hard evidence. Your studies may provide useful material. Some academic subjects mean little to employers, so explain why the topics you studied are relevant to a modern workplace. Talk about what you most enjoyed in study, what it taught you in terms of life skills, what special projects you undertook. Even if you studied something fairly unusual you will have gained considerable experience of researching, organising and analysing data, consulting experts and presenting information concisely and coherently in speech and in writing.

Look at times you have had exposure to work: placements, overseas work while travelling, paid work during term time, work experience while studying, holiday jobs, even workplace visits. For any kind of work, paid or unpaid, keep good records of what you have done, including details of your role, the company, the contribution you made and where you made a difference.


The single biggest problem with CVs of university or college leavers is a failure to translate qualities, know-how and experience into terms that are meaningful to an employer. This isn’t just a problem for people leaving full-time education; it’s very difficult for people to leave teaching or the health service for exactly the same reason. You find yourself immersed in a particular technical language, and then fail to perceive the need to help others to understand what these terms mean.

It’s your job to form a bridge between your experience and the world of the hiring company. Get an employer to see not just skills, but transferable skills – and they only become transferable when you communicate them in terms an employer will get excited about. For example, if you write that you produced a 6000-word dissertation on a topic, you will get minimal response. If, however, you talk about the problems of gathering data, experiments and testing, interviewing people, keeping up with the latest developments in your subject area, and working under pressure to achieve the project by a fixed deadline, then your interviewer starts to get interested. You have started to talk the same language.

Returning to a career after a study break

Those who have taken a career break to take a full-time course need to plan carefully when trying to return to the workplace. The key thing to remember is that you need short, focused answers to three questions:

1.  Why did you decide to give up work to take this qualification?
2.  What did you get out of it?
3.  What do you hope to do next as a direct result of your studies?

Without adequate answers a recruiter starts to worry that you make random decisions in your career, or that you might be in danger of becoming a lifelong student. Talk with enthusiasm about what you enjoyed while studying (after all, if you didn’t enjoy it, why did you do it?). The third question requires you to communicate a clear, straightforward data-burst about the way this recent experience adds to your CV and has helped to reshape your career path.

What to say if you have little or no work experience

When you are leaving full-time education, finding good-quality evidence for your CV can feel like a tough job. You may feel you don’t have many skills, or you are not sure what an employer finds valuable. You may have a fairly good idea of your personal strengths and feel that these are the only things you can write about. You probably haven’t yet really understood how to communicate your skills to an employer, and although you know that employers are interested in evidence of achievements, you don’t feel you have many worth mentioning.

Most school, college and university leavers write an upside down CV – all the important messages are at the wrong end. Too many CVs major on recent academic success. These documents don’t say anything about skills, know-how and achievements until page two when a rather thin-looking work history is presented. Such a CV shouts out ‘I am a student who has had the occasional job’ or ‘I have little experience but some potential’ rather than showing that you already have the skills to hit the deck running.

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