Finding a graduate job after you return from a gap year can be tough. You’ve been off the grid, out of the loop and now there’s a big gaping hole in your CV. In fact, getting back into employment or onto the career ladder can be the most difficult and frustrating part of adjusting to life back home.
But there’s no need to despair; even if you didn’t set off backpacking with the intention of beefing up your CV or developing your skill set, there’s probably plenty of stuff from your travels that you can use to help you in your quest to get a job.
When thinking about future jobs and careers post-travelling you should look at what practical skills you have gained from your travelling experience, such as initiative, organisation and communication.
You may not have set out to get career-boosting experience on your gap year, but doing any independent travelling demonstrates a certain degree of planning and responsibility, and this is attractive to employers.
There are several different methods of searching for a job itself. You can look at newspapers, websites and agencies or find jobs on company’s websites. Keep a close eye on positions you’d be interested in on company websites and reading industry magazines.
When it comes to applying for jobs, applying directly cuts out the middle man on your applications and there are no fees or costs involved. You need to be persistent, so phoning a company after you have applied to confirm they have got your application can help.
Alternatively, using agencies and job web sites allows you to say exactly what you require through specifying different industries, locations and sectors. They will save you much time and effort from having to look for jobs as you will be contacted about different roles that may suit your needs.
Registering with several of these agencies and websites will give you many opportunities to apply for various jobs and helps keep your options open. There are also bespoke agencies and websites that cater for jobs in specific industries and registering with these can help you find more specific roles that you are looking for.
Applying for a job isn’t all about hunting for advertised vacancies and going to pre-organised presentations and recruitment fairs – there are other ways of approaching the search that show initiative. The majority of people will wait for a position to be advertised, however many vacancies never reach the public domain. If you go off the job hunting radar and start digging for the role you want you are much more likely to find what you are looking for.
Cold calling can be a very successful way of getting a job, but it takes patience and persistence before yielding results.
First you need to identify which companies you would like to work for and how your skills match a job they might have. Next, do your homework to try to find out who you need to speak to: websites, news stories and even a few initial calls might give you some indicators.
Think through what you want to say and how to say it, remembering to sell yourself in every appropriate way as possible as you will have caught your potential employer off guard when they may have no vacancies to offer anyway. If you do manage to speak to the right person, do your best to make a good impression.
Don’t be offended if they are not interested or even rude, just politely end the conversation and move on. You cannot expect progress every time you pick up the phone, but each time you do it is another great opportunity to find the right job.
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Not a fan of speaking to people you’ve never met and can’t see? Then try writing a letter to possible employers. Many managers will have a pile of cover letters accompanied by CVs to turn to when they have to recruit so it is a good idea to try to be one of the lucky ones already on their desk.
As with cold calling, you will need to research the companies you would like to work for and decide on the strengths you want to highlight before sending out any letters. Always write a cover letter to introduce yourself, summarising your experience and being specific about the type of role you are looking for at each company. It may be some time before you get any kind of genuine interest from a speculative letter, but the more you write, the more likely you are of winning over recruiters.
There are plenty of other ways to find out about the job market – from speaking to family and friends to networking at events. Always keep your ears close to the ground for any hints of new positions or employers moaning about vacancies to fill as these can be your ticket in.
Writing your CV
Once you’ve decided what industry and job you want to go for and have started looking at recruitment agencies, or perhaps even begun to enquire about applying for a job, you need to get your CV in order.
Every time you apply for a job you’ll want to tailor your CV to the specific role that you’re going for. Don’t just produce a generic one-size-fits-all copy and send it out to everyone. Look at the requirements of the job specification and ensure that you match each point within your CV. Show that you can do the job, and how your travelling experience supports that.
Your single most important marketing tool is your CV and its primary purpose is to secure you an interview.
It is vital, therefore, that it should list your best selling points in as accessible and logical a manner as possible. It is highly likely that your CV will be one of many – possibly hundreds – that a recruiter or consultant has to read through in an extremely short space of time. It is not unlikely that, at the screening stage, its initial reading may amount to little more than a cursory glance, perhaps lasting a mere 30 seconds.
It is vital, therefore, that your CV is well presented and clearly structured, with the most relevant information on the first page and readily identifiable.In effect, the perfect CV should act as an aid to the reader, directing their focus to the qualification criteria they are looking for and the key points that differentiate you from any other applicants.
As well as the obvious need to ensure that all spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct, the overall layout and format of each section should be such that it enables the information contained to be easily accessed and quickly interpreted.
Your CV is likely to form the framework for any interview and you can expect to be asked to elaborate on, justify or defend any statements made in your application. Consequently, it is important that you feel comfortable with your CV and ensure that its contents are both honest and accurate. Whilst you should always aim to present any information in a positive way, be careful to avoid huge exaggeration or any fabrication whatsoever. Don’t boast that you were a school teacher in Ghana if you were only a classroom assistant!
Since a recruiter will look at the beginning first, you should make sure the most relevant information is at the beginning of the first page. It is crucial that you think carefully about what the qualification criteria are for each employer and how closely you can match yourself to these.If you feel your experience – even your gap year experience – is more relevant and impressive, then you may wish to put this ahead of your academic details.
Dealing with your gap
Travelling can leave a big gap in your CV. Many people worry that going away backpacking or volunteering, even for a few months, will create a black hole in their resume so powerful it will suck everything else on the page into it, leaving them with a CV that makes them appear unemployable.
This is, obviously, not the case. Yes, a period of time out of employment or out of your preferred industry can be a negative thing. But most employers know that constructive gap year experience working, volunteering or independent travel is worthwhile, and allows you to develop skills, experience and knowledge that make you a much stronger candidate.
So don’t be afraid that your time out from work will be viewed negatively, and certainly don’t leave what you were doing for a year off the CV entirely – that really would be viewed poorly by employers.
All good CVs are simple, succinct and logically structured to enable any reader to find the information they require within seconds. Consequently, sentences need to be short, factual and to the point. Try doing several drafts, each time going through to make sure every phrase earns its place and deleting as many words as possible whilst keeping the overall meaning of the sentence.
Identify main selling points and the key competencies/skills that the employer is looking for. Examples of selling points: working for a well-renowned employer, good experience in a particularly rare skill set, size of projects, particularly relevant qualifications, etc.
Identify the qualities being sought and think about the skills you needed for, and gained from, your previous experiences, including those developed on your travels. These can be professional, technical and personal, but it is important that they are relevant and detailed in short, bullet-pointed statements.
Generally, employers are only interested in your most recent achievements. If an employer reads about something you did seven years ago, they might wonder why you haven’t done anything more impressive since then. Your gap year might yield plenty of gold for this. Even if you just backpacked around, saying you complete a lengthy solo trip around another continent can easily be argued as an achievement.
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Keep hobbies and interests short (3-4 lines). Any information should have a purpose, ideally showing skills relevant to the role and saying something of interest about yourself. Travel is obviously a good thing to put down, but why did you travel? To learn new skills? To broaden your cultural horizons? To make a difference in a poor community? Don’t just assume people will extrapolate any of these points from you just writing ‘travelling’ as a hobby.
Unless requested, references need not be given at the initial application stage and a simple ‘references available on request’ should suffice. Employers will ask for references if and when they need them. If you are required to provide names of referees, someone from your gap year, maybe a project leader or someone you worked for, could be a great character reference.
Design and presentation
There is no one absolute CV structure or style. To a certain extent, it is simply a matter of personal taste. Some individuality can serve to make a CV unique and interesting compared other offerings, yet too much artistic licence is likely to be detrimental.
The basic rule to always bear in mind is: substance before style. However attractive or artistically inspired your CV may look, it will be your selling points that set you apart and get you an interview request, not the way in which they are presented.
Writing your Covering Letter
A strong CV should be complemented by an equally strong covering letter. But while a CV should be a formal record of your skills and achievements, the covering letter offers a means of personalising each application to the specific role and company. It should be used to highlight and elaborate on the key points in your CV, which are of particular relevance to the employer and will hopefully encourage further investigation.
The letter is also an ideal opportunity to demonstrate your enthusiasm and suitability for a role and it is essential you pay close attention to your writing style. Keep it simple, adopt a formal, yet friendly, tone and ensure it is succinct and to-the-point.
Here’s a suggestion for structuring a four-paragraph letter to get your started!
Paragraph 1: The attention-grabbing introduction
The golden rule when starting a letter is always, if possible, to address it to a particular person, and so avoid using ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or other such generic openings. They will either be the contact name in the advert or the person with whom you wish to have an interview. If you are unsure, it is best to ring up and find out the correct title and spelling of their name and how they prefer to be addressed.
The rest of the introduction should briefly explain which job you are applying for (including reference number if applicable), where you found out about the position and why you have decided to apply. Aim to be as specific as possible and try to avoid using stock phrases, as this will help to set you apart from the other applications.
If your application is a speculative one, i.e. not for a specifically advertised vacancy, be sure to state clearly the type of role you are seeking and your reasons for applying, which will need to be convincing to generate enough interest to read on.
Paragraph 2: Why the company and what requirements?
Explain your reasons for applying to the company and tell the reader the three requirements that you have identified as being key to the role. Not only will this demonstrate that you have done your research, but also that you have understood the requirements of the position.
It’s vital that you research the role and company to ensure your application can be tailored to be as directly relevant as possible. Make good use of your careers service, look at recent news articles and, perhaps most important of all, read through the job advertisement and company website to identify the key selection criteria and obtain pertinent information about the company and the role.
Some experts recommend actually replicating the language of the recruitment literature application, but be careful not to just lift the company’s own words.
Paragraph 3: Why are you right for the job?
Having just stated what you believe are the selection criteria, it is important that you now match these with up to three reasons justifying your application and explaining why you are right for the job. These need to be as relevant as possible, highlighting and elaborating upon achievements in your CV, rather than just simply regurgitating information already mentioned. Write with a bias to the future and not the past and always end on a positive note.
Paragraph 4: Strong conclusion
The final paragraph’s main function is to ensure the letter concludes strongly and ends on a positive note, reaffirming both your suitability and enthusiasm for the position. If applicable, now is the time to state clearly any dates when you will be unable to attend an interview. Finally, close the letter along the lines of ‘I very much look forward to hearing from you in the near future’, etc. and sign off using ‘Yours sincerely’.
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Once completed, read through the letter several times for any spelling or grammatical errors and get a friend to proof-read it for you. Double check that the information conveyed is correct, consistent with your CV and that you have not repeated phrases in both.
Your covering letter will then be ready to go!
How Not to Complete an Application Form
When you sit down to tackle an application form, trying to think of a witty way to ensure you are remembered by the reader or producing some flagrant lie in the hope of securing the job might seem like a good idea at the time: after all, you want to try to guarantee every application gets you an interview, right?
But wit is rarely appreciated and lies can come undone. Equally unwise can be the desire to get as many applications written as possible, neglecting the care and attention each one should receive. So to help you avoid making a faux pas, here are a few of the most common application no-no’s that should be avoided at all costs!
The generic mistake
When applying for many jobs at the same time, it may seem like an excellent time-saving exercise to write out introductory paragraphs and descriptions of your personal qualities that can be used for any job application.
Employers can spot these a mile off: a ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ salutation, the old ‘I am very interested in joining your company’ and ‘I am a dynamic, hardworking individual’ are fooling no one. Tailor every sentence to the job and company you are applying for, and if you need any more information to make it as direct and relevant as possible do not be afraid to get in contact with the employer. A short phone conversation can clear up queries and gives you the chance to break the ice.
It only takes a few minutes to read the instructions on an application form: so do it! A form arriving with blue-coloured, lower case letters will be promptly discarded if black ink and block capitals were requested.
Potential employers are looking for smart, efficient and careful candidates so any failure to follow specific instructions at this stage will be frowned upon. Your spelling and grammar need to be perfect too: even if it means it takes a bit longer to complete, it will be worth the extra effort.
When you do finish an application, read it through, print it out and have another look: it is easy to overlook an error or misread what was wanted the first time round. Then give it to someone else to read as their fresh eyes will offer a further check.
Lies, lies, lies!
Boosting your ego with claims of foreign language skills, finishing top of the class in subjects you never studied and having hobbies you’ve never tried is risky business at the best of times. For a job application it may get you into the interview, but your interviewer might just be an expert in anything you claim you are not. You say you led an expedition of French-speaking tourists through the Alps? Then you will be grilled by a French mountaineering expert more interested in your supposed skills than your skills for the job. Stick to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, otherwise you will come unstuck somewhere down the line and your career will be short-lived.
Greasing the wheels of recruitment
A subtle £20 note, a cheque for something larger or the offer of a service (We won’t ask what) with your application are not ways of easing your way into an interview! An employer will not be hiring on the basis of who buys them the nicest present, so if you have not got the skills, a dodgy backhander will not do your job for you.
Putting beauty over ability
Even if you have the looks of a top class catwalk model, do not submit a picture with your application or even put one on your CV unless requested. Only actors and models have to put their looks above knowledge when applying for work: chances are you could be putting any genuine talent at risk from appearing vain or, worse, unfashionable.
Word counts are final: staying within them while covering all the necessary details is a skill. Writing endlessly about your past work experience is not something a potential employer wants to plough through so don’t do it! They want clear, succinct applications that can be read quickly yet contain all the information they need. It may not be an easy thing to do, but it does have to be done!
Tips for Interviews
For many reasons interviews have the potential to be fairly daunting. The truth is that while they do get easier as you do more and more of them, they always have this ability to create nerves. But there’s a lot of preparation you can do to ensure you perform and give yourself the best possible chance to get hired.
What do interviews entail?
There is a lot of variety – you could be going into the office of the company you’re applying to, or you might be involved in a telephone or agency interview. You might be talking to members of the human resources or graduate recruitment team, or the manager(s) who would be responsible for you if you were to join the company, or a mixture of all of these.
The interview might be one-on-one, or with a panel. You might be taken through fairly standard ‘stock questions’ with your answers written down, or the interview could be a wide-ranging conversation with questions progressively leading to more and more consecutive inquiries.
Or it could just be a formal meeting with a senior manager or a chat over coffee with someone who joined the company a year before. You get the idea… variety!
So how should you prepare?
Research the company and the job.
You should be able to get a lot of the information you might need from the company’s website. Employer presentations and contacts who work for the firms you’re applying for are also useful sources.
You might be asked questions about the company, its market, products and/or services and competitors; or about the role itself. You’ll need to have a good knowledge of all these aspects. While there will usually be questions you haven’t thought of, doing this preparation work should give you the knowledge you need to cope with them.
Approaching the Interview
Research has shown that the decision to hire may be made in recruiters’ minds within the first moments of meeting the candidate. So your presentation is vital. It’s important to be dressed appropriately for the type of employer you’re applying to – whether you dress formally or not will depend on the industry.
In general it’s probably better to err on the side of being too formally dressed. The chances are you will already have a good idea of the type of image which you need to project for the particular area, but you can glean extra clues from the company’s website, and especially if you have any contacts who work for the company.
So although you might be proud of your flowing shoulder-length hair or your shaggy traveller beard, it might be best to reach for the razor and smarten up for an interview.
Make sure you arrive in the area early, so that if anything goes wrong you won’t be late; however, it’s best not to actually make your way to the employer’s office more than five minutes before the allotted time – too early is nearly as bad as too late! And also remember to turn your mobile phone off.
If it’s helpful, think of the interview as a business conversation, between two (or more) professionals, who both wish for the right outcome – the interviewer(s) wants to find the best person or people for the job; while you, the interviewee want to make sure the company and the opportunity are right for you.
It’s also a selling occasion though – you want the interviewer to ‘buy you’, and to feel that they’re making a purchase with all the qualities they could desire, whether these are enthusiasm, reliability, fantastic communication skills, or the ability to multi-task like a machine, for example.
Remember also that the interviewer has a high degree of responsibility in choosing the right person; either directly because the graduate they hire will be working for them (and therefore the calibre of the candidate will have an impact on their own performance), or indirectly if they are a human resources representative who is recruiting to join another department (whose hiring choice will be assessed). So it might be helpful to visualise this from the interviewer’s perspective, and try to support them making the right decision of hiring you. Try to convey the kind of qualities you would look for in a dependable and effective candidate, if you were recruiting.
In general, if you are courteous, professional and enthusiastic, this is an excellent basis from which to use the interview to display your aptness for the job.
Answering questions and speaking
When answering questions, make sure you’re generous with your responses – volunteering information, rather than simply giving yes or no responses. Interviewers will be asking questions aimed at drawing answers from you, so this won’t be too difficult.
Avoid the other extreme though, of being too verbose. Ensure your answers are addressed to the question which was asked, without too many digressions. If you find yourself wandering off at a tangent, try and get back to the point, and make an effort to avoid this in future answers. It’s ok to make mistakes if you turn them around; but carrying on regardless is a no-no.
When speaking, fillers like ‘um’, ‘ah’, are quite natural in a potentially nervous situation like an interview; but if you can be aware of them, try to stop yourself doing them as far as possible. And try to talk at a measured pace, but varying your intonation so that you’re not speaking in a monotone.
The main thing to stress is that the more you ‘be yourself’ – unless you’re fundamentally unemployable – as the more comfortable and relaxed you will feel, and the better you will come across. The aspects I’ve mentioned are just things to be conscious of, but only if doing so doesn’t distract you from feeling comfortable.
Throughout, you should try and be aware of the following:
Make sure you smile and give a firm handshake
Maintain good posture (sitting straight etc); don’t slouch.
Make frequent eye contact (but without staring!);
While talking use measured hand movements, rather than being too exaggerated, or crossing your arms.
If someone enters the room while you’re seated, you should always stand to shake hands with them.
All these aspects can be practised, and become more natural the more interview experiences you have.
Questions and answers
Some examples of questions you might be asked include:
About the role:
“Why have you applied for this job?”
“Why do you think you would be good at it?”
“What do you think the job will involve on a day to day basis?”
“What do you think you will be doing in two year’s time if you get the job?”
About the company
“What are the challenges facing our company?”
“What are the major issues affecting the industry at the moment, or likely to in the near future?”
“Who are our major competitors?”
“How do we differentiate ourselves from our competitors?”
Your educational, employment and extracurricular background
You should be very familiar with everything you’ve already told the employer about yourself in your application – you don’t want to have anything you’ve already said come as a surprise when it’s repeated to you in a question!
You will need to be able to talk in depth about the educational and employment experiences you’ve had – why you chose the options you did, what they gave you in terms of skills and competencies, and how they make you perfect for the job you’re applying for.
Questions you might face include:
“Why did you choose to study x?”
“I see that in your penultimate summer at university, you worked as an intern at x bank. Can you describe what you were doing there?/ What did you get out of this?”
“Why did you leave your last employment?”
And they will usually follow this up with further questions going into some more depth on your involvement.
“What were the targets?”
“What was the outcome?”
“Who did you work with and what was your role in the team?”
“Did you encounter any obstacles, and how did you overcome them?”
“What did you gain from the experience?”
“Would you do anything differently if you were to do a similar project again?”
Questions about general skills and competencies
General competency questions are standard features of interviews. You should research the competencies which are asked for in the particular role (these will be cited in the job advertisement) and make sure you use your answers to demonstrate that you have acquired them, over the course of your life to date.
Examples of competency questions include:
“What are your three main strengths?”
“What are your three main weaknesses?”
“Would you say you’re an effective leader?”
“Do you work best on your own or as part of a team?”
“Have you ever had to deal with an unhappy customer/ a difficult colleague? How did you go about it?”
Answers to these questions may not come naturally, but can often be found if you think hard (and laterally) enough. You will usually find, even if there aren’t any obvious scenarios which fit the bill, that you have something in your life experience which you can use to support your answers. For example, it’s quite possible that as an undergraduate (for example), you may not yet have “led a team to completion of a project”.
Questions about motivation
Interviewers will probe your motivation for the job. They will look for you to be able to explain how your education, work experience and extracurricular activities not only prepare you for the position you’re applying for, but indicate an interest in the field.
“I see you studied philosophy. How does this fit in with your application to work as a management consultant?”
“Have you done any work experience in a field related to this role?”
However in these days of portfolio careers, this may not be the case – and if this is so, turn it to your advantage. Explain how your background has provided you with the skills which are asked for, and how it has led to your desire to work in the area you’re applying in.
Here you can develop your own narrative to relate your background to the job in question. Make sure it’ll withstand questioning, as employers are bound to cross-examine you on this.
Questions about your gap year
You might well find that interviewers ask you about your travels, especially if you have a large gap in your CV.
The important thing to remember here is that you can turn something that could potentially be a huge weakness into a serious asset. Employers do not generally see a gap year as an indulgence pursuit for the privileged any more. There is real value to travel experience, and they know this. Do your best to convince them of how your time backpacking developed you as a candidate and as a person.
The fact that you have gone travelling doesn’t mean that you have wasted months of your life or career. Think back over your time travelling. What skills did you learn? What experience did you benefit from? How has your time made you a more interesting, knowledgeable or appreciative person? What did you get from your time travelling that you would not have got from staying at home?
You don’t need to have done volunteering or relevant work experience to use your time travelling as a huge positive in an interview. Just learn the right way to articulate how beneficial your gap year was for you.
Questions to catch you out
Some interviewers like to ask questions to see how you cope with the unexpected, and how well you think on your feet. Examples of these might be, “if you were an animal, which one would you be?”, and “how would you nail jelly to the ceiling?”
Prepare some questions for the end of the interview
It’s a good idea to ask at least a couple of questions, and ideally several at the end of the interview. This is definitely something which employers look for – asking no questions can be taken as a sign of not being really interested in the firm or the opportunity; while some thoughtful questions give the impression of being engaged and enthusiastic.
It may be that your questions are answered during the course of the interview, so if this happens you’ll have to think of a new one. But it’s a good idea to prepare in this way, so that even if this happens, the exercise will get you thinking about the opportunity in analytical ways, which might bring up areas to research which you hadn’t thought of; and will add to your overall level of preparedness.
Examples of aspects you might ask about include:
“What kind of teams will I be working in?”
“How much time will be spent out of the office?”
“What kind of support/mentoring/training/networking will I be provided with or have access to?”
“What’s the after-hours social life like?”
Any technical questions or questions about specific aspects of the tasks you’ll be involved in are also appropriate.
The end of the interview
Always end the interview on a positive note. After asking the questions you prepared or which came up over the course of the interview, reiterate your enthusiasm for the position (if you’re still enthusiastic, that is).
Additionally you might wish to ask when you can expect to hear the result of the application, if this hasn’t already been said. After the interview
You may be offered the job, or invited to a further round of interviews or other assessments, or unfortunately turned down. If the latter, be sure to get feedback on your performance and on your application – this way you can ensure that the interview is a constructive experience. Employers should be more than happy to provide feedback. Treat the whole experience as a learning exercise. Then go onto the next application, remembering that interviews do get easier!
In conclusion… go for it!
Do your preparation; maintain a good focus; remember everyone’s in the same boat – and then just give it your best shot! You’ve got nothing to lose as there will always be plenty more jobs to apply for, and plenty to learn from the experience, so concentrate on making sure you don’t have any regrets afterwards, by doing the best you can! It can be difficult finding work and don’t be disheartened by the knockbacks. You can always ask a company for feedback on why you haven’t been given a role. It can take time to get the job that you want, so keep trying.