Who will make the grade in graduate recruitment season?

Good luck!”, a receptionist calls out before closing the door on a small meeting room in London lit by fluorescent strips. Inside, 12 apprehensive men and women, some still at university, some graduates, are sitting around a table dressed in their best suits. One fidgets his feet, a jittery tic — shuffle, shuffle.

These twentysomethings are here at PwC as part of the recruitment process for a job in the professional services firm’s various divisions: technology, consultancy, accountancy.

“Last night I was so nervous, I couldn’t even think about it,” confides a young man in a blue suit, though he appears to be brimming with puppyish enthusiasm. “It’s easy to say ‘keep calm’. You worry that [you are] going to be intimidated by others.”

As well he might. The group may be friendly now but only a few will make it through the half-day assessment to the final round of interviews. Its members have already passed the online tests, which include numerical and verbal reasoning as well as a personality questionnaire that assesses their working style. Some will have had a first-round telephone interview.

This is graduate recruitment season, though in practice it never stops. Most PwC assessment days take place in November and at the end of January. Thousands of undergraduates, like the dozen at PwC, are intellectually prodded and observed to win coveted places on professional service firms’ graduate schemes, which come with good quality training and comparatively high salaries — PwC offers those in its London offices between £28,000 and £30,000 a year.

Competition is tough. Depending on the job, the success rate will vary from 1 in 10 to 1 in 20. The firm will recruit about 1,500 graduates across the UK this year. In 2015, 52 per cent were for jobs outside London. “Opportunities in the regions are greater now,” says Richard Irwin, PwC’s director of student recruitment. Most applicants are in their final year but some are postgraduates. A few are switching careers, most commonly, twentysomethings — although a farmer successfully applied at 55.

Back in the conference room, after an icebreaker in which the candidates are invited to give the name of their university (Sussex, London School of Economics and Southampton are some) and favourite holiday destination (Dubai, South Africa, Interrailing), they are asked to complete a written exercise, a psychometric test and group assessment.

The cohort is instructed to write a report. The corporate problem they must grapple with? A quality media organisation is threatened by competitors. It must review three strategies and recommend one with a written rationale containing both qualitative and quantitative analysis, all within 30 minutes. They are off.

Jonathan Black, director of Oxford university’s careers service, is struck by the high proportion of students who do not prepare adequately for assessments and interviews. “You wouldn’t walk into an exam without revision — preparation is everything. Students will revise for exams but won’t see [recruitment tests] as an exam.”

Kate Morrison, 22, went through a similar process last year at KPMG. The Cardiff University chemistry graduate recalls feeling nervous at the 8.30am start. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. I prepared for generic interview questions; why KPMG; why tech [the division she applied for]?” When it came to the written report, everything “went out of my brain. I was reading a lot and everyone seemed to be writing.” Now working at KPMG, she would advise applicants to practise analysing business issues and writing reports.

Mr Irwin says the way to excel at assessed report-writing is to demonstrate a wide vocabulary and good grammar as well as an ability to structure arguments, supported by facts. “We compare it to a history exam: if you list all the facts you won’t do well.”

The written reports are not, he insists, about candidates’ knowledge of the business they are being asked to analyse, but “demonstrating their ability to demonstrate the thought process”.

Most graduate employers look for “core competencies”, to illuminate candidates’ strengths rather than weaknesses, with each question attempting to bring out a skill, such as communication and leadership. Mr Irwin prefers to use the word “skills”, which is more concrete, than the elusive “talent”. This might be to give an example of a successful working relationship — how did you do that, what were the circumstances, the objective and the result?

Alice Merron, a graduate recruit in PwC’s banking and capital markets division, says she researched PwC’s core competencies and tried to “allocate ideas to each one”.

James Uffindell, founder of Bright Network, which hosts employment events for undergraduates, says if an employer wants to know if you can analyse data, think of concrete examples, such as: “I had to analyse a membership spreadsheet and discovered people weren’t paying us.”

Mr Black of Oxford university is sanguine about employers’ focus on core competencies. “There is no evidence it works, people change, jobs change.” He says all recruitment processes can be distilled to one question: why should we employ you?

Yet, even before undergraduates get to the assessment centres, they need to do more due diligence, says Mr Uffindell. “Students get bombarded with information, put in loads of applications and don’t really understand the role. Find out what [a typical] day is, what kind of tasks a graduate would do. Talk to people.” The problem is, he says, that many employers get marketed like they are a “cool brand”, which distracts applicants from the daily grind.

Many candidates apply to lots of employers, according to Victoria Lawes, director of resourcing at Deloitte. “Care and attention to fewer applications is better. You need to show you take it seriously.” Linda Emery, head of graduate recruitment at KPMG, says: “If someone goes through the motions but there’s nothing about the work that excites them, they probably won’t make it.”

Back at PwC’s assessment day, the 12 applicants break for sandwiches and to discuss how the half-day has gone. One woman who studied at Manchester University says time was the biggest challenge. “It’s too tight.” Another notes: “Lots of us struggled with the report.”

A few say they made a supreme effort to look like they were listening rather than just talking. Ms Merron tells candidates “to conduct yourself in a way that isn’t boastful or arrogant”.

Ms Emery sees candidates who come into assessments and think they should pretend to be something they are not. “They are really forceful and spout jargon. We want people to have awareness of the business world. They don’t need to be a know-it-all.”

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