So, you've passed your degree ...

March 20, 1998

... Now there are the interviews, the aptitude tests, the verbal reasoning exercises, the personality questionnaires .. Elaine Williams reports on the growing number of hurdles companies are placing before job applicants

Job-hunting graduates could be forgiven for thinking that companies are looking for superhumans. Having slogged through three years of study to gain a good degree it can be daunting, if not downright demoralising, to realise that graduation was only the first hurdle. They now have to produce evidence of a whole host of other skills as well. It is not enough to have a first in physics, engineering, or anthropology, to come from the right university, to be good at interviews or to have old school connections.

Graduates can expect a grilling. If their applications are accepted they face much more than an interview. Many companies these days have invested in assessment centres where candidates have to undergo at least two interviews, psychometric aptitude tests (verbal, numerical and spatial reasoning), personality questionnaires, group and in-tray (prioritising paper work) exercises, presentations and work samples.

Typically they will arrive at the assessment centre late afternoon on the first day, have a presentation, and then move on to talks over drinks and a meal. The following morning they will begin tests and interviews to finish mid-afternoon.

In all of these tests, a company like BT for example, which takes on 800 graduates every year from 10,000 applicants, will be looking for skills such as "effective communication and impact, problem solving and decision-making, self-management, the ability to communicate, business awareness, continuous improvement and managing change''. As Brian Joice, careers adviser at York University commented, it seems as if more and more companies are looking for "an Archangel Gabriel on a good day".

According to Saville and Holdsworth (SHL), a leading producer of psychometric tests, companies now go to such lengths for a very good reason: interviews alone have only a 10 per cent success rate of choosing the right person for the job. Failure is just too expensive. Roy Davis, SHL's head of communications says: "Companies cannot afford such wastage with graduates. They are a huge investment. That's why employers look to more objective techniques in recruitment."

But there is a feeling among university careers advisers that companies are not always discerning about the tests they use, and deter students from applying because of the unrealistically wide range of skills they seem to require. Margaret Wallis, director of the Careers Advisory Service at Warwick University, says: "There's a dilemma because employers do need people who can cope with increasingly complex challenges and they do need the brightest and best to sort out organisational problems, but they don't need high-flyers for every role in the organisation. We have employers coming to careers services saying 'Where are the candidates?' and we say 'You put out such strong messages about the super people you require that a lot of modest British students are put off'.'' She feels companies should be clear about the skills they require and the way they test those skills. Increasingly companies will use behavioural indicators in interviews. Having made an inventory of the skills they require they will look out for certain indicators. For example, if they require good communication skills, they might look out for a candidate's ability to summarise, to speak clearly, to ask questions and to avoid saying "erI" in conversations.

Personality profiles are there to illuminate character, so selectors would, for example, ask more pointed questions of a person applying for a sales job whose profile had presented them as quiet and antisocial. Then there is the gin and tonic treatment. Talks over drinks and a meal are there for managers to ask themselves whether they could actually work with a candidate or not.

"This is the subjective bit," says David Griffiths, consultant graduate recruiter. "Personnel professionals will try to reduce the subjective element to a minimum, but if you have three people capable of doing the job, you have to choose the one you think you can get on with." Wallis advises students to plan early. She says: "There is a huge amount of written and video material about these tests and practice samples. Forewarned is forearmed."

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