How to make extra-curricular activities count
I have already written on the subject of needing more dimensions than just that of academic excellence. A recent study shows that 70% of businesses believe extra-curricular activities make job-seeking graduates stand out from the crowd. In addition, nearly two-thirds feel that candidates with such experience tend to be more successful employees and progress more quickly in their careers.
This is not because of some vague reason that such activities make you a fundamentally more interesting person, even though that is obviously true, but it is simply because of the skills and competencies they allow you to develop. Skills like leadership, communication and time management are very much in demand in recruiting companies, and there is a recognition that too many new recruits are technically very able, but lacking the transferable skills that are required to succeed.
There is a very real worry that UK employers will be stuck with recruiting from a pool of candidates who have excellent grades but little real work experience. There is an awful irony in working hard towards a First Class degree grade, and deciding to drop all other activities in that pursuit. Why? Because it is probably all those other activities which will make the difference in getting you the job.
Sports are a strong area for exploration, but you do not need to have elite skills. Many university sports clubs are happy to take on beginners, or basic players, as they are interested in your development potential. So, if you played basketball in junior school, and never played again, this might be the time to come back to it. You might make the second team, and that will give you a chance to work in a group, to collaborate, to develop your resilience, to create a positive mindset and more. This will be valued by an interviewer, who is looking for real examples in your life, not just from studies. Next time you think about answering the competency question, “tell me about a time when you worked in a team towards a common goal”, you might be able to avoid telling the same story as all those other Chinese candidates, who don’t typically have much to tell beyond the group work stories that everyone relies on! So, figure out what sport you could go and develop, and work on contributing to the team. Just showing up for rowing practice at 6am, in the cold, will be a great story for you to tell about commitment, loyalty and diligence! And if you have never done the sport before, give it a try… it probably won’t kill you!
Put yourself in the shoes of the interviewer, or the person reading your application form… they want some means of engaging with you! They want to find a subject to talk about together, and to feel your true interest or passion. Maybe right now you are not sure if you could be passionate about cricket, but if you don’t give it a try, you certainly won’t find out! Not only will the interviewer be happy to have a subject about which to chat with you, but also, as you chat, and the interview becomes more informal as a result, they can realise that you will simply be a nice, fun, interesting person to work with. This is absolutely crucial when they are picking between twenty equally technically qualified candidates!
One thing that you must understand, however: these days, everyone who is able to afford to go to university in the UK can also afford to travel. A list of the countries you have visited will not impress any recruiter at all. Nor will “I love reading”, and even less “I love cooking”. What you need to do is to bring your tastes and passions to life. If you love cooking, tell us why! If it is because you love trying new recipes and adapting them to eastern ingredients, or because you experiment with alternative spices, then please tell us that and then we see who you are! If you love travelling, avoid the list and tell us what you get out of it. Some of you love photographing people, others love to meet locals and explore how they live. Let us see who you truly are via your interests. That is what will make you stand out! And if you stand out, you know what happens next, right?
I have been coaching young graduates like you for almost five years now. In that time, I have helped many to get offers from the companies they wanted to work in. I can safely say that not once did a candidate with no true interests and passions get a job. If you don’t pay attention to this very soon, you will find it extremely difficult to get the kind of work you dream of. Find the activity, however small or meaningless you might worry it is, and go and practice it with enthusiasm. If that is being the Secretary of the Kite-Flying Society – so be it! Enjoy it, take the responsibility, and learn to love it. Not only will the employers find you more interesting, but there is also the HUGE risk that you might have fun!