You could be forgiven for feeling that there’s a lot of doom and gloom around at the moment. Open a newspaper and you’ll read about the cost-of-living crisis, an economic recession, and how intergenerational unfairness is making it hard for young people to start a family and buy their own homes.
All of which can lead you to feel stressed about achieving the highest grades possible at school, getting into the most competitive courses at the most selective universities, and into a graduate job with the highest salary.
But the message from experts is: relax. There are lots of different ways to be successful in life, and although the labour market and economy aren’t as favourable towards graduates as they have been in the past, graduates still earn on average £10,000 more per year than those who don’t go to university, and benefit from lots of other advantages, including better health and feeling more satisfied with their lives.
“Even if the job market does tighten, take comfort that through both the financial crash and the Covid pandemic, more than 75% of graduate recruitment carried on as normal,” says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers.
What should you study?
You might be wondering which course will set you up best for life after graduation. Isherwood says this doesn’t matter as much as you might think, because the UK is unusual in that 80% of graduate employers don’t care what course you studied.
Isherwood says graduate employers are usually looking for four things: good team-working abilities, problem-solving skills, enthusiasm for the role, and resilience when things get tough.
“Some career options do require specific specialisms, think engineering, which is why you shouldn’t ignore your career aspirations when choosing a course. But it’s most important you choose a course you’ll enjoy as you are more likely to do well at it. Play to your strengths,” he advises.
Where should you study?
Competition for university places is fiercer than it has been in a decade. Along with a shortage of places, more UK 18-year-olds are vying for the most popular courses and institutions after they over-recruited during the pandemic.
Dan Barcroft, director of admissions at the University of Sheffield, says this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim high – opportunities are available via clearing if you don’t get accepted or miss your grades. “However, it’s worth having a couple of alternatives, including naming an official insurance choice, so applicants have as many options as possible,” he recommends.
Students might also want to consider whether to apply for a subject that’s similar to a more popular choice – for example, law is highly competitive, but less over-subscribed subjects, such as criminology or sociology, may contain lots of the same content. All three are excellent preparations for a law conversion course, so you could end up with a job as a solicitor, whichever route you take.
“Going to university open days is a good way of finding alternative courses, if some are oversubscribed, as you can ask staff questions about their courses and see what students have gone on to do once they’ve graduated,” recommends Barcroft.
Does reputation matter?
If you’re wondering how important it is to go to the most selective universities, for example, in the Russell Group, a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that prospective students should be “more relaxed” about where you choose to study, as degree class matters most when it comes to earning higher salaries.
The researchers found that graduates in England with first-class or upper second-class (2.1) honours degrees had higher average earnings by the age of 30 than those who finished with lower second-class (2.2) awards, regardless of institution.
Although certain employers, especially in more traditional occupations such as some elite law firms, do still favour the highest-ranking universities, Isherwood says most “employers are paying less and less attention to the university a student attended”.
This means it’s important to choose a university where you feel comfortable, because that’s where you’re most likely to get good grades.
Prof Katie Normington, vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, advises: “People have to go to the right university that suits them. That doesn’t mean it’s the top-ranked university for what you’re studying; you may well feel the support you’re going to get, or the way courses are delivered, matters more.”
This is especially the case for those with specific needs, for example, if you have a disability or caring responsibilities, but it might also include people who have an extracurricular activity they’re really interested in, as this can help build employability skills.
Isherwood explains: “Employers don’t just look at your academic track record, they look at your potential to add value to their organisation. You might think your part-time job too menial, or the sports team you captain irrelevant, or your voluntary role trivial, but an interviewer looks to your experiences for evidence of a whole range of attributes you may possess.”
What do employers want?
This is why grades aren’t always a top priority for employers. For example, to attract a more diverse range of recruits, professional services firm PwC recently dropped a long-standing requirement for its graduates to have obtained a 2:1.
Andrew Bargery, who recruits for PwC, said that announcement was the result of a shift that’s been taking place for years. This is away from traditional competency-based recruitment towards trying to assess potential, in areas such as teamwork, leadership and business awareness.
As such, “the student’s university and degree subject is of little importance,” he says. “It’s more about the application of their learning and demonstrating they have the potential to succeed.” He notes, however, that gaining relevant work experience helps.
The main thing employers say they’re looking for are passion and potential, especially post pandemic, as they understand that young people have had fewer opportunities to gain work experience or build skills through social activities.
Ashley Hever, who recruits for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, a top graduate employer, says students should “try not to worry” too much about their choice of university or course. “Employers today are so much more open as to where someone studied or what course they’ve completed.”
He adds that it’s more about working with the careers service, attending employment fairs and meeting potential employers, as well as building your CV through clubs, societies and leadership opportunities.
Andrew Oliva-Hauxwell, executive director for recruitment at Teach First, which runs salaried teaching-training schemes, says for a public service role it’s important for graduates to demonstrate that they “truly care about our mission and are committed to working with us”.
However, he adds that there are “certain non-negotiable academic thresholds” to be met – though these can be achieved at any university, with teachers recruited from 170 universities in 2021. The easiest way to get good grades is to study something you love, though he notes that if you’re interested in teaching, there are shortages in science, maths, computing and modern foreign languages.
Although competition for roles is tough, graduate employers are arguably more flexible than they’ve ever been when choosing who they recruit.
This is why it’s important that your course and university choices are guided by personal preferences.
As Barcroft advises: “Applying to university can feel overwhelming, but a good place to start is for students to really take the time to think about what is most important to them. Is it course content and reputation, or is it location and student life?”