Being different can often be hard to deal with – no doubt you remember that regrettable haircut when you were 12 years old – but when it comes to getting a job, being able to differentiate yourself from other candidates may be the only way to succeed.
The most popular way of standing out in the jobs market is to get some academic qualifications under your belt but as you may be aware, you’re not the only person looking to differentiate in order to get ahead in their career. In the article below we look at how academic qualifications have been used in the job market and how this has changed over the years, if you’re not a fan of history just skip to the end of the article to see our suggestions to help you get noticed.
The Big ‘O’
At the beginning of time, just after the second world war, the British government introduced a new set of qualifications as part of a wider education reform. In a nutshell, that is how the O-Level and A-Level were born, although we’d suggest it took a little bit longer than that.
The O-Level, standing for Ordinary Level, were predominantly exam-based, and despite the name, didn’t test whether you were ordinary or not. Instead, they focussed on a variety of subjects and were predominantly exam based.
The A-Level qualification was introduced at the same time and was designed to be more academically rigorous. Standing for advanced level, the A-Level has stood the test of time so far, but the O-Level has gone through a mini-transformation with it’s nearest relative today being the GCSE.
In years gone by, people used O-Level’s and A-Level’s to distinguish themselves in the job market. Forty years ago, merely staying on at school was enough to set yourself apart from the competition. That’s not to say those who left school back then were in any way ‘inferior’ to today’s leavers – in fact it was the norm. Today, staying on at school is required by law, so the qualifications gained are not the good tool they once were to help you stand out.
The Over-Qualified Undergraduate
As more and more students cottoned on to the increased opportunities available to those with O-Levels and A-Levels, the popularity of the qualifications increased. More stayed on in a bid to better their job prospects, and as such the job market quickly became flooded with qualified individuals all competing for the same positions, often with very similar CV’s. Soon people realised that to stand out in the job market, the standard qualifications you could gain at school were not enough. Students looked for the ‘next big thing’, and gradually looked towards universities and their offerings.
Whilst the standard undergraduate degrees weren’t a new concept, the increase in numbers certainly was, and universities expanded to cope with the increase in demand. Those who chose to study a degree graduated with better job prospects and the chance to earn more money.
For many generations the undergraduate experience was paid for, in the main part by the government, making it a win-win situation. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before more and more school leavers realised this and ‘followed the crowd’.
At around the same time, many polytechnics gained university status, making the qualifications available from them a lot more appealing to students and employers alike. Graduate rates increased consistently over the following years, climbing steadily through the 90’s and 00’s (as you can see from the lovely graph[FIG.1]) to the point we are at now; going to university to study an undergraduate degree is now common practice.
The Postgraduate Era?
Despite all the increases in fees, undergrad degrees have continued to grow in popularity and now people are looking for other ways to stand out against the competition. We’ve noticed an increase in postgraduate students over the past few years, suggesting that it could be the next avenue for those wishing to distinguish themselves against other candidates.
Masters programmes are especially popular; often taking only a year, it allows you to transition a bit more smoothly from undergraduate ‘student’ living to a professional life, and it often allows you to take a step up the career ladder before you jump on it. It depends on your chosen pathway as to whether a postgrad degree is right for your future career, as some industries would favour experience over an academic qualification, but others will value the extra academic ability more so – particularly in technical areas.
The MBA is popular amongst business folk, and a good example of how postgrad qualifications can further your career. Ask a few employers in your chosen career sector before deciding or investigate some job postings and see what the requirements are.
For now though, undergraduate study is still an excellent option, but may we suggest combining it with a healthy slice of extra-curricular activity. Travelling used to be an excellent way to add some ‘life experience’ to your CV, but now it’s commonplace to spend a month in Thailand ‘finding yourself’, and we’re not talking about ‘socialising’.
Instead, get involved in societies and clubs, sit on university committee meetings, network with small businesses, look for voluntary work at a local charity, offer to help run a project for a local organisation. Heck, get a part-time job, whether it’s at the local supermarket or an in-market role doesn’t matter, just the proof that you’re committed.
Whatever you do though, make sure it’s something you’d be proud to put on your CV. When you leave university, you’ll be looking for graduate jobs, which by default will attract plenty of other graduates. The degree might get you an interview, but what employers want to know is what else you’ve done. What makes you different from the other candidates. Make yourself different, one way or another, because the standard undergraduate qualification is no longer a good enough differentiator for the best jobs.