Interested in graduate training schemes? We look at what they can offer, need-to-know info about the selection process, where to find the programmes and application deadlines, plus top tips to boost your chances of success.
Why Apply for Grad Schemes?
Offered mainly by large employers, graduate schemes are structured programmes that combine working and training, often leading to a permanent role and professional qualifications.
They generally last 1-3 years and are often designed to give an overview of the company, which involves working in different areas of the business; as well as helping to determine what suits you best, the programme builds skills and provides good grounding for career progression.
Grad schemes offer high earnings potential, with attractive starting salaries. According to a recent survey, the national average graduate scheme salary is £26,949.
Graduate training programmes can be an excellent kick-start to your career, but competition is fierce for the top schemes; there’s a high ratio of applicants to places, meaning employers are spoilt for choice. It’s tough to make yourself stand out from the thousands of candidates applying, so see our tips below to give yourself the best chance.
And don’t despair, there are other ways of getting into these top companies and plenty of great alternatives to grad schemes.
When to Apply
You can usually apply towards the end of your penultimate year at university (from June onwards).
Some application deadlines are November/December, but do check the individual schemes. The applications are extremely time-consuming, so allow plenty of time for preparation and filling in forms etc. Apply as early as possible, because some organisations don’t wait until the deadline to fill places and will close once they are full.
If you’re unsuccessful first time round, undecided whether to do a grad scheme, or just not ready to apply, it’s worth noting that you’re still eligible for most programmes up to 3 years after you graduate. And remember there are other routes into these organisations, so don’t give up!
The application process for graduate schemes (and many jobs) tends to be thorough and lengthy. It is different for every company, but these guidelines should give you an idea of what to expect. Most will involve:
Aptitude tests, which may be numerical, verbal or personality-based
An assessment centre
Usually comprise a range of individual and group tasks, designed to give the employer a well-rounded appraisal of candidates’ competencies, motivations and fit
You may also have telephone or video interviews earlier in the application process
Example: The application process for a bank’s graduate scheme
This is how a leading bank described the screening process used for their recent Wealth Management Graduate Scheme.
800 applications for 9 places
Approximate timescale 4-5 months
Applications close in December
Start processing applications early December
End of assessment centre mid-April
Job offers end April
Stage 1: CV Screen (Reduced 800 applicants to 200)
There is no specific application form for this scheme; candidates are asked for a cover letter and CV.
Eligibility for graduate scheme: From undergraduates in their penultimate year, to those who have graduated up to 3 years before applying.
Some applicants do not meet these criteria (10-15%) and are eliminated immediately.
A Levels: Grades are important – A’s and B’s are acceptable.
Degree: Minimum 2:1 obtained (or anticipated – if applying as an undergraduate).
Choice of university not important – they deliberately go for a diverse range of good universities.
Degree subject not important – wealth management is about client relations, so financial background not essential; arts or politics probably more relevant. (They would advise people to study what they find interesting).
Work Experience: Relevant experience is very important as a differentiator, ideally within the chosen industry.
Stage 2: Testing – Numeric & Psychometric (Reduced 200 applicants to 50)
This bank use generic tests.
Do check which system is used by each company to which you’re applying; check our forums and definitely do some practice tests. See Psychometric Testing
Stage 3: Interview ½ hour (Reduced 50 applicants to 15)
What they look for:
Research – be able to talk about the company, what the business is about; know examples of their products/services
What do you want to do and why? Why this business and company?
Motivation – what motivates you?
Interpersonal skills, communication
Broad knowledge rather than technical skills will be expected
Fit – why are you suitable for the programme? Give examples e.g. keen to learn, team player
Stage 4: Assessment Centre (Reduced 15 applicants to the successful 9)
Panel interview with HR and relevant business department
Pre-prepared presentation related to the business – 10 minutes
Group exercise in a business scenario
Assessors observe the interaction and solution. Tasks are not designed to be difficult or catch you out. There is no right answer – the important matter is how candidates handle the situation. They look for qualities like interpersonal skills and confidence. It is important to note that they are not necessarily looking for leadership, more often someone who will work well within a team.
With thanks to Royal Bank of Canada Wealth Management
When do Grad Schemes Start?
Start dates vary by company, but graduate programmes usually begin in August/ September.
Most companies run graduate programmes to strengthen their workforce and develop future leaders, and will offer permanent jobs to trainees, in an area where they have shown particular interest and potential. But this is not always the case, so do check longer-term career prospects before applying. Offers will obviously also depend on a trainee’s performance during the programme.
Top 10 Tips for Grad Scheme & Job Applications
With thousands of qualified university leavers applying for the top roles, how can you make yourself stand out from the crowd?
The trick is to show genuine interest and enthusiasm for the role and prove you are well suited to the company, both professionally and personally.
That involves thorough research to understand exactly what the employer is looking for, then tailoring your application to show how you meet key job requirements and would be a good cultural fit.
It might sound simple enough, but recruiters are constantly surprised at the number of applicants who don’t put in the effort. So here are our top tips on how to make a strong first and lasting impression in your application for a job or graduate scheme.
1. Be selective
Job applications are time consuming – apply for fewer, do them well.
Note the application deadline dates, and allow plenty of time to research and prepare articulate, relevant answers. Don’t bother rattling off generic applications, you won’t get the job!
2. Presentation matters
In this competitive environment, how you present yourself can be a deciding factor. Take every opportunity to create a good impression – in written applications, phone conversations and face-to-face contact.
Written: Demonstrate good communication skills – well presented, clear and concise, without mistakes
Personal: Look smart, show confident body language, smile and make eye contact
Be professional and courteous in all communications, with all company contacts – make sure people remember you for the all the best reasons!
3. Do your research
Thorough research can provide a real insight into the business, strengthening your chances throughout the application process – from finding a hook for your cover letter and emphasising relevant skills on your CV, to developing informed opinions and asking pertinent questions at interviews. See below how to tailor your application to pitch yourself as the ideal candidate.
‘The people who stand out are those who have gone the extra mile for researching better. Anyone can look at a company website, you need to do more. Read the business news, join discussions on social media – understand the industry issues and trends. If it’s a service or retailer, visit a location or contact a call centre – try to get customer experience, interact with staff.
If you’re armed with that extra knowledge, you will feel more confident and that really shows at interviews. It sounds so simple but it stands out so much.’
Jill Grinsted – Director of Sales & Marketing at Forest Holidays, & an experienced recruiter
Research the job/graduate scheme, the employer and the industry:
The job/graduate scheme
What is required in terms of specific and general skills, qualifications, experience and personal attributes? What does the work involve?
Find out about the training, typical career progression, benchmark salaries etc.
Get a grasp of their business, the products/services they offer, which markets they operate in and who are their major clients & competitors.
Investigate their performance and financial situation.
Understand the core values and culture of the organisation and why you would fit in.
Think about the industry environment and future opportunities and threats to their business. Keep track of news and business developments.
Click here for more information on what and where to research.
4. Tailor your CV and application
Use your research to customise each application, so you can convince the employer they are your No.1 choice, and you are just what they’re looking for! Communicate why you really want the position and how you are a great fit for that particular company and career path.
Find a hook for your cover letter – explain why you are interested in that particular job/scheme and employer.
Link your CV and responses to the specific job description – highlight your most relevant skills, attributes and experience. Use the STAR technique to give specific examples:
Situation – set the context for your story. What was the challenge you faced?
Task – what was your specific role?
Action – what action did you take?
Result – explain what impact you made, providing measurable evidence if possible. Include what you learnt from the situation, and if there was anything you would do differently next time.
Note: This is also known as the PAR technique: Problem Action Result
For every application you do, tailor your examples to the role and company – make sure they are relevant, specific and positive.
Demonstrate your knowledge and zest for the business e.g. show awareness of the issues facing their industry, talk about what aspects of the business/company inspire you and what you would like to learn more about.
Ask pertinent questions in interviews, e.g. find out more about the company culture, ask about the impact of recent competitive developments or global trends.
Show why you are a good cultural fit. Fine-tune your answers to reflect the organisation’s core values, culture and structure, e.g. if it is a creative, innovative company, adapt your style to show your creative edge, discuss achievements where you did things differently, or comment on their ways of working that appeal. Show how you get their style and could connect with the team.
5. Demonstrate passion
It might be a cliché, but ignore it at your peril; if you don’t have a genuine interest in the role and company, you won’t stand a chance. Employers are investing years of training and development and will want to see real enthusiasm and commitment to a career within their organisation. It’s not a question of just stating your keenness in your cover letter or application, it’s about explaining why the role excites you, how it will help you grow and develop, why you believe you are so well suited to the company.
Graduate schemes are often designed to give an overview of the company, sometimes working in different departments to find out where you best fit in. if you are applying for this sort of scheme, don’t be too specific about the final role you want; instead show enthusiasm for the company and mention the advantages of participating in their scheme.
6. Get experience
If you are applying for a graduate-level job or scheme, employers won’t expect you to have loads of experience, but they will want to see your potential; this is where internships, volunteering or some industry-specific work experience can set you apart from the crowd. Whilst a degree gives you qualifications and makes you employable, recruiters favour candidates who are work-ready. There’s no substitute for getting out there, observing how business is conducted, working in a team, even simple stuff like finding out whether or not you like working in an office. Even if it’s not what you want to do in the end, it shows initiative and determination, builds valuable transferable skills and could produce useful contacts.
‘Over a third of recruiters warn that graduates without any previous work experience at all, are unlikely to be successful during the selection process and have little or no chance of receiving a job offer, irrespective of their academic achievements or the university they attended.’
If you are still at university, make the most of the long holidays, get a head start and look for opportunities. ‘90% of the UK’s leading graduate employers offered paid work experience programmes for students and graduates during the 2016-7 academic year.’
If you don’t have work experience in your chosen industry, think of the transferrable skills you have gained from your studies, hobbies/interests or temporary jobs. Read up on a topical industry issue, or consider studying for an entry-level qualification if appropriate. Showing you have gone the extra mile can really boost your chances.
7. Be yourself
It goes without saying that you want to portray a polished professional image, but do let your personality shine through. Refer to your interests and life experiences (e.g. sports, arts, travels, volunteering) to illustrate personal qualities and achievements; it can give a subtle insight into your personality, and could set you apart as a great fit with the team and company culture.
‘You don’t have tick all the boxes to get a job. Particularly as a new graduate, you won’t have a lot of experience – remember employers are buying into you, not just your skills.’
Jill Grinsted – Director of Sales & Marketing at Forest Holidays, & an experienced recruiter
Be yourself at assessment centres. Don’t feel intimidated by other candidates, just try to relax and focus on getting across your own best qualities. Be sure to contribute, but don’t feel you need to dominate the tasks – remember at graduate level, they are more likely to be looking for good team players than strong leaders.
8. Have an opinion
Employers want people with opinions and ideas, rather than someone who tries to play it safe all the time, or who can’t contribute through lack of knowledge. Your research will help to inform and back up your views on key issues, so don’t be afraid to say what you think, and ask questions.
9. Prepare well
Good preparation will boost your confidence and performance.
Check social media and forums for helpful pointers from employers and graduate trainees on their selection process e.g. examples and tips for online psychometric tests, how to prepare for assessment centres, typical interview questions and more.
Job applications are very time-consuming, so consider creating a document of your key competencies that you want to get across and draft answers to likely questions (Use the STAR technique as suggested above.) This will make it easier to fill out future applications and prepare for interviews. But always make sure every response is tailored to the specific role and company.
- Research the role, employer and industry.
- Fine-tune your CV and cover letter.
- Plan answers to online applications.
- Psychometric tests – practising has been shown to increase scores, so find out which system the company uses and practise their tests to improve your skills and speed.
- Interviews – think about what you might be asked, plan 3 key points about yourself you want to get across and prepare some pertinent questions.
Practise interviews so you answer questions in a well-structured, confident manner.
- Assessment centres – find out which tasks the employer uses and practise them.
- Keep track of your applications – what stage you have reached, key dates, contacts and any important notes to remember.
10. Follow up
It might be obvious, but you should always follow up an interview with a thank you email or short letter, and be sure to reaffirm your interest in the job.
An Accountemps survey of human resources (HR) managers, found that ‘only 24% of HR managers receive thank you notes from applicants. However, 80% of HR managers say thank you notes are helpful when reviewing candidates.’
A US study said no thank you letter ‘was a deal breaker.’
If you are unsuccessful after an interview/assessment centre, ask for feedback. It could help future applications and you might even be reconsidered – we have known candidates to be asked back for interview and then be accepted. You have nothing to lose and potentially much to gain. Most importantly, keep going, stay positive!
Good Sources of Grad Schemes
Check out these jobs sites for a wide variety of graduate training schemes and their application deadlines:
Grad Schemes are not the only way – Don’t give up!
Graduate schemes can provide a great first step up the career ladder, but they are highly competitive and not the right choice for everyone. The majority of students don’t do grad schemes, so it’s worth exploring the many exciting alternatives out there, which might suit you better. You could try another route into these large companies, like applying directly for an entry-level graduate job, or opting for an internship. Or consider working for a smaller company (SME), doing a stint abroad, furthering your studies or starting your own business.