The number of university leavers turning away from the larger, more traditional graduate employers in favour of working for a startup or SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) has noticeably increased over the past few years. Over 50% of recent graduates now say that they would rather work at a smaller company and it’s easy to see why. Working for an SME presents first jobbers with a unique opportunity to take on high levels of a responsibility from the word go, to really have an impact on the business’s growth and development, and to develop a wide skills set.
So, if you’re thinking of kick-starting your career at an SME, you’re probably keen to find out how the hiring process differs to a corporate’s. In short, quite a bit. Although it’s important to remember that all startups and SMEs vary too, we’ve outlined the 4 main points that are relevant to the majority of smaller companies.
Speed vs. Formality
At a larger company, it isn’t unusual for the recruitment process to start a year in advance of the start date. They’ll have strict guidelines in place and will also receive a greater amount of applications.
Startups and SMEs simply don’t have that sort of time at their disposal so they tend to start their recruitment drive just 1-2 months before the expected start date of their new employee. This means that it’s perfectly reasonable (and actually encouraged) to start looking for vacancies after your finals or even after graduation, depending on when you’d like to start your new job. You can also expect to hear the outcome of your application a lot sooner!
Relaxed vs. Structured
At a corporate the hiring process will be run by a fully equipped HR team, and there’ll usually be several rounds of tests, interviews and/or assessment centres that successful candidates will be invited to attend.
A cover letter is your opportunity to explain to an employer why you are applying to them, and how your skills, knowledge and experiences fit the role and organisation.
You should communicate effectively to the reader:
- why you want to work in their organisation
- why you want to work in that particular role
- why your strengths, skills and experience make you the right candidate
Ideally your cover letter and your CV will be read together but you can never be sure, so try to make sure they can each stand alone. That means your cover letter should refer to key facts from the CV but should amplify rather than duplicate. Your CV should present more detailed evidence to back up the points you make in the cover letter.
Structure and content
There is no ‘magic formula’ for cover letters, but the following outline can provide a helpful structure. Think of sections rather than paragraphs, since some aspects may require two paragraphs. These sections may appear in different orders for different applications. Keep it to one side of A4.
Always try to find a name, rather than a job title, as it demonstrates that you researched the organisation. ‘Dear Ms Smith’ is much better than ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ (avoid ‘To whom it may concern’). Remember the signing off rule of ‘yours sincerely’ if it is addressed to a named person and ‘yours faithfully’ if not.
Include who you are, your degree subject, university and situation – recently graduated, about to graduate, penultimate year. Explain why you are writing (to apply for X position/looking for work experience) and where you saw the position advertised or, if it’s a speculative application, where you heard about the organisation.
Gill Lambert, Careers Consultant
This blog focuses on how to research a company, an activity which is needed to make your cover letter stand out and also to answer the inevitable interview question “Why do you want to work for us?”
I wrote this blog because my daughter recently asked me how to research a company. She graduated last summer and is looking for work through for graduate schemes. I advised her to use the checklist below to organise the information and then I suggested a number of ways of gathering it.
- Basics: what the company does, who its customers are, who its competitors are
- Size & Reach: how many employees they have, where their offices are
- History: origins and defining moments
- Industry: trends, opportunities, threats
- Financials & Operations: how, where and why it is growing (staying stable or shrinking), future plans
- Reputation: what it offers that’s unique compared to its competitors, its market share, its reputation in the industry
- News: press releases and articles
- Structure: the names of executives and advisers profiled on their employees page, how the company is organised, how the department that you are applying to impacts on the company’s business,
- Ethics: values, aims, personnel policies
Emily Hogg, Application Adviser
- Read the university’s requirements: unlike UCAS applications for undergraduate degrees, there is not a centralised system or universal application procedure for Masters courses. Instead each university has its own requirements, and these might be slightly different. Some courses will ask you to answer specific questions; others might specify a word limit. Make sure that you know what each course requires, and you follow the correct guidelines.
- Don’t simply reuse your undergraduate personal statement: after two, three or four years of an undergraduate degree, you should have learnt new things, acquired a different perspective and be able to articulate your goals and ambitions in a different way than you did when you were at school or college and applied for your first degree. For this reason, it’s more effective to start a new statement than simply try to update your old one.
- Explain why you want to study the course: in your personal statement, you should explain your motivation for undertaking this particular course of study. Admissions tutors want to know that you are committed and enthusiastic about studying for the Masters, and that you have a detailed and realistic understanding of what the course will cover.
- Show how the course fits into your wider goals: a good way of showing your motivation is to explain how the Masters will fit into your broader ambitions. Will it provide you with knowledge or skills you will use in your career? Will it allow you to pursue an intellectual interest you care deeply about? Will it build on the knowledge you gained in your undergraduate degree? What are your long-term goals and how does the Masters fit in?
Application Adviser Emily gives us 10 top tips for preparing an application for a banking/finance role …
- Check closing dates: The deadlines for applying to graduate jobs in this sector are very early in the academic year – sometimes October of the year before you would start the job. Internships too are advertised in the autumn semester. Start researching job and internship opportunities ASAP so that you don’t miss out. And don’t leave applications until the deadline; some graduate schemes and graduate jobs will close earlier than advertised if enough applications from qualified candidates have been received.
- Understand the sector: Many students have a vague idea that they want to work in finance because the industry has a reputation for high salaries and challenging, exciting work. But you need to fully understand the way it works and the type of role you would be suited to. Research on the internet, read the financial news (for example the Financial Times) and consult the resources in the Careers Information Room. Attend networking events, where you can also get first-hand advice from companies’ recruiters. Your answers to questions about motivation in application forms and at interviews will be far more persuasive if you really understand the field and the requirements of different roles.
- Read application forms carefully: Make sure you understand what is required by the application process of each company you apply for. Banks often have similar but slightly different application forms, for example – although the difference of emphasis in a question might seem minor, it might call for a quite different response. Also, some employers ask you to fill in a form, some ask for a CV, some for a CV and form, some for a CV and a cover letter – and there are many other variations! Make sure you have enough time to answer all the questions and prepare the necessary documents.
Application Adviser Emily takes us through some of the common mistakes students make when it comes to cover letters. Remember, you can book a 1-2-1 appointment for feedback on your cover letter, CV or application.
- Misunderstanding what a cover letter is: A cover letter can be a confusing document and so it’s important to understand its purpose. The most crucial function of a cover letter is to convince the employer of your motivation. When writing it, you have the opportunity to address some topics which won’t feature in your CV at all: why you want to work for the company and why you want that particular job/internship.
- Prioritising CVs and forgetting about cover letters: Sometimes students I meet in the Careers and Enterprise Centre ask whether cover letters or CVs are more important to recruiters. It is difficult to give a definitive answer because different employers treat applications differently – some might spend time focusing on the cover letter, while others focus primarily on the CV; some might weight both equally. But if you are asked for both documents, you should write your CV and cover letter in such a way that they work together to present an overall impression of you as a well-qualified candidate. Students often fear repetition – they don’t want to bore employers by talking about the same experience on their CV and in their cover letter. While you certainly shouldn’t repeat exact sentences or phrases, you can mention a particular project or period of work experience on both your CV and cover letter. The key difference it is that while both CV and cover letter should be tailored to the job description, explicitly showing how your previous experience has given you the skills required by the position you’re applying for, the CV will be a record of your relevant skills across your education, work experience and voluntary activities. In the cover letter, on the other hand, you can highlight the particular projects or work experiences you most want the employer to notice, and highlight your most impressive accomplishments, your most relevant skills and your key selling points.
Joe Cronin, Application Adviser
Now that Freshers Week is over, you might be thinking about taking on a part-time job while you study. These are increasingly valued by employers as evidence that candidates are familiar with a working environment and possess some of the skills (organisation, time-keeping, interpersonal skills) that are essential to working life.
Applications for these types of jobs are generally much more straightforward than for graduate careers, but there are still some important points worth bearing in mind. In particular, the CV you send to employers for part-time work should be different to the one you use for graduate applications. Here are a few tips for preparing a CV for part-time jobs:
When applying for graduate jobs, the Education section of your CV should come before Work Experience. However, when applying for part-time jobs, reversing this order can be a good idea so that you emphasize what the employer is more interested in.
- Emphasise skills
You don’t need to stress your academic achievements as heavily (so no lists of the modules you’ve taken, for example), but you do need to draw attention to the broader skills you’ve gained at school or university or through other jobs. If you haven’t done this before, think about what these could be: being a prefect at school shows evidence of responsibility, for example, while being a captain of a sports team shows leadership and organization skills.