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Work experience is an important factor in helping graduates to get the job they want. As competition in the current job market toughens, employers are looking for graduates who are able to show they have applied their academic skills in a commercial environment – a degree is no longer enough.

What are the benefits?

If you want to bag a grad role the chances are that you will need to have done some kind of professional work experience. As a graduate recruiter for a consulting firm I read 1000s of applications and this is something I look for when I’m screening CVs. If a candidate doesn’t have work experience it would be rare for them to make the shortlist for a graduate role. Not having work experience will really limit how effective your answers will be in a graduate interview; involvement in societies and paid work in bars/restaurants etc. can only take you so far. If you don’t know what career you’re interested in, work experience will help you to figure this out, even if it means you’re just discounting what you don’t want to do. It also means you’ll have been through an assessment process and will have learnt valuable lessons which you can put to good use in your interviews for a graduate role.

What typical duties do interns carry out?

As a consultant, the tasks, team size, project length and location all vary considerably from one project to another, so it’s always difficult to give specific details about what you’ll be doing because it will often depend on what projects are going on at the time of your internship. Sometimes you might find yourself working on an internal project, or you might get involved in client work with responsibilities such as analysing data, doing research or making presentations. Whatever task you’re asked to turn your hand to, whether this is an admin based task or an exciting client-facing task which really tests you, make sure you approach everything with equal enthusiasm. Proving you can you do simple tasks will often lead to greater responsibility.

When to start looking

Some large organisations offer work placements for first years but most will offer opportunities for those in their penultimate year. These roles will usually be advertised from August/September and will often be filled by December, so it’s worth doing your research in your first year so you’re ready to go with your applications at the start of your penultimate year. The table at the back of this guide is a useful tool to see when recruiters close their applications, as is the Deadline Calendar.

Deciding where to apply

There’s a huge amount of information out there to help you to decide where to apply. Careers fairs, graduate websites and publications and employer events are all useful sources of information. Make sure you avoid the scattergun approach and whittle your list down to under ten applications. If you find yourself struggling to articulate why you want to work for a specific firm, take them off your list!

The application process – any advice?

Recruiters understand that you’re probably using your internship to help you decide if consulting is the right career for you, and it’s fine to say that this is the case. But you will be expected to have a reasonable understanding of the role of a consultant and to have done your research on the organisation you’ve applied to. Avoid giving the impression that you’re just ‘giving it a go’ without much thought into whether it’s right for you.

Most firms will give advice about what they’re looking for in applications on their careers pages; make sure you read this. We recommend that you only apply for one role at a time, but significant numbers ignore this advice and submit multiple applications; these applications aren’t usually successful.

The best applications are those which show some research into the role and organisation and which are well written and have been proofread; don’t be one of the many who we reject because you haven’t updated your cover letter and have referred to us with the wrong name!

Relevant work experience

Don’t panic if you want to get into consulting but haven’t done work experience with a consulting firm, your work experience doesn’t necessarily have to be with the same kind of organisation, or even in the same industry, as the graduate role you ultimately apply for. What work experience shows a recruiter is that you’re making an effort to figure out what kind of career interests you. I like speaking to candidates who can talk me through how they’ve discovered that a career as a consultant is right for them after discounting other options. For instance, the financial sector offers a huge number of internships and a lot of candidates will have done some kind of banking internship. At interview you’ll be able to say, ‘I enjoyed my internship at []; I really built on my understanding of the commercial world, but ultimately I’d prefer a role where I can see a tangible outcome and I think I’d find this in consulting’. If you don’t have relevant work experience just make sure you meet with consulting firms when they visit your university. You’ll need to make sure you can demonstrate that you understand what consulting’s about; the highs and lows of the role, and the challenges you’ll face.

Before an internship

You’ll often secure your internship months in advance, which gives you lots of time to prepare. It’s a good idea to keep up to date with the organisation you’re joining by following them on social media, or you could set-up a google alert so you’re aware of any developments in the news. Building your commercial awareness by reading journals and newspapers like The Economist and The Financial Times and following consultant blogs can also be useful. Make sure you also brush up your PowerPoint and Excel skills as you’ll be able to be more effective if you are proficient/advanced in both of these.

Make the most of the internship

We use our internships to find our future talent and if an intern impresses us we fast track them through our graduate recruitment process. Switching from student mode to a professional environment can be hard but it’s an important adjustment to try to make if you want to turn the internship into a grad role. Professionalism involves meeting deadlines, showing enthusiasm, using your initiative, asking for feedback (and taking it on board) and networking with your colleagues. You might find it challenging at first but don’t give up; even if it isn’t the right role for you there might be another part of the organisation that you’re better suited to. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people to find out about their background and about the role they do.

About the Author

  • Organisation: PA Consulting
  • About Amelia Scott: Amelia Scott is the graduate recruitment manager at PA Consulting, an employee-owned firm specialising in management and IT consulting, technology and innovation.

Amelia Scott

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