Take the National Student Challenge, reap the rewards

Ava Mahony from University of Limerick (UL) was this year’s winner of gradireland’s National Student Challenge 2014. The first female champion, she qualified for the final with an online test score of 3870 points and went head to head with other finalists to emerge victorious with the National Student Challenge Trophy and a cheque for €1000. She spoke to gradireland of her experience at the Challenge and why it makes sense for students and graduates to take part.  

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Ava Mahony, winner of the National Student Challenge 2014. 


So how did you hear about the Challenge, and what made you want to take part?

I heard about the National Student Challenge through my career services centre at UL. Psychometric tests are often not a student favourite; however, I really enjoyed the online challenge and how it was structured.  I never imagined the end result would include a ticket to the final in University College Dublin, an incredible experience and of course winning made it extra special

Tell us about the Final and your experiences on the day?

I was both excited and curious for what was in store for the finalists. The day began with an ‘ice-breaker’ task, giving us the opportunity to get to know our team-mates before tackling the day’s challenges together. All six challenges set up by the employers were entirely different from one another, each aiming to test a particular competency. The variation of the tasks kept my attention, so I managed to stay thoroughly engaged with every challenge we faced.

As a finance student, I expected to enjoy and perhaps excel at the challenges set by PwC and EY. I found EY’s debate and PwC’s presentation orientated tasks to be well suited to me. My experience as a tutor at UL means that I am comfortable taking on a public speaking role, which is an advantage when confronted with these particular situations.

I have to admit I found myself quite outside of my comfort zone when faced with Jameson’s challenge. With my educational background, I am more familiar with structured assessments, so having to harness my creative side to ‘think outside the box’ for their marketing task was definitely the most testing experience of the day for me. However, every task challenged me to some degree; Boston Scientific, Lidl and SAP all arranged innovative and enjoyable challenges that tested my aptitude for creativity and my team work abilities. I found every moment of the day to be enjoyable, stimulating and an invaluable experience.


Ava (centre), working with her team during a challenge.

How did you feel hearing your name being announced as winner?

I was in utter disbelief! Unable to register the winning announcement, I stayed seated awaiting the winner to claim the prize, until my friend shook me, then I realised that it was my name. I thought I preformed relatively well in both tasks set by EY and PwC, and perhaps an individual prize awarded by one of the two firms was not entirely out of reach, but to win the entire Challenge was beyond my imagination. I was absolutely thrilled!

How can students benefit from taking the challenge?

The National Student Challenge gives students the opportunity to challenge themselves and see how they would perform in a workplace environment. In my opinion, the experience will stand to me and all the other participants when confronted with the often daunting process of finding a job and making a successful start to our careers. The Challenge emulates some of today’s most popular methods of recruitment, including psychometric tests and assessment centres. I believe the Challenge boosts your confidence and helps the job seeking process.

The experience also gives students an insight into what recruiters seek in their future employees; each employer was testing for a particular competency through their tasks, revealing the skills they value when recruiting for new graduates.

What advice would you have for future finalists? 

The event closed with a drinks and food reception which we all enjoyed. To be in a relaxed social environment with a room full of employers is an opportunity that does not present itself too often. My advice for all future finalists is to take FULL advantage of this situation; take the opportunity to network and establish contacts. The reception offers a further chance to network and impress a potential employer, and it’s in a comfortable and friendly environment.

Finally, be yourself, trying too hard to impress your team-mates or the assessors may fall flat, let your own natural ability shine when the opportunity arises. Don’t obsess over the tasks, just do your best and get to know your team-mates as well as the other participants, and most importantly enjoy yourself and all the National Student Challenge has to offer.

For further information on the National Student Challenge, visit http://challenge.gradireland.com/. 

A second chance: conversion courses and your career

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At our recent postgrad fair, we were fortunate enough to have Dave Kilmartin, head of Dublin Institute of Technology’s Careers Development Centre, give an informative and engaging seminar on conversion courses. With the knowledge and advice he offered, it is easy to see why conversion courses are increasingly popular with graduates today. During an undergraduate degree, students, particularly those from non-vocational courses, may often discover new interests and consider changing their career path. A conversion course can represent a second chance to take control and redirect your future career path.

What is a postgraduate conversion course?

A conversion course is a level 8 or 9 programme designed for graduates who wish to transfer to a new discipline. They are usually between 1 and 2 years long, and fees  range from €3,000 up to €15,000. These courses are normally career focused, and link directly to the skills sought out by employers, giving students the best grounding possible to succeed in the employment challenge facing new graduates.

Is a conversion course the right decision for you?

Before making a rash decision, there are a number of key factors to consider before pursuing a conversion course. The importance of outlining your future career aspirations before applying for a conversion course was a key point made by Dave Kilmartin at the seminar. Ask yourself, how will this programme help me achieve my career goals?  If there are few obvious career benefits to completing the course, then perhaps it may not be the best decision for you. Secondly, a conversion course can be time consuming and ultimately is a long-term commitment to a new career. Therefore, before you apply, make sure you are interested and passionate about the chosen subject;  “self motivation is crucial to the success of altering your career path, and without passion your drive is likely to diminish,” he added. To the same effect, be realistic with yourself- do the demands of the course reflect your academic capability? In Dave’s own words, “don’t set yourself up for failure!” The question, “where are the jobs?” was echoed  throughout the seminar. He wants all graduates considering a conversion course to analyse their industry of interest; research where the job gaps are and determine whether a conversion course will equip you with the desired skills that will enhance your chances of employment.

Analysing the options- the different conversion courses available to you:

Conversion courses are available in almost any discipline. The most popular courses are in business, arts and IT, which generally accept graduates with a level 8 degree from any discipline. However, as these courses are popular, there may be a competitive application process. In this case, a minimum requirement of a first class honours or 2:1 qualification in your primary degree is often necessary. Make sure you fit the relevant requirements before applying for a course.

Conversion courses in education, health/medicine or engineering typically have stricter course requirements. A career in post-primary teaching is a popular choice with students looking to convert. In this case, the new two-year Prof. Masters in Education (PME), which has replaced the one-year Hdip, is the course to consider. However, there are a number of restrictions to note; your primary degree must be recognised by the Teaching Council for the purposes of registration as a secondary school teacher. The list of degrees acceptable is listed on the http://www.teachingcouncil.ie/. Similarly, converting into engineering often requires an educational background in either science or health and a career move into the health and therapies sector generally requires a background in science or social science.

Graduate entry into medicine remains as popular as ever and therefore comes with a rigorous application process. After graduating with a 2:1 qualification in your primary degree, preferably science related, you must take the GAMSAT (Graduate Australian Medical Schools Admissions Test). If you successfully receive a relatively high score in the exam, your application will be considered for approval.

If you do not meet the specific course requirements, DON’T GIVE UP! Dave Kilmartin stressed this point and argued that where there is a will there is a way. There are always online courses that can demonstrate your passion for a new career.

What are the benefits of a conversion course?

There are many benefits to pursuing a conversion course. Having the option to alter your original career path undoubtedly relieves a certain amount of pressure felt by final year students and new graduates. They allow you to think beyond previous educational restrictions, such as CAO points, and open the door to a new career path that you really want. The course itself will equip you with the relevant skills desired by employers, while providing you with future employment prospects that may have previously seemed unattainable.

What do employers think of conversion courses?

Conversion courses are highly-valued by employers, because they can often favour candidates with a broad educational background. These courses can give you the opportunity to demonstrate transferable skills, commitment, passion and self-motivation, which are all core personal qualities and skills that are often highly-regarded by recruiters. In his presentation, Dave Kilmartin underlined that a change in career direction can ultimately represent personal strength, and can distinguish you from other graduates when applying for a job.

For further information on conversion courses go to http://postgradireland.com/advice-and-funding/conversion-courses