Beware the buzzwords: how not to make your profile stand out

Beware the buzzwords: how not to make your profile stand out

If you’re a student or graduate researching how to write a CV, you’ll have probably have come across a list of ‘useful phrases’ that careers professionals recommend you use. These will be a selection of words that are intended to make you sound positive and dynamic. It’s possible, though, that they will make you sound like everyone else.

But that’s not something that only affects graduate-level jobseekers. As it’s December, LinkedIn have just released their annual list of ‘overused profile buzzwords’, with some warnings about updating your profile to get rid of them.

Apparently, the most commonly used words on LinkedIn this year, throughout the world, are ‘creative’ (oh, really?) and ‘motivated’.

LinkedIn have broken down the list by country: the French claim to be ‘responsible’, the Swiss favour ‘analytical’ and the Spanish go for ‘specialized’.

Sadly, they don’t give the top buzzword for Ireland this year.We do know, though, that in 2011, the number 1 buzzword for Ireland was ‘motivated’. And this year the rest of the world is catching up. In 2012, ‘motivated’ is number 1 for Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, as well as being the number two buzzword globally.

That’s a bit of a strange one, though. Surely being motivated, when it comes to doing a good job or taking your job hunt seriously, should be a given? As a recruiter, I would certainly consider that to be a pretty basic starting point. Yet presumably all those people using it in their profile consider it to be something special.

And that proves the point about not using a word just because everyone else is. Whether it’s a CV, an application form or your LinkedIn profile, forget about buzzwords and think about the words that actually describe you as an individual – not words you’ve heard other people use or words you think people want to hear. That way, you’ll be more than just a number – and you might just stand out from the crowd.

Sample CVs: can they help or harm your application?

a blank sheet of paper

Faced with a blank sheet of paper?

As I write this, I’m wondering how many people will land on this page because they’ve typed ‘sample CV’ into a search engine. You’re not alone: we know that  lots of people do it.

Job seekers want something that will kick-start the CV they need – usually in a hurry. But is a sample CV the answer to their prayers, or something that could actually hurt their application?

If you ask most university careers advisers, they will tell you to steer clear. The reason? Recruiters can always tell when you’ve used a sample CV. They will recognise standard phrases that turn up time and time again. And standard wording on an application will make you look like a bog-standard applicant – not what you want.

The key to a good job application is to make yourself stand out from the crowd. If you’re saying the same things as the other applicants, recruiters won’t be able to see you as an individual.

As well as this, they won’t feel that you are treating them as an individual. Cut-and-paste applications are a pet hate of most recruiters: they want to feel that you really want a job with them, not just any old job. So your CV has to be tailored to that company and that job.

But if you’ve never written a CV before – and many students and graduates won’t have done – it’s understandable that you’ll need something to show you how to go about it. So here’s how to use sample CVs with the danger taken out.

  • Find some sample CVs that are relevant to the level of job you are looking for.
  • Read them once to get a feel for how they look and sound.
  • Assess whether they are effective, and analyse the factors behind your assessment. Not all sample CVs are actually any good.
  • Don’t look at them again. Write your CV from scratch, putting into practice what you have learned.
  • Don’t copy anything, ever.

Even better, don’t look at sample CVs at all: look at CV templates instead. These are documents that list the standard headings for a CV, with some notes explaining what they are for, but without any sample text to trip you up. These will help with the structure of your CV and the rest is up to you.

Remember, too, that most third-level careers services can offer appointments where they will review your CV and advise you on how to improve it. But this only works if you don’t leave it to the last minute!

Find out more on The graduate’s guide to CVs

So what is a graduate job anyway?

Career ladderIt’s autumn term of your final year and everyone’s telling you to start looking for a graduate job. But what do they actually mean?

Isn’t it the case that any job that is done by a graduate is a ‘graduate job’? Well, yes and no.

In the graduate recruitment industry (and yes, such a thing does exist), a graduate job is a very specific thing.

Firstly, as you’d expect, it’s a job offered by graduate recruiters – companies large enough to need a constant flow of new talent that can be trained up for management roles in the future. Secondly, the job is almost certainly going to be a place on a formal graduate training programme (also known as a graduate scheme).

These programmes are a way for recruiters to build up what is known in HR jargon as a ‘pipeline’: a group of high-flying graduates who are expected to aspire to leadership positions. These schemes are highly structured, typically over two years, and focus on training and development, sometimes leading to a professional or postgraduate qualification.

These programmes can be found in several career areas, and are particularly favoured in the finance sector, as well as in manufacturing, retail, science and IT companies.

Most of these companies advertise on and you’re also likely to find them on campus during what’s commonly termed the ‘milkround’. Be aware that they have early deadlines, in many cases before Christmas.

But these jobs are not for everyone – partly because there is a lot of competition, and partly because people’s personalities and aspirations are different.

So perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to define only these formal programmes as graduate jobs and everything else as ‘jobs that graduates get’, particularly when the majority of graduates do not actually get onto graduate schemes.

You could also argue that a graduate job is any entry-level position that requires a degree; there are many more of these. These ‘graduate-level’ jobs – many with smaller businesses – are often a good first step on the career ladder, particularly if you’re the sort of person who likes to take the initiative in developing your skills and talents.

And if you don’t get a graduate-level job straight away? The statistics show that many young graduates begin their working life in lower skilled jobs, such as admin or retail, but that ultimately most graduates end up in a ‘professional’ role. And your graduate-level skills (communication, problem-solving and above all, the ability to learn) will be valued by most employers – whether they see themselves as a graduate recruiter or not.

Go to the ‘Choosing your employer’ section on to find out more about graduate schemes and the alternatives.

Is a degree a help or hindrance for job seekers?

image of shopper

Many graduates’ first job is in retail.

There’s a lot of talk in the media these days about graduate unemployment. And we all know how hard it is to get a graduate job. So those who have spent three or four years studying may well wonder whether it was all worth it.

The brutal truth is that it’s harder still if you don’t have a degree. According to the 2012 National Skills Bulletin, published last month, employment rates are significantly higher for graduates than for those without a degree.

This is borne out by CSO figures from the 2011 census, also released in July. This records that 39 per cent of those aged 15-24 were without work in April 2011, but unemployment among young people with third-level qualifications was much lower at 18 per cent. The average rate of unemployment for those with a third level qualification (of any age) was 8 per cent compared to the 19 per cent unemployment rate for the State overall.

Figures from the National Skills Bulletin show that the lowest unemployment rate in the Republic is among older graduates. Young graduates are still likely to get work in professional occupations but a growing number are taking up lower skilled jobs, for example in retail. This suggests that although you might need to get a stop-gap job straight after graduation, your prospects are likely to improve in the long term. The report also showed that for many jobs a third-level qualification is often a prerequisite.

So what lessons can you learn from this?

Firstly, don’t listen to the gloom-mongers talking up graduate unemployment. You are still better off with a degree than without one.

Second, think of your degree as a long-term investment. It may not pay off immediately – in the sense of getting a traditional ‘graduate job’ straight away – but it will help in the future.

Third, employers do value graduates. The National Skills Bulletin also noted ‘some concern among employers that graduate emigration has begun to adversely affect the supply of skills and the labour market’.

You should never lie in an interview… but think twice before you tell the truth.

a desk light

Are you showing yourself in the best light?

A colleague of mine recently  asked a recruiter what was the most memorable answer she’d been given in an interview. Her reply: ‘I asked a candidate why they had got involved with a charity. They said that they didn’t particularly care about the charity in question but that it looked good on their CV and would help them to secure a job.’

I know everyone tells you to be yourself in a job interview, but is that taking the advice too literally?

The interviewee’s answer was honest, but it doesn’t present them in the best light.  And often in life, it’s not what you say but how you say it that counts: how, in fact, you choose to package the truth.

The reason why, as a recruiter, I would not appoint this candidate isn’t that I would particularly care about their true feelings towards the charity. I would care about their communications skills and their lack of awareness of what is and isn’t appropriate (and tactful) to say in a business context such as a job interview. I’d also feel that they were somewhat naïve about how the job-hunting process really works.

Doing something because it looks good on your CV is not in itself a bad thing. But you need to know why it looks good on a CV.  Working for a charity (or in a shop or a pub, for example) makes you more employable because it gives you experience of the working world, develops your work ethic and gives you transferable skills that will be useful in a graduate job. And it improves your CV because it allows you to demonstrate those achievements.

So, when asked, a better answer would be: ‘I wanted to develop my skills and make myself more employable’.  You are actually saying the same thing about your underlying motives, but using different words to explain it.

That’s not lying, it’s still the truth – just presented in a more thoughtful way. Then, of course, you have to provide evidence that it worked, and be able to discuss the skills that you developed from the experience.

As a recruiter, I wouldn’t mind how the applicant felt about the particular charity (if they felt too strongly, I might worry about their motivation for working for me!). But knowing that they had been proactive about getting useful experience – and are able to communicate this well – would impress me, regardless of their level of altruism.

Are Irish graduates work-ready?

AHECS Biennial logoOur partners, the Association of Higher Education Careers Services (AHECS) held their Biennial conference last week in Limerick, and it was a great opportunity to hear some of the current debates around graduate employment.

The sessions included speakers from the HEA and Forfas, as well as a range of national, regional and local graduate employers including HP, KPMG and Northern Trust.

One recurring theme was the question of whether Irish graduates should be ‘work-ready’, and what is the role of universities in making this happen. The current rhetoric at policy level suggests that this is an important plank in the country’s economic recovery, but there were some dissenting voices – as well as some interesting debate about what ‘work-ready’ actually means.

Part of being ‘work-ready’ is about having employability skills, something that AHECS has long supported. Employability, at its most basic, is the awareness of how to contribute in a workplace, for example, having the street wisdom and confidence that result from a long-term, relevant work placement and the problem-solving skills to apply your knowledge in the real world.

One recruiter suggested that graduates needed to be ‘employer-ready’: having thought early enough about what they really want from a job and having done the research to understand what a specific job involves. ‘Know what you want BEFORE you get to the interview.’

Another aspect of being ‘work-ready’ is supplying the expertise to fill the current skills gaps – being ‘industry-ready’ – and this proved more controversial. While basic skills are important, industry needs will continue to change and part of being a competitive economy means being adaptable. ‘Lifelong learning’ then becomes as important as what you have learned at university.

One argument is that innate ability is more important than specific modules that may appear to be relevant to the job. With a basic grounding – regardless of content – knowledge can build over time. The value of well-rounded graduates who can find their niche later is, after all, the rationale for the tradition of the rotational graduate training scheme.

That opened the debate on how much employers can reasonably expect from new starters at graduate level. One view from the careers service side was that it is unrealistic for employers to expect graduates to be ready for action immediately – again, a rationale for graduate training schemes. The employers present tended to agree, with one commenting: ‘We hire for attitude and train for skills.’

Another question about employer expectations was around the emphasis put on academic achievement. Some recruiters could be losing out on good candidates by insisting only on higher grades, meaning that those with a 2:2. never get past the initial selection phase. Derek Daly, outgoing President of the University of Limerick Students’ Union, pointed out that a lower grade may be simply because a student has to work their way through college. This work will arguably improve their employability skills, possibly at the expense of a 2:1. This example highlights the dichotomy between qualifications and skills that faces both graduates and employers.

He also provided some anecdotal evidence that not all graduate employers actually make the most of the talent that they recruit. Speaking on behalf of the graduates, he made the provocative point: ‘I’m not sure that all employers are graduate-ready.’

Do graduate job seekers know what graduate employers want?

tickboxWhat makes a candidate for a graduate job a good match? Well, that depends who you ask.

Anyone who has recruited for a job will know that, very often, applicants don’t seem to understand what the job requires. And if the employer has one view on the subject and the would-be employee has a different view, there is never going to be a match made in heaven.

At gradireland, we try to take the guesswork out of this process by questioning graduate recruiters every year for our annual Graduate Salary & Graduate Recruitment Trends Survey. At various times, we also question student and graduate job hunters about their views: this year, we asked everyone entering the gradireland National Student Challenge some questions on their views about graduate jobs.

The good news is that the employers and the students agreed in several areas. But there is one important area where there is a gap in understanding.

We asked graduate employers about their selection criteria: apart from academic results, the most important factors this year were core competences and relevant work experience.

We asked the students this question: ‘Besides academic ability what is the top skill or attribute that you feel graduate recruiters look for when selecting students?’ Work experience came second in the list, an encouraging response that shows students are aware of how important this is.

But coming back to those competences, the answers don’t match up so well. We asked employers where they see the greatest shortfall in skills among new recruits, and the answer is not an area that the students saw as a priority.

Students believe that motivation is the number one attribute that employers look for. And they are right to give this prominence: that came number two in the employers’ list. But top of that list, chosen by nearly 50% of employers, was communication. This came only fourth on the students’ list – suggesting that they don’t take this skill nearly as seriously as they ought to.

The gradireland Graduate Salary & Graduate Recruitment Trends Survey 2012 was published in May 2012.

For tips on competences and how to demonstrate them in your job applications, read the article What recruiters want.