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How to stand out when applying for a graduate scheme

Learn how to make sure your graduate scheme application makes the grade.

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Leaving full-time education is a daunting time for any student. As well as losing the freedom of student life, you’re confronted with some very real decisions about your future. 

Whether you know exactly what you want to do and where or you’re not sure what type of professional role would suit you best, graduate schemes offer the chance to get plenty of practical industry experience and start your working life with a leading company – and a competitive salary to boot.


What is a graduate scheme

A graduate scheme is essentially a paid training course which offers graduates practical industry experience. From PwC to MacDonald’s, top companies use graduate schemes to attract young talent, and, all going well, the training will end in a permanent role. 

They can last from three months to three years and will either prepare you for a specific role in the company (like sales, marketing or management) or give you a more general introduction into the business, encouraging you to specialise later on. 

Applying for a graduate scheme

A graduate scheme offers unparalleled industry exposure and career progression, but competition is fierce. 

In Oleeo’s 2019 survey of 3.8 million graduates, they found that only 1% of graduates applying for schemes within finance, advertising, professional services, and major retailers got the job.

Read on to find out how you can make your application stand out.


1. Get ahead of the game

With potentially thousands of applicants and most graduate schemes opening applications a year before they begin, it pays to start gaining some work experience as early as your first year.

You’ll build valuable skills and open your mind to what you want from a professional role. If you know which schemes you’d like to apply for, getting some relevant experience whilst you’re still at university will show you’re committed to your goal and give you more to discuss on your application and at interview.

Your training could take the form of a summer internship, a work placement during term time, or even just the odd day spent shadowing someone doing a similar job to the one you want.

Not only will you gain a deeper insight into what to expect from a graduate role, but you’ll also be making valuable connections in your industry of choice. 

You never know who may open doors for you further down the line, and, if you impress, then they may even be able to help you with your application or provide you with a killer reference.

2. Tailor your application

Unfortunately, your application will be one of many and you won’t be able to sail through with a generic, one-size-fits-all application. 

Chances are, this is your first time applying for a professional job, so it’s important your CV is adapted accordingly. 

Comb through the job description and identify the skills the employer is looking for. For every item listed on your CV, ask yourself how it relates back to these skills. Aside from school and university grades, if it doesn’t provide evidence of expertise relevant to the industry or role you’re applying for – leave it out. 

However, don’t be put off if you don’t have direct practical experience. The employer will be looking for transferable skills. If you don’t have a huge amount of experience in the area you’re applying for, you will have still gained relevant transferable skills. 

Figure out what skills you’ve gained through work or study experience and incorporate them into your CV.

If you need more advice on crafting a job-bagging CV, check out our post on how to write a great CV.

3. Only apply to places you actually want to work at

Although it’s difficult to secure a place on a graduate scheme, narrowing your focus to companies you are passionate about and a sector you’re engaged with will make it easier to write a genuine application and won’t go unnoticed by an employer.

Narrow it down by thinking about what you really want from a career, company, and role.

Do you want to work with an FTSE 100 company or are you more interested in a company’s mission? Would you like the opportunity to work abroad or would you like to work in a specific place? Would you enjoy working somewhere corporate or somewhere more laid-back? 

Once you’ve chosen some companies you think could be a great fit, look into what type of employer they are. Do they offer perks? What are their company values? Do they offer good career progression? All of these things will be available online and are vital to making sure you’re a good match. If their values align with what drives you to do your best work, then you’re on to a winner. 

And remember, most schemes accept graduates from every discipline, so don’t feel held back by the degree subject you chose three years ago. 

4. Be passionate

As a student, you’ll build lots of relevant skills for work and life, but you certainly won’t be ready to excel in every aspect of your new role – and acting as though you can isn’t going to fool an employer. 

That’s why a passionate and enthusiastic attitude is a key attribute for you to develop and get across in your application. No employer is expecting you to be ready to start the job tomorrow, but they are expecting you to care about the sector and the role you’re applying for. 

Aside from basic research, try and be creative about showing your passion for the scheme. Arm yourself with knowledge about world issues that link to the relevant industry, and don’t be afraid to use emotional language in your application. 

Many graduates get so carried away with explaining how they have the technical skills required, that they forget to prove their (just as valuable) soft skills, like enthusiasm and creative thinking.

5. Network with experts

Most universities offer careers fairs and events for graduates. Don’t skip these. They’ll give you the chance to learn more about the opportunities within a company and speak to people actually working at them. They’ll give you honest information you may not find elsewhere that will help you decide if the scheme is right for you. 

Plus, meeting someone face-to-face creates a deeper impression than a paper or digital application. Bring your best self to these events and be armed with intelligent questions to ask.  Connecting with them on LinkedIn later and referencing something you discussed will also help them to place you. 

If you can’t get to in-person events, use LinkedIn to engage with people working in your desired sector. Developing a professional online presence is a great way of getting your personality across in a more holistic way. 

You can learn how to boost your employability by developing a professional online presence on this free course from the University of Leeds and the Institute of Coding.

6. Be yourself

Amongst hundreds of applications, an employer isn’t going to remember the person who said, “I’m extremely passionate about this role and it has always been my dream to work at your company”. 

Even if that’s true, you can bet your last pristine copy of your CV that at least 50% of your fellow applicants also said that. 

Being authentic means speaking honestly and respectfully about what you believe. Try not to simply give the answer you think they want, but the one that resonates with you most. 

Employers want candidates that have their own opinions and ideas. If you stay neutral and don’t say what you really think, it’s very hard for an employer to understand what your value will be.

Of course, being true to yourself comes with the risk that you won’t be what they’re looking for. However, ultimately, if the company doesn’t think you’re right for the role – and you’ve represented your most authentic self – then you’re probably not right for the role, and that’s okay. It’s actually great that they worked it out before you took the job and hated it.

7. Don’t lose momentum

Sometimes applying for a graduate scheme can feel like a training course in itself. Most applicants have to go through at least three rounds of questioning during the application process. 

By the time you get to the assessment day, you might feel you’ve learned all you can about the sector, company, and role, but don’t lose your drive. 

Whilst the application can be painstakingly worked on and proofread by family and friends when it comes to the face-to-face interview and assessment day – you’re on your own.

The best way to prepare for these is to research as much as you can and practice with someone you trust. Even if you think you have the knowledge you need to answer the questions you’re expecting, saying the answers out loud and responding to a curve-ball question on is a whole different ball game. 

At the end of each interview stage, write down all the new information you’ve heard so that you can improve on your answers as you go. 

Asking questions will help with this and will also show you’re taking the process seriously.


Earning a place on a graduate scheme requires a lot of research, introspection, and hard work. Be resilient in the face of rejection (of which there will be some) and give yourself the best chance to succeed by putting in the work ahead of time.

For more tips on creating applications that stand out, check out our top 10 courses for getting the job you want

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