What do employers actually look for?
When it comes to what employers will have expected you to have accomplished by the time you leave university, the answer is simple - having done something is a whole lot better than having done nothing!
The key here is to think broadly, show initiative, do things you enjoy and think about what key skills you've picked up from them.
Employers do not expect students or recent graduates to have heaps of relevant experience - this is simply unrealistic. What employers are interested in finding out at this stage is not so much where you have worked, but what skills you picked up and if these are relevant to the job they are hiring for. For example, if you worked at a restaurant, cafe or bar during your time at university you will have developed good customer-service skills - this is relevant to any customer facing job.
So how can I get experience whilst at university?
The best place to start is to demonstrate engagement through participation in a sport or society. This doesn't mean going overboard and putting your name down for everything - it's better to get really involved in one or two clubs or societies than to be slightly involved in ten. This need not be anything illustrious or senior - pick something you will enjoy and can talk about enthusiastically!
Once you have figured out what you have would like to do - try and get some experience that is slightly relevant to that. For example, if you would like to work in an office environment then it is a good idea to seek any type of office job over a bar job. In this case some office experience will be exponentially better than none. Even if it is just a week or even a few days - this is the first major step to getting your dream job.
If you feel like you picked up no experience during your time at university - think again! Were you a member of any clubs or socieites? Did you participate in sports or music activities? Did you do any volunteering? You will have picked up valuable skills from all of these - the key is to demonstrate to the employer how they are relevant for the position you are applying for. Remember, you will also have developed skills from your degree course alone. It's perfectly acceptable to use academic examples for skills an employer is looking for - did you do a dissertation? Research skills, communication, problem solving and project management are just some examples transferrable skills that you will have developed through writing a dissertation.
So what stage of the graduate job hunt should I be at and when?
Freshers:If you are hoping to pursue a career in investment banking (or thinking about it) keep an eye open for Spring Week deadlines in your first year - if you miss these then that's it! For the rest of you, however, treat your first year as a time to get involved with societies and above all enjoy yourselves.
Second years & finalists: You should begin to identify the sectors that you are interested in - there is no shame in not knowing precisely but at this stage you should have at least a vague idea. Think about the skills and disciplines that particular sectors are after - if you are lacking in some, where and how could you go about getting them? The summer holidays are a great opportunity to secure some internships to help you start figuring out your likes and dislikes.
Finalists - balancing job applications with finals can be more stressful than it's worth. Be sensible and remember for most industries it's perfectly fine to wait until you've graduated to begin your job hunt. If you are looking to go into Finance, Consulting or Banking though, keep in mind that the Milkround is pretty rigid. Note down all the deadlines at the beginning of the year and use less busy parts of the term to get going with your applications.
Second jobbers: Think about the skills you've gained - how would you like to develop them? How could they be applied to your new job?
It's important to mention here that it's always worth using your current company as a starting point in your job hunt - speak to your boss and tell him what you'd like to develop or learn. You can normally gain all this without moving company! Think about the skills you can offer and don't be worried about making a career change.
At this stage, a great way of picking up or developing new skills is to volunteer. Want to get into social media but have minimal experience? Get involved with a charity who needs social media help. These opportunities are easy to come across and really valuable for both parties.