From a Graduate's Perspective: What defines a great candidate experience?

A recent Mystery Applicant study gathered a small group of Bath Spa graduates, from the past two years, to try and gain an insight into how graduates are experiencing the current job market; what, for them, defines a great candidate experience? How do they feel they are currently treated? And where is there room for improvement...

With the ‘Class of 2012’ graduating over the last few months, these essential questions are once again the foundation of creating an excellent candidate experience. According to a study carried out by High Flier’s Research, a fifth of employers have found that graduate applications have already soared by at least 25%.  The extra 50,000 graduates that left university this summer, compared to five years ago, have only intensified the scramble for placements and increased the importance of having a simple way to monitor the experience of an ever-growing number of applicants.

It’s vital that companies are aware of each graduates experience as this flood of applications puts strain not only on the employment market but also upon graduate recruiters who wish to provide an excellent experience for each candidate who applies; recruiters that are fast coming under the scrutiny of the social media savvy graduate. The ever-increasing popularity of various social media platforms makes the importance of a great candidate experience paramount. Through this vast social landscape, irreparable damage can be done to a brand at the click of a button. Having grown-up in an age that has become reliant on the internet, graduates are proficient users of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. The impact this can have upon a brand through recruitment is worrying for companies as applications come in from candidates who won’t hesitate to share negative experiences with friends, family, acquaintances... well, in reality, anyone who will listen.

Whilst companies don’t wish to encourage the negative publicity that can be cultivated through this media, it is necessary for individual graduate stories to be heard so that graduate employers can learn from what others have done right, or wrong. Social media can be used productively to do this via community pages on sites such as Facebook. Pages like these encourage applicants to share their views. By doing this companies are confronting an issue and saying to their applicants that they do respect their efforts and that the experience of each of their candidates does matter.

Alongside this, it is necessary to understand your target audience. Getting inside the graduate mind-set is the key to improving the graduate recruitment process. Without this knowledge there is no hope of improving their candidate experience as each process would simply be one of guess-work.

For this very reason we brought together a focus group comprised of recent Bath Spa graduates from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. Through their conversations we considered:

What influences them...

‘...I think I’d rather be happy in my job and not paid as much than stressed in my job and hating every day.’

To these graduates, branding and money holds less importance than job satisfaction. They want to work for employers who can provide an environment that allows them to enjoy doing what they love. Whilst money is a factor once they have become more established in their careers, during these first few years they value skill development and job satisfaction over income.

Interview etiquette – the do’s, don’ts and end results...

‘...another few days passed, I rang them back – “Sorry, who are you?” – the guy who’s gone through so many of your application processes – “yeah, we’ve lost your application”...’

Once graduating, their lives become part of the application cycle. Worryingly these graduates have found it the norm for their applications to receive no response when an interview is not offered. In one case a graduate heard back from an organisation months later, only to be asked to ‘like’ their Facebook page - shockingly, she didn’t.

The application process that these graduates spoke most highly of was one which demonstrated an appreciation for the efforts of their applicants and treated them with a polite and considerate manner revealing a competent and respectful company behind it.

Those that don’t manage to achieve this lost the respect of these graduates during their job search; the majority stating that they would not apply again to that company and one now refusing to shop there. These graduates feel that recruiters like this come across as disrespectful and incompetent – qualities that reflect badly upon the potential employer. When recruiters invite a candidate to an interview only to email them the day before to say that they have already found someone, or to top that, ask a graduate to complete numerous assessments and interviews and then promptly lose their application, it is not surprising that grads have lost faith in these organisations.

Their ideal interview...

‘If they offered you a drink when you walked in...’

The prerequisites to their ideal interview are not ground-breaking but simple pleasantries - courtesy, respect and communication. Whilst many graduates will have experienced little practical application of their skills in the workplace, they are eager to prove that they can competently apply them. They asked for interviews to become more practical, involving a skill-based assessment, or case study, rather than a simple spoken appraisal. Their ideal interview would not only assess their abilities but also their personal attributes. They believe that to find the perfect candidate fit, both their skills and their personality must be considered.

The deal-breakers - approaches that made them avoid companies offering potential employment...

‘...poor English or grammar, I hate that. I wouldn’t even apply or look at their website. It looks really unprofessional.’

Whilst these graduates do readily agree that any role within their chosen sector is an opportunity, there are some specific points that make them think twice about whether this organisation is the one for them. From an outside perspective they look for the professional – poor English or grammar is a definite no, whilst a disorganised or unprofessional website can make them look the other way. Moral or ethical issues are also kept in mind by some.

If they manage to secure themselves an interview, their interest can be extinguished by a lack of courtesy, communication or enthusiasm or the ‘you’re just a number’ approach. These graduates are enthusiastic to make that first step into their future career but they won’t make it with a company that doesn’t value them as a candidate.

Response (and feedback?)...

‘I’ve met them, I’ve had an interview - I expect a yes or a no.’

Unsurprisingly for graduates, as for all job candidates, getting a response to an interview is essential - to not receive one is perceived as inconsiderate and rude. However, feedback is also greatly appreciated but rarely received. It provides these new jobseekers with areas that can be improved upon next time and knowledge of where they are going wrong. From a recruiting perspective, it gives graduates the feeling that their application has been thoroughly considered and that each company appreciates the effort they have put in. Here is a chance for a recruiter to give back to those that endeavour to work for them so that when it comes to that moment when they want people to ‘like’ their company Facebook page, the ex-candidate will actually want to, hired or not.

An overview...

By exploring their world we’ve come to understand that, to these graduates, branding and money holds less attraction than job satisfaction; communication is key alongside being treated with respect and courtesy as a candidate; that feedback is greatly appreciated but that many companies do not offer it. Their ideal interview process follows this pattern as well, with a real focus on the importance of communication and a polite manner, whilst they also show a desire to be allowed to prove themselves and their abilities in a more practical way. From this study there is a clear road to improvement for some companies within graduate recruitment, whilst others are well on their way. The key though, like in marketing a product, is to take the time to understand your audience, listen to their feedback and always be open to improvement.   

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