Know your numbers: a grasp of a company’s finances will impress interviewers
Know your numbers: a grasp of a company’s finances will impress interviewers © FT Montage/Getty Images

As a recruiter for 17 years, founder of an initiative to help graduates from black and minority ethnic backgrounds get good first jobs, writer of a career guide for women, and currently professor to 15,000 students, I have developed a keen sense of some dos and don’ts for the best chances of being hired for a job you want. Here are some that you should consider.

No idea what you want to do?

Try out different things. Take your time. You are likely to be working a long time as life expectancy for most people extends — some of you will live to be over 100, while the age at which you might receive a pension will recede. Register with a temp agency and do a few short-term contracts in different companies to get a sense of what you enjoy — and what you don’t.

Didn’t get the job you went for?

If you do know what you want, there is no need to despair when you don’t get in through the front door. You didn’t make the graduate training scheme at Goldman Sachs? Or the BBC? Or McKinsey? It can be soul-destroying applying for grad scheme after grad scheme, only to get nowhere.

Heather McGregor
Heather McGregor © Susie Lowe

Try for smaller organisations in the same industry, and try for different routes in. For instance, a starter role in internal auditing reviews all elements of a business and gives you a bird’s-eye view — so you can decide which bit you really want to work in.

Another route in is in risk management — it is one of the biggest areas of any business, but university careers advisers do not seem to advise seeking a career in risk, for some reason.

Try for a job in the company you want to work for, even if it is something you never thought of doing. Call the HR department and ask which temp agency they use, then register there. It is easier to make a move from the inside.

The two-year rule

Your early, permanent jobs need to show you can take responsibility and stick at things. If you do get a permanent, career-shaping job, you should ideally stick it out for two years. Of course, this does not apply to stacking shelves or working behind a bar — or indeed any job where you are truly miserable. But two years is enough time to show future employers you are reliable.

Build a network

Everywhere you study, and everywhere you work, you should cultivate at least one person who you will always stay in touch with and can look to for a reference. This is your “social capital” and will help you for your whole career. Networks are not just something you build — you also need to maintain and to mobilise them.

Once a year — the start of a new year is good for this — write to them all and let them know how the past 12 months has been for you. Got a promotion? Moved to a different part of the company?

It drives me nuts when people ask for a reference after years of not hearing from them.

Become financially literate

The ability to understand and even discuss the finances of the company you are trying to join will always help at interview. There are some great online courses to help you get to grips with company finances, whatever you studied before.

My favourites are those run by Finance Talking, which has courses for every level of non-financial beginner — including a 20 minute “coffee break” course (learn something useful in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee), called “How to analyse a company”.

Get qualified

I once picked out the CV of a graduate who had a weighbridge operator licence, and another who was a qualified helicopter pilot. I had no need of someone to operate a weighbridge or fly a helicopter but they indicated that these young women had pursued interesting professional qualifications.

If you are financially minded and trying for a career in investment banking or investment management, even the first level of the CFA Institute qualification, or similar, will help you stand out. Sure, if you are lucky enough to get on a grad training scheme, your employer will put you through this. But, if you can get yourself at least partly qualified, you might get into one of the smaller companies that do not have grad schemes. Professional qualifications show commitment and intent.

Your job-hunting ‘agents’

Finally, have you told people you are looking for a job? Write to everyone you know and explain what you are looking for, and attach your CV. It will only take one of them to know of an opening somewhere and you could be finding your dream job.

Dos and Don’ts for a top CV


  • Put your name across the top and your contact details on the next line. A prospective employer wants to see quickly how to contact you. If you want to put, say, the city where you are based, avoid including your exact address. Think safe!

  • Keep to one piece of A4 if possible, and not more than two. A CV is a factual record of your career. The reasons why you are highly suitable for a particular position should be outlined in a covering letter that accompanies the CV.

  • Divide your CV into three: education (including professional qualifications); employment history; and additional Information.

  • Account for every year — chronological gaps will be spotted and asked about.

  • Hopefully, you have another dimension (charitable activity, sport) to describe. If you do, list them together with how much you have achieved, or how committed you are. Thus “run regularly with the Highgate Harriers” or “contribute monthly articles to the local community magazine” are better than “running” and “writing”.


  • Include your marital status or number of children — it is not relevant to your ability to do a job. You can always volunteer the information at interview.

  • Include your date of birth — it will then be illegal in some countries for people to store your CV.

  • Use a fancy typeface that no one can read. Arial or Times New Roman are fine.

  • Ask someone else to write it for you, except in draft. Employers need to see how you present yourself, not how someone else does it.

The writer is executive dean of Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, and author of ‘Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women

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