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Improving graduate job applications

August 2021

CVs that aren't tailored to the role and poorly written applications are the most common reasons that employers reject graduate job applications

A high-quality job application is crucial for university leavers who want to stand out among the competition. Job hunting during a global pandemic has been especially stressful for graduates, and data shows these individuals are feeling unmotivated and lost during this time. Could this have a negative effect on their performance in interviews and job applications?

We spoke to 29 employers and surveyed 232 members of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) to hear their views on the quality of graduate job applications and what lets them down.

It's positive that overall most employers are happy with the quality of applications received during the 2020/2021 recruitment cycle, and there appears to be no significant difference in quality from pre-pandemic recruitment. Only a small proportion of employers found that their graduate applications were poor quality.

Despite this, recruiters mentioned that a number of applications lacked enthusiasm and contained mistakes, which reduced a graduate's chance of securing an interview. Respondents revealed the main reasons why applicants don't receive a job offer, and these can be shared by careers professionals in CV workshops and tutorials to help graduates produce high-quality applications.

Issues with job applications

Over half of the employers surveyed reported that a common issue was 'applications not tailored to the role'. One respondent said it was clear when a CV was not tailored because it lacked key terms that were included in the job advert. It is expected that graduates embed keywords and phrases into their applications so hiring managers can see that they meet the requirements for the role.

Many students and graduates temporarily changed their career plans due to the pandemic, and widened their job search due to lockdown restrictions and increased competition.1 This approach to job hunting opens up different opportunities, but if they apply with a generic CV that states their original career aspirations it can make it look like they have applied for the wrong job.

For example, a CV stating that a graduate is 'looking to enter a career in finance' may confuse an employer when it is then submitted for a research position. This highlights the importance of a tailored CV and a cover letter to clearly state their suitability and desire for a position.

Figure 1

Reason,Proportion of employers
Application not tailored to the role,53
Poorly written applications,38
Poor performance at interview,37
Poor performance in tests,33
Poor performance in assessment centres,32
Do not meet the essential requirement,27
Lack of work experience,19
Do not meet enough of the desirable requirements,12
Spelling and grammar errors,7
Late application,6
Missing cover letter,3
Don't know,6

Institute of Student Employers

As seen in Figure 1, a poorly written application and cover letter was another problem that stopped graduates getting to interview stage. Some of the most frequent mistakes were:

  • unstructured text with no paragraphs
  • not formatted like a letter
  • no 'Dear sir/madam' in the cover letter.

It might be useful for both employers and careers advisers to communicate to students why certain steps are important in the recruitment process. A cover letter may seem like extra work, but employers place a lot of importance in them. One recruiter revealed in an interview that a lot of graduates get a 2.1, so a cover letter is a great way to distinguish them. They also refused to consider applications with a missing cover letter. Therefore, jobseekers who skip this step are putting themselves at a disadvantage, and run the risk of automatic rejection, irrespective of their ability to do the job.

Careers professionals should remind graduates to focus on small details and take care with their applications. For example, submitting a CV with a filename 'CV 2020' could give off the impression that they have not updated their CV for a year if they apply for a job in 2021. It's also worth double checking the saved filename for any job/company information, as one employer mentioned that they sometimes receive CVs and cover letters with different job titles or companies in the filename.

Lack of relevant work experience was a factor mentioned by some recruiters. The ISE reported that employers recruited 29% fewer interns and 25% fewer placement students in 2020.2 These actions had a negative effect on students and graduates, with only 17% managing to undertake work experience in the past year.3 Some of the employers we spoke to had not changed their selection criteria due to the pandemic, and this could limit the number of candidates shortlisted if relevant work experience is an essential requirement for the job. Charlie Ball states that the covid generation of students are equipped with a unique set of experiences, and businesses need to recognize this.4

Lack of motivation and passion

The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected students and graduates, leaving many concerned about their mental health, academic studies, and also their career prospects. Data from Prospects' Early Careers Survey confirms this, as students reported that their top three struggles during the past 12 months were staying motivated during their studies, taking care of their mental health, and feeling optimistic about their career. This lack of motivation could manifest itself in applications, and may explain the 'poor quality' and lack of 'effort/passion/research' that some employers are seeing at the moment.

An AGCAS survey also found that the average number of graduate job applications made since March 2020 was 37, which could leave many feeling discouraged that it's taking so long to secure a job.5 Previous research by Student Minds attests to this, as they noticed a statistically significant relationship between the number of applications submitted and a person's wellbeing.6 They found that for every additional job application submitted, graduates have a .14 lower score on the mental wellbeing scale.7

It is therefore important that students and graduates feel supported during this time to ensure they remain resilient and motivated. Research by AGCAS found that over 40% of graduates surveyed reported that they had not felt supported by employers during the recruitment process since March 2020. When asked how employers could support them, 77.8% said they should be clearer about what they are looking for in job applicants. The survey also found that:

  • 82.2% of graduates said employers should provide more information about how they recruit graduates.
  • 82.8% said employers should provide better information about available openings.
  • 81.7% said employers should provide internships for students before they graduate.
  • 91.2% said employers should provide a clear training pathway for graduates.

Employers wanting to improve the quality of their job applications should make sure they are transparent about the opportunities on offer and how they recruit for them. It's also worth highlighting in the job advert how your will train your new graduate recruits.

Sending out feedback to unsuccessful applicants can also help improve the quality of future applications. Many of the graduates interviewed and surveyed by AGCAS discussed the frustrations of not receiving any application feedback beyond generic acknowledgment. It can be difficult for students and graduates to improve the quality of their applications when they aren't aware of their mistakes. Employer feedback gives them a chance to boost their CV which will lead to more impressive applications.

Job-seeking graduates may turn to their careers service for support with their mental health. Gradconsult and Student Minds ran a webinar session on mental health and graduate employment during COVID-19, and participants shared ideas on how employability teams and institutions can support students and graduates.8 Ideas included:

  • making wider institution wellbeing support available after graduation
  • wellbeing workshops
  • sharing 'survivor stories' from alumni who have gone through the process, e.g. 2008 recession graduates.

Careers professionals can also signpost graduates to any resources they have on mental wellbeing and resilience to help them stay motivated during the transition from university to employment.

Challenging recruitment process

It can be difficult for recruiters to sift through hundreds of applications to shortlist applicants, so many use psychometric tests and competency-based forms to identify suitable candidates. These steps are useful, but including too many stages in the recruitment process can make it confusing and difficult for jobseekers, which could reduce the quality of applications submitted. The majority of graduates surveyed by AGCAS either agreed or strongly agreed that they found the recruitment process challenging (64.2%), suggesting that more support and guidance is needed.9

A recent poll by Prospects also found that students and graduates are put off by a complex and unappealing application and recruitment process. They were discouraged by long application forms that ask unnecessary questions, or require candidates to repeat information already supplied in their CV. One respondent mentioned that a long application process can be particularly stressful for those with disabilities, saying that 'despite having a MSc and being highly qualified', they are still put off by them. Read more about what puts graduates off applying for jobs. Simplifying the application process and removing any unessential steps can ensure you don't miss out on the top talent.  


  1. Early Careers Survey 2021: Jobs, apprenticeships and postgraduate study, Prospects, 2021.
  2. ISE annual survey: 3 key student recruitment trends, Institute of Student Employers, 2020.
  3. Early Careers Survey 2021: Work experience during a crisis, Prospects, 2021.
  4. Lack of work experience proves a barrier for job seekers, WonkHE, 2021.
  5. The impact of covid-19 on recent graduates' career decisions and outcomes, AGCAS, 2021.
  6. Graduate Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace, Student Minds, 2017.
  7. Graduate Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace, Student Minds, 2017.
  8. Mental health and graduate employment insight paper, Gradconsult and Student Minds, July 2020. Please note these are the unedited ideas and insights generated by participants at the event, rather than specific approaches endorsed by either Gradconsult or Student Minds.
  9. The impact of COVID-19 on recent graduates' career decisions and outcomes, AGCAS, 2021.

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