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Commentary: Is a first-class degree really that important?

Many UK graduate recruiters are weighing up other skills alongside academic achievement, says the Financial Times' Amy Borrett.

Commentary: Is a first-class degree really that important?

Hats are thrown in the air following a graduation ceremony for students at University of Brighton in Brighton, southern Britain, August 3, 2018. (File photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)

LONDON: A summer scroll through LinkedIn and Facebook offers an endless stream of celebratory posts by new graduates (and their proud parents).

For graduates disappointed with their final grade, it can seem like everyone else graduated with a first-class degree — or at least a second-upper.

Now that the new recruitment season beckons, those who had not already secured a job offer before graduating and have been disheartened to receive a lower grade may worry they are going to be held back. 

But as workplaces evolve, so do employers’ demands and expectations. Grades may now be far less important than they once were.


According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 28 per cent of students in 2018 graduated with a first, and a further 48 per cent with a second-upper class degree.

There is tough competition for entry-level jobs, and anyone falling into the second-lower and third-class degree category is at a disadvantage in the numbers game of graduate job applications.

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But the University of Oxford Careers Service reports that, when it comes to starting salary and the percentage unemployed six months after graduation, there is no significant difference between undergraduates who receive a second-upper and a second-lower degree.

For some recruiters, the reputation of your university or course may be as important as your final grade.

Jonathan Black, director of the Careers Service at the University of Oxford, says that when it comes to the university brand, “for some employers it clearly is [important] and will open the door to a conversation”. But this is subjective and “academics have wrestled with how you equate a second-upper in physics at Oxford with a second-upper in physics at Leeds. That answer is you cannot. You can’t even equate a second-upper this year with last.”

A university student graduation. (Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder) FILE PHOTO: Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


These limitations, alongside an increased focus on hiring diversity, has led many companies to abandon conventional screening techniques.

Some employers are also using game-based assessment methods, through third-party providers like Arctic Shores, to judge candidates more directly on the skills that are needed in the workplace, instead of trying to rely on markers of academic success.

READ: Commentary: The generalist-specialist job distinction is holding many back

Other companies are reducing the importance of grades in the application process and have started to accept students with a second-lower on their graduate schemes.

This group includes recruiters such as the UK’s tax unit HM Revenue & Customs, carmaker Jaguar Land Rover, Lloyds Banking Group and the Big Four accounting firms, such as EY.

EY reformed its approach to recruitment for its graduate scheme and decided to lower its required grade after research on its selection process found no correlation between success at university and in subsequent qualifications.

(Photo: AFP/Imeh Akpanudosen) Shigemi Hirata, 96, who took 11 years to complete his ceramic arts course after taking up pottery as a pensioner, insisted he was not done setting records. (AFP/Imeh Akpanudosen)


According to Linda Luong, senior early careers consultant at Jaguar Land Rover, the minimum requirement for its graduate programme is a second-lower because JLR sees “academic performance as just one of many different indicators of future performance”.

At assessment, it looks for candidates who demonstrate a “range of skills which the business values such as problem solving, working in teams and a willingness to learn”.

The importance of these skills means that work experience and extra-curricular activities also rank highly for employers.

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More than a third of companies warn that graduates with no previous work experience are unlikely to be successful, irrespective of their academic achievements or the university they attended, according to High Fliers Research.

The CBI, the employers’ organisation, also reports that one-fifth of businesses view a positive attitude and soft skills such as resilience and communication as the most important factor when recruiting.


Even if your results do prevent you from making a conventional start on a graduate career, there can be other routes in, such as further study. A number of postgraduate courses accept students with second-lowers.

Graduates gather outside Senate House after their graduation ceremony at Cambridge University in eastern England October 23, 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Paul Hackett)

Heather Byrne, managing director of the career development office at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, says when it comes to choosing students for its MBA programme, they use a “holistic review process”.

While many of the places go to applicants with a strong academic record, others have succeeded elsewhere in a way that “makes them stand out and makes them marketable”. It is important to consider what students have done outside the classroom, she says, because “employers are really looking for well-rounded individuals".

When it comes to presenting disappointing grades to prospective employers, Mr Black advises students to go back to the main employability skills and think through all the activities you have been up to at university and before.

One of the most common mistakes, he says, is that students “overlook things and think that they are irrelevant because ‘everyone has done that’, because not everyone has".

“It’s about how you pitch it … If you’ve done other things then that’s going to mitigate a second-lower,” Mr Black adds. 

But, ultimately, whatever results you graduate with, “within five years nobody actually cares”.

Source: Financial Times/sl


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