21st April 2016
Our guest blogger Liz Posford from Careers Unlimited has some tips for the shy sixth former: how do you best squeeze the juice out of careers and higher education events?
Conversation starters for higher education events and careers fairs
Once again, it’s that time of the year when higher education events happen, with universities, gap year organisations and sometimes potential employers gathering to show their wares to curious sixth form students. Similarly, students often attend careers and skills fairs, either with school or independently. But how do students get the most out of these events? Preparation is of course essential. Research is needed to identify possible options, whether it’s courses, universities and specific college departments or employers - students should be familiar with the in-depth information given on university websites and need to have read about any companies they want to engage with. All this is key if they want to ask well informed and useful questions.
My observation as a careers adviser and veteran of these events is that often students walk around in groups with their friends, gathering leaflets, prospectuses, and marketing freebies; the issue is that many lack the confidence to start a conversation with the representatives of the organisations. In a time when young people are completely at home conversing on social media, it is the art of face to face conversation that needs practice. Unless students can communicate in this way, they can miss out on valuable opportunities to better understand of what’s on offer to them, or how to maximise their chances of getting into a specific career or competitive degree course.
"It’s key that students come to these events with a clear idea of what they want to get out of them and how they are going to get it!"
Time at HE events and careers fairs is often short and usually busy. More confident attendees can end up dominating a popular stand. Perhaps the organisations’ delegates themselves could sometimes be more proactive at engaging meaningfully with the more reticent too. It is great that parents offer support, but conversations can often end up be directed to them rather than their rather embarrassed or reserved son or daughter! With this in mind, it’s key that students come to these events with a clear idea of what they want to get out of them and how they are going to get it!
There are websites including www.ucas.com as well as university.which.co.uk, not to mention Unifrog, where students and parents can research specific questions to ask for each subject area etc. However, here is a list of general questions that can be used simply as conversation starters, with the aim of helping less confident students prepare themselves before they come face to face with someone who may just be a really useful contact for their future success. It might be worth their while practicing asking some of these questions with a friend beforehand, or maybe even someone they don’t usually talk to!
At a higher education event:
1. I have read about a course in the prospectus and I wondered if you could tell me what are the features that make your course and/or university unique?
This type of question allows a more interesting conversation to take place, rather than the representative simply showing the course details that are already available in the prospectus or on the university website.
2. I think I would like to work as a journalist (….or solicitor, research scientist, civil engineer.) in the future. What kind of careers support or employer links are available at your university to help me?
When a university places a high emphasis on employability of its students the representative should be able to describe activities, support and employer partnerships in detail.
3. I am thinking about taking a Gap Year, would this be ok for my chosen course….and what sort of experience should I be aiming to get?
This question can enable the student to start asking about the skills and qualities looked for in the personal statement.
4. Can you tell me what sort of accommodation is available for a first year student?
A good open question that allows the student to expand on distance of accommodation from teaching, transport links, costs etc.
5. Could you let me have the contact details for someone who I could email if I have further questions?
It is not always the case that the person talking to a student has all the information to answer their question. It is likely that they have a more general marketing role, or they could be a student ambassador with some useful experiences to share about being a student but they may not be able to give specific course information.
At a careers or skills show:
6. I noticed on your company website that you offer a number of different entry routes including apprenticeships. Can you tell me what are the main differences?
A question that shows a student has already been proactive and done some research and that they are genuinely interested in finding out more about a company.
7. What do you enjoy about working for this company?
As a general rule people love to have the opportunity to talk about themselves and by asking this question a potential employee can get a feel for if the company is a good one to work for and if the environment as well as the culture will suit them.
8. What are the skills and qualities your company looks for?
Again this gives the young person a chance to talk about how this matches with what they have to offer, plus it can help when they come to make a formal application.
Last week at the UCAS Higher Education Fair in Exeter I gathered some views from representatives on the university stands. One was keen to point out to students that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Another said it is a good idea to split up from your friends and focus on what you really want to find out. Lastly and interestingly, one said that a student who just says a simple ‘hello’ has taken the first step needed to allow a meaningful conversation to take place. So advice to students is take the risk, step outside your comfort zone and make the first move to start a ‘conversation’. You never know where it may lead!
Independent Careers Adviser