Finance graduate advice: how to secure entry level finance jobs

By Robert Half 1st November 2019

Congratulations — you’re a new finance graduate, about to begin your career! Although the professional world may feel daunting, planning and prepping to take those first steps into professional life can make all the difference to your confidence and the speed of your trajectory. 

Three of our finest finance and accounting recruitment consultants took a moment to give careers advice for students regarding the competitive graduate market and how to get a graduate job.

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Sharif Omar, Associate Director supporting businesses hiring finance and accounting graduates in London West.

Seema Chand, Divisional Manager supporting businesses hiring finance and accounting professionals in Birmingham.

Henry Morse, Associate Director specialising in finance and accounting recruitment within financial services firms in London.

The most in-demand finance graduate roles for 2020

Sharif says: A lot of roles we’re getting for graduates now are quite varied. There are a lot of SME businesses looking for graduates nowadays, and generally these employers are looking for assistant management accountants, assistant finance accountants, ledger and sales ledger clerks and pre-qualified accountants—quite broad transactional roles with study support. 

We’ve noticed that a lot of graduates are looking for broader roles that cover more responsibility. Historically, Big Four and large firms were a more appealing option, but now we are seeing graduates looking to work for smaller businesses like start-ups and SMEs in which the remits are quite agile and there is great learning potential. 

Seema says: My team works regularly with a logistics company—we recruit for their graduate programmes about 4 – 5 times a year. Overall, recruitment for SME-businesses is quite high at the moment across the Midlands. In terms of graduate preference, we still tend to see graduates looking more at larger companies because they offer attractive graduate packages, but SMEs are growing in appeal due to role development and benefits packages.

Henry says: There’s still a very high intake year-on-year for graduates across the board within financial services. Graduates are being hired at a range of different levels. Potential candidates know how competitive the hiring market is within firms, with private equity being more appealing than brokers.

TIP: Research from our 2020 Salary Guide shows that employers are looking for candidates with experience using digital software packages, such as NetSuite, Sage or Xero. Highlighting your willingness to learn and ability to work in a fast-paced company can help to make sure you stand out.

Which hard and soft skills are needed for entry level finance jobs?

Sharif says: Communication skills and the ability to build relationships and collaborate is a big part of these roles. They want someone who can analyse and interpret information. From a technical perspective, Excel skills are very important for graduates, too.

Seema says: If you’re joining a large business, they usually want a 2:1 Degree and above. Some clients look for maths A-Levels, too.

In terms of soft skills, a willingness to learn is very attractive, as is being proactive, thinking outside the box and coming up with new ideas. Clients aren’t hiring people just to come in and do a job, they want someone who can add value, so they want to see that you can communicate and think for yourself.

Don’t forget that the way you present yourself is also an important factor. Sometimes you might not have the grades, but with exceptional soft skills you’re okay—cultural fit is more important than qualifications at the moment. 

Henry says: The key skill which is in demand time and time again is strong Excel skills. More specifically, knowing your way round PivotTables and the VLOOKUP function. Those are the two things every client wants. If you’ve never done it, research it. When you’re looking at large data sets those two things will speed up your work greatly.

DID YOU KNOW? Here at Robert Half, we offer free access to an e-Learning portal so our job seekers can take advantage of over 8,000 free online learning courses. If you’re trying to figure out how to get a graduate job, this is a great place to start!

Potential employers usually prefer maths or economic degrees. Experience is also very important—we’re finding four-year degree candidates with a sandwich year are in hot demand. 

You should also try to appear professional but outgoing. Employers appreciate graduates who show the ability to socialise with the wider company out of hours. It demonstrates the ability to build and maintain relationships with others and is all about being credible and people having the confidence to give you work in the relevant department. 

TIP: Although basic technical skills are desirable, the experts point out that soft skills are very important to potential employers. Recent research for our 2020 Salary Guide showed that 57% of business leaders value soft skills most when making a new hire —emotional intelligence, resilience and effective communication are some of the most in-demand.

How to make your finance graduate CV stand out

Sharif says: What really stands out is if someone has had a sandwich year, a year’s experience, any kind of paid internships or voluntary experience. Sometimes extra-curricular things can also help, like the Duke of Edinburgh award, or voluntary work which shows communication skills and teamwork. 

This especially stands out for roles in an SME environment—that you can show empathy for what it’s like to be in a workplace and can hit the ground running.

Seema says: Employers will look at academics but it really helps to include a profile about yourself and what you’re looking for in a job. Turn it into a bit of a story so that it becomes more than just a CV—it’s an insight into you as a person. 

You could include achievements, such as voluntary work and part-time work or project involvement. Voluntary work is really attractive because there are a lot of graduates out there, so something which makes you stand out is good.

Henry says: In my experience, there are three killer differences that will set your CV apart: Excel experience, personality and work experience. If you don’t have any experience, go out and volunteer for free, even if it’s just for a few weeks. Any kind of work that shows you have the ability to work in an office is good and will definitely make you more employable.

Graduate interview questions and tips

Sharif says: Research the business and the person you’re meeting with. Speak with your recruitment consultant to get an understanding of what the key competencies are from the hiring manager’s perspective. In terms of competencies, it also helps to think of really good examples based on experience that demonstrates your ability.

For example, a competency could be resilience or collaboration. You may not have experience in a work environment but could give an example taken from during your studies where you worked as part of a group and demonstrated those key traits. 

It’s also good for a finance graduate to be able to explain why a certain role appeals to them and to be able to articulate their career goals, as well. It’s okay to come across as ambitious, but it’s also important to come across as someone interested in working in the role in its current format and working up through the company.

Seema says: Firstly, I’d recommend researching the company really well—what they do, their competition and their numbers. Are they growing? Have they just acquired anything new? You can also check out LinkedIn to research the person interviewing you, so you know who you’re talking to. Don’t leave it until the night before!

If their graduate interview questions didn’t give you a chance to show your research, you can wait until they ask whether you have any questions and integrate your research into well-phrased questions that demonstrate your knowledge. 

TIP: Research is key if you want to impress potential employers and secure good entry level finance jobs. Take the time to look at the company, the interviewer and any new business news which you can incorporate into intelligent questions. 

When it comes to top careers advice for students, you’ll always be encouraged to present yourself well, to give plenty of eye contact and a good handshake. Come across as yourself and if they like you, you should be fine! 

The graduate market is hard, so think about extra things that you can do to stand out, like taking a short A5 printed handout with you. It could be something small that they can focus on, so you can grab a breather between questions!

Henry says: It’s always a good idea to look up the interviewer on LinkedIn, so you know their background. You should also dissect the job description line by line, so you have a real awareness of the role and can have a proper conversation about it.

Potential employers are looking for someone they can hold a conversation with. Don’t overload yourself with research, which could potentially make you sound robotic when answering graduate interview questions, but you should have enough knowledge to show that you have done some research into the company’s competitive position. Whenever we speak to hiring managers, they usually ask us to try and find someone who will fit the company culture, so take the softer side of hiring into consideration when you step into that interview room. 

TIP: Study the job description thoroughly and apply each competency to your own experience or skill set to show that you know your stuff, even if you haven’t had a chance to use it in a job-scenario yet. 

Get ahead: preparing to become a finance graduate

Are you currently a student already planning for a 2020 graduation? Before you start thinking about approaching the application process for entry level finance jobs, here are some things to consider:

•  Extra-curricular study
The graduate recruitment experts here at Robert Half have mentioned that employers are looking for finance graduates with sophisticated Excel skills. You can increase your appeal to potential employers by taking the time to study some of the advanced techniques they’re looking for.

•  Get practical experience under your belt
Experience or volunteer work is very attractive to potential employers and shows that you’re serious about starting a career. As the experts have mentioned here, there are plenty of ways to get a few weeks’ practical experience under your belt, such as volunteering, taking a sandwich course or a short internship. It’s a great idea to get experience while you’re still a student, so you can hit the ground running.

•  Get your CV up to scratch
As our recruitment experts have mentioned here, writing a good graduate CV is very important in such a competitive hiring market. Ensure you’ve covered the basics, like proper layout, proofreading and remembering to include the most essential pieces of information.

•  Work with a recruiter
The job market is competitive and daunting at the best of times, so going into it as a graduate can feel overwhelming. If you aren’t sure where to start, you can approach a graduate recruiter for finance and accounting to help you find suitable roles. They can help prep you for your interview and give you tips on how to impress, so you have the confidence you need to secure your first finance job.

Need help navigating the graduate market

Would you like guidance on how to get a graduate job? Get in touch with the experts at Robert Half today and together we can start the first steps towards your dream career.

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