Saad Ali is a final year student doing an integrated masters (MEng) in Mechanical Engineering. He is also currently working part-time at Slipstream Engineering Design and has completed a number of placements throughout his time at Leeds. In this article, he shares his experience of applying to placements and advice on how to make the best of your time at university.
Not spending enough time on applications
After sending numerous applications without any success, one day sat in a career’s lecture, I realised that I probably spend more time deciding what to watch on Netflix than I do my applications. My first ‘proper’ application took me 40 hours to write, it was a form with two questions for internship at Toyota Boshoku in Japan.
I went over it several times, and got help from my Faculty Employability team and the Careers Centre, to ensure each sentence was as concise as it could be whilst delivering my knowledge of the company and industry, and demonstrating how my skills aligned with the job role. It eventually secured me my immensely rewarding and ‘life-changing’ summer placement!
Many placement applications consist of online tests, CV, covering letter, and competency questions. Time management is crucial; you don’t want to have a brilliant CV but a lacklustre cover letter or poor answers to competency questions. Thinking of the whole process and balancing your workload will help you extract the maximum from your overall application.
Not understanding yourself – not recognising your strengths and weaknesses
One of the key tricks to interviews and applications is to make a memorable impression. Knowing your strengths helps you avoid underselling yourself. I am quite a people person and when I was interviewing for an internship at Arup, where I did my second summer placement, I had a moment where I didn’t know the answer to a question. Instead, I talked about my people skills and how I would approach the problem by bringing people together, building a team, and working with them to break the work in smaller tasks. Similarly, knowing your weaknesses will help you master assessments centres; if you’re normally shy, focus on speaking more, and conversely, if you’re talkative, focus on being concise and allow other members to speak.
Understanding yourself won’t only help you in your applications but also in your personal and professional life. It will ensure you are highly motivated and focused in everything you do.
Not doing extra-curricular activities
Having a strong academic record is always beneficial to your applications, but it is more or less expected of you. What can really make you stand out is what you did outside of your studies; for example, leading a team in an extra-curricular activity can have greater impact than leading a team in a university project. During my second year, I formed a team to represent University of Leeds in the IBM Universities Business Challenge. I learned about the business world by managing a virtual company, and gained experience in team building, which I use even today. During my time at university, I have formed and led a cricket team, held role of school representative, and helped my team reach the semi-finals of BP Ultimate Field Trip Challenge. These experiences gave me a lot to talk about in my applications and interviews.
Whether you’re applying for your first job or going for a promotion in your career, you’re not judged for how good you are at your current role but how good you would in your new role. Always stay one-step ahead; can you demonstrate you have gone above and beyond your academics?
Ignoring the importance of networking
Likability is a huge factor when it comes to jobs and being authentic in your networking approach is the best way to be likeable. For me, networking is a source of inspiration and a support structure; I wouldn’t be where I am without the people who have helped me throughout my time at university.
I am curious to know how people got to where they are now and how they became so successful. So I generally ask this question, which leads to very interesting conversations and is a huge source of inspiration for me. I met one of the directors at Cummins at a STEM event, and had a long conversation about his career. It was a turning point for me; it made me apply to Cummins, where I did my year long-placement, and also showed me the bigger picture in terms of my career. It is important to have a perspective from different people, and I actively seek feedback from my juniors, close friends, mentors, and more experienced engineers and professionals.
One piece of advice I would dispatch is to help others regardless of any prejudice and without expecting anything in return. After all, our ultimate goal is to help develop our societies for a better future!
Not making mistakes
Alas! One of the biggest mistakes you could make is not to make any mistakes at all. We learn best from our failures and the lessons we learn stay with us throughout our lives. I made twenty plus applications and received numerous rejections until I realised where I was going wrong which made me work actively towards making fewer but great applications! I have applied the same principles of learning from my mistakes to other areas of my life. Aim to make the best of your time at university.
Always remember to ask for feedback and not to be let down if you don’t get the job you want. In this day and age, the next ‘big’ opportunity is often a few months away.
Wishing you all the best in your job search!