If you’re Graduating in 2024 now’s the ideal time to start thinking about your career path after Uni, but what’s the process like? Recent Exeter grad, Matt McNulty takes us through his journey from undergrad to graduate employment.
My name is Matt, and last year I graduated from Exeter having completed my undergraduate degree in BA Geography, based at the Streatham Campus.
This month I will be starting out as a Graduate Planner for Savills, a global Real Estate services company. I will be enrolling onto Savills’ Planning Graduate Scheme and be based in the company’s head office in central London. Since I am a non-cognate student (currently without a Planning qualification), Savills will sponsor me to undertake a part-time RTPI-accredited Masters at London South Bank University alongside my employment, enabling me to work towards becoming a Chartered Town Planner further down the line.
When did you start applying for graduate jobs?
Towards the end of my final year at Exeter, I knew that following graduation I wanted to both save to travel and also concentrate on applying to graduate schemes, the latter of which I knew I could personally do stronger whilst taking some time and space out, away from study. It therefore made total sense for me to take a year out. With most grad schemes open applications every Autumn, I started applying for positions at the start of October 2022 and from this moment onwards I ensured that I stayed disciplined, treating applications effectively like a job in itself.
‘…all employment experience is valuable and will undoubtedly provide you with at least a few transferable skills and attributes.’
Do you have any internships or vacation work jobs that you’ve done, either for them or for anyone else?
I had no prior experience with Savills themselves, but over recent years have tried to accumulate as much exposure to employment across the Built Environment as possible! Most relatedly this has included work experience with Planning and Design firm, ‘Terence O’Rourke’ and Project Management consultancy, ‘Faithful+Gould’. These opportunities consolidated my passion for Planning from opening my eyes to both the interdisciplinary nature of this sector and the immense variety of projects that Planners get involved in, including residential, retail, and urban regeneration schemes to name a few.
My employment also as a Student Ambassador during my time at Exeter strengthened my passion for public speaking and for a career where I could engage with a huge range of stakeholders to help strategise solutions working for all. This alongside long-standing part-time hospitality employment has invaluably made me very confident in undertaking public-facing duties. So I’d strongly say not to worry if you don’t have sector-specific work experience, as all employment experience is valuable and will undoubtedly provide you with at least a few transferable skills and attributes!
How did you hear about the employer, and what interested you in them?
Being a household name when it comes to the Planning industry, Savills have long been on my radar. In fact, I even applied (albeit unsuccessfully!) for a sandwich placement year with them during my second year!
‘the application process consisted sequentially of a written application form, aptitude testing, an assessment centre, followed by lastly an individual interview. Admittedly this does sound very long-winded… You do also inevitably find yourself getting in the rhythm of this routine after a little while as you start pinging a few applications off.’
I firstly felt so driven to start my professional career at such an internationally renowned company offering such great opportunity for both personal and professional development, highlighted as mentioned earlier by their sponsoring of my Planning Masters. The Savills Planning Graduate Scheme also uniquely consists of four-month rotational placements between their Planning teams which specialise in different market sectors. This was an aspect which massively appealed to me since I am really keen to acquire as much exposure across the various Planning sectors to establish where my interests best lay.
What was the application process like? Did you need a CV, letter, or application form?
Savills’ application process consisted sequentially of a written application form, aptitude testing, an assessment centre, followed by lastly an individual interview. Admittedly this does sound very long-winded, but this sequence of stages is pretty typical of most Graduate Scheme application processes at larger companies. You do also inevitably find yourself getting in the rhythm of this routine after a little while as you start pinging a few applications off.
Any aptitude tests? What was it like?
There were two sets of aptitude tests. The first was a fairly standardised one which I found was utilised by numerous companies and consisted of a series of mini games targeted towards testing your logic and both your pace of thinking and reactions. I actually found this type of aptitude testing more enjoyable as like I say, the game-based nature of it allowed you to become more immersed by it. This I found allowed me to put the bigger picture of it and any associated pressure to the back of my mind a little more. The next set of aptitude testing was mathematical-based, and you were provided a series of questions including all things numbers, graphs and statistics alongside multiple choice answers, which you’d progressively work through.
‘One thing I learnt from rounds of aptitude testing is not to be disheartened if you feel like you have flunked it. Numerous times I strongly felt as though I had performed poorly from finding this stage extremely difficult, before later finding out I had progressed to the next stage.’
One thing I learnt from rounds of aptitude testing is not to be disheartened if you feel like you have flunked it. Numerous times I strongly felt as though I had performed poorly from finding this stage extremely difficult, before later finding out I had progressed to the next stage. I since found out that many of the computer algorithms generating the games and questions you face can alter in difficulty dependent upon how you are performing, so if you feel like it was really tough, that can in fact be a good sign!
One or more interviews? What were they like and how did you prepare?
The process consisted of one interview, based at the office location you had specifically applied to, unlike the prior assessment centre which was centralised for everyone in the London head office regardless of which UK office you had applied to. Luckily for me I had applied to this very London office, so my individual interview then came in a location I had prior familiarity with, which did feel a bit more settling. My preparation consisted mostly of pre-emptively compiling a list of generic likely questions I felt may come up, surrounding topics such as my strengths, weaknesses, why I’ve applied to Savills specifically, and what I feel are the largest challenges currently facing the Planning industry. I also ensured that I knew my CV and original application documents inside-out and had prepared examples (using the STAR technique) of times when I had shown every competency that Savills had listed on the job specification. This was since interviews can often take a competency-based style which typically involves referral to competencies outlined.
There were two interviewers present, both being senior members of Savills’ London Planning division. Ironically, I actually felt like the interview didn’t go as well as I had hoped. This was because many of the questions posed were very industry specific, an area where I am yet to develop much specialist knowledge upon compared to a candidate for example who may already have their Planning-related qualification, so I felt a little deflated! However, this turned out to be typical of a common trend I have always found, that when things don’t feel like they have gone great, it in fact turns out that they very much have!
What help and advice did you get from the Career Zone? Was it useful? Why was it useful?
The Career Zone were absolutely fantastic, largely from how readily available the team was to meet by booking an appointment so easily through the live chat function. I booked quite a few appointments throughout the months I was applying for roles, so it is very difficult to single out specific advice and help! I ensured that I had at least one appointment before the first time that I completed a new stage of the typical grad scheme recruitment process, such as before my first ever assessment centre. Every member of staff was so helpful. You could really tell that they were all rooting for you, and it was so nice to feel this support.
A moment of advice particularly standing out was from my meetings with Jen surrounding both my Savills’ assessment centre and interview. This was because Jen was able to provide me with Savills-specific advice that she had acquired from a previous student’s successful experience, so the advice she was providing felt so tailored and relevant and I cannot thank her enough.
‘The Career Zone were absolutely fantastic… Every member of staff was so helpful. You could really tell that they were all rooting for you, and it was so nice to feel this support.‘
When did you hear that you’d been successful? Were you nervous? Excited?
It was towards the end of January that I was offered the position, about one and a half weeks after I had been up for my interview. Funnily enough, I actually ignored their initial call from presuming it was a cold-caller until I listened to the voicemail left and realised it was a member of Savills’ grad recruitment team! I was then so apprehensive calling them back as it was the first time a company had called me regarding the outcome of a decision. I remember feeling convinced that the conversation over the phone had started out in a way where they were going to let me down, so it was such a complete surprise when I was offered the position. I was simply just so overjoyed, as they have always been such a household name and such a top choice for me out of all the applications I had made.
‘I remember feeling convinced that the conversation over the phone had started out in a way where they were going to let me down, so it was such a complete surprise when I was offered the position. I was simply just so overjoyed.’
Is there anything you’d have changed about what you did in the application process?
I would say with hindsight that I would have strategised a Plan B and even a Plan C earlier on in the application process, for in case Plan A didn’t work out. There came a point in January, a little before I was offered the role where I felt quite stressed, heightened by the fact that I knew I wanted to head off travelling in the early Spring and so wanted a sense of security as to what I was coming back to. I feel this stress largely came down to not having outlined to myself a clear Plan B or Plan C earlier on, as once I had done so I felt much calmer trusting the process of it all and taking the approach of what will be, will be.
What advice would you give to students thinking of applying?
It may sound like a joke, but in addition to what I said above, 100% make a spreadsheet! I have always been big on organising my tasks and started out building an Excel spreadsheet as a semi-joke, thinking it was just me being a bit over the top! It in fact turned out to be the best move I made. This is since I ended up applying to far more graduate roles than I could remember off the top of my head and they all had various application deadlines. So my spreadsheet turned out to be a blessing to help keep track of it all and remember all the key details and notes regarding each application that I submitted. I also found it quite a good way of staying optimistic as when inevitably faced with a rejection, it was a continual reminder of how many irons I had still in the fire!
‘I have always been big on organising my tasks and started out building an Excel spreadsheet as a semi-joke… It in fact turned out to be the best move I made, I ended up applying to far more graduate roles than I could remember off the top of my head and they all had various application deadlines.’
If applying to lots of grad schemes will be your priority, I would recommend treating it at least as a part-time job in itself and as with any workload, identify when you are most productive to undertake it. Because of this, I sought part-time employment mostly involving evening shifts as I know that I am so much more productive in the mornings and daytime, so this is when I could prepare much stronger applications.
As hard as it may seem and something much easier said than done, but is fundamentally so true, is that it is all about simply staying patient and trusting the process. We’re all so young at the end of the day, so if you don’t land one of your dream roles first time around, that is absolutely fine. There is nothing stopping you from applying again next time around, and in the meantime there’s such a high likelihood that the right pathway or opportunity will come to you through whatever alternative experiences/roles you undertake.