Graduates dressed in their robes and mortarboards covered in purple and yellow confetti

Graduation is upon us, and with our Facebook and Twitter feeds strewn with pride, joy and surprise it can be a little demoralising if you failed to achieve the grade.

For a long time, getting a first has been the holy grail at university with three-quarters of employers asking for candidates with an upper second class degree or higher. However, university life involves balancing academic work with other demands on your time, such as extra-curricular activities, work experience and social events, and you need all these to make sure your CV stands out from the crowd. It’s often hard to get the mix right and unfortunately occasionally university work can suffer.

However, if you are one of those who failed to get a 2.1 or above, don’t wallow in the depths of despair, but use the grade to spur you on to work harder and prove yourself in the world of work.

It’s not all bad news

In 2012-13, for those with firsts, 2.1s and 2.2s, the percentage of those in full-time employment six months after graduation is almost exactly the same. And when you speak to recent graduates you find that looking for your first time job is tough whatever your degree classification. However, those with firsts are more likely to have “fixed-term contracts, lasting 12 months or longer” (16%) compared to those with a 2.1 (14%) and those with a 2.2 (12%).

And the biggest determinant of success is in fact ambition and determination, and the ability to use your networks and contacts.

Furthermore, leaders of industries on occasion have announced that deliberately don’t interview candidates with firsts. For example, Lord Winston, TV presenter and Professor at Imperial College, has stated that those who have fallen short of academic brilliance are more rounded individuals who work well in a team.

Rory Sutherland, the vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK wrote in the Spectator in 2013 about how he was experimenting in hiring those with 2.2s and thirds as he found no evidence to suggest that those with first class degrees are better employees than those with thirds, and if anything the correlation operates in the reverse. In addition he could pick from the cream of the crop and employees would be far more loyal and willing hires.

Additionally, although a lot of employers do state a 2.1 requirement, there are many employers who are flexible about taking on 2.2 graduates. The Big 4 accountancy firms have recently started taking a more flexible approach in recruitment, dropping their UCAS requirements and/or their degree classification from entry requirements while their new-found flexible approach will also work in your favour.

For industries which place a higher value on work experience in the sector, such as hospitality and leisure, with the right experience you’ll be raring to go!

Scale back your aspirations

You know the saying: slow and steady wins the race. Faced with a 2.2 you now have to put in the effort to get back on track; graduate fast-track schemes are out the question and you’ll have to climb the ladder the hard way. One way you can do this is to take on extra responsibilities at work - develop a concrete plan of where you want to get to in a year’s time (for example, be versed in presentation skills, minute taking skills, run a project for yourself) and let your colleagues know about your ambition. If you show that you’re motivated and prove that you can take on challenges your co-workers will take the time to help you out to get where you want to be.  If there’s no opportunity for growth at work consider taking up an extra-curricular, such as volunteering, or a hobby, for example blogging to help you advance. After the couple of years of hard work you’ll be leading the field compared to those that achieved higher grades, and especially those that wavered before the knuckled down to full-time employment. 

Professional woman walking along looking at her tablet

Experience counts

If you were far too busy to gain a 2.1, and made an impact in a different field, let potential employers know about it. Some skills, such as speaking an additional language or specific technical skills are highly sought after and if you’ve got these valued skills you can be highly employable regardless of your degree grade.

Furthermore, work experience and understanding an industry can often count for more than achieving high grades in a less-concrete subject, so if you did achieve a 2.2, when you write your CV, cover letters and attend interviews play up to your experience, relate it to the job you are applying to and mention how your experience can help the prospective employee.

Find a good mentor

Once you’ve found work look for someone who can help you realise your ambitions, build your confidence, equip you with further skills. If there’s someone you get on well with in the office, ask them whether you could go out for coffee one lunch time and explain that you would like to improve in specific areas and ask whether they could support you. They can also help you in tough career decision making and it’s always nice to know that someone has your back if you are unsure what to do next.

Go for smaller companies

Small and medium-sized companies employ 60% of the workforce and their graduate-level vacanices are often less oversubscribed than graduate schemes run by big employers. Once you’ve gained a position, these companies can also offer you great opportunities for early responsibility and career development - and before you know it you may be ahead of the crowd.

Looking up at plate glass office buildings and the sky

Do your research

Some big graduate recruiters do accept students who gained a 2.2, for example Swiss Re and Towers Watson in the finance and services industry; Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and John Lewis in retail management; and Jaguar Land Rover, National Grid and Network Rail in engineering. Furthermore, the public sector has a wealth of options open for candidates with 2:2s.

However, some companies only employ students with a 2.2. for specific degrees and other companies for specific schemes so you have to do your research before you apply.

Boost your qualifications

If you still can’t find a full-time job, what about taking a Master’s or postgraduate degree? Do your research as to whether it will benefit you in the industry you want to go into- it may be that you have a general degree, e.g. Biology, but you want to go into Marketing so a Marketing Master’s might come in useful, or it will be a waste of time and money. 

Mitigating circumstances

If, at uni, you found yourself in circumstances beyond your control, for example bereavement, illness or parental divorce, or you have other responsibilities like being a carer, let prospective employers know. 

Employers want people who can work under pressure and manage their time which you would have proved you can do. Furthermore, if you achieved higher grades when the mitigating circumstances didn’t exist, for example in certain modules, this proves that you are capable of excelling and performing to a high standard. Additionally, employers like people who are resilient and are understanding towards those that have found themselves in difficult times. The ability to bounce back when life has gotten tough shows that you can deal with adversity and become a stronger person.