Pity the poor graduates of today. Every single one seems intent on cracking tuba grade eight, playing water polo at state level and spending their holidays building an orphanage in Burkina Faso in order to impress future universities.
But now it seems all their efforts will have been in vain. Accountancy behemoth Ernst & Young has announced it is no longer going to look at applicants’ academic records, let alone their carefully built CVs, instead employing online tests in an attempt to promote social mobility.
By the same token, Oxford University, where less than one in five candidates is successful in gaining a coveted place, has warned that applicants’ personal statements have become too “X-Factor”.
According to Rebecca Williams of education consultancy Oxford Applications, potential students are making their applications “overly emotive”. They also have a tendency to be “indulge in sob-stories, weave fantastical tales or ... claim they are budding world experts on Dickens, Darwin or Greek debt … it isn’t really appropriate”.
You can’t completely blame them (or their worried parents) for trying. They’re haunted by warnings of graduate unemployment in an international marketplace, where the plum degrees and careers that once were considered a vaguely bright kid’s right are being plucked from under their noses.
But in their panic, they seem almost determined to ignore every employer’s wearily repeated advice: they don’t need staff with an intricate knowledge of medieval Peruvian monuments and they don’t care if your grandmother told you on her death bed that her dying wish was for you to become a marketing trainee.
By the same token, several Oxbridge dons have told me that they couldn’t give a monkey’s if candidates play croquet for England and volunteer at the local donkey sanctuary.
What they want are students and employees with a genuine passion for their subject and original ways of approaching it.
Employers dream of recruits who’ll work hard, flexibly and enthusiastically, are punctual and show initiative. That is, people who display “soft skills” — attributes that business experts now claim are the modern workplace’s most sought-after, and far more valuable than exam results.
They are the reason successful women such as Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have flourished. “She is so good at working with people; you couldn’t help but like her,” her first boss, economist Lant Pritchett, has recalled.
The absence of these “soft skills” is the reason why, despite high youth unemployment figures, employers still complain that they can’t fill vacancies (despite agreeing recruits are more highly qualified than ever).
But surely charm is less important than fluency in five languages?
No: because a machine can do the latter. In the move to a service-led economy, people skills and innate common sense matter far more than an ability to perform quadratic equations in one’s head (after all, anyone can do that with a smartphone).
The sad truth is: the fancier the degree, the more arrogant the future employee.
“We frequently hear that highly qualified graduates are giving the impression that first-rung tasks are beneath them, that they should have all the prizes straight away,” says Louise Ruell from etiquette arbitrators Debrett’s.
A former magazine editor recently ranted to me about an intern who, when asked to attend a film screening — something my provincial teenage self would have died for — refused, saying he “didn’t fancy it”.
Ruell thinks that social media is to blame for this decline in social skills, particularly among millennials. “You can have more than 500 contacts on LinkedIn, but to have genuine contacts and face-to-face situations where you walk into the room and have the confidence to approach people, are also very important,” she says.
Simply, we don’t know how to have a conversation anymore. There’s a fundamental disconnect between how young people interact with each other and how they’re expected to behave in a professional environment.
Employers such as E&Y are doing the right thing in bamboozling everyone by devising tests that can’t be robotically trained or studied for, but instead — with luck — will require lateral thinking and initiative; qualities that Oxbridge has always stressed it prioritises.
So if you want to stand out: smile, make eye contact and emphasise your six months stacking shelves in a suburban supermarket over your self-indulgent trip to Borneo.
And if you’re still really worried about your empty CV?
Well, no one is going to check whether you can actually play grade-eight tuba.