Helen McNally is the Law Careers Consultant at Cardiff University where she has worked for almost 9 years. She qualified as a Careers Adviser in 1997 and has almost 20 years’ experience supporting secondary school pupils and university students with their career planning and developing their employability skills.

Question 1: What are the biggest challenges faced by first year university students? How can students best overcome these challenges?

At the start of the autumn term, may students experience a mixture of excitement and anticipation, perhaps combined with a little anxiety about what life as a student is going to be like.

Some of the challenges which they face are:

  • Nerves – about whether they’ll like it, whether they’ll make friends, whether they’ll fit in. This is exactly how 95% of other first year students feel and is completely natural.
  • Adjusting to new independence – budgeting for bills, food, socializing etc – often for the first time; adjusting to life without restrictions (from parents for example) around what they can do and when; managing peer pressure to go out when they’re too tired, to keep drinking when they’ve had enough etc.
  • Adapting to a new way of studying, which might be quite different from the way they studied for their A levels in school/college, and learning to manage their own workload.

The good news is that there is lots of support available to first year students, from Student Residence teams, Student Support teams and from Personal Tutors.  Students should find out what support is available at their university by searching ‘Student Support’ on their university’s website or intranet.  Most universities have Student Counselling and Well-being teams who can help students work through any anxieties, whilst the Personal Tutor is a good starting point for issues relating to academic studies.

Question 2: A great number of first year university students believe that achieving a pass in their first year (40%) is all that is required from them, and that in doing so, this will not affect their employment chances in the future. Is this true?

  • Even though first year results may not count towards the final degree classification, my advice to first years is to work hard to aim for a 2:1.  If students want to apply for work experience in second year (for example for Vacation Schemes for Law students), their first year results will be the only evidence employers have of their academic potential at university.

Question 3: Should a first year student invest their time in partaking in extra-curricular activities and will this help them stand out when filling out future job applications?

  • Yes and yes! First year is a great time to get involved in extra-curricular activities. Students should join university clubs and societies; take part in team sports and activities; have fun whilst developing key competencies which employers will look for in the future.  Playing for the Law School netball team will not only help you make new friends, but it will also help you to build your teamwork skills.  Taking responsibility for planning nights out for the Chemistry Society will show an employer that you have organisational skills and can plan.  If you manage to secure funds from local employers to sponsor your team’s football kit, this will demonstrate your negotiation abilities and powers of persuasion.

Question 4: If a university student is able to select optional modules for their second year, should they focus on selecting modules which they believe will impress law firms and other organisations, or should they focus on selecting modules which they believe they will enjoy?

My advice to students is to choose modules that they think they will enjoy, as they are likely to work harder at them and ultimately achieve a better grade.

If students have a specific practice area in mind, then by all means they can pick a module or two which relate to this area (eg commercial modules if they are planning a career in commercial law).  This will enable them to talk more comfortably/in more detail about relevant issues at interviews with commercial law firms, and will demonstrate their genuine interest in that area of law.  If a student is focused on a career in commercial law and all his optional modules are in Medical Law, Family, Law of Religion etc employers may wonder how serious he is.

Having said that, it’s OK to pick the odd module that is completely unrelated to a student’s intended practice area.  A recent Cardiff graduate who is now completing her TC with a magic circle firm was quizzed at the interview on why she had chosen Law of Religion – which clearly has no relevance for this firm’s work.  As long as students are able to clearly articulate their reasons for picking an unusual/unrelated module this will be fine.

Ultimately, it won’t be the be all and end all if students haven’t chosen a module in an area which they later think they might like to pursue.  They have another chance to choose relevant electives on the LPC, and the training really starts when they are in practice.

Question 5: What university services should a first student make the most use of in helping develop their future employment profile?

First year students who want to get ahead of the game should definitely check out their university’s Careers Service.  Here they can access individual careers advice, practical help with applications and interviews, careers workshops, details of careers fairs, employer events and guest speakers on campus.  Some careers services can help students to access work experience opportunities, and some run employability awards and enterprise and entrepreneurship activities.

Other Student Support Services can also help, for instance Student Well-Being Teams may offer workshops on ‘building your confidence’, or ‘being assertive’ whilst some Student Unions run skills sessions on networking, presentation skills and teamwork.

Students should take a look at the Student Support pages on their own university’s website or intranet to find out what’s available.

Question 6: What are your top tips for first year students?

  • Get involved! Join university clubs and societies; take part in team sports and activities. Have fun! (whilst developing key competencies which employers will look for in the future).
  • Attend the careers sessions which take place in your department as well as careers fairs, employer presentations, and events organised by your Careers Service Careers. These are excellent opportunities to speak with employers and to start finding out more about career options available.
  • Consider your strengths and weaknesses and bridge any skills gaps. For instance, if the idea of giving a presentation terrifies you, look out for sessions in your university on presentation skills.  These are generally free of charge and an excellent way to start overcoming your anxieties before you get into second year.
  • Start to develop your commercial awareness. This is an important requirement for most graduate employers.  Get into the habit of reading a good newspaper and the relevant publications for your subject area – remember you can’t cram commercial awareness the night before an interview!
  • Try to organise some relevant work experience. Work experience is becoming more and more important for graduate employers – use your long summer vacation to build up some relevant experience and start developing your employability skills…
  • …if you need help developing your CV so that you can start applying for work experience opportunities, first get some advice from your Careers Service to make sure your CV is up to scratch! In fact if you need help with any careers related issue, from day one onwards, get in touch with your Careers Service where advice is impartial, confidential and free!

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