As opposed to the standard route of a single-honours course at a university straight from college, many people have alternative educational experiences, either through choice or circumstance. This blog explores why being an interesting candidate with your own story is so important.
For most of us, investing in education is as much about satisfying our thirst for learning as it is about getting good grades and a good job.
For a long time, the pathway from school to university to a career was prescribed. You completed GCSEs, followed by a slew of A levels, applied to a shortlist of favoured universities and degree courses, got accepted, got your head down for the duration of the degree and came out the other side with a world-class degree under your cap and mortarboard.
Entrenched in tradition, when other styles of courses started to come along, such as ACCESS for those who had been out of education for more than three years, to night schools, distance learning and online courses, there was an elitist attitude that was hard to shake.
This came down to value, and how much commentators ascribe to your educational journey. Was studying three A-levels better than an ACCESS course? Do online courses have the same value and prowess as a course taught in the traditional classroom?
From a modern standpoint, it is hard to imagine why we didn’t value alternative pathways to qualifications. Thankfully, those that show contempt for educational prowess that only took the traditional route are now few in number. For those that did take an alternative route to qualifications, employers are now realising that they bring many qualities to a role.
Achievements, Not Just Qualifications
Employers no longer just want a list of qualifications on a CV – did they ever really want that? – they want to see achievements, as much as they want to understand your story. Because, behind every qualification and course listed on your CV, there is a story – your story. And you need to tell it.
So, what are employers really looking for when we say achievements, not just qualifications?
Life happens, the good, the bad and the ugly. From personal hardships to financial issues, there are many reasons why students choose or ‘have to’ take an alternative educational path.
And this is not a bad thing. In fact, it shows initiative and ability to adapt to what life throws your way. As much as we try and engineer our lives for the greater good, stuff happens. From a death in the family to gowing up in care, there are many reasons why some students have no control over the hand that life deals them.
Rather than remaining trapped, you decided to make changes, and this takes courage and determination, as well as a super-dose of commitment.
This ability and desire to adapt is something that no employer wants to be without.
ABILITY TO ASK FOR HELP
When you ‘go it alone’ so to speak, you act on your own best assumptions. But there are times that you need help. And you must find it.
This means asking for help, not just from ‘anybody’, but from people and organisations that offer the advice and support you need. This shows resourcefulness, as well as determination in the pursuit of your wider goals.
Knowing how to research information, who to contact and so on, are all skills that an employer covets and values in their staff. This doesn’t mean that someone who followed the traditional path doesn’t have these skills or abilities, but for someone following a self-determined route to success, this resourcefulness will have been utilised many, many times over the course of their studies.
A DETAILED CV
Employers look for experience and achievements outside of courses and qualifications. And they look for the smaller details, sometimes hidden within someone’s journey.
For example, a detailed CV that shows you studied a degree-equivalent course part-time, whilst working part-time shows an ability to be organised, to commit, to work hard and to face challenges.
Taking a non-traditional route to qualifications? Make sure you keep your CV up-to-date with every course you do, as well as keeping accurate details of any work or volunteering you do. This creates a CV packed full of information that shows potential employers a whole range of skills and abilities.
GRADES AND PASS MARKS
Some distance learning courses on offer provide a pass or fail mark. But this doesn’t mean it is of less value than a degree marked as meeting the standard for a third, 2:2, 2:1 or a first.
But you need to show this.
For example, the Language and the Law (Forensic Linguistics) level 3 diploma is equivalent to an A-Level standard course for which on successful completion you will receive a pass. But for each unit module you successfully complete, you will receive detailed feedback from your tutor and a % mark for the assignment.
There is nothing wrong with listing these modules and the mark you got for each and flagging these up with a potential employer or calculating the average % mark for the number of assignments you complete.
When you study for qualifications, you need to ‘blow your own trumpet’, as the saying goes, you need to show the success in completing a course, whether it is one that is equivalent to an A level or level 8 course, equivalent to a Doctorate.
ENGAGING WITH LIFE, PEOPLE, ORGANISATIONS
When you receive your qualification certificate, it is a cause for celebration and rightly so. Employers want people who are qualified, sometimes with specific skills, such as computer coding and programming or someone who has passed a teaching assistant course with qualifications in working with students who have additional learning needs.
But they want to see that you have done more than just ticked boxes. They want to see that you can engage.
Alternative routes to education and vocational qualifications often involve a significant commitment on your behalf. It means long nights of studying or spending the weekend completing assignments.
But it also shows that you can juggle everything. But matching this important piece of paper is your ability to understand the real world.
If you have been employed, even in an unrelated industry or sector, you show potential employers you have already developed a work ethic. You also show you are capable of working within the culture of an organisation, and that you understand how the real world of work functions. This is known as work experience, something that other students may acquire through volunteering, for example.
As a student who has taken an alternative route, don’t underestimate your experiences of the ebb and flow of life. You will have picked up valuable skills, including transferable and soft skills (e.g. listening and communication), as well as specific ‘hard’ industry-specific skills acquired through various distance learning courses.
ORGANISATION AND PRACTICAL SKILLS
Any student will tell you that the key to success is to apply yourself wholeheartedly to the course. But how do you this?
It takes organisation and practical skills – not just understanding what these skills are but applying them.
There is a saying ‘work smarter, not harder’ and for anyone working and studying at the same time, as well as balancing family and social life, this is certainly true. There are many balls to juggle – work, study, family, social to name just a few – and to meet all the demands that these impose on you, you had to be organised.
You also had to prioritise your workload, understanding that sometimes, one had to give way to the other.
You probably also learned how to multi-task, for example writing a comprehensive assignment whilst also washing the laundry.
You also maximised time, such as listening to podcasts as research for your assignment whilst taking the bus to work. Or reading a page or two of your course manual or made notes to formulate a plan for your next assignment during your lunch hour…
… you get the picture! There is are organised and practical, and then there is applying these skills successfully in real life, skills that students of distance learning courses do all the time (but may not realise or place value on them!).
It was a phrase that was often used in job adverts and role specifications for a long time. Effectively, by prescribing that they wanted a self-starter, employers were wanting to attract candidates who could act on their own initiative within the prescribed boundaries of their role.
Being a self-starter, having the confidence to take the initiative is not something that comes naturally to many people. For those students who have studied for qualifications via a non-traditional route, the first step of enrolling on the course was done on your own initiative: no one told you to do it!
In Summary – Your Story is Just as Important and Valuable
Employers do look for qualifications and ‘good ones’ that are valuable and relevant to their business. But they look for more than this. They look for people’s stories and what their experiences will bring to their business.