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Helping a graduate get a job in the Home Office

9 August 2013

The Institute of Archaeology’s Professor Sue Hamilton explains how using the key skills grid in her personal tutoring sessions helped a former student get a job at the Home Office.

Cruciform building, UCL

The concept

Using a key skills grid, personal tutors chart a student’s progress in various areas over the course of their degree. The tutor can then use that grid to help give detailed answers when asked to provide job references.

How it worked

A key skills grid groups personal and applied academic skills into categories and then allows a personal tutor to monitor a student’s progress with respect to those categories. It’s relatively simple; you’re just looking at the extent to which they’re bad, ok or good at something. It allows us to isolate one or two things that the student can focus on improving and also to think about a student’s wider profile beyond their academic marks. It’s also a useful thinking tool when it comes to writing a CV, as they can look at the things they’re best at and also decide what they need to work on in order to be prepared for the wider world.

The key skills grid is reviewed termly and in my department we do this on paper. I find it easier than doing it electronically as the key skills are on one side, the academic skills on the other and we can sit and talk through it together. It’s just a bit more informal and makes the conversation easier.

The key skills grid recently came in very handy when I was approached by the Home Office for a reference for a former student of mine. They contacted me at the second point of security clearance (it was a high-security job) and a woman came to see me for an hour-long interview in which she asked a range of questions about the student. Instead of trying to answer her from memory, I got out his key skills grid, which provided a record of his marks and skills development over every term for three years.

I didn’t actually give her the document, but having it to hand really helped me to answer her questions. She might ask, for instance, whether he was resourceful. I could have just said “yes” but because I had the grid there I was also able to provide examples – “Yes, he is resourceful, because when he knew he was going on an excavation to another country he prepared himself by learning the language before he went.” When she asked how he dealt with difficult situations, I could say, “Very well, for example, when he was mugged, he dealt with it extremely well and did this and that to sort it out.” Other skills the interviewer wanted evidence of included the ability to deal with people diplomatically, awareness of different cultural contexts, teamwork, and integrity, and each time she asked something, I could actually draw on his scores, progression and examples in my answer.

To my surprise, the interviewer said she was totally amazed. Apparently she constantly visited different academic departments around the country and had never received such detailed responses. She was very impressed that at UCL we understand that it’s not just about whether the candidate has scored highly in their exams, but how they can actually apply themselves to particular tasks.

I think the fact that I demonstrated that I really knew the student helped him to eventually get the job, especially as I wasn’t just giving generic examples based on his degree. We also try to get the students to think in that way when writing their CVs: there aren’t that many jobs in straight archaeology so when they can articulate examples of how they have applied their skills in non-degree-subject contexts it gives them far greater confidence that they can pursue seemingly unrelated careers.

I have around 30 personal tutees at any one time and of course I know them all but this grid actually helps me remember and get to know them better. Students might not take it very seriously at first, just ticking random boxes, but if you manage it well as a personal tutor you can get them to think more carefully about things. For example, I might pick one area and get them to elaborate on it, then ask how they’re progressing in that area next time I see them. By the time they start thinking about careers they’re in the right mindset to consider how the skills on their grid might help with their CV. Following my experience with the Home Office I also explain to students that these things can really work to their advantage because their personal tutors will be better referees for them, empowered to provide a truly person-specific assessment of the skills they can offer.

I don’t think personal tutors should be daunted by the scale of a key skills grid. You don’t have to get every one of these skills in place, you can’t; just focus on one thing at a time. My favourite one is when a student tells me “I can’t budget” and then by the third year they can say exactly how much they spend per day on food. I just think, “That’s extraordinary, you’re set for life now!” It’s about seeing the big picture but not being too grand about it.

Interview by Ele Cooper

Further information

Page last modified on 09 aug 13 12:08

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