James Bywater on the characteristics of early and late applicants to graduate recruitment programmes.
IT’S not that often that psychological research provides students with a leg-up in their career, so read on as I show how the early bird might catch a big fat worm.One of the most colourful and often-quoted pieces of graduate research last
year was a study that Tamsin Martin and I presented at the annual conference of
the Division of Occupational Psychology.
It showed that for a variety of graduate recruiters across a range of sectors (professional services, investment banking, manufacturing and public sector) there was a clear deterioration in the quality of their applicants as the recruitment season progressed. The ‘laggard’ applicants, who mooch in near the closing date, tended to perform less well on average than the ‘early birds’ in the cognitive skills assessments commonly used by top employers – both numerical and verbal. Interestingly, there was no evidence of any pick-up in the calibre of candidates who applied in the period after the exams, when some candidates might start looking for roles.
It is easy to try to guess why these differences might occur – generally audiences have assumed that the ‘keenies’ who are ‘banging on the door’ of blue-chip employers are in some way better, brighter and more highly motivated than the rest. However, because there are alternative explanations and because there is the risk that over-zealous recruitment from the candidates in the opening months of the season could have some odd, unforeseen consequences in terms of diversity, SHL were keen to analyse these differences. After all, most recruiters look for a variety of skills and competencies and do not limit themselves simply to cognitive ability.
So SHL investigated a number of clients whose data included other measures of talent above and beyond their numerical and verbal test scores. We extracted data, mostly coming from the Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ) and its derivatives, for three separate samples of graduate recruiters from a variety of sectors. The table summarises the outcomes on the OPQ scale for ‘laggard’ applicants and other key competencies that are popular in graduate person specifications associated with those outcomes.
What do you think? If you’re a student you should now be starting to develop critical thinking skills of research and some insight into other people. Do these findings make sense?
l    You often know which of your contemporaries are the most talented in your peer group. Are they the first ones to get their coursework in? Which ones always ask for an extension?
l    Do you think this lateness tells something about their ability, or personality, or both?
l    To what extent does lateness generalise across situations? Are ‘laggards’ always late for everything?
l    To what extent are the explanations that late applicants give for their lateness reasonable (such as ‘wanting to take time over things and get them right’, or ‘being busy’, etc.)?
l    If this research becomes well-known in graduate circles, will the effect disappear as all students start to apply as soon as possible? Or are the late applicants simply unable to change?
l    As more students take time off to travel, and have part-time jobs, do you think this effect will get stronger, or disappear altogether?

If you were applying for a graduate role, what would you do? Perhaps you would apply early, when the organisations will be looking out for you especially closely. Or apply late – dazzle them with your talent at the time when you will stand out from the crowd.
Probably the best advice is to turn up well prepared. Use all the online facilities that SHL and other online test providers publish to allow you to be at your peak when you sit the tests for real – see for specimens of the tests used here.



On the OPQ scale, ‘laggard’ applicants were:       

Less forward-thinking (i.e. less likely to take a long-term view,  be strategic or set goals for the future)          

Less data rational (i.e. less likely to like numbers, statistics or base decisions on facts and figures)          

Less vigorous (i.e. less likely to thrive on activity, being busy and having lots to do)                 
More modest (i.e. quiet about their own success)        

Less outgoing (i.e. quiet and reserved)

More trusting (i.e. seeing others as reliable and honest)

Less persuasive (i.e. dislike of selling and negotiating)

- James Bywater is Head Psychologist at SHL (UK). E-mail: [email protected].

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber