By Cathy Sims, Executive Director at the South African Graduate Employers Association (SAGEA)

 The last few months of your final year on campus can be some of the most challenging times you’ll face. While you’re preparing for your exams and finishing your thesis, you’re also trying to land your dream job. Polishing your CV, filling in application forms, making time to prepare for and go to interviews and assessments… So, when you don’t get the job offer you wanted, it can feel like the end of the world. But it shouldn’t. And here’s why.

Through SAGEA’s Candidate Insights Project, we connect with and review more than 2 000 students’ journey into their first job. From this project, we know that most students are applying to between 5 and 10 companies and each process can take up to 15 hours in total, excluding travel to and from interviews and assessments.

Each application starts with what can be a lengthy application form. From here, students can be invited for up to three interviews, as well as psychometrics and full-day assessments at the end. After putting in so much effort to juggle your studies and your job hunt, getting a rejection letter or – even worse – no feedback at all can be very difficult to accept.

But there are some things you can learn from this experience. The reality is that this is probably your first time going through an application and selection process, so each step you’ve gone through has been new for you. Here’s what you can learn from your journey, so that you can increase your chances of success the next time you apply for a job.

First, if you were successful in being invited to start the interview process, did you use the opportunity to ask as many questions as possible about what to expect? If not, here are some questions you should ask next time:

  1. How many stages are there in the process and how far apart are they?
  2. When do you anticipate completing the process?
  3. What happens at each step (so that I can prepare effectively)?
  4. Can I have a detailed copy of the role specification? I want to make sure I can answer to the competencies and attributes that you seek out in graduates.


Use this information – combined with as much as you can find in the public domain about the company you’re interviewing with – to understand your compatibility with the company. Do your values and work ethic match theirs? Are you interested in what they do? Can you see how your studies and your skills line up with the role you want? Can you demonstrate this to an interviewer?

If you have a clear picture of who you are, have done your homework on the company and can explain how you would fit into their organisation and the role, but have still been unsuccessful in getting the job, you should think about the following:

  1. If you got an interview, the problem wasn’t your CV. That made them call you.
  2. If you are getting to multiple interviews, there isn’t a shortage of opportunities for your skills or degree.
  3. If you are getting past the first interview, your professional attributes – such as communication, collaboration and work ethic – came across well, as those are the skills most often checked in the first interview.
  4. If you are getting past psychometrics, your literacies – such as critical thinking, written communication, creativity and judgement – are up to the right standards.
  5. If you are getting past a skills assessment or line manager interview, then you are articulating how your degree has prepared you to apply your skills in the real world. Often this is tested by going through your projects and research assumptions at university, or doing a case study to review how you use your learnings to solve a technical or business problem.


So then – why didn’t you get the job?

For many companies each process requires a rating, and the ratings are cumulative. So, you might have done exceptionally well in one step and not so well in another. Everyone has an off day now and then, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you think this might have been the case.

At the end of the selection process, companies must compare the ratings for each applicant that made it through the whole process and pick the top candidates. Sometimes, there might be 10 positions available and 12 perfect candidates. Unfortunately, that means two people have to lose out, and you may just be one of them.

If you go through the steps in the process I’ve described – by yourself or with a professional or counsellor from your career centre – you can learn from where you might have gone wrong. Where in the process did you get stuck? And what could you do differently next time?

Maybe your CV needs a little more polish. Doing some mock interviews could help you calm your nerves and practice the best ways to answer more common interview questions. It’s possible that the companies you’ve applied to so far don’t line up with your skills, strengths and aspirations as well as you thought they did. So changing your approach to where and how you apply could make all the difference for you.

When you miss out on the job that you really wanted – don’t despair! I only got into my perfect employer on the third try! And I am so glad I had those experiences, because they gave me time and opportunity to build my skills and learn how to articulate them well, so that when my third try became available I could nail it.

Most Universities in South Africa have career and job search advisors. These services are free while you’re at university, and are often available to alumni as well, so make use of them while you still can.

But most importantly, evaluate yourself at each step, learn from mistakes you may have made and ask for advice where you can. Treating a rejection letter as a learning opportunity, rather than a failure, really does help to lessen the pain and will help you stay motivated until you land your first job.