Once a year, Aberystwyth’s Computer Science department take their second year students to Gregynog, for the purpose of preparing them for job interviews (mostly for the upcoming industrial year placements many students take between years 2 and 3). I’ve attended this for the last few years as an ‘Industrialist’ and help run mock interviews.

Initially when I first attended Gregynog as an Industrialist, it was because we [Pale Purple] were looking to hire an industrial placement student. For the last two years we haven’t, but it is still a very interesting weekend and I hope I’m able to provide something useful to the students and help them (besides it’s a free weekend away in quite nice settings 🙂 )

This year, was a bit different from previous years – namely we had much smaller groups of students (5 as opposed to around 10); and it was spread over two days (rather than one) so we effectively had a lot more time with each student.

Anyway, aside from a nice weekend away in Mid-Wales and a morning run through the countryside chasing pheasants, squirrels and rabbits for me….  what else did we learn?

Students are useless at selling themselves

It was quite common for students to not include relevant, useful information on their CVs – for example, one said something like “experience with Debian based distributions”, what we discovered he meant was “I’ve owned a multi-user VPS for the last few years, running Debian. It’s a web server which hosts subversion repositories for projects I’m involved in”…. great, so why didn’t you say you knew about Version Control and Linux Systems administration then? Skills which are highly desirable for a web developer. Others had experience of MySQL, or CISCO qualifications which weren’t mentioned. I’m sure there was far more.

We learnt that some (perhaps 15-20%) had experimented and undertaken extra-curricular study – but finding this out was hard. “So you’re interested in 3d graphics – have you done anything outside lectures on this?” “Err…. err… oh, yeah, I’ve…..”

Online Presence?

Logic would dictate that a student who has a strong interest in web development would have their own blog or some other form of online presence where they could experiment and so on. After all, if you have a passion in a subject area (as so many claimed in their covering letter) you would think they’d have dabbled in CSS (and heard of CSS Zen Garden), Javascript (jQuery) or loads of other stuff. One student mentioned jQuery.

Of the 40 students I interviewed, about 2 had a URL mentioned within their CV. Perhaps 4 used Twitter. (As evidenced by the lack of tweets using the #Gregynog hash tag perhaps?). Those who claimed an interest in photography hadn’t included a relevant flickr URL and so on.

If I advertise for a job, I will narrow down the initial pile of CVs to around 5 – of those, I’ll have tried to research each applicant online (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Uni web pages etc) – if I find anything bad I might change my selection, conversely if I find something good (e.g. a portfolio) I’m likely to favour them. The first interview involves me spending an hour or more with each student where I’ll ask them to undertake a short code test (fizz buzz, recursion and a random PHP code critique) and score each. Hopefully I’ll then get down to 2-3 who I’ll invite back to our office for a much longer interview (1/2 to 1 day). This isn’t possible for each student at Gregynog, but I do repeat the same process to the group as as whole.

Students overrate their abilities

“Advanced PHP” in student-esque means “I’ve done part of a small module on PHP, and I couldn’t write a simple program to add up a list of numbers”.

On the other hand there were students there who had written PHP in a commercial environment, and had relevant experience, yet said hardly anything about it. About 5 had mentioned experience of WordPress, yet we knew that they’d all installed and experimented with WordPress as part of a first year module.

“Comfortable with SQL” actually means “I can’t write a query like ‘select email from users where id = 2′”.

Students don’t follow the news

Of the students I interviewed, 2 or 3 knew about the #TwitterJokeTrial; Few knew about Oracle’s handling of Java, OpenOffice (and many others at lwn) or people’s worries over MySQL. Hardly any were involved in any form of user group (aside from one or two who had been to Fosdem).

Some didn’t know what they wanted to do

Some students were clearly not interested in either job (Java developer or a web dev). In these circumstances it was fairly obvious this was the case from seeing the CV and covering letter – so I could often only open with a “So, what do you want to do when you graduate?”, unfortunately this was often met with “err… I’m not sure”.

Students don’t seem to understand the recruitment process

It seemed lost on many students, that vacancies can get 10-30 or more applications. And a non-technical person may be screening the CVs before they get through to someone technical. For this reason, the CV needs to include buzz words and common acronyms which are easy to read and spot. It needs to be ordered along the lines of “Name, Statement, Skills, Relevant Experience, Education, Work experience, Referees”, and not contain a long list taking up half a page of all their module marks from the first year or two of University and also their A-levels and GCSEs. At most, I’d expect A-levels and GCSEs to have a line or two each.

Covering letter / CV – TL;DR.

A covering letter needs to be brief – clearly state which job they are applying for, and be easy to read (not more than one side of small print). Make sure your name is clearly on the covering letter and CV. Obvious stuff, you’d think.

Spelling Punctuation and Grammar

I can’t claim to be perfect, but few students had spell checked their CV. The age old suggestion of using beer as a carrot to get their friends to review/read their CV and give them feedback seemed to be well received. I can but hope. (Note, I’m not claiming to be perfect here – but I’m unlikely to write ‘badmington’ or ‘Solarus’ or ‘java’ or ‘i ‘).


As a general rule, the majority of the CVs were good – but they could have been so much better. We all seemed to be banging on over the weekend how so many of the students were good – yet totally useless at selling themselves.

One student really shone out to me – he was clueful about open source stuff, had contributed to open source projects and attended conferences and was able to critique ‘my’ PHP code – even though PHP wasn’t something he especially knew or was interested in (SQL Injection, non-existant error handling, no form validation, separation of concerns, no documentation, no captcha to stop automated form submission ….). I’ve no doubt he’ll do well in his degree.

That’s enough for now.


  1. It seems from what you’ve written that there was a lot of both under and over selling of their abilities. Were some students consistently overselling and others underselling (which might be down to confidence) or was it a mix? When they oversold themselves did they typically know that they were doing so and admit it when questioned or was it the Dunning-Kruger effect where they didn’t know enough about the area to comprehend how little they know?

    It would be interesting to see how their CVs change once they hit the world of work. There is definitely an inflationary effect going on where job ads contain longer lists of requirements which pushes applicants to pad their CVs with more buzzwords which leads to even longer lists of requirements.

  2. Hi Tom,

    I’d not heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect before. I think this was a big part of it – to me, being familiar or comfortable with SQL would imply I could do simple table joins and so on. To them, it meant something closer to “We’ve used Access, and we’ve seen some SQL through that (!!)…. and by the end of this semester we’ll have written some SQL for a PHP assignment … and perhaps if we saw some SQL we could figure out what it was doing”.

    We normally picked one student per session to write some simple SQL (select email from users where id = 2) after we gave them instructions and a ‘spreadsheet’ like drawing on a flip chart to illustrate the data. Few of them managed it – until we informed them they could use Google.

    Other questions included e.g.

    * What’s the difference between Javascript and PHP, and what implications arise from using Javascript?
    * What’s the TwitterJokeTrial?
    * What’s ACID compliance?
    * What are the main differences between PHP or Python and Java?

    Some of them had (presumably) noticed that the job advert they were applying for mentioned PHP and MySQL, so they’d therefore mentioned these on their CV. A number based their ability on what they thought they would be like at the end of the year, which made the interview difficult.

    Buzzword wise – I’m not sure how to solve this – if a large number of CVs arrive for a vacancy, it’s highly likely they’ll get screened – perhaps by a non-technical person (e.g. recruiter, secretary, marketing person…) – in which case all they can do is ‘score’ a CV based on keyword matches.

  3. A very accurate analysis if I may say so Dave, however I think you’re being conservative in suggesting that there may be only thirty appplicants for each job. In the bleak future economic climate, the number of vacancies is likely to decrease considerably and the competition increase proportionately.

    I too was deeply impressed by the skills, knowledge and abilities of the students I interviewed, but frustrated almost to the point of apoplexy that, based on their CVs, most of them would never have made it to the interview room at all. Comprehensive training had been given and advice had been freely offered, but they didn’t seem to recognise the importance of that first impresssion.

    Fingers crossed that there’s much revamping of CVs this week. The clue that a Duke of Edinburgh Award is probably more interesting to a potential employer that a gaggle of GCSE results has been firmly implanted!

  4. I thought you’d like to know that I have run 2 sessions to support students post Gregynog. I saw 6 on Tuesday and 11 on Thursday last week (though 2 were those wise enough to come back for a second check!). Some were turned away as I simply ran out of time, but there will be another session put on shortly for those who want to make use of the service.
    From my own personal perspective, the weekend was like a curate’s egg – good and bad in parts! There was clearly a wealth of talent in the room but, like all the recruiters, I was particularly frustrated by students’ inability to apply the fundamentals I covered in the lecture. Few seemed to have gone back to review the slides after the session, and above all the ability to walk in the foot steps of the recruiter and see the world from their perspective, together with some good old common sense/logic seem to be skills which are conspicuous by their absence.
    However, on the plus side, students seem to have appreciated the weekend as a strong learning opportunity.
    As supplementary learning support, I am considering creating a blog which goes through each section of a CV in turn to highlight what does and what doesn’t go into the document. Students have reacted favourably to this suggestion, though I am not totally convinced as to whether they will actually engage with it when the time comes or not. Suggestions/comments are welcome!!

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