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29th November 2012

‘It’ll look good on your CV’

On their own, degrees may not be enough but employers’ obsession with ‘extracurricular activity’ leaves Tom Glasser exasperated

How many of you have heard this phrase whilst being at university? So pervasive in university culture has it become that it has now ousted my number one pet hate: groups of girls who think that talking to each other whilst eating freakishly loud lettuce in the purple area of John Rylands can be considered “a really hard day at the library”.

In the final year of my degree it has been drilled into my psyche in leaflets for charities, career talks and even through my lecturers who have put aside some time to tell us about how we should be concerned about that pivotal section of our CVs: extracurricular. “If you haven’t started working with those school kids down the road yet”, said my lecturer recently, “now’s the time to start thinking.”

It is this attitude towards our extracurricular activities that worries me. At this point I must make clear that in no way am I dismissing the fantastic work that so many students at this university do. There is enthusiasm in abundance within many great university societies, teams and charities. However, through my degree I have met more and more people who will do anything to get that extra bullet point on their CV.

The rise of ‘voluntourism’ – where affluent westerners pay thousands of pounds to take part in a community project – is particularly concerning. One begins to wonder whether modern volunteering, in essence an act of selflessness, is done not for those who need it, but instead for the volunteer. And these charity companies don’t attempt to hide it: “A great improvement to your CV” read one flyer distributed around the University of Manchester, offering trips in excess of £2,500 to tropical countries.

But who can blame them? In the society that we live in, we are all competing against one another to get those coveted job positions. If we weren’t, why would we have chosen to go to university? University is after all talked up as a necessary prerequisite to a good career. We are told that employers like to see multi-tasking, a good balance of work and social life, and an exponential rise (with no breaks!) in personal development, towards the CV of the perfect applicant. Who knows, perhaps in ten years time, employers will look much further back than our higher education:

“So Mr. Smith, I see on your CV that between September 1990 and June 1991, there is a gap in your acquisition of key skill sets and no signs of volunteering?”
“Um, but I was only 1 at the time you see.”
“Thank you Mr Smith; we’ll um…keep in touch.”

I still cling on to the belief that I will find my dream job by befriending the director of BBC Worldwide in a smoky downtown bar. But as graduation day creeps closer – as well as the drunk in the bar who isn’t the director of BBC Worldwide – I begin to worry about that dreaded leap from higher education. A friend of mine recently floated the idea to me that I should get some business cards printed in order to network within the world of radio. Worryingly, the first thing that came to my mind was that scene in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman views his co-workers’ superior business cards and attempts to hide his psychotic envy. I never like projecting myself, the brand ‘Thomas Glasser’, however I understand that in order to sift through the thousands of applications that employers must receive, an individual must stand out from the rest. But I hate writing down that I’m a team player. I’m not. I work better alone.

What worries me is that a generation is being urged by our peers to do constructive extracurricular activities: because if we don’t, we won’t get good jobs. These are activities that we may not even want to do, and activities that many less privileged people will never even have the chance to do. Are we therefore increasingly approaching life thinking that a minute spent enjoying ourselves is a minute wasted? There is, naturally, a solution: lie detectors in job interviews.

“So Mr Smith, we’ve wired you up. Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ please. Did you genuinely want to travel to Malawi and help build a school, and not to go on safari?”

“OK! OK! I admit it! It was only for my CV! I can’t stand children! There! Are you happy?!”

A nice idea, but hardly a practical one. And, after all, I have to ask myself why I’m writing this piece in the first place. Am I writing it for you or for me? I’ll leave that one for you to work out.

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