Skip to main content

20th February 2015

And it’ll look good on my CV!

Joe Evans questions the box-ticking mentality which drives us to work experience and extra-curricular activities simply as a way of impressing potential employers with our overflowing CV

“And it’ll look good on my CV!” How often is this awkwardly pegged onto the end of a list of positives: “I’d love to volunteer somewhere, to help people, and grow as a person, and it’ll look good on my CV!”?

This phrase, a throwaway statement uttered by almost all of us at some point, embodies an interesting array of issues.

Anybody who has passed through sixth form or college knows of the UCAS hunting culture that thrives. Anything that can set you ahead of the pack is obviously seen as a positive when applying for over-prescribed courses at top universities; an opportunity that must be exploited. Out of this has risen an atmosphere in which teachers drill into students that extracurricular excellence is pivotal to achieving.

An extra bullet point on a UCAS application, evidencing the fantastic contribution you made to a local care home or primary school does play a large part in showing yourself to be well rounded. I am not denying this and I am as guilty as anybody. Indeed, during my sixth form career I volunteered in a local primary school and I hated it, every second.

What I realised is that I wasn’t there for me, that working with children was so low on my list of future interests. I was there, like so many others, to tick another box off on my eventually successful application form.

While I don’t wish, through this article, to demean the work of students who legitimately love the causes they support, this does raise a question. How many of us are really providing our services for those who need them and how many are doing it to increase our attractiveness on our applications?

The popularity of digging for application fodder has now permeated beyond the school gates into the working world. Arrive at university and following the frenzy of first year the cold wind of the world comes whipping under the door. “And it’ll look good on my CV,” becomes the new keyword for anybody looking to get ahead.

To see the effect of this shift one only has to look to the rise of voluntourism. The popularity of companies offering trips abroad to gap year students and to fill out the long university summers has gone through the roof. To hear that somebody had travelled to Africa in order to perform voluntary work is a fairly frequent, if nonetheless impressive, story.

It’s true that this can also be attributed simply to the world getting smaller. A trip to Africa similarly no longer takes a few months and with modern medical support provided to visitors on these trips the risks are relatively small. Nonetheless the appeal of such trips due to their value to an application form is clear.

Again this is not meant to undercut everybody who has ever travelled to Africa or any underprivileged country in order to provide voluntary work. Many people care wholeheartedly about the cause. Where the hypocrisy is somewhat highlighted is when the leaflet itself promoting the trip highlights it as a “great addition to your CV”.

This corporate line, lifted incidentally from a leaflet advertising a summer trip to Malawi, is less heart-warming and more cold-as-steel. My secondary school had a link to a school in Uganda and I’m absolutely sure the teachers cared deeply about that school’s preservation. On the other hand, the utterance “it looks wonderful on your UCAS form” somewhat numbs any sentimentality.

That said, hands on the ground providing support in such cases is, in my eyes, fundamentally good. Whether it is encouraged by a greater opportunity at marketing ourselves to employers, or is a 100 per cent committed expression of a need to help, is possibly not important. For many, this work style is unsustainable as a career. Gap years and university are a great chance for people to invest themselves into it whilst they still can. If one side-effect is a bolstered CV, then that is a positive too, but by no means always the driving force nor should it be.

As I feel the need to repeat, this article is not meant to shame anybody who has undertaken voluntary work whilst keeping one eye firmly fixed on the job market.

The reason for my repetition of this mantra is that the truth is we have been conditioned this way. We have been moulded by teachers, visiting students from universities, and careers advisors into making ourselves employable whatever the cost. It’s not even really their fault either; the job market promotes itself as a cut-throat environment, the type Patrick Bateman and functioning psychopaths flourish in.

After years of being told everything is a competition, from university to jobs, of course we will look for any means to set ourselves apart and that is not really a fault within us.

The competitive world needs competitors. The outlook of doing anything to beat down those around us in order to thrive, by doing anything whether we care or not, provides for this circularity of ruthlessness.

A lecturer at this university, who will remain unnamed, is a shining beacon for a more utopian outlook. On being asked to promote a job fair for industry he blatantly inverted convention, stating that we shouldn’t do anything we didn’t want to. In a short—probably throwaway—rant, he shone a spotlight directly onto what I had wanted to be illuminated by somebody ever since my arrival.

Anything that you are not truly committed to, or that you do simply to set yourself ahead of a rival serves only to turn you more into the machine that industry wants you to be. I can’t really offer a solution because the truth is most of us will need the, “it’ll look good on my CV” material to get a foothold in the job market.

Many of us will throw ourselves into the things that we really love. Art or sport for the sake of it—or even with a view to the future, it doesn’t really matter, or just volunteering because you want to give yourself to a cause. It might be less appropriate and these people might fail at them, but they will do so much more fulfilled.

All that I can assert is that this mentality serves to numb us into a state of mind that perfectly suits the work environment, but damages us. Committing to what you love and truly investing yourself in something are the greatest things a person can do. It is fulfilling and life affirming and that is surely what we should all be chasing, not the next bullet point of our CV.

More Coverage

Challenges facing international students at the University of Manchester: Where do we fit in?

Under-resourced UK universities lean on international student fees to supplement their institutions; simultaneously, Britain’s borders are becoming more restrictive to students under the current government. This paradox leaves international students caught in the crossfire

The post-diss bliss…or is it?

The promise of post-dissertation freedom was quickly squashed by essay deadline demands, and the desire to do anything but re-open my laptop is taking over

200 years of the University of Manchester… celebrating white male alumni

As the University of Manchester prepares its bicentenary celebrations, it’s time to address the less-celebrated alumni, and question why these individuals have received less attention

Why are we still talking about ‘women who have it all’?

The ‘women who have it all’ narrative is alive and kicking in 2024, but instead of being empowering, it’s a patriarchal trope designed to pit one against another