What is going on inside student minds?

27 February 2023

As employers, you want to know what’s going on in the mind of an applicant or potential applicant. But it’s hard to understand; there is no homogenous set of desires or mindset shared by all, especially in the incoming Gen Z, who value individuality more than anything.

Although a student’s mindset is influenced by their stage of education, common themes cropped up in focus groups we conducted which can be drawn upon to deepen understanding. Are they chasing ‘prestige’ or a pleasant area to live in? Where do they picture themselves working? In an international company, or are they eager to discover the benefits of their regional counterparts? Do they prefer a corporate or candid online presence?

Big vs small company 

In any sector, graduates are faced with the choice of big or small companies, each presenting benefits and drawbacks. Within Accountancy and Law, the distinction is most prevalent with The Big Four and the Magic Circle respectively. But the question of international company vs local is more nuanced.

Unsurprisingly, students find larger companies attractive due to high salaries, note-worthy clientele, and glamourous, skyscraping offices which are showcased on platforms such as TikTok. However, third-year students in particular are critical of the allure. Interestingly, one drew a comparison between Magic Circle firms and Russel group universities, noting that besides the prestige attached to the name of these collectives, there are not disproportionate benefits, not least with the fear of being ‘thrown into the deep end’ at those larger organisations.

Similarly, so-called ‘prestige’ isn’t necessarily the deciding factor for many students, who are content as long as the work relates to themselves as individuals. Gen Z’s emphasis on workplace well-being also works in the favour of regional and national companies. Achieving a reasonable work-life balance and having time for hobbies and family ranks high on their priority list. Further, the opportunity to gain hands-on experience at smaller organisations rather than being overshadowed by senior colleagues is a point of interest.

On the other hand, students have queries about the retention rates of small companies, and whether they offer hybrid working and provide equipment to do so. Considering large companies often publish their growth strategies, students are keen to ensure smaller companies are equally ambitious, as they value the personal development opportunities that come with this. ‘Working towards something bigger’ is a motivating factor for students who do not want to feel stagnant in smaller companies. This does not mean to say they are put off by such companies, but unless there is clear direction and growth plans, they will look elsewhere.

Corporate vs candid online presence

Another debate concerns employers’ online presence: do students prefer a corporate tone or a more candid and ‘authentic’ take? One group of students believe a company’s professionalism is compromised by being on TikTok, as it appears almost ‘desperate’; while another group recognises the moves made by the likes of Waitrose and M&S, who have fostered excellent brand recognition on the platform. Further, our student groups corroborated the research which shows an increasing desire for honest, unbranded reviews, collaborations, live streams and ‘reaction’ content (BlackBridge Communications/ISE 2023). As URL and IRL become ever more intertwined, students want to see behind glossy brochures and websites – they want quick, honest content like ‘a day in the life ‘videos, and the 77% of UK students who use TikTok, want to see their future employers there (Voxburner).

Similarly, students do value in-person interactions with members of companies at careers fairs. That face-to-face relationship can be fostered on social platforms if a more candid approach is adopted and two-way communication is facilitated. The increased popularity of the no-nonsense social media channel BeReal shows students hanker for reality. Social media is useful for raising brand awareness and ’planting the seed’ for those lesser-known companies. Especially with ‘discovery-friendly content becoming ever-more popular’, it’s important your company is searchable and present in these online spaces.

This does not mean to say that traditional outputs should be neglected. LinkedIn and industry-specific sites such as Chamber Students are popular destinations for researching companies and are seen as more professional by some students. Safe to say, it’s essential organisations achieve the balance between corporate professionalism and candid realism.

London vs regional 

The London Underground is not exactly a walk in the park… whereas strolling to a firm’s Bristol office, for instance, maybe just that. Working regionally offers more affordable accommodation and often shorter commutes than the hustle and hassle of living in the capital. Students, and especially those who have experienced living in these areas during university, are open to the idea of remaining there providing the quality of work and benefits akin to their London counterparts. It’s key to emphasise the career opportunities and breadth of work available to grab their attention and bust assumptions around your organisation’s scope.

It’s important to note that there is bias with London-born students who feel an attachment to the city they call home. Familiarity with the convenience and diversity of London is hard to compete with. It will take significant emphasis on the benefits of living elsewhere to sway this subgroup of students. Incentives such as an employee rail card can make regional companies more appealing, as might infographics comparing the air quality, house sizes and green spaces with London. Recognising that cost of living is the top concern among Gen Z, businesses must be clear on the relocation process and transparent about support with the financial burden of both relocating and/or remaining in London (Deloitte millennial survey).

In summary…

So, what is going on inside the mind of students? Financial anxiety, career aspirations and a desire for authentic depictions of workplaces. They are not averse to working in smaller companies, providing the opportunities are akin to those offered by large multinationals. Partly, this is because students value a work-life balance and focus on well-being. In terms of social media, one approach is no longer cutting it. Employers must be at once professional and personable if they are to win over Gen Z students. Finally, while London holds a place in the heart of those born there, regional companies offer a brilliant alternative to the hustle and bustle and are likely to be more affordable in light of the cost of living crisis, which is a major worry for students.


Written by Millie Finch, Account Executive.

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