The Higher Education Statistics Agency Education Essay

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This study explored how 4 students studying at the University of East Anglia understood the construction of their CV. Students were employed through opportunistic sampling and a loose interview schedule was used to enable participants to talk about issues they felt important. Using constructivist grounded theory the analysis positioned two main organising elements: social evaluation and Saliency. This study provides evidence of CV construction being a play off between belonging to and standing out from the crowd.

Higher education has expanded considerably in many countries in recent years. Figures from DfES, (2003) suggest that In the 1960s there were only 200,000 full time students, nevertheless the Higher education statistics agency (HESA) figures show that in 2009-2010 there was a total of 2,493,420 million students in higher education (HESA 2011) and furthermore one and three quarter of a million of these were from the undergraduate population. This substantial increase in participation through higher education means that obtaining a degree has become much more commonplace since the 1960s and thus obtaining a degree is no longer as strongly linked to elitism, consequently competition for graduate jobs has increased substantially.

The Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) (2010) survey in 2009 found the number of graduates that were unemployed six months after graduating, reached a record 8.9%. Understandably, this increased competition and subsequent unemployment seems to have hit 2009 and 2010 graduates' confidence. In a survey carried out by Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS),(2010) suggests that only 26% of students surveyed said they were confident of finding a graduate job position at some point in 2010.

These low confidence levels seem to have had a serious affect on graduates' approach to job hunting. Further research from the RBS student living index (2007) suggests that about 40 per cent of working students are now in career-orientated jobs to improve their prospects amid fears that a degree alone is no longer enough to be successful after graduation. This suggests that this evident increase in competition is having some affects on the way in which students view their time at university.

One of the vital components to being a successful graduate is the curriculum vitae (CV) Based on the above discussions, competition for graduates seems to be increasing substantially and the influence on the students views regarding their CV is an area that needs to be investigated The current study contributes to this research interest by taking a closer look at how competition is impacting and affecting students CV construction. Therefore this study, aimed to investigate how students have adapted their experience of university with the growing competition in graduate job markets. Because of the limited research in this area a constructivist grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 2006) generated an inductive examination which was centred on the research question: With increased competition at university, how do university undergraduates enhance their CV?

ours is How do university students utilise available paid and voluntary opportunities to enhance their employability?

ours is How do university students utilise available paid and voluntary opportunities to enhance their employability?


It is evident that increased participation in higher education is causing problems when finding graduate jobs, therefore we introduced an inductive, constructivist grounded theory method (Charmaz, 2006) in order to gather an interpretive understanding of students views on the construction their CV's which remained in line with the idea that the researcher also plays a key role. There has been disparity when considering approaches to grounded theory, but a central notion of the model is that the method derives theory from data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) and therefore the researcher should not approach a project with preconceived theory in mind. (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Our initial literature review was undertaken lightly as we introduced a process in which literature was interwoven throughout the process of grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The initial literature review suggested that further research should be carried out, as current research is somewhat limited regarding CV construction particularly for students who face high competition on their degree.


Following the methodological recommendations of the grounded theory tradition, theoretical sampling was implemented in order to maximise feedback we wanted to select participants with varying experiences. The group selected therefore represents the entire spectrum, ranging from first year to final years at university after each interview had been carried out with codes and ideas distinguished. This would allow us to decide on what information to collect next in order to help us distinguish a more robust theory for example, coding from the first interview which was taken place on a student with a CV this lead us to sample a student with no CV, to see how the same ideas would differ and see if any codes remained similar.

During the process potential participants were approached, and asked if they were willing to be interviewed about their experiences regarding friendship via verbal invitation. In all, 4 female participants (M =19.9) were recruited to complete the interview.


An ethics application form was produced, that identified the potentially sensitive nature of the interview. This was lodged with the university, and Ethical approval was obtained through an appropriate University process. In order to gather our data we developed an interview guide (Appendix One) however the interview guide varied considerably depending on how interviews proceeded, as it was important to allow participants to express themselves how they wished. The interview schedule was based on a review of the concerns in relevant literature, and personal experiences, wherever possible open ended questions were used to elicit detailed and rich responses. The full interview schedule is presented in Appendix Three. All interviews took place in the interviewee's home and took approximately 10 minutes to complete.

The first interview was conducted as a pilot interview and feedback was given on the questions, the content and the ethical aspects of the interview. The pilot did not raise any major need for changes in these areas and useful feedback was received therefore we went on to use this interview in our analysis.

Participants were presented with an information sheet (Appendix One) which informed them of the voluntary nature of their participation. Before each interview participants were reminded of their rights and asked to sign a consent form (Appendix Two). For confidentiality reasons the names of participants were not known. The interviews took place face to face either in the researchers or the participants' homes. The interviewer used a audio recorder in order to accurately transcribe the interview at a later date, the participant was informed of this and had the right to refuse if they so wished. During interviews, some students showed regret and guilt about not having completed their CV's as of yet. In the debriefing process they were advised of specific services on campus should they need to seek help with their CV. (Appendix Four) Participants were fully debriefed regarding the aim of the research study,


Data analysis took place by implementing a constructivist grounded theory approach, firstly all interviews were transcribed and constantly analyzed in order to gather an understanding of the transcripts the comparative method was implemented, open coding was used in which the transcripts were analyzed line by line, to establish key ideas, thoughts and descriptions of themes within the text. Once all transcripts had been coded we then went on to compare these codes in order to verify their descriptive content and to confirm that the ideas were concurrent. Secondly the codes were sorted into distinct categories, in order to identify the key categories and themes. These steps were not strictly sequential; instead the process involved re-examination of the major codes and categories In the following section, the whole model will be described first, followed by a presentation of its parts. The reason for this order is that the parts receive their meaning when understood in relation to the whole model


Participants presented a variety of themes which seemed to coexist with current competition levels. The theoretical model starts the explanation of the relationship between belonging to and standing out from the crowd, Data from the interviewees show that students have different interpretations of their CV construction. Overall participants seemed to utilize social comparison with others and thus utilized those experiences which demonstrated salience compared to others, in order to stand out from the crowd when entering the job market these were very important themes in the construction of students CVs. This showed that a balance of both processes in which attempt to remain on par with their social group while utilizing experiences which make them unique was essential.

Social Comparison

A key theme that emerged through the analysis was that students where constantly evaluating their own CV construction as well as comparing their experiences with others on their course in order to gather an understanding of their own position and progress. This component of evaluation seemed to develop more as the individuals become more experienced and defined a much more focused career choice. This is demonstrated by Student A in the extract below

''I think I have done quite a lot for my CV compared to some of my mates doing other courses but because mine is such a focused course I think its easier for me''

This student uses the word 'compared to' in order to demonstrate social comparison this shows that a key element when considering personal progress regarding CV construction, is social activities, students can pick up on the progress of other students and this changes their view on how to construct their own CV to make them different or better. Thus, reiterating the idea that there is a drive for students to look at outside influences, such as their fellow students in order to evaluate their own opinions and abilities, in regards to their CV. Further evaluations can come from family and outside influences in the work place, Student B demonstrates that family has influenced their CV construction by saying.

''I copied the format off my brother Ben, hes a successful business man''

This student clearly demonstrates an evaluation and comparison of his own CV against his brothers who the student also adds is ''very successful''. This association between his brothers CV and subsequent success in career choice is likely to have encouraged this student to also create a CV in order to become a similar success in his career choice, and thus through evaluation and comparison of those influential people around him he has also created a CV.

Further analysis through theoretical sampling, in which we decided to interview an individual with no CV showed that this student did not show evaluation with family or friends and did not seem very informed about his CV. This student does not seem to have the same support structure as others in terms of family and friends there was no reference throughout the interview of any family or friends who had completed their CV, and this suggests that it is the influence of these people that encourages and stimulates people to write their own CV's through a process of social comparison.


The majority of study respondents discussed that the opportunities they felt would most effectively enhance their CV's was those which demonstrated that they were unique to others competing for similar positions, respondents consistently used the word ''stand out'' to demonstrate the idea of salience for example student A says

I didn't want to lose out on the work experience opportunity because I thought that would be so much more valuable to my CV in making me stand out.''

As well as demonstrating that competition is still influential in students views of constructing their CV. The idea of saliency also demonstrates that students feel that they must have qualities that contrast from others in order for future employers to notice them as diverse and unique. Thus reiterating the students idea that the impression you make on an employer and thus subsequent employment is determined by any factor that makes you stand out from those around you, this was consistently demonstrated throughout all transcripts student B expressed that

I gave up paid work because I didn't want to lose out on the work experience opportunity because I though that would be so much more valuable to my CV in making me stand out.''

This reiterates the importance that students are placing on those experiences or opportunities which are going to make them unique and exclusive to the employer. Furthermore Student B illustrates the sacrifice of taking on voluntary unpaid work if it meant their CV would be more admirable and unique to employers which will bring them more attention when they come to finding a job at the end of university.

Student C summarises both ideas of social comparison and saliency in the following statement,

''I found it very difficult to even get on to my university course so I am dreading trying to find a job at the end… yeh I think that is the main reason why I thought it was important to do some other things like voluntary work.. I will need something to make me that extra bit better than everyone else''

This demonstrates a complex process of social comparison, in which the student described comparisons with other person their course, and salience in which the idea of standing out appears as vital for students CV construction. Thus balancing belonging to and standing out from the crowd is vital


From the analysis it is clear to see that several of our qualitative findings converged with the literature review; surveys consistently illustrate a huge increase in participation through higher education, and nonetheless this was a common and consistent theme of the students transcripts presented here. The responses expanded upon this idea of competition by relating their feelings of CV construction to social comparison with many responses illustrating the idea that students tend to compare their own experiences with others around them. Furthermore saliency emerged as another key value and obligation in order to stand out in the heightened competitive market.

Because of the nature of grounded theory we had not planned to study the topic areas exposed above, thus after discovering the key themes further literature searches were undertaken. These suggested that the idea of social comparison and salience are important factors throughout the literature. The idea of saliency is supported by many social psychology studies such as the solo black study. In 1977 experiments, to assess the impressions of a solo black student who was the only black in one class were undertaken. Findings demonstrated that evaluations of the solo black were much more extreme. If the person was pleasant, the only black was judged more favourably, compared to class which was split evenly among blacks and whites. (Sears, Peplau and Taylor) Such findings can be applied to CV construction as our research found that students feel it is the candidate who stands out positively from all other candidates that will make the most extreme impression and is thus more likely to be hired. This is supported further by Chiumento (2009) research into the recruitment market which marked standing out from the crowd as a key aspect of success in job applications. Furthermore Cognitive psychology also attributes much of perception, attention and selection to the idea of salience; without doubt these theories can be applied to CV construction especially in the Western world, where unique behaviour is typically viewed as more desirable than subservient behaviour.

Social comparison theory was a concept originally introduced by Leon Festinger (1954), as being a drive for individuals to compare and evaluate themselves with others around them. Further literature by Kemmelmeier & Oyserman (2001) suggests that males are viewed as more independent; they see themselves as separate individuals. Women, on the other hand, are more mutually dependent, and define themselves in the context of their relationships with others, thus male evaluations are likely to differ to those of females in regards to the characteristics which will help to define, develop and maintain their CV. As such, social comparisons can only be viewed as important themes to females views on CV construction and further literature reviews would be required to investigate whether social comparisons are important for CV construction for males.

The interviewed participants shared many common social and cultural experiences. Further studies which recruit a wider range of participants would be required in order to understand how such processes occur in more collectivist cultures For example, in collective school. such as those found in Mexico, harmony and cooperation in learning are stressed instead of competition, as the idea of competitiveness and standing out is one which is very much associated with individualistic cultures carrying out further studies in both cultures may well show a key cultural variation in terms of competing for jobs and CV construction.

Although implementing a constructivist approach to grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006) to exploring the construction of CV for students enabled us to capture the importance of each theme for particular individuals. It also presents some limitations in terms of the effect that the interviewers may have had on the respondent's natural responses. As each interviewer and participant engaged together in an act, the interviewees responses must take account of the role that the researcher played. As analysis of the transcripts was carried out by my self, the conclusions reached, are restricted to my own values and beliefs and therefore, further qualitative approaches would be required in order to apply findings on a wider scale.

In conclusion to our research question: With increased competition at university, how do university undergraduates enhance their CV? Our findings suggest that in general, students tend to balance the process of belonging to and standing out from the crowd when enhancing their CV. Belonging to the crowd is essential in order to take part in social comparisons and social evaluations however in order to be successful in their career they also need to stand out from the crowd, thus in these cases, it seems it is this balance between these contrasting factors which is important for students CV construction and enhancemnt. Future studies should continue to explore these links, distinguished above, with the aim to integrate more diverse participants as this would allow a fuller picture about student CV construction to emerge.