As children begin returning to school and Michaelmas 2013 draws ever closer, a new cycle begins:  the job/internship-application-psychometric-testing cycle.

I’ll admit it.  I’ve not had a ‘life-long’ career ambition.  However, I am determined that on entering the graduate job hunt I will have a sense of direction great enough to strike fear into the feathers of a scrupulously-trained champion homing pigeon.

On a visit to the Oxford Careers Service website, I look in awe at the variety of possible career paths I could take – is it bad that a multitude appeal to me and I find myself thinking that I would simultaneously love to be both a Rainforest Conservationist and an Actuarial Advisor?  (I could be an Actuarial Advisor in a Rainforest)  …I’m doing a History degree… which, by-the-by, to my relatives and non-historian friends means that my career is sorted:  a lifetime on ‘digs’ (‘Time Team’-style).  As I conclude that my hair cannot begin to compete for airtime with the likes of Phil Harding, I am propelled back to reality.

The fact is that if I want to differentiate between jobs, I’ll need greater insight into them.  Internships provide a useful way to gain further insight into careers which initially appeal on paper.  Hopefully they provide an opportunity to see whether the real thing appeals as much as the career in the advert, and if this is the case, to give a ‘foot-in-the-door’ when the final migration away from Oxford comes.  Recently, the death of the young intern Moritz Erhardt, who was working for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has driven the subject of the ‘fairness’ of internships into the centre of a media storm.  While it has been claimed that his 72-hour stint as an intern trying to impress a prospective employer played a large part in his death, conclusions should not be so hastily made.  Nevertheless, internships remain controversial.  Aside from the much-debated obvious bone of contention (payment), it should be noted that the attainment of many internships is on the basis of merit – a fair policy. 

In the naïve days of an eighteen-year-old who had just finished A Levels, I thought that a carefully prepared CV and Cover Letter would constitute the majority of an internship application process.  Au contraire!  For many firms it would appear that competition is so fierce that it is necessary for candidates to undergo rigorous ‘Psychometric Testing’. Many a tale has been told of the panic when confronted by a timed numerical, verbal or ‘E-Tray’ test – the latter being my personal favourite.  Despite any initial feelings of uncertainty, such tests should be seen in a positive light.  They test competencies which are difficult to teach, for instance how quickly and accurately a person thinks when under pressure, and as such each candidate is on a rather even playing field.  This style of selection process, based on competency and not connections or privilege, is fair.  Indeed, it would appear that this system of testing candidates to ensure the best are the ones who are successful is not limited to a couple of firms.  Many large firms appear to apply such meritocratic testing to their internship, as well as employee, selection process. 

Although pessimists would stubbornly state that companies are only deploying such tests as a cost-cutting exercise, this would be too cynical.  Assuming the applicant does not have a benevolent helper next to them during the test, testing remains significantly advantageous as it allows the employer to see the ‘true’ suitability of the candidate in situations comparable to the workplace.  Furthermore, successful candidates are often required to repeat the test at an assessment centre, where the employer can be sure they receive no help.

Even when such tests are not used, it does not necessarily mean a less meritocratic selection process:  measures such as evaluation of qualifications and performance at interview, rather than immediate appointment based on personal connections or payment, are used in vast numbers of recruitment processes to appoint the most able.  Indeed, the appointment of the most efficient person for a job ensures money will not be wasted on the appointment of less efficient workers.

Amidst all this furore of internships (which is becoming a characteristic element of the British summer), a large pile of books with three sheets of paper on top in the corner of the room reminds me that, for now, I should not devote excessive time to the internship / job application cycle or else I’ll risk compromising my degree.  And since my life revolves around studying History, maybe I should succumb to the Time Team stereotype and cultivate a camera-grabbing hairstyle…