There's no denying the importance of trying hard at school and aiming for good grades. However, new research has shown that 60 per cent of businesses rate life experience to be just as important as a strong academic track record.
Both the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the CBI have been extremely vocal in recent months about how young people are underprepared for the workplace. In an increasingly competitive job market, it has become apparent that a host of A*s or a good 2:1 isn't enough for job seekers wanting to stand out from the crowd.
This isn't because grades are decreasing in importance, but because the majority of applicants are knowledgeable and academically strong yet lacking in certain transferrable skills that are crucial in the workplace.
Throw into this the fact that productivity is on the decline (we're currently lagging behind countries such as the USA, Canada, France and Italy) and you're looking at a potential crisis. In essence, businesses are worried that the future workforce might be extremely technically capable but lack the grit, resilience and determination to make it in business.
Being in the workplace is about more than how well you can write an essay or solve a quadratic equation. It's about being able to communicate, manage, lead, meet deadlines, empathise, negotiate, and a million and one other things that you might not learn in a classroom or lecture theatre.
This, alongside the fact that 70 per cent of employers think that candidates with extra-curricular experience stand out from the crowd, is a prime reason to work on developing your soft skills ahead of entering the job market.
So where can you start? And what actually are extra-curricular activities? Are there some which carry greater weight than others, or are they all rated the same by employers?
Extra-curricular activities are any activity that takes place outside of the classroom. This can be being part of a sports team, volunteering, work experience, or even a Saturday job. It can be going on an expedition, working with a charity organising bake sales, or even doing amateur dramatics.
Our research into employers' thoughts of the value of such experience showed that the relevance of a particular activity or activities was more important than the type of experience. For example, one filmmaker said that he was always on the lookout for candidates with evidence of an interest in the film industry, even if their role wasn't a filmmaking one. For him, understanding of his business was of crucial importance, for all staff.
Those with an interest in the finance sector could talk about having the role of treasurer for a university society, for example, and those wanting to enter the medical profession would do well to demonstrate experience volunteering to help people.
In addition, you should place particular emphasis on the skills you've gained from whatever extra-curricular activity you've chosen to participate in, as this is what will get potential employers listening. If you're going for a sales role, for example, you could talk about how leading a team on an expedition helped you to improve your communication skills. If you've held down a Saturday job for the last few years, you could emphasise your loyalty and commitment.
It can be difficult for students at both school and university to find the time to take a break from studies and focus on life outside of whatever assignment needs handing in next week. It is extremely important to take some time away from the books, though. Businesses are crying out to universities and schools, asking them to ensure that young people are adequately prepared for the workplace and not just able to reel off a list of good grades.
However, with budgets tight and teachers and lecturers (rightly) focused on boosting their students' attainment, you might not see big changes in the way of improved careers advice and preparation within the next few years.
This doesn't mean that you should rest on your laurels. Instead, you should take it upon yourself to get out there, try new things, push yourself out of your comfort zone and most importantly have fun. The fact that you're learning and developing a healthy amount of key skills useful to your future career whilst doing so is merely an added bonus.