Many leading UK employers run graduate training schemes, so find out what the benefits are and how you can apply for a place on one of these highly-competitive programmes

What is a graduate scheme?

A graduate scheme is a structured training programme run by an employer to develop future leaders of their organisation.

These graduate schemes, which usually last between one and two years, are often available in a number of specialisms - or streams as they're known - ranging from finance, retail, HR and marketing, to management and law.

As a trainee, you'll benefit from being handed responsibility from the outset, an opportunity to gain real hands-on experience and develop a broad understanding of your chosen profession, as well as support in building key skills.

High Fliers' The Graduate Market in 2017 report has revealed that the most generous payers this year - from The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers - are investment banks, law firms and oil and energy companies. Overall, a sixth of places on the top graduate schemes now offer starting salaries of more than £40,000, with 13 of the UK's best known graduate recruiters paying wages of at least £45,000 for their 2017 intake.

In return for the financial rewards, graduates are expected to adhere to the business needs of the employer. The scheme may be focused on a specific job role or split into time-specific placements, and this could involve working across various business functions, teams and possibly locations - so a large degree of flexibility is required.

Schemes are generally oversubscribed each year, with places limited - especially those offered by high profile companies in major industries.

Top graduate schemes

With the best graduate schemes offered across numerous career paths, you'll have plenty of options when it comes to choosing an employer.

For instance, if you're interested in HR graduate schemes, many large organisations (including BP, KPMG and Tesco) cater to this specific field. This is covered in more detail at getting a graduate job in human resources.

Despite the fact that most leading employers require graduates to work in their busy HR departments, it's not that straightforward to secure a spot on an HR scheme - or any other for that matter.

Rob Farace, senior programme lead, resourcing, for the NHS Leadership Academy, warns, 'One of the hardest things about applying to a graduate scheme is how you make yourself stand out from the thousands of other candidates applying.'

If you're interested in a career in the healthcare sector at management level, discover more about the NHS graduate scheme. You can also explore management graduate schemes in other sectors, including consulting.

Another popular and growing field for graduates is marketing. Jobs are available in the media, mobile and internet, and hospitality and events sectors, among others. You could work for companies such as the BBC, Sky and Virgin Media. For an in-depth look at what's on offer, see marketing graduate schemes.

There are many possibilities when it comes to finance graduate schemes. All the major banks, including Barclays, the Lloyds Banking Group and HSBC, have their own dedicated programmes, while finance specialists are also required across many other job sectors.

Law students may already have a strong idea of the career path they wish to take, so if you're hoping to pass the Professional Skills Course, you'll need to find a firm willing to take on trainees. Discover what you'll need to know about training contracts.

Many of the UK's biggest retailers - including Boots, Next, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer - offer retail graduate schemes to train staff in a range of customer-facing and head office roles. These are available in areas such as logistics and supply chain, management, and merchandising.

Amazon UK employs 19,000 people across the country in a variety of specialisms, from corporate and operations, through to science and technology careers, so there's likely to be an Amazon graduate scheme for you. However, it's important to be proactive if you want to secure a place.

Dee Clarke, head of Amazon's campus recruiting team, explains that attending graduate recruitment events while at university is 'a great way for students to speak one-to-one with Amazonians and learn first-hand about pursuing a career at Amazon'.

There are many other organisations that recruit graduates across other sectors - for instance, information technology (IT) and telecommunications companies such as Google, Microsoft, BT and EE.

When do graduate schemes open?

In most cases, you'll be able to apply from the end of your second year (June-onwards), with graduate scheme deadlines usually set for the November or December of that year. However, it's advisable to apply as early as possible, as some organisations fill places on an ongoing basis and close as soon as they're full.

How do I apply?

To gain a place on a graduate scheme, you'll first have to make it through the extensive and typically lengthy screening processes used to select graduates.

The first stage normally involves an online application, but guidance relating to CVs and cover letters may still come in handy. After this, it's worth delving into interview questions, assessment centres and psychometric tests.

Victoria Humphries, head of emerging talent at Nationwide Building Society, advises you to prepare for psychometric tests, which are quite common, by practising so that you identify your strengths and weaknesses beforehand.

Also, many employers now use social media - for instance, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn - to share helpful and informal advice with candidates about all stages of the selection process.

For example, at the NHS, this ranges from current trainees giving tips on how they prepared for their assessment centre, to alumni sharing general advice on interviews and the graduate team offering pointers on passing online tests.

'By following us on our social media channels, not only can you ask questions, you can also see the questions other candidates ask us, which you might find really helpful,' says Rob.

See job hunting and social media for tips on setting up relevant accounts and how to go about networking with current graduates on the schemes you're interested in.

Can I get on a graduate scheme with a 2:2?

While graduate programmes generally expect applicants to be awarded a 2:1 or higher, some employers may be more flexible - for example, those looking to enter the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme and, if you also hold a Masters, the Nationwide Graduate Development Programme.

If you get invited to interview, be prepared to discuss your grade with employers. You can be positive by highlighting your strength in other areas, and by emphasising work experience or extra-curricular activities that demonstrate you have the right skills and motivation. To prepare, you can also run through example questions and answers.

When do graduate schemes start?

Start dates for these programmes are usually set for the August or September following graduation.

Will I be offered a permanent job?

It's quite common for graduates to be offered a permanent role upon completion of the scheme, but this is by no means the case with all employers. Therefore, you'll need to check the specific programme you're applying for to find out where you'll stand afterwards.

What if I don't like my graduate scheme?

According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters' (AGR) Development Survey 2017, a fifth of graduates don't make it past the first year of their graduate programme.

If you ever happen to find yourself in this situation for whatever reason, there are a number of options open to you. From feedback received, a quarter of those who left within the first three years of employment with an organisation did so to change careers, with almost a fifth moving on for a better salary, and less than a sixth not happy with their rate of progression.

As you plan your next move, you might wish to revisit choosing a career.