Graduate schemes with the biggest companies are coveted, there’s no doubt about that.

Typically, you’ll go through approximately four stages over a period of weeks/months and it can feel like you’re tested on every aptitude imaginable! If you’ve made it past the application stage, psychometric test stage, phone interview and then been turned down at the last hurdle, it’s easy to feel dejected.

Small businesses on the other hand tend to do things differently. While they’ll be just as keen to hire the best people, the application turnaround should be much faster and much more focused on you as a person.

After all, automated personality tests are nothing like getting to know somebody in the flesh!

But while jobs at smaller, regional companies might not have the hordes of Russell Group grads banging on their doors, the rewards can often be seen as uncompetitive compared to big companies.

It’s a difficult choice for graduates, especially considering that you might only be able to send out a limited number of high quality applications around your dissertation and part time job. So we’re here to give two sides to the story and showcase the pros and cons of schemes and jobs. Feel free to add your own experiences to the comments too!

The interview process

Small business

I think it’s important to get something straight; it would be unfair to claim that applying to smaller businesses is easier. While you probably won’t have to compete with grads from all over the country, your application is more likely to be checked with a fine tooth comb. From the offset an employer will be reading your application and getting to know everything about you. Typically, you can expect to have two interviews for a role with a small business, and they may ask you to prepare a presentation/show a portfolio.

Pros: Get to know your employer and have the opportunity to sell yourself to the person who will be managing you.

Cons: You might not get the chance to meet with a dedicated team of managers and HR staff. This can mean that the people that are interviewing you aren’t best placed to discuss topics such as salaries.

Grad scheme

The volume of people applying means that actually speaking to a person is usually impossible until you get to the phone interview stage. At this point, it may even be outsourced to a specialist company. While a lot of time can be invested trying to appeal to machines, the process is often competency based. You’re selling your abilities and outlook more than your personality and some people would argue that this is the best way to source the most successful people.

Pros: Equal opportunity policies will be well established.
Cons: The approach is likely to be impersonal.

Travel opportunities

Small business

While there’s always exceptions, and, if you’re starting in a graduate level role the company is likely to be growing, tight budgets and local operations make international travel less likely.

But equally, if you’re committing to a city you love, typically where you have family and friends, staying in one location for most of time might be ideal for you. Smaller companies might have leaner budgets, but they’re still usually keen to send new staff to events and client’s/suppliers premises. Find out more about travel opportunities during the interview stage, while sharing your dream to go to New York might not go down well, a willingness to travel could work in your favour.

“Working for a smaller company does means that every cost has to be justified. That said, the company have a vested interest in representing themselves at events and they’re very good at offering training opportunities. As a result, I have been to conferences in cities which are easily commutable from Manchester” – Vicky, grad at a small business based in Manchester

Pros: Stay close to family and friends.
Cons: Don’t expect to travel internationally if your company only operates within the UK.

Grad schemes

It goes without saying, many of the biggest graduate employers have offices around the world. Aside from the option to second at these offices, you may also be able to visit other countries as part of pro-bono work.
However, while the international travel opportunities might be more promising, you may also be expected to flit around the UK. For example, on the KPMG auditing scheme, it is made clear that graduates are often away at client premises during the week. If weeks spent in hotels aren’t for you, then make sure you’re applying to a scheme which will keep you fairly grounded in one location.

Pros: There are likely to be numerous chances to travel abroad. These include visiting suppliers, secondments to other offices and charity work.

Cons: You may be asked to spend working weeks away from home. While this suits some, weekly hotel stays might not be ideal for others.


Small business

Some of the largest graduate employers will offer salaries approaching £30,000 per annum. While they aren’t all towards the higher end of the spectrum, you can generally expect £20,000-£30,000 on a well-known scheme. Some companies will even offer joining bonuses to further sweeten the deal. Smaller companies are unlikely to have the capacity to offer such salaries, however, it is vital to take locations into account.

For example, if you’re living at home in a smaller town then £18,000 per annum will go much further than if you were earning £24,000 per annum and paying rent in central London.
That said, if you want to be earning an initial higher salary, then the larger graduate schemes are almost always going to appeal over smaller local businesses.

Grad Scheme

While the initial salary might be considerably higher, on a grad scheme you might only have sporadic pay reviews (for example, at the end of your scheme). Working for a small business, you are more likely to be able to negotiate pay increases and establish your own goals as opposed to sticking to a rigid grad-wide growth plan.

While the salaries are nearly always higher than those offered by smaller companies, if you do go for a role at a smaller business, scope out the opportunity for salary progression too. If you have big aspirations, then the opportunities to enhance your salary should be available.

Pros: A generous starting salary.

Cons: Reviews and opportunities for progression are likely to be more rigid.

Social scene

Small business

You should be able to get a feel for a small business social scene and staff base by looking at their social media accounts. If there’s only 20 staff and many of them are considerably older/younger than you, those raucous nights out might not be on the cards. Usually though, smaller groups do make for cohesive groups, so don’t rule out a good social scene when you send that application off.

Pros: Smaller groups can allow you to make friends with all team members (i.e. those in other departments, senior managers and very helpful admin staff!)

Cons: Your social scene probably won’t be like an offshoot from your uni days.

Graduate scheme

On a large graduate scheme, you’re likely to be mixing with several other graduates. While you probably shouldn’t behave like a born again fresher (hung-over business meetings won’t go down well), most students will be in the same position as you – the same age, hyped to be on a leading grad scheme and potentially looking to explore a new city.

“The first few weeks were almost like being back at university again. We had external training at a hotel venue and, after nights spent in the hotel bar, we even had management going on the search for grads who were still in bed!”

– Rose, Business Graduate Scheme for one of the Big Four

Pros: If you move to a new city, they’ll be plenty of other people in the same position as you.
Cons: Remember you’re a professional now, so drunken behaviour popping up on social media might not go down well!

Every graduate feels completely different when it comes to choosing their dream company, and we know that not everyone is lucky enough to be able to choose exactly what city/town they work in. But we hope that these insights have given you some pointers if you’re sitting on the fence.

This article was provided by Victoria at IEC Abroad

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