Five reasons to improve students’ self-awareness

May 23, 2018 | Development

Our recent ISE Development Survey highlighted that graduates lack self-awareness*. ISE Research Analyst, Samuel Gordon argues the case for changing this.

Reason 1. It’s a big gap

Just 39% of graduate intakes have self-awareness. This is low for such a fundamental skill, especially since over 70% of graduates have other core workplace skills like team-work and problem-solving. Self-awareness may grow with time, but we could be doing much better at helping students to develop this.

There is also not a big difference between school leavers and university leavers. 25% of apprentice intakes are seen to have self-awareness, even though most of these hires are straight out of secondary school. While employers may expect less of apprentices, the 14-percentage point difference between graduates and school leavers is still relatively low. It suggests that not many graduates are picking up self-awareness at university.

We need to find and fix what isn’t working.

Reason 2. It affects other skills gaps

Overall, just half of ISE employers think that graduates have the soft skills which they expect. This is a major challenge too, with three-quarters of organisations acting to resolve the issue. Improving students’ self-awareness could help these hires to be more work-ready in general.

A range of key skills gaps might be affected. For example, just 5% of graduates can manage up, which means working effectively with a boss. Being able to adapt to a manager’s style should help new hires to adjust. Just 12% of graduates can deal with conflict, so understanding how they are perceived by others will help them to have a better impact. What’s more, just 31% have resilience, so being able to manage their emotions will help them to cope with periods of boring or difficult work. 

Working on students’ self-awareness could have a multiplier effect.

Reason 3. It influences their ability to perform

Helping graduates to perform is a top priority for employers. 66% changed an aspect of their development programmes last year to achieve this. Most graduates also have regular performance reviews, so improving their self-awareness could help them to demonstrate their success.

Self-assessment is a key part of these review methods. For example, 45% of employers have graduates assessing their own performance. A third incorporate 360 degree feedback, which means gathering opinions from their peers. If graduates can assess their own performance more accurately, and the performance of others, they should be able to find weaknesses faster.

This should help these new hires to learn more effectively.

Reason 4. It should help in managing their expectations

Managing the expectations of graduates is the biggest challenge for graduate development teams this year. What’s more, it is also the third biggest challenge for student recruiters. Improving the self-awareness of students, especially around what they are capable of, could help them to have more realistic expectations of their work.

Better self-awareness might improve retention too. The most common reason why graduates leave is for a career change. If they had a better understanding of the roles which suit them, and could acknowledge how capable they are (or aren’t yet), this could help them make better decisions about sticking with a role. In turn, this could increase the share of hires that stay.

Reason 5. It should help them cope with strengths-based recruitment

Graduate recruitment will keep evolving in future. One key trend is the rise of strengths-based recruitment, which relies on candidates understanding what energises and drains them as well as the past results they’ve achieved. 41% of employers used this approach in 2017, up from 36% the year before.

As this approach keeps evolving, future students will need to be more self-aware to succeed.


The fact that graduates lack self-awareness is important for employers. Closing this skills gap could also bring many benefits. We recommend that all stakeholders explore their role in achieving this. 

You can explore more trends and commentary in our Development Survey 2018.

*In this context, self-awareness means a range of behaviours. These include an understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses, the impact of your actions on other people, and a readiness and ability to improve your performance based on feedback and reflective learning. It can include other behaviours too.

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