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The TARGETjobs Undergraduate of the Year Awards is a celebration of the UK’s most promising and outstanding undergraduate talent and is open to applicants from any university across the country. There is a range of different award categories and, after much deliberation, I decided to apply to be considered for the Male category (partnered by L'Oréal).
The main motivation behind applying for this category in particular – as I would have been eligible for numerous categories with my background and degree – was the prospect of gaining an insight into the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry with the world’s leading cosmetics company. L'Oréal has a commitment to be an inclusive and balanced organisation; however, they have in the past experienced a lack of interest from male talent, hence why they decided to partner with the Male award. As a firm believer of equal representation within the workplace and wider society, I felt empowered to apply. The category is open to any male-identifying candidate, from any university and from any degree discipline, so it is fair to say that it is an incredibly competitive category to apply for – but it’s well worth the challenge.

I was studying abroad in Canada when I received an email from TARGETjobs regarding the opening for applications for the Undergraduate of the Year Awards, which, for a student who is not without personal and professional ambition, was instantly attention-grabbing. So, I decided to find out more. The blog posts from previous finalists and winners hugely informed my decision-making process and I quickly identified that everyone was singing the same tune: an amazing opportunity and experience, whatever the outcome.

I decided that there was no harm in submitting an application and, after filling out the usual personal information, I was asked to write an essay based on innovation. The crux of the essay was to outline what innovation meant on a personal level, as well as to provide an example of a time when I demonstrated innovative decision making and how this was implemented. There was a 500-word limit which (because I like to go into detail, as you’re finding out with this blog post) was a challenge! I decided to focus on two main areas: innovation within the FMCG and cosmetics industry, for which I drew upon possible considerations for L'Oréal as they respond to the ever-changing global marketplace, and how I have displayed resolve and innovation in my career to date.

My advice would be to ensure that your essay includes your ‘voice’ and don’t be afraid to display a more vulnerable side – you want to stand out and be a memorable candidate. There were also numerous online tests to assess and analyse you in more ways than you thought was ever possible. I don’t really have much advice for these other than to try your best and make sure that you understand what it is exactly you are to base your answers on, be that numbers or a scenario with numerous excerpts of information.

After submitting all of this, it becomes a waiting game and luckily the pull of university and exams can take your mind off this – I completely forgot that I had made a submission until February, when I was emailed by L'Oréal to inform me that I had been shortlisted as one of the top 50 applicants. I was informed that I would need to be in London for an assessment day and I would be sent further information three days before the assessment centre, regarding a case study that I would need to prepare a 20-minute solo presentation on.

This was a really enthralling and also nerve-racking wait. However, I decided to immerse myself in all publicly-available information on L'Oréal, including their group financial statements, their mission and values and also current marketing campaigns for the host of brands that are part of the conglomerate. I had two ideas for focus areas for the case study, either Brexit or plastics. The case study and brief for the presentation tasked us to analyse the current business model of a L'Oréal division and outline an innovative solution for reducing (or ideally eliminating) the use of plastics within the business.

I was pleased that I had anticipated this scenario and I had already found a bioplastic alternative made from seaweed, which I decided to pursue further for my presentation. I worked flat-out for three days, delving further into the issue of single-use plastics, the relationship within the FMCG and cosmetics industry with food grade plastics, and possible applications of seaweed bioplastics in L'Oréal products. I am a great believer in making sure that decision making is informed, so I decided to reach out to some of the academic staff at my university and a managing director of a plastic packaging manufacturer to tap into their insight and wealth of knowledge. I also decided to go down to my local Boots store to speak with the brand representatives of different cosmetic brands.

Each valued source gave consideration to some of the plastic-reducing initiatives currently on offer, potential challenges ahead as society transitions from finite resources to more sustainable alternatives, as well as their thoughts on my idea and how I could communicate this effectively within the 20 minutes. This was a really worthwhile experience and I believe the findings I presented were more robust and representative as a result. I was fully prepared going into the presentation and I felt that I was able to articulate myself and my idea effectively, which seemed to be well received by my assessor.

The assessment centre also comprised of tests in numeracy and attention to detail, which were very analytical and involved using numerous sets of data and information to answer the questions within the time period. There was also a group exercise, which I would describe as a board room scenario and involved us having to pitch a corporate social responsibility initiative to the group. Through reaching a consensus, the group needed to decide and attribute a proportion of a limited budget to each cause. In my opinion, this was the most challenging part of the assessment centre as there was zero preparation time and I had a very limited relationship with the other guys around the table. Taking a measured approach to this exercise was the strategy I decided to adopt as I didn’t want to suggest my initiative was superlative – everyone had a worthy cause. Within what was, at times, a heated debate, it was through demonstrating leadership and working with (rather than against) the other guys around the table that I secured the joint highest percentage of the budget, which I was really pleased with.

Prior to our lovely lunch, which L'Oréal provided, we were informed that only a select number of candidates would be invited to participate in the afternoon interviews. Over lunch it was joked that they would break the news to us like in Britain’s Got Talent with separate ‘yes’ and ‘no’ rooms and, lo and behold, this turned out to be the case. Fortunately, I was selected to progress to the next stage and, in true The Apprentice style, we were taken up in lifts to individual rooms where we were to be interviewed by a member of the L'Oréal team. I was interviewed by the finance director for one of L'Oréal’s leading brands, Garnier, and this was very conversational and had the objective of finding out more about me, my experience, my achievements and my ambition. After what was a pretty gruelling and intense day there was a networking drinks session for all of the shortlisted candidates and workers from the office were invited, which was a great way to find out more about the different workstreams and opportunities involved with working for L'Oréal.

A week after the assessment centre, I was emailed and informed that I had secured a place in the top ten candidates and was now a finalist of the Male Undergraduate of the Year Award for 2020: a truly gratifying recognition to have received as a result of a lot of hard work and determination, as well as self-knowledge and perseverance. I didn’t think when I applied that this would be anywhere near the outcome that I would receive, but at each stage the bar increased along with the calibre of the candidates and I decided to rise to the challenge.

The virtual ceremony which took place in September was a really lovely way to recognise all of the efforts and achievements of the finalists, which I was able to share this with friends and family who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend the award ceremony if it was in person. Although I didn’t go on to be the overall winner, I can wholeheartedly say that many of the candidates who made the final were deserving winners, which is true across all of the categories. The winner was in fact in my group exercise, and I am still delighted for him as well as for myself and others who have had the opportunity to engage with the Undergraduate of the Year Awards process.

I look forward to having my future shaped on a personal level through some of the amazingly talented and insightful individuals I have met throughout the process, and on a professional level by having the opportunity to return to L'Oréal as an intern over the summer of 2021. The Undergraduate of the Year Award process has been an amazing opportunity for me and through becoming a finalist I hope this will strengthen my CV and career prospects. This experience will remain a personal highlight and achievement of mine for many years to come.