So you may want to take everything I say with a pinch of salt (I'm hardly a know-it-all, and I can't really vouch for the fact that my methods work)...but I've been applying for a few grad schemes recently, and this is what I came up with:
1) Don't play it safe. When an employer is receiving 700 applications for a job, you want to stand out. My first approach is to be a little wacky. They're either going to love it or hate it. But then again, you've got more of a chance of being "remembered", and that's a good thing, right? For one of my applications, I was asked to explain why they should hire me in 140 characters. Characters, not words. I suppose I could have reeled off a list of adjectives, but that's incredibly boring and unimaginative. So instead, I went a little off the beaten track and mentioned my notorious haircut from "magic fingers" twitter man, and how it was all part of a social media experiment. Apparently it worked, or maybe they were just intrigued to see the haircut. Either way, they invited me for a telephone interview so it clearly didn't put them off that much.
2) Never tell them you're "creative" in a boring way. Writing "I'm creative" is in itself a boring statement. Showing your creativity is so much more powerful than stating it matter of factly.
3) Triple check for errors. I've committed the faux-pas of leaving applications too last-minute, and not having enough time to read them through properly. Better yet? Get someone else to look over it for you. If you're spending hours and hours on an application, it's easy to miss obvious mistakes. Misplacing an apostrophe could be the difference between making it to the next round, or not. Especially if one of your so-called strengths is "writing". You don't want them getting out the red pen...
4) If you're unclear about anything, email them. Most grad schemes will have an email account specifically for the application process. Don't ask them anything you can find online (that shows you haven't done your research), but if you're genuinely unsure about something, let them know! It will show you how keen you are to succeed.
5) Research, research, research. It sounds obvious, but the more research you do, the more credible you'll sound. There's nothing worse than freezing during a telephone interview or one-on-one interview, simply because you didn't do some basic research on the company. Make sure you're familiar with their clients, any recognition they've received for their work, their values etc. Make sure you know the sector inside out, too. OK, so they're not expecting you to be experts in the field, but showing a bit of initiative and going out of your way to dig deep for information must count for something!
6) Swot up on current affairs. Don't want to be a journalist? Doesn't matter. An awareness of current affairs, and being able to evaluate how current events might be impacting your sector is crucial. It also shows your engagement with the world, and that you're switched on. When an interviewer is trying to talk to you about the latest scandal and you have no idea what they're talking about, that's when you know you're underprepared. My favourite way to scoop up news stories at the moment is through the app Flipboard, which pulls news from a variety of sources, allowing you to literally flip from one exciting story to the next.
6) Spell their name right in the email. Sometimes you'll just be writing Dear Sir/Madam, but if you're messaging someone specific, make sure you spell their name correctly. This might sound simple, but the number of times I have received emails saying "Dear Gerry", instead of "Dear Montana", just goes to show how careless people can be. I may not be employing you, but I can say right now that if I were working in HR and someone emailed me saying "Dear Gerry", they'd go straight into the rejection pile. Even with a first from Cambridge.
7) Don't be TOO schmoozy. So a bit of schmoozing can be great, but it's about quality over quantity. You don't want to overdo it. Imagine walking into a room and someone told you non-stop for 2 hours how amazing you are. Initially you'd be flattered, but eventually you'd become suspicious. Make sure you're being genuine at the same time. Flattery can go a long way, but only when executed tactfully.
8) Don't lie. We all like to embellish slightly (and this isn't always a bad thing!), but please, there's a limit. I remember once in a French practice oral exam for GCSE, making up an exchange student called Elena who I went to visit in Spain. Safe to say, this Elena girl didn't exist. I suddenly became entangled in a web of lies, and didn't know how to get out of it. Ends don't meet, and you end up sounding like an absolute muppet. Frankly, these situations are embarrassing, and should be avoided at all costs. Unless you're a world champion at lying, leave it to the experts.
9) Don't be TOO humble. Humility is a fantastic trait, but can often end up with you refusing to acknowledge your skills, achievements and potential. There's a difference between arrogance and being persuasive; you need to persuade them that you're right for the role. Simon Cowell's favourite phrase may be "I don't think you know how good you are", but you should never, ever, "dumb down" your achievements. Because that achievement was seriously awesome. Obviously there's a way of phrasing things so that you don't sound in love with yourself, but it's important that you SELL yourself. And that won't happen if you're eating humble pie all the time.
10) Be yourself. Is that really cringe? At the end of the day, you want your future employer to like "you", not a persona. Don't pretend to be someone you're not - it's important that you keep your integrity, because this will be really important if you end up getting the job. You don't want to have any awkward "by the way, what I said in the interview wasn't true..." moments later on in your career. People-pleasing can be dangerous if you don't put yourself and your values first. So remember that!