The business and careers newspaper for students

We're often told that being too competitive can bring out the worst in you, yet right now, adopting an overtly competitive mentality seems to be the best way to achieve your career ambitions.

A university education is becoming more expensive, but the dramatic increase in fees has not meant a place in higher education is guaranteed. Despite tuition costing up to £9,000 a year at many universities from September and a 7.7 per cent drop in the number of applications through UCAS this year, the admissions service claims there will still be too few places to fit every applicant on a course.

Meanwhile, for those at the other end of the university system, the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) has reported that its 215 members predict a 0.6 per cent dip in the number of graduate vacancies this year, perpetuating the competitive nature of the graduate jobs market for another year. Though the average number of applications per job has dropped from 83 to 73, employers remain spoilt for choice and will cherry pick the best talent.

This means those just completing their A Levels need to be thinking about how they will beat their peers to secure their university place, just as fresh graduates need to be competitively-minded to get a job. So getting competitive with your skills, experience and - ultimately - your CV is going to be crucial no matter what you might be told.

Being overtly competitive is understandably sometimes seen as a negative personality trait. Some mistake the advice of getting a competitive edge as meaning they need to adopt a mentality of not settling for second place and doing all it takes to fulfil their ambitions, even at the expense of others. It isn't. If you want to be more competitive in the graduate jobs market, you first need to look at yourself and decide how you can improve.

We're now well into the summer vacation, which is an ideal time to do just that. Internships, temporary work, volunteering and even study are ideal ways to become a more competitive force when you're applying for jobs. While it may now be a little late to find an internship, these are a great way to find out whether you really want to work in an industry, gain valuable contacts and add to your experience in the workplace - all ideal for building up a competitive CV. If you can't find a relevant internship, try part time or temporary work to plug your skills gap.

With your additional spare time, you could consider voluntary work with a charity. They welcome assistance and will often give you a lot of responsibility if you can dedicate even a few hours every week. Nuggets like these on your CV will impress employers, as well as giving you the chance to help others. Of course, you probably don't want to think about university work too much while on holiday, but there are other forms of study available too. If you're considering a career that might require additional skills your degree won't provide, a short summer course could be the perfect solution to ensure you have all the qualifications when you graduate.

Getting competitive might be seen as getting aggressive, but the reality of the job market right now is that you need to be able to match the skills an employer is looking for - and more - and be confident that your CV backs up your claims. You'll stand out from the pack by focusing on how to achieve your ambitions and seeking out the experience you need. Along the way, you might like to offer assistance to others in a similar position: competitiveness can be boosted by adopting a team mentality.