Job Hunting for College Grads: A Survival Guide

Job Survival Guide

For most college seniors, spring is a great time of year. The weather is warmer, their theses are (hopefully) done, and end of the year parties are blooming. In the past, however, so-called “senior spring” also came with an added perk: the chance to meet with a variety of corporate recruiters and, with a bit of luck, walk away with a solid job offer.

Unfortunately, the prospects for recent graduates aren’t nearly as good. Over the past year and a half companies have laid off workers by the thousands, flooding the market with top quality employees. This glut of seasoned professionals willing to accept lower-level jobs (with low-end salaries) has made it hard for new grads to compete. After all, even a job seeker with an honors GPA and the best internships pales in comparison to one with an extensive contact list and years of experience, especially when both candidates cost the same to hire.

But there may be a silver lining for the Class of 2010 – the job market is showing signs of life. Some corporate recruiters are returning to campuses, and more students are finding employers willing to consider their applications. In fact, for the first time since the beginning of the Great Recession, college grads may actually have an advantage over experienced workers when job hunting – as long as they present themselves the right way.

The key factor for students is that companies rebuilding their staffs are looking to add workers who aren’t just talented, but cost-effective as well. And while first-time job seekers aren’t always cheaper than their more-experienced counterparts, they do offer much greater potential to grow with a company. Hiring an experienced salesperson at an entry-level salary, for example, may be a short-term coup, but when the economy rebounds that person is likely to leave. On the other hand, hiring a college grad for the same position brings in an employee who, while less experienced at the beginning, can evolve and continue to help the company for years to come.

Today’s job market is the most cutthroat it’s been in a generation, say college career advisers, and you’ll need to be at the top of your game to get ahead. It’s important to start your search early, be patient and learn to present yourself not just as a potential employee, but as a good long-term investment. So if you want to land a full-time gig so you won’t have to move back in with Mom and Dad, try following these tips for a successful first-time job search:

Check out your school’s Career Services office

Career Services offices typically are little used by students, except as a place to meet recruiters for interviews. But they have much more to offer, including research materials, advice on job training and connections to local companies. Once you’re out in the job market, services like networking assistance and a professional resume critique can cost some serious cash. So don’t hesitate to make use of everything Career Services has to offer – it’s free and targeted to your demographic.

Join your school alumni group

Just like Career Services, school alumni groups are frequently underused by students. But they offer a whole lot more than just a discount at the campus bookstore or access to athletic facilities. Successful networking is a huge part of finding a job, especially when you don’t have much work experience. An alumni connection gives you an “in” with experienced professionals who may be in a position to help you, while alumni group events are a great place to meet potential mentors in a relaxed atmosphere.

Use job boards that have lots of entry-level jobs

You may have only heard of a few well-known sites, but there are thousands of job boards online offering listings that cater to every imaginable niche and industry. Instead of limiting yourself to just the major players, seek out job boards with more diverse, specialized listings, or ones that are aimed specifically at college grads.

Another tactic is to tailor your job search more effectively. When looking for a job, besides searching for the job title you want, try adding an additional search for phrases like “entry level” or “no experience” within the job description as well. This will help you filter listings so they only show jobs that match your skill level, and allow you to scan more relevant listings in a single search.

Watch what you post online

If your Mom is on Facebook, you can be pretty sure that any job interviewer you meet will be too. Many companies now look up your social media activity as part of a standard background check, and they don’t consider conversations you have on Facebook to be part of your private life. So if you’re trying to present yourself as a quiet, responsible student, make sure those pics of you doing a shirtless keg stand on Spring Break are wiped from your profile.

Expand your search radius and criteria

If you want to work in Sales but aren’t getting any interviews, don’t only target Sales positions. Instead, make a list of the places where you’d like to work and the companies you’d like to work for. Then expand your search to include other, related job titles in those companies and locations. If you can find any employment in the city you’d like to live in, or at a company you’ve always wanted to work for, you can always use networking to move to your ideal position later. In addition, if your dream company doesn’t have any openings, try sending them a proposal for a new position that fits your skill set. Just make sure you explain how this new job will make them money, not just benefit your career.

Boost your skill set by taking extra classes

Just because there’s a fancy-looking diploma hanging on your wall (or gathering dust in your closet) doesn’t mean your days of taking tests and turning in research papers need to be over. Learning should be a lifelong goal, and companies are often more attracted to candidates who are willing to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities. If a lack of important skills is preventing you from getting the job you want, do something about it. Check out local extension courses that can help you fill gaps in your resume. These departments even offer Certificates or other degrees to help you meet job qualifications, and if you sign up for courses at your alma mater, you may even be able to get an alumni discount.

Don’t underestimate the value of a good cover letter and resume

Networking is an increasingly important part of a successful job search, but don’t think you can suddenly slack off on your resume or cover letter. A well-written cover letter is often your initial point of contact with an employer, and it needs to make a great first impression. It’s important to read detailed advice on how to create a job-winning resume or write a great cover letter, but when in doubt, follow this rule: Your resume and cover letter are about the company, not you. Hiring managers don’t want to read about how awesome you are; they want a document that outlines how you can fill their company’s need and make them money or solve a problem.

In addition, crafting a successful resume isn’t about creating the perfect, one-size-fits-all document. Most resume screening, especially for entry-level positions, is done by software which performs keyword searches against a list of words pulled from the job description. If your resume contains enough of the same keywords, it moves into the stack that will be manually reviewed. So how do you get past the first round of cuts? Simply read the job description carefully, and customize your resume so that it’s using the same keywords. Yes, it’s a lot of work to customize your materials for every job, but it’s well worth the effort. If a job is looking for “tele-sales” experience, for example, listing “phone sales” experience on your resume instead may put you in the rejection pile.

Create a “Personal Branding Statement” to help you stand out

Even with a good resume and cover letter, sometimes it can be hard to explain your skill set to employers. Maybe your volunteer work or participation in clubs gives you experience that would be perfect for a particular job, but the listing requires specific professional qualifications you don’t have. In these instances, you can use a “Branding Statement” to turn your lack of work history to your advantage. Include extra documentation that explains who you are, and runs down your unique selling points – especially the ones that aren’t obvious from your resume. As a first-time job seeker, some hiring managers will be willing to forgive a lack of work experience if you provide a personal branding statement that addresses their concerns.

Just remember, if you want HR to actually read this document, make it short, concise and accurate. Hiring managers receive hundreds (sometimes thousands) of resumes, and they won’t have time to read anything longer than a page or so.

Prepare and rehearse before each job interview

It doesn’t matter if you were an accomplished public speaker in college, or even captain of the debate team. Thinking you can “wing it” in a job interview is a bad idea. Interviewers have seen every type of candidate imaginable, and they can spot someone who isn’t prepared. Take time to research the company and find out about their needs (specifically why they’re hiring), and then rehearse explanations of how you can fill those needs. Don’t try to memorize specific answers; instead, gain a high level of familiarity with the job, the company and (most importantly) the details of your resume. If the interviewer asks how your summer internship experience relates to their job opening and you don’t have a good answer lined up, you might as well go home.

Dress for success

Never underestimate the importance of good grooming, especially when you’re a first time job seeker. Unless you live in a region where casual clothing is the norm, it never hurts to show up a little overdressed for an interview. Many hiring managers will have a bias against recent college grads and assume they aren’t professional, so wearing a suit (for men or women) can be a great way to overcome those assumptions. And while it may seem embarrassing to show up wearing a suit only to find that your interviewer is in a t-shirt and shorts, it would be much worse if things turned out the other way around.

Be nice to everyone you meet during an interview

The hiring manager isn’t the only person who will evaluate you. Everyone you meet, from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you leave, may give HR feedback on your performance. If you’re rude to the receptionist or the hiring manager’s assistant, or look bored or annoyed while you’re waiting for the interview to start, this could count against you. Looking like the type of person who’s only nice to people they think are important is a surefire way to take yourself out of the running for a job.

Follow up with thank you notes

Many job seekers think that the application process is over once they’ve left the interview. After all, they’ve submitted a good resume and cover letter, passed a phone screen and made a great impression with the hiring manager. Now it’s time to sit back and wait for a job offer, right? Well, not exactly…

Mastering the initial steps of the application process is vital, but by simply failing to follow up with a strong thank you note, you can blow your chances. You may feel that you aced the interview, but sending a thank you note is your way of confirming that you want the job. If you don’t send one, you give the impression that you’re not really interested, and HR will likely move on to someone else. So if you want to get job offers, make sure you follow up each interview with a thank you note reiterating your interest in the job, and (if possible) touching on some small point from the interview. This shows that you’re serious and that you paid attention. And if you interacted meaningfully with anyone besides the hiring manager during the interview process, it doesn’t hurt to send them a thank you note as well.

Following these steps can help give you an edge over many of your fellow students. However, the truth is that no matter what, job hunting after graduation is itself one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever have. It requires all the preparation of final exams, but unlike on a final, even if you ace the test you can still get a failing grade. A positive attitude, determination and patience are key to persevering in what is still a very tough job market for new grads. That said, using available employment resources, doing your homework, building your network, presenting yourself professionally and, most importantly, staying focused on how you will help employers can make your transition from starving student to member of the workforce a success.


Andrew Strieber is the Producer of CareerCast.com and JobsRated.com

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