Get a Job! A How-To Guide for Recent Grads

Some experts advise you to hold out for your "dream" job, while others suggest you get "any" job to start paying back your student loans. So, which is true?

Certified Career Management Coach

Originally Posted: May 30, 2013
Last Updated: May 30, 2013

These three powerful words often leave new graduates paralyzed for several reasons, one of which is that advice on exactly how to get a job is overwhelming and oftentimes conflicting. Some experts advise you to hold out for your “dream” job, while others suggest you get “any” job to start paying back your student loans.

So, which is true?

As with most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is important to pursue your dream job from the start; taking the first job you can find can lead to an unfulfilled life. Consider the finance major that opts to accept Uncle Lou’s offer to work construction at his company—a perfectly fine job for someone who wants to do construction, but limiting for a person interested in working on Wall Street. Short term, the money may be good, but long term, this job does not take that finance major any closer to the ultimate goal of working on Wall Street. Perhaps the finance major ops instead to enroll in graduate school, believing the added credential will ensure success. That is potentially a better option because he is headed in the direction of his dream job, but, unless graduate school fits into his predetermined career plans, hiding out there until the economy improves simply exchanges one set of problems for another. While it allows him to avoid a tough market and any timing gap on his résumé, it also forces him to incur additional debt. Graduate school could add upwards of $100,000 to your debt burden, which would seriously limit career options.

Certainly, the best option is an entry-level job in your industry/field of interest. It may not be the dream job in terms of hours, pay, location, or even tasks, but it will enable you to build your skills and knowledge. Sometimes, it is even worth taking an unpaid internship or doing volunteer work at a nonprofit in that industry, supplemented by part-time work (bartending, proofreading, even construction with Uncle Lou) to pay your bills. These are better options than “any” paying job that takes you in a direction you do not want to go.

Consider the impact your work will have on your life. Every job choice you make will impact the quality of your career, which in turn will affect your life in general. These choices can impact your long-term earning potential, your social circle, where you will live, if and who you will marry . . . a lot. Therefore, it is important to put your energy into finding not “any” job but the right job.

Ask yourself, what do I really want to do? Not what makes sense or what your parents or friends want you to do, but what you really want to do. What do you want to accomplish, what roles do you want to have, and what possessions do you want to acquire during your lifetime? During the next five years? The next year? Allow yourself to dream at this stage. Dreams foster hope and open our minds to the possibilities. Do not allow limiting beliefs, previous disappointments, criticisms, or failures to stifle you. Ask yourself, “What might I attempt if I knew I could not fail?”

With the dream firm in your mind, the next step is to think about what you need to do to make those things happen. You will be amazed at what you can accomplish when you are clear about what you want and have an action plan in place to guide you. Your goals must be measurable and should have both long- and short-term components that are time, task, and resource specific.

Write this information down. Written goals make dreams physically real. They provide a vision of the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to lead.

To get started, follow these five steps:

Step 1

List the 15–20 most important things you want to accomplish during your lifetime. Invest the time to seriously think about this. Do this over a period of a few days or even weeks. Do not worry about whether or not these things are practical or even possible just yet. Allow yourself to dream. When you are satisfied with your list, date it. These are your lifetime goals (a heady thought, right?).

Step 2

From that lifetime list, select the four or five things you want to accomplish in the next five years to create your five-year plan.

Step 3

Review your five-year plan and choose the two or three things you want to accomplish during the coming year. These are your annual goals.

Step 4

For each annual goal listed, write down the answer to the following questions.

  • What is the goal?
  • Why do I want to achieve this goal? (This will identify your motivation!)
  • When will I achieve this goal? (Give yourself a realistic timeline.)
  • How will I achieve this goal? (Alternatively, what three things do I need to do?)
  • Who can help me achieve this goal?

Step 5

Create your job search action plan.

Typically, job seekers start their search by drafting a résumé, simply listing all their experiences in reverse chronological order. But that’s starting in the middle of the process, bypassing important formative steps. A résumé needs to be more than just a laundry list of your education, employers, and job titles. A résumé is a sales document; it is your marketing brochure. To ensure you design an effective one, you have to know what you have to sell and you have to understand whom your target audience is and what they are willing to buy.

The job search is not a linear process; it is typically not even a logical process. It is more complex than that. It involves three phases that sometimes overlap with each other:

Phase 1: self-assessment

During this phase, the focus is inwards. You have to know what value you have to offer employers, so you must invest time to:

  • Identify your values, skills, and abilities
  • Recognize your special knowledge
  • Evaluate your experiences
  • List your accomplishments
  • Acknowledge your educational level
  • Recognize your preferred work styles
  • Consider your temperament
  • Examine your interests
  • Evaluate your motivations
  • Set goals

There are many self-assessment tools designed to help you figure these things out.

  • The online Self-Directed Search provides an individualized interpretive report describing what you like—your favorite activities and interests—as well as information about potentially satisfying occupations. The theory behind the assessment is that people are most satisfied in their careers when they are surrounded by people with similar interests because it creates a work environment that suits their personalities. People are more comfortable and ultimately more successful in a work environment that rewards the traits and behaviors that come most naturally to them.
  • Another useful self-assessment tool is the Highlands Ability Battery. It uses 19 different timed work samples to measure the speed with which a person is able to perform a particular series of tasks. The scores, shown together on a personal profile and bar chart, reveal patterns, or “clusters,” of abilities that highlight your natural gifts and talents in relationship to how you learn, how you solve problems, how you communicate, and even which type of work environment best suits you. A certified provider provides a skilled analysis of the written report and helps students/graduates explore the best career options based on their natural abilities.
  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is based on the theory that individuals are either born with or develop certain “preferred” ways of thinking and acting. By examining your responses to a series of questions, the MBTI defines 16 possible psychological types. This test is offered online without the assistance of a qualified counselor or can be administered through a qualified MBTI career counselor who will help interpret the results.
  • The DiSC Sort classifies four aspects of behavior by testing a person’s preferences in word associations: dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness. While you don’t need a certified career counselor to interpret the results, someone trained in interpreting DiSC would be useful in terms of guiding you toward the practical application of the information on designing your career plan.

While no one test is going to provide you with all the answers to guarantee career success, any one of the tests described, in conjunction with a trained career coach—such as those available through your campus career or alumni center—can provide useful insights to help you design a focused but flexible job search action plan. Check with your career development office to see if anyone on staff is certified in any of these instruments.

Phase 2: market assessment

During this phase you need to turn your focus outwards. Knowing what value you have to offer, you now must learn which employers need your abilities, skills, and talents. During this time you must:

  • Review job postings
  • Research individuals, organizations, and communities
  • Talk to friends, family, and business associates
  • Read trade papers, blogs, and websites
  • Develop contact lists
  • Conduct informational interviews

Once you have an understanding of your abilities and personality, you can now match it with a compatible career path. Check out ONET Online to learn more about the skills, abilities, and personal attributes needed as well as tasks and work environment options for a variety of careers. Then look at Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Finder to learn the entry-level education requirements, projected number of new jobs, and median pay for the ones that match your profile.

Keep in mind that the point of entry into any field can vary wildly. In many instances, a new graduate with the technical expertise and industry knowledge may have an advantage over someone with general business or management experience but limited industry knowledge. But understanding what the job requires will enable you to find the appropriate point of entry for you and design a job search action plan to showcase how your unique gifts and talents meet the potential employer’s needs.

Phase 3: implementation

It is only after you understand what you have to offer and who needs what you have to offer that you can focus on the mechanics of the job search. Now it is time to:

  • Draft résumés, cover letters, and applications (and revise as needed)
  • Interview for positions
  • Negotiate salaries
  • Evaluate offers

Just remember, the job search process is not as linear as these steps suggest. It is circular and continuous. For example, information discovered during market research may require you to revisit Phase 1 and revise your goals or rework your résumé. An unsuccessful interview in Phase 3 may point you back to Phase 2 to do more in-depth market research. Every step along the way is meant to teach you something about yourself or about the world of work. It can be overwhelming and disorienting, like being lost on a road trip, but you may just discover a path you had not even considered. Be open to the journey!

Ultimately, all college graduates have the ability to DRIVE themselves to their dream jobs!

  • Define your “product” through self-assessment exercises
  • Research the world of work and possible career paths
  • Inform others of your talents by crafting effective résumés and cover letters
  • Verbalize you talents by perfecting your interview skills
  • Evaluate offers and their impact on your long-term goals

Because each job choice you make throughout your career is likely to have an enormous impact on your life, getting started can be scary and overwhelming. Do it anyway. I promise, the rewards will be worthwhile.

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