Whether you’re trying to find your first job after college or looking for part-time work like an internship or cooperative education position, preparation pays off. Knowing the strategies and having the tools (a dynamite résumé, an impressive interviewing style, even the right clothes) can set you on course for a successful job hunt. And while you should really be sure to visit your career center before you graduate, we have some solid tips to get you started. Here’s a seven-step guide to help you find a great job and feel prepared to do it right and thrive.
Step 1: Have the right foundation
In the not-so-distant future, you will be applying to jobs. Your résumé will be out there. And hiring managers will be Googling you. You need to make sure they find a hirable person behind that Google search. This means a clean, respectable online presence, at the very least. But it’s preferable that they find the kind of online profile that speaks well to you as a potential employee, like social media feeds that show how interested you are in the industry and perhaps a personal website and/or portfolio that illustrates who you are professionally. Unfortunately, building (and cleaning up) your personal brand doesn’t happen overnight.
Step 2: Find job openings that fit you, your passions, and your skills
Classified ads and job postings at a school’s career center can still uncover some employment hidden gems, but today’s job search requires casting a wider net. “Students who rely only on campus interviews and responding to job ads are missing 80% of the opportunities out there,” says Steven Rothberg, President and Founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, an online job board targeted to students and recent graduates. Most of those jobs are filled through referrals or internal resources. Your mission should be to leave no possibility unturned by exploring all the major employment sources, like these…
Nearly every expert puts networking at the top of the job-finding list. “Most students know—within two degrees of separation—someone at a large company they can make a connection with,” says Steve Pollock, Founder of Turnstone Ventures. And Rothberg goes as far as suggesting that you discuss your job search with every single human being you come into contact with! You should also try to expand your networking circles:
- Professional organizations: See if your campus has a student branch of a professional association related to the field you’re pursuing, such as the Public Relations Student Society of America or the Professional Photographers of America. Or find out if a professional association in your industry accepts junior or apprentice members.
- College alumni: Talk to graduates of your college or university in your field. Most college alumni offices have names of former students willing to be contacted specifically for networking with current students.
- Career fairs: Campus career centers often sponsor events that match employers seeking to fill entry-level positions with students looking for jobs. At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, the career services center organizes fairs in the fall and spring. Structured like a convention floor, the fairs allow students to visit booths and talk one-on-one to company representatives in a variety of industries.
- Special-interest groups: Meetup is a dominant force in this category. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s an app that allows people with similar interests to plan get-togethers. Kind of like campus clubs out in the real world. Sometimes they’re fun and social, but many are professional. So you can seek out your fellow Ruby developers or opera singers or straight-up professional networkers.
The career center
Only about 12% of jobs come to students by way of on-campus interviews, according to William Cohen, author of Break the Rules: The Secret Code to Finding a Great Job Fast. Still, your campus career center is a great place to start your job search. In addition to coordinating on-campus recruiting visits from major corporations, many college career centers offer special programs to help match students and employers. For example, the referral service at Hobart and William Smith College’s career center places students’ résumés in a special database that counselors can sort through and then forward appropriate résumés to employers looking for workers in specific career fields.
But even if you don’t find the perfect job listing through the career center, you’ll still find plenty of job search help. Not only are most college career centers free to use, they are stuffed with job-search aids, from career assessment tools to résumé template books. And perhaps most helpful of all? The trained professionals they employ. You can meet with career advisors to explore careers that fit your interests, and they’ll help you craft and review your résumés and cover letters. (And these services are often available to you as an alumnus too—maybe for life!)
Obviously, online job boards allow you to search thousands of job opportunities and target positions you’re interested in. Most job boards also allow you to upload your résumé for employers to find. Besides the larger, better-known boards like Indeed, Monster, Career Builder, and SimplyHired, there are thousands of smaller job search sites that specialize in particular fields such as technology (Dice), publishing (Mediabistro), finance (efinancialcareers), or health care (HealthcareJobsite.com).
If you love your college internship, it could become a permanent gig. The simplest way to turn your internship into something full time? Do a good job—no matter how mundane or silly the task. Also, during your internship, periodically ask for feedback from your supervisor or other employees. Network like crazy too; at least a couple times a week, try to have lunch with a different person from the company. Stay in touch with your fellow employees after you finish the internship, even if it’s just dropping them an occasional email. And make it known if you’re interested in joining the company full time, perhaps during a review or internship exit interview.
Related: Video: How to Land an Internship
For new graduates, most employment agencies and headhunters are a waste because they don’t handle entry-level positions. On the other hand, obtaining a short-term assignment through a temp agency can give you and a company the chance to check each other out.
Sending out unsolicited résumés is often a waste of time as well. Most companies don’t have time to review them and dump them in the trash. However, Shel Horowitz, Director of Accurate Writing & More, tells the story of a young woman who wanted a job in New York City’s fashion scene. “She blitzed the industry—sent letters to everyone she could think of saying, ‘This is why you need me.’ In six months, she had the job she always wanted.” Although you might find a position sending a résumé to human resources, you’re probably better off contacting the person who actually hires people in the department you’re interested in. Three or four days later, call that person’s office and confirm that they’ve received your material. Once you’ve made it that far, inquire about job possibilities and hiring procedures.
Step 3: Write a great résumé
So, you found a bunch of jobs that fit your interests and experience. You can totally see yourself working in any one of them, and you’re excited to apply. Now all you have to do is write a résumé that will impress? Easy, right? Before you panic, take a look at this guide to the basics: How to Write a Résumé. Plus, a two-second Google search for résumé examples yields a bajillion results.
For many students, the greatest challenge in writing their résumé is completing the “experience” section. They haven’t had a “real” job, so they feel they don’t have much to talk about. First, this is where those internships and co-ops become super handy. But fresh-faced job seekers can also highlight other experiences or skills, such as volunteer work, extracurricular activities, or proficiency in a computer program or foreign language. There’s value in virtually everything you do—you just need to know how to look at it. After all, you can learn important, transferrable career skills like leadership, communication, and problem-solving in so many ways! Don’t think of a fast-food job as just flipping burgers. “You will have learned about quality management,” says Horowitz. “You will have learned about producing large volumes while maintaining identical product.” Or if you worked in retail, you developed strong interpersonal skills. The point is that many of your experiences have given you qualifications that are important to employers, and it’s up to you to bring those out on the résumé. As you create your résumé, keep these tips in mind:
- Design: Stick with clean and simple résumé designs, fonts, and colors. You can use your personal website and/or portfolio to demonstrate your creativity.
- Be specific: Show specific responsibilities and accomplishments. Numbers tell a lot, e.g., how many people did you reach as a social media intern? How much money did you manage as the treasurer of the theater club?
- Word choice: Noun-heavy résumés are helpful, especially as employers search for applicants listing specific keywords. Speaking of which: do some research to determine what some of those keywords are for your industry and if you should be using them in your résumé and cover letter.
- Highlight skills: So-called “soft skills,” such as leadership, communication, and teamwork, are in demand. Plus, as noted above, you may be surprised at how many of your interests translate into these valuable skills.
- Your education: Employers want smart and educated candidates. List your education, including any awards, and your GPA if it is higher than 3.0. (As you gain experience, you’ll eventually move “education” to the bottom of your résumé.)
- Strong objective statement: An objective is not always necessary, but if done well—that is, it’s not a generic, boilerplate sentence about how you’re “looking for a job that will utilize your skills”—it could help your cause.
- Your email address: Always use a professional email address, likely one involving your name (“email@example.com”). Save your “firstname.lastname@example.org” address for emailing your friends.
- Involvement: You should list the extracurricular clubs and student groups you’re in, but don’t add personal details, like your religion.
- Proofread and edit: Don’t forget to proofread your résumé a few times! Giving it to trusted second set of eyes wouldn’t hurt either.
- Additional materials: Don’t send in anything “extra” with your résumé and job application, unless it’s asked for specifically, like writing or design samples.
Finally, if you remember nothing else, remember this: tailor your résumé to the job! Make note of what the employer is looking for in the job listing and rework your résumé as needed to ensure it reflects those skills and experiences. Think of each job post as a survey full of questions about your qualifications; each bullet point on your résumé should give an answer!
Related: A 4-Week Plan to Perfect Your Résumé
Step 4: Write an even better cover letter
A survey by Accountemps found that 60% of employers feel the cover letter that accompanies your résumé, is as important—or more so—than the résumé itself. Just like your résumé, it should be tailored to the position; in fact, the whole purpose of a cover letter is to explain why you in particular are a good candidate for the given job and company! However, that doesn’t mean you should go on and on and on with flowery language about why you’re the right person for the job. Be succinct, and keep the letter to one page. You want to express your enthusiasm and unique qualifications for the role in a straightforward way.
The cover letter is also where knowledge about the company comes in handy. Researching your potential future employer will not only give you a good idea of what you’re getting yourself into but will help you add specific details that set your cover letter apart. For example, you could reference some of the challenges the company might be facing and how you’re the right person to help them overcome them. (That research will also help you during the interview, but more on that in a second.) In general, your cover letters should contain three paragraphs:
- An introduction containing the specifics of the job you’re applying for;
- A synopsis stating why you are a good fit for the position; and
- A closing with a request for an interview, contact information, and thanks.
Again, there is no shortage of cover letter examples to be found online, including those especially for college students and recent grads. Finally, just like your résumé, don’t forget to carefully proofread your cover letter, checking for clarity and proper grammar.
Step 5: Pick the right references
For most serious jobs, you will eventually be asked to provide names of people who can vouch for your merit as an employee. Although the ideal reference is someone you’ve worked for in a job, internship, or volunteer position, don’t feel limited to that category. Professors, advisors, and others in the academic field make great references. Just make sure you ask them if they’re okay with being your reference first! You never want to blindside a reference. Also, a benefit of having that conversation is that you can coach your references. Tell them specifically: “This is the type of job I’m looking for, and these are the types of skills I want to promote.” Pro tip: you don’t need to list your references on your résumé. You don’t even need to say “references available upon request.” Save that space to talk about your skills and accomplishments! Employers will assume you have references and will ask for them around the interview stage.
Step 6: Ace the interview
“People don’t hire from résumés—they hire from interviews,” says Cohen. During that hour or so, interviewers are judging your interpersonal skills, dedication, curiosity, and enthusiasm. At the same time, you’re determining whether or not you would be a good fit with the company too! It’s not surprising that experts say preparation is the key to a successful interview. The best preparation is five-fold:
1. Research the company
“People are far more impressed with a candidate who’s obviously done his or her homework,” says Pollock. This doesn’t mean you need to know their entire history, but you should have a basic knowledge of the company: its mission, its key products or clients, its annual revenue, where it’s headquartered, and who its competitors are. All of this information is often available on most companies’ websites.
2. Be ready to sell yourself
You need to clearly state why you want the job and what you can offer the firm. Pollock suggests listing three things you want the interviewer to remember about you when the interview is over. “Maybe you have great analytical capabilities or a passion for the semiconductor business—make sure you get those things across.”
3. Have questions ready
Asking thoughtful, informed questions shows your interest and expertise. Focus on the job itself: how does my position fit into the organization, what qualifications does it require, what are the day-to-day responsibilities? Also, listen closely to what your interviewer is saying so you don’t ask questions he or she has already answered.
4. Practice, practice, practice!
You wouldn’t think about participating in a race without a few training runs. Similarly, before you do a real interview, you need to put in some practice time. “Find an adult who has some experience with interviews and role-play it,” suggests Horowitz. It’s often helpful to videotape your mock interview session, as it allows you to catch a physical faux pas such as fidgeting and not making eye contact.
5. Don’t forget the basics
- Dress appropriately. Even if you know for a fact the company has a laid-back culture, you should still wear business casual attire to your interview. And a classic suit is always a safe bet.
- Turn off your cell phone.
- Make eye contact.
- Don’t fidget.
- Thank them when you leave!
Step 7: Follow up
A short note thanking an interviewer for seeing you is more than polite—it can give you an edge. You can use your thank-you note to make a point you may have left out during the interview and reiterate your enthusiasm. The note doesn’t have to be more than 150 words or so. Email thank you notes are pretty much standard these days, and you should send one within 24 hours of your meeting. And/or you can send a snail mail thank you card; get that in the mail ASAP too. It’s helpful to personalize the note by mentioning something you discussed during the interview, preferably something that will reflect positively on you. Finally, if you don’t hear anything after two weeks or so, it’s okay to send a short, polite email checking in on the status of the position.
Related: How to Write a Professional Email
In terms of keeping your sanity during your job search, staying positive is probably the most important thing to remember. “A lot of people approach the job search as something that’s going to be a horrible undertaking,” says Pollock. “People who do best approach it positively—as a world of possibilities—and they’re going to find a job that’s exciting for them.” Use this guide to help you find an amazing opportunity and enjoy the process every step of the way.
Feeling ready for that interview? If not, we have plenty more advice in our Internships and Careers section.