College is a career growth goldmine. By digging up the right resources, you’ll be on track to landing your dream job right after graduation. But let’s be clear: A job is something that’s given to you. You earn it, but you don’t build it—not like you do a long-term career. A job is a building block to form that career, which requires a personal brand—a marker for who you are, what you stand for, and the unique value you bring to your industry. In other words, it’s your professional identity, motivation, and competitive advantage rolled into one. To all the college-bound and enrolled students out there, here are three ways to build a personal brand that will help you stand out in a competitive job market.
Be engaged when networking
Your first priority is to practice networking in a way that’s personable and receptive. Networking is an exchange of information and ideas between people who share a common interest. It’s a chance to make connections that will last beyond college. To get started, find out what information sessions and networking events your school’s career center is hosting throughout the year, whether they’re online or face-to-face. As a pro tip, don’t be the person who overshares about their accolades and experience when networking. In casual conversation, oversharing is usually innocent, but in networking scenarios, you’ll want to avoid it.
Don’t just talk—listen
Networking isn’t all about talking, because talking doesn’t necessarily mean you’re engaged. When networking, turn down your tone and turn up your ears. Listening skills are a great job search tool that will help you stand out to employers. When you actively listen, you’re able to ask open-ended questions that further your knowledge. Instead of viewing networking as a way to snag a job, use it to learn about industry trends and engage people’s perspectives. Listening helps you build trust with other people, increasing the chance that they’ll recommend you for future job positions.
To be clear, you should still try to market your expertise to build your credibility. That is how you express your personal brand, after all. However, you shouldn’t shove it down people’s throats, as if you spent hours rehearsing your delivery. Besides, people aren’t going to remember a robotic listing of facts as much as a friendly, insightful conversation. Your ability to show respect and curiosity for the other person makes a much better stamp on your personal brand. Once people see how open-minded and engaged you are, they’ll automatically want to learn more about you.
Maintain your connections
Once you nail your first networking event, keep the momentum going. The real work is maintaining positive connections once you start them. Knowing the right people will go a long way in helping you make informed career decisions. To grow your network, reach out to peers, professors, and alumni in your field and collect their phone numbers. Talk to them about your career goals, what you’re learning, and any questions you may have. This will build your support system, a safety net of people you can go to for advice and fresh ideas. You never know—someone you maintain a relationship with during college could become your future boss, colleague, or client. Networking isn’t as easy as simply finding people to talk to, but if done thoughtfully, it’s a great strategy to stand out as a promising new voice in your industry.
Be a go-getter
To be a go-getter means to unapologetically put yourself out there. If you want to stand out in the job market, let people see your personal brand in action. Your personal brand will evolve as you gain more skills, industry knowledge, and experience. Thus, the only way to get noticed in your field is to step into it blindly. You may not know what’s ahead, but college might give you an idea on how to get there. Find student organizations at your school that align with your professional goals. If there isn’t one, create one! Leadership experience will distinguish you from other job seekers.
Volunteer to build soft skills
What’s even more impressive than student organizations is volunteer work. Volunteering allows you to network, upgrade your skill set, and define what you stand for. Remember, that’s what your personal brand is all about. Most volunteer work helps you foster the soft skills employers want, such as teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving. A lot of people gain experience through paid work, but not as many commit to freely giving their time to support a mission. Who wouldn’t want to hire a team player who has a knack for helping others?
Build an online presence
Another way to put yourself out there is to make your personal brand omnipresent. How can you do that? Showcase your brand online. Social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram allow you to network with influencers and showcase your industry savvy. How can you make your online presence stand out? Tap into the most professional networking platforms—LinkedIn being a major one. To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with less formal social media sites like the former ones mentioned. Some professions demand them. But if you want to stand out as a college student just starting out, do what many young people don’t—give the more business-approachable sites the time of day. In addition to LinkedIn, it’s a smart business move to build your brand on Handshake, a site dedicated to helping college students find jobs. Whatever online platform you use, make sure it’s professional and solely dedicated to growing your brand. No matter what, your online presence should stand out—but not in a way that raises red flags.
Social media is a way for your brand to come to life, but it can also be a mask of real life. Too many people hide behind a screen by putting up a facade online. In the professional world, this translates to people claiming to be what they’re not and offering what they can’t. To stand out, you should be genuine in your professional purpose. Why are you pursuing this job? What are you trying to get out of it? What are you trying to prove? Those are the kinds of questions employers will ask as they explore your profiles. Do you know the answers yourself? You don't have to pretend to be the kind of employee, client, or colleague you think others want you to be. Be confident in what makes you special and what you offer, and people will come to you. Remember, no one can offer value the way you can. Integrity can go a long way in enhancing your reputation and, thus, your personal brand.
Don’t chase perfection
Having an online presence that humanizes you is your competitive advantage. Most people try to top competitors with long résumés filled with numbers and endless accolades. While those things are important, they’re not exceptional. Everyone takes to the internet to brag about their highlights so often that it’s almost robotic, as if they’re striving for perfection. But the best way to be personable is to not be perfect. Think about it—if businesses sought perfection in new employees, they’d have nothing to enforce, improve, or advance. Instead of copying and pasting your résumé onto your personal brand, take advantage of the visual features of social media to show more than tell. Show people that you’re more nuanced, interesting, and creative than someone who pushes for perfection. Show them that you’re a work in progress. Be honest about what you’re learning, accept your mistakes, and never let what you see others doing influence your professional journey. If employers want your skills and talents, they have to hire you—the full person—not just what you can do.
You don’t have to wait until you graduate college to start making a name for yourself. If you establish your personal brand in college (or even before you get there), you’ll increase your chances of being hired right after graduation. Most importantly, you can take the time to develop your skills before you step into the postgrad professional world. That’s when the real fun begins.