It’s that time of year. College graduation is just around the corner, and a flood of entry-level job candidates are about to hit the market. If you are one of them and you’re trying to land your first job after college, you have probably gotten your résumé in order, drafted a few cover letters, and perhaps even applied either online or interviewed on campus for your dream job. But do you really know what it takes to win over a prospective employer? Remember, there are many other recent college grads just like you who have also done everything “right” so far and are most likely applying and competing for the same entry-level jobs you are. So how do you stand out from other recent grads also looking for their first job after college? Here are five secrets—plus their real-world examples—you need to know in order to win at the entry-level job game.
1. Have a sense of urgency
Business moves fast. Because of that, interviewers want to hire candidates who understand that and have a sense of urgency. That means if an employer reaches out to you and asks about your availability to come in and interview, you need to respond within one to two hours. I recently reached out to a job candidate who responded to me two days later. She indicated that she was very interested in the job, but the amount of time that passed before she answered my email made her a less attractive candidate. The reason is that your sense of urgency in the interview process is often an indication of your sense of urgency in the job. And at the entry-level position, a sense of urgency is critical to success.
2. Position yourself during the job interview
You have a key objective in any entry-level job interview: to make the interviewer see you as uniquely suited to the job you are interviewing for. This is called “positioning.” Remember, the interviewer will be meeting several job candidates—all likely very good and all likely very similar. During the interview, the interviewer is thinking about the qualities they believe will make the candidate successful in the job. I once interviewed a young woman for an entry-level account job, and she told me during the interview that she was detail oriented and obsessed with writing everything down. I took note of this, because these qualities were important to the job, and her mentioning them was an indicator that she could be successful in the position. But then she went one step further. She proved it to me. She took out a composition notebook and showed me page after page how she wrote everything down so she could follow up on her tasks and make sure they were completed. If you position yourself well in a job interview, you will be remembered. If you prove it, you won’t be forgotten.
3. Know what it means to go above and beyond
I have a saying: if you are doing what is expected of you, you aren’t doing enough. That’s because anybody can do what is expected of them, but job candidates who impress—and get hired—go beyond what is expected. For example, while many job candidates think researching the company and using that information in an interview is impressive, it really isn’t. That’s because it has become expected of all job applicants. But if you do that research plus something extraordinary, that is how you get yourself hired. I recently interviewed a young woman for a job working on our fast food account. She started the interview by telling me that she took a train 45 minutes to the nearest restaurant so she could experience the food, the service, the value for the money, and the ambience. That impressed me.
4. Ask smart questions in the job interview
Many entry-level job candidates go for quantity over quality when it comes to the question-and-answer phase of the entry-level job interview. That’s a mistake. Three to four smart, well-thought-out questions will take you a long way—much farther than eight to 10 typical questions. Challenging questions are your best bet too, mainly because the interviewer will respect you for asking them. I interviewed a woman who asked me what my company’s new business strategy was over the next two years. It was a challenging question but I respected her for asking it because the answer potentially impacted her well-being as an employee at the company.
5. Negotiate your starting salary well
Would you rather make $45,000 a year or $50,000 a year? How about $60,000 vs. $70,000? The difference in your starting salary is in how well you negotiate. Most entry-level candidates are uncomfortable negotiating salary. Flip this and become confident when negotiating your salary. The way to do this is through homework. Find out exactly what the industry standard is for the job you are interviewing for. Ask recruiters. Look at salaries on job sites. I recently asked a candidate, “What is your salary requirement?” His answer: “Based on my research on this position, the industry standard is $50,000–$55,000 a year. Because of my relevant internships, I would require $55,000.” That was a great answer because it was fact based and showed he did his homework.
Conducting the job search and going on interviews right out of college is a stressful time. But you spent all that time and energy in college for a reason—to prove your worth and skills to land your dream job and work in your field of interest. Have confidence in yourself and get out there and start applying to jobs.
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