EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this blog in 2012 when the United States was still stumbling a bit from the downturn of 2008. While that dates it a little, much of this still rings true today.
I’ve been working for universities since 2004. Each spring, I watch thousands of new graduates leave the comforts of college life to launch the careers for which they’ve been planning and preparing. I’ve learned a few things since I entered the post-college, professional workforce in 1999. If you are a new graduate, here are a few things that might help you land that first job.
Proper writing is key.
For those of you who slept through English class and didn’t care about learning proper grammar, you’re already at a disadvantage. You are competing for jobs in a bad economy. Open positions that once brought in 30 resumes and cover letters are now bringing in hundreds. You need your application to rise to the top. If your application packet is littered with grammatical mistakes and improper spelling, the prospective employer only “sees” someone who doesn’t take pride in his or her work. I have a friend who applied to be an auditor. The employer asked him to submit a writing sample. He won the job partly based on his writing sample. The employer told him that the applications he had received from recent college grads were terribly written. (Watch out for “your” and “you’re,” as well as “their,” “there,” and “they’re.”)
Do your homework.
Know everything you can know about the job and the company. Read the website. Learn what you can about the supervisor. Read her online profile or his LinkedIn page. Know the structure of the company. Know how your job will fit in with the rest of the employees. During the interview, be able to say things like: “I see that you encourage your employees to be involved in community service projects” or “I read where you are taking a lead role in the mayor’s new initiative” or “Congratulations on the promotion!” I once worked in an office where we were hiring someone to improve and maintain our website. In every interview, we asked: “What did you like about the website?” or “What improvements would you make to the website?” Half of the people we interviewed hadn’t taken the time to even look at the site before the interview.
Show. Don’t just tell.
If, in your cover letter or during an interview, you tell the employer that you are creative, then you must back it up. Give specifics about a project you completed. Show examples from your portfolio. Show the employer how you have met deadlines. If you have led a staff or a group, give some specific examples of your leadership. You might even mention a small failure or two to let the employer know you’re human. Then come back and show her how you learned from the mistake and made adjustments to keep from making the same mistake twice.
If this is your first job, you are not an expert.
When I was in college, I worked for the school newspaper and the magazine. I was a reporter, a sports editor and an editor-in-chief in college. The stories I wrote, the layouts I designed, all helped me land my first job as a copy editor at a small daily newspaper in Iowa. But once I was in the “real world,” that meant very little. I was the newbie, the rookie. All thoughts of grandeur were quickly stifled. I was the fourth person on a four-person copy desk (aka, the first to go when there’s a budget cut). When you go into an interview, you need to be confident, but you also need to be humble. Be willing to learn. Unless you are being called to lead the team, you must let the employer know that you will be a good member of the overall team. When the hiring party tells you something about the job, don’t say, “I know…” You don’t.
The competition is not always what you think.
Here’s a fact. People with master’s degrees and 10 years of professional experience who need to feed their children are competing with you and your friends for the same entry level positions. If they have been laid off for any amount of time, they’re willing to take a cut in pay to have a job and provide for their families. It’s the reality of today’s job market. So, be polished and personable, and know that this is the “real world.” Do everything you can to sell yourself. They’re doing the same — and their skill toolbox might have a little more heft.
Looks (and smells) matter.
It’s true. I’m not saying that you have to look like a movie star to land a job. I’m telling you that when you interview for a job, you should be dressed to the nines and show you know a thing or two about personal hygiene. I’ve hired many graduate assistants over the years. Most of these were recent college grads. I remember one guy came in and he smelled like he just crawled out of the fraternity house basement (like the house I lived in during college). Cigarette smoke saturated his clothes. Beer was on his breath. His eyes were bloodshot. He might have been a great guy and a good worker, but the alarm bells were certainly ringing! He didn’t get the job.
Take my father’s advice.
My dad taught me at a young age that first impressions are huge. “When you meet someone, you give a firm handshake and look them in the eyes,” he said. Then he practiced with me. Over and over. Have you ever met that person that gives you a limp handshake and turns the other way when you say hello? That’s a bad first impression — especially if the job calls for dealing with people.
Listen. Don’t interrupt.
When you’re interviewing, allow the employer to talk. Don’t interrupt or complete his sentences for him. And again, don’t say, “I know…”
Be prepared for the “weaknesses” question.
It’s easy to talk about your strengths. That’s what employers want to hear. But sometimes they throw in this question: “What are your weaknesses?” If they don’t ask you during the interview, I can guarantee that the question will come up when they call your references. I often give references for people, and I’m always asked: “What are his/her weaknesses?” Here’s a tactic that I learned from a great man who worked for years in a career center. Look through the job description and find something in the description that doesn’t quite match with your skills. Address this as your weakness. For example, if the job calls for you to be proficient at using Excel, and you aren’t what you would call “proficient,” then you might say: “I have a lot of experience and skill with Microsoft products and programs like Word and PowerPoint. I’ve had some experience with Excel, but I wouldn’t call myself ‘proficient.’ But I’m a fast learner, and I don’t think it will take me long to learn the program.”
Employers look at Facebook.
Keep it clean. Those photos of you doing a keg stand, or those “tell-all” posts where you complain about a current employer or your professors and how “unfair” they are, don’t help you.
Sometimes it’s who you know.
In this economy, it’s perfectly fine to call upon friends or acquaintances to see if they will help you land an interview or put in a good word for you. I’m always on the lookout for jobs for my friends and colleagues. However, you probably won’t get the job just because you know someone. Also, if you play this card, you must know that if you give a bad impression, that can often be a reflection on the friend who pulled a string or two.
Be willing to move.
This doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes you can’t do it. But, if you’re flexible enough to pack up and move, you’ve just widened your net.
Compete. But please don’t be a stalker.
In this day, it’s harder than ever to land a face-to-face interview. If you have the opportunity, I think it’s appropriate (after you’ve submitted a resume and cover letter) to stop by the office once to say hello and make sure the company has everything it needs from you. Don’t be pushy or demand a face-to-face meeting. Be extremely nice to any administrative assistants or employees you might encounter. If you’re salty to them, or demanding, that character sketch will certainly be passed to the hiring party. Don’t be a stalker and stop by each week to see if they need anything. One time lets the people know that you are serious about the job. Don’t keep calling and calling and calling. If you’re not getting through, or if you’re not getting a response, move along. Also, if you stop by once, you’ll be able to get a feel for the work environment.
It’s about what you can do for them.
When you interview, tell the employer what you can do for the company. Open your skill toolbox and show her how you’ve equipped yourself to work with the team. Be confident, not cocky. Questions about salary and benefits should not come up until the end of the interview. Those questions are appropriate, but they should wait until you’ve sold yourself. When I was in school, I interviewed for a magazine editor position. I was interviewed by a committee, which included several of my professors. The first question was: “Why do you want this job?” My answer: “Well, I guess it would look good on a resume.” Wrong answer. (But I still got the job. Go figure.)
There are some things you just do or don’t do. Be honest. Be polite. Show up early. Dress the part.
Send “Thank You” notes.
For each person you meet during an interview, try to take one or two pieces of information away with you. When you send your “Thank You” notes, personalize them and mention specifics. This is not a trick. It’s a courtesy to let the people know that you truly appreciated them taking their time to meet with you — and always let them know that you look forward to seeing them again!
Someone my age or older will probably be the one hiring you.
If I’m hiring someone (which is not my current line of work), this is what I’d want: I’d want your full attention — not just what you can give me between texts. Until you’re hired, I don’t care what your girlfriend’s ringtone is, so turn the phone off. I’m impressed by your fine character, your positive attitude, and your embrace of personal responsibility. I’m looking for terrific work ethic and incredible potential. Past failures are fine. Just own them and be willing to move forward. I’m impressed by your ability to overcome challenges. Tell me about your family because I want to know exactly who I’m hiring. I want to see that you can work independently and as part of a team. Telling me that you hate group projects is not a selling point. In most businesses, you will work in groups. You must be able to accept criticism. I need to see that you’re willing to learn. I need to see that you’re willing to jump in with both feet. If you bring mom and dad to the interview, leave them in the car.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but I hope you find a few things in here that might help. Best of luck!