When you are a college student, life is great. You can wake up late, sleep through a couple lectures, hang out with your friends, grab some pizza, party that night, and then do it all over again. A couple times a year a break-up, a long paper, or a major exam might add a bit of stress to your otherwise carefree existence. For those students who hold down part-time jobs, the work tends to be straightforward and the pay limited. These jobs are a way of making money to get through college – nothing more or less.
Four (or five, depending on your personal timeline) years pass blissfully and then, all of a sudden, the college hands you a diploma, shakes your hand, and spits you out into the world. Now what? Time to find a job. If you are on of the fortunate few, you have already become acquainted with your Office of Career Services during senior year and may have something lined up. However, is this the best job you could have gotten? On the other hand, if you are one of the typical multitude, your thoughts about a job are just that – thoughts.
What you may not realize is that graduation from college is a critical breakpoint. Career choices made during and after graduation will affect your entire life – it will deeply affect your skills, your earnings potential, your social circle, who and whether you marry, where and how you will liveÃ¢Â?Â¦in a word – everything. Given the monumental importance of this decision, even a small amount of planning can have a profound influence on your future success.
There are three key pieces of advice that you must internalize: (1) start early; (2) prepare; and (3) follow through. It may not sound like much, but these three steps can mean the difference between a multi-million dollar career and a dead-end one, or, if material success is not your measuring stick, the difference between a fulfilling career and a meaningless one.
The first step is to start early. The basic tool for getting a job – any job – is the resume. A resume with a lot of blank space will not interest any employer. The earlier you can amass experience, the more impressive your resume will look relative to your peers. Consider two college seniors – the first senior has worked a summer internship at IBM and another summer internship at Procter & Gamble, volunteered at the homeless shelter and the hospital, participated in the French and Business clubs, and served as a research assistant for a professor; meanwhile, the second senior played on the college basketball team andÃ¢Â?Â¦well, that’s pretty much it as far as resume experience. Which senior would you want to invite for an interview? Unless you are a huge basketball fan (and potentially even then), it would certainly be the first one.
Starting early means exploring opportunities for work both on- and off-campus. If you cannot get a paid position, take an unpaid internship – from a resume perspective, a job is a job, regardless of how much or whether you got paid. Professors need research assistants, community service organizations need volunteers, private corporations need interns, and start-up businesses need cheap labor. Start with people you know. Approach your professors, family, and friends, and ask whether they may need a pair of helping hands at their place of work. Even if you put in a few hours over a few weeks, it’s another experience that you can put on you resume.
In choosing whether to pursue one opportunity or another, consider which will sound more relevant on your resume. Suppose you have the choice to either work as a research assistant for a Professor of Economics or as an assembly-line worker at a family friend’s auto plant. If you are interested in a career in business, finance, or accounting, the research assistant position will not only look more relevant on your resume, but give you a better understanding of your chosen career field. On the other hand, if you are interested in mechanical or automotive engineering, the job at the plant would be more appropriate.
The second step is preparation. The basic idea here is that knowledge is power. How can you plan your career if you are not even sure what career choices are out there? The more you can learn about different types of jobs, the more likely you are to be able to select one that is appropriate for you and then gear your collegiate experience in that direction. For certain jobs, a student’s GPA and club affiliations may be most important, while for other jobs the student’s real-world work experience is paramount. Preparation means interacting with your Office of Career Services, talking to your family and friends, and reaching out to complete strangers in areas of interest. Many of these strangers will become the mentors and contacts which will empower you to secure the most appropriate job after graduation.
If you have no idea which jobs appeal to you, begin with your interests. Do you enjoy writing? Do you like working with computers? Do you have an artistic mind set? Once you have identified your preferences, you can go to the Office of Career Services and ask for suggestions on jobs that pertain to those preferences. Once you have a list of jobs, research them thoroughly – again, prepare yourself to be as knowledgeable about these industries and their hiring practices as possible. Understand what the entry-level opportunities are and what the hiring managers look for. Most important: never be afraid to ask questions. By asking questions as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, you can then maximize your chances of landing the job as a senior.
Once you have determined which career areas are most appealing and built up your resume, make sure to prepare for your interviews. Interviewing is a skill, and like any skill, the key to improvement is practice. You can find a lot of common interview questions online. Practice answering these questions, either on your own or with an interviewing partner. If your Office of Career Services offers mock interviews, make sure to participate. Each time you do a practice or mock interview, ask for candid feedback. By identifying your weakness areas, you will know what needs improvement.
The final step is following through. The jobs market is highly competitive and it is easy to become discouraged. Remember: there is always more that can be done. Your resume can be improved, your interview skills can be refined, your contacts can be expanded, and your knowledge base can be grown. If a door closes – knock again. If a paid position at your dream firm is unavailable, see if you can take an unpaid internship, just to get your foot in the door. If your e-mails are not being answered, try calling. If your calls are not being returned, try stopping by. If a contact is busy, make sure you ask for a better time to talk before you let them go.
In addition to following through on specific opportunities, make sure you stay in touch with all your various contacts. A call once a month to say hello, ask about the family, and provide an update on your situation can lead to an important referral down the line. Some successful entrepreneurs maintain databases of people they speak with, including notes on what was discussed each time. Perhaps it’s not necessary to be so detailed, but keeping in touch is important – not only at the outset of your career, but throughout its development.
The three steps outlined here are not particularly difficult or time-consuming, but their impact on your life cannot be overstated. Take an hour or two a few times a week to explore job and internship opportunities, to chat with career counselors, and to contact individuals in industries of interest. That way, when the college hands you that diploma and shows you the door, you will know exactly where you are going.