Watching college seniors plunge into the job market always reminds me of John Wooden's insightful phrase: too many of them "mistake activity for achievement."
I see students every year who don’t focus on their post-graduation plans until the calendar turns to spring, then launch a frenetic campaign of résumés, job board searches, and career fair visits.
As a career services professional, I've helped thousands of students find jobs, and hundreds of employers recruit future leaders. A successful search takes time and planning; I suggest a few straightforward — but often neglected — pieces of advice to guide the process:
- First, get to know yourself;
- Take the time to find the company and career that’s right for you;
- Sell yourself by remembering that it’s not about you.
Get to know yourself:
This sounds like a self-help book, but it’s practical career advice. We encourage students to thoughtfully assess themselves, with a helpful acronym: VIPS – Values, Interests, Personality, Skills.
First, your values: What’s important to you? Spending time with your family, starting a family of your own? Rapid advancement up the corporate ladder? Contributing to a particular cause, or fighting for issues that you care about? Deeply-held religious beliefs or ethical standards?
Then, inventory your interests: What classes made studying feel like an adventure rather than a chore? What passions and hobbies consume most of your free time?
Personality: Are you an extrovert or introvert? Are you most engaged by a variety of projects, or do you need single-minded focus to be productive? Do you like structure and routine, or the freedom to freelance?
And finally, your skills: What technical competencies have you earned over your college career? Have they been tested by real-world experience — i.e. internships, class projects? What transferable skills could apply to your new opportunity — for example, a leadership position in a student organization that shows initiative and teamwork, or honing written communication skills as a correspondent for the college newspaper?
Find the right fit:
An honest VIPS self-assessment will help you target the kinds of companies and positions that give you the best opportunity to succeed. For example, a finance graduate who places a high priority on work/life balance may screen out investment banking positions, with their routine 80 hour-a-week demands on new associates. An accounting major with a passion for fitness and travel might take on a position managing the finances of a small sporting goods chain, even though a spot on the internal audit team of a larger corporation might be more lucrative.
Beyond narrowing down industries and job types, some additional research can yield clues about the philosophy and work culture of specific employers. Explore the company website for the basics, and connect via LinkedIn for more up-to-date news and details on career opportunities. Following key executives on Twitter can also give you insights on their management style and personal vision.
Sites like Glassdoor go even further, offering anonymous feedback from rank-and-file employees about daily office routines, pressures, and expectations. Synthesizing all this information will allow you to identify openings that align best with your aspirations, strengths and work style.
It’s not about you:
Once you've analyzed yourself, and narrowed your focus according to your assessment, it’s time to stop asking “What will this job do for me?,” and start crafting a compelling answer to “What can I do for the company in this job?”
Again, this sounds basic, but I hear constantly about young candidates answering the most fundamental question — “Why should I hire you?” — with a treatise about how the position will advance their budding careers, instead of focusing on how their skills will contribute to the company’s success.
Try to understand your potential employer’s goals as well as you understand your own, and be able to articulate a personal value proposition that clearly states how you’ll help reach them. Remember that you’re asking a company to invest in you — be specific and persuasive about how you’ll make that investment pay off.
As the old saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Wearing professional attire, a firm handshake and good eye contact are all important details. But the real work is done before the interview, going through the process of reflection and preparation I’ve outlined here. But remember: You don’t get a second chance to land your first job, either. Launching your professional life with confidence and enthusiasm is worth the time and effort.