Job Search Tips For College Students From a Hiring Manager Turned Career Coach

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Forget about airplanes with “Hire Me!” banners flown past recruiters’ windows. Ditch the singing telegrams that deliver your résumé to hiring managers. Lisa Quast is not about gimmicks—her book, Secrets of a Hiring Manager Turned Career Coach is all about applying logic and strategy to your job search.

If you were hoping for an easy solution to your job search woes, sorry, this book is not quite that. Simple—yes. Easy? No. What do I mean by that? Lisa lays out each and every step you need to take, and gives plenty of examples and templates to guide you. But, when it comes down to it, finding a job is actually a lot of work.

You have to start with a self-assessment. What do you want? What do you have to offer? It can be hard to have an honest conversation with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses (and especially difficult to know what matters when you don’t have much formal work experience), but if you skip this step, you’re only doing yourself a disservice in the long run.

You’re also going to need to spend some serious time researching jobs and companies, job shadowing, and conducting informational interviews (all things that should sound familiar to you if you’ve read a post or two of this blog).

We caught up with Lisa to learn a bit more about the topics she covers in her book, and how they can be applied specifically to students and recent grads.

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What are some of the most common issues that come up with your recent grad clients, and how can they be overcome?

The three main issues or mistakes I see with clients who are recent graduates are:

a)  Not customizing their résumé for each job to which they will apply. Customizing is actually pretty simple. Review the job requirements listed in the job posting and then write “Fully Meet,” “Partially Meet,” or “Don’t Meet” next to each item, based on how you compare yourself to the job requirements. For every item you “Fully Meet” or “Partially Meet,” you analyze your résumé to ensure you’ve included those items. If any are missing, determine the best place(s) to include them in your résumé.

b) Thinking they can “wing” job interviews (not prepare for them). Preparing for job interviews isn’t hard if you’ve customized your résumé for the position as described above. Simply read through the job requirements listed on the job posting and prepare examples and stories that will allow you to demonstrate your skills, knowledge, or experience for each item you coded as “Fully Meets” or “Partially Meets.”

For all the requirements you coded as “Don’t Meet,” think through an action plan of what you could do to learn those skills or gain the required knowledge or experience. Then, hold practice interviews with family or friends to ensure you’ll be relaxed and ready for your job interview.

c) Not taking telephone interviews seriously. If you can’t pass the telephone interview, you won’t be invited for an in-person interview, so treat telephone interviews with as much importance as in-person interviews. Act like it’s an in-person interview and conduct all the same prep work ahead of time, such as researching the company and industry, preparing potential interview questions and answers, and practicing (over the telephone) to get the feel for it before the interview.

What steps can college students take to get a head start on their job search before they graduate?

College is a great time to explore different career and job options and then define career aspirations. For example, when I was in my first year of college I fell in love with my business classes, but I had been thinking about becoming a lawyer for several years. I called a large law firm in Seattle, explained my situation, and asked if I could spend time there during the summer, shadowing several lawyers. The week I spent at that law firm helped me realize that my love for business was much stronger than my interest in becoming a lawyer. Internships are also good ways to test your interest in different jobs and industries.

Use your time during college to clearly define your career aspirations, because it will help you during your job hunt. Here are some other actions to get a head start on your job search:

  • Clean up social media profiles: Ensure your social media profiles depict the type of employee a company would want to hire. Take the time to evaluate and update all social media accounts and profiles prior to interviewing. Create the perception you want by having professional portrait pictures taken for use in social media profiles.
  • Prepare your documents: This can take some time to accomplish, so don’t wait until you graduate to begin working on all the necessary documents. While you’re still in school, create your résumé, prepare your list of references, and obtain recommendations. You can also research industries and companies that are of interest, review job postings, and analyze the job requirements against your knowledge, skills, and experience to determine gaps and how to overcome them.
  • Create a LinkedIn profile: The use of social media (such as LinkedIn) in the hiring process has continued to grow. LinkedIn is a great tool for job-seekers because of the exposure it offers to recruiters, hiring managers, and HR professionals. Use it to proactively share work and career information, network, follow the activities of specific companies and people, search for job opportunities, and even participate in work-related discussions.

In your book, you start with the importance of understanding yourself and your career aspirations. How can college students approach this type of analysis?

The key to defining your career aspirations is to begin by first understanding yourself. A simple way to do this is through what is called a “S.W.O.T. Analysis.” Companies use this as part of the strategic planning process to assess themselves and their competitors to formulate their strategies.

S.W.O.T. stands for strengths (S), weaknesses (W), opportunities (O), and threats (T). College students can apply this analysis to help them understand their internal strengths and weaknesses as well as external opportunities and threats. Once this information is known, it will be easier for them to determine the types of jobs/careers where their strengths can be used, where there are jobs available (now and in the future), and what it will take for them to obtain those types of jobs (the threats or hurdles they will need to overcome). [Editor’s note: For a more thorough explanation of the S.W.O.T. analysis and a few examples, be sure to check out Lisa’s book.]

What is something you wish you had known about the job search/work life when you were just starting out?

Looking back, there are three key things I wish I had known when I was just starting out:

  • That job interviews are actually a two-way street: The employer is trying to find the candidate who is the best fit for the job, but it’s my responsibility to see if the hiring manager, department, and company are a good fit for me—and then be willing to walk away when it isn’t a good fit.
  • How to spot a bad boss, before I accept the job offer: When I was just starting out, I wish I’d have known the characteristics to look for in a bad boss, such as the hiring manager being late to the job interview, having an unusually disorganized office, asking me illegal interview questions, changing the topic of conversation to only talk about themselves, not asking me difficult questions, etc.
  • That there is no such thing as work/life balance: Life is filled with peaks and valleys where we will spend more time in certain pursuits at different times in our lives. There will be times when we are single, college graduates with time on our hands to dedicate 50+ hours a week to work—because we can and we want to. There will be times, such as when we have children, that we’ll have less time for our careers because we want to put more time and effort into our families. As the circle of life continues, we may find we have more time, once again, for career and personal pursuits once our children are grown and on their own. What I learned during my career is that I shouldn’t worry about trying to achieve perfect work/life balance. Instead, I should focus on what makes me happy, and celebrate the times when I’m off balance, as these are usually the times when I learned the most.

In your book, you mention that as a hiring manager, you would always look for applicants who fulfilled about 80% of the criteria for a job. Can you talk about this a bit more?

As a hiring manager, I rarely (if ever) wanted to hire a job candidate who was a 100% fit with the job requirements. That’s because I found that people who were a 100% fit (or who were over-qualified) quickly got bored. Through experience, I learned that it was better to hire candidates who were about an 80% fit and who had an incredible drive for growth and personal development—those were the employees who were happier and more motivated.

Further, there were other attributes I looked for that might not have been specifically called out in the job postings, such as: attitude, aptitude, promotability, accountability, and the ability to execute. By this, I mean that I looked for candidates with a positive attitude, who were intelligent and had the ability to learn new things, who had the potential to be promoted upwards, and who held themselves accountable—for implementing and completing projects, continuing their personal development, and learning from their mistakes. Skills can be learned and experience can be gained over time, so I found it better to look for job candidates who were about an 80% fit with the requirements and had a solid foundation for learning, for developing themselves, and for achieving positive results.

Many job descriptions say that they’re for entry-level positions, but then they require 1–3 years of experience. How should students approach this type of job listing?

The recession created an over-abundance of available job candidates, making it more difficult for recent graduates to find jobs. In addition, because of the high volume of candidates, employers raised the bar for minimum requirements for many entry-level jobs, such as the amount of education and years of work experience.

If you’ve recently graduated from high school or college, you might wonder what to include on your résumé if you don’t meet the minimum number of years of work experience in a job posting. In this situation, look for any work you’ve done which could demonstrate that you’re a responsible, trustworthy adult. Consider including experience such as babysitting or working as a nanny and any other work you might have done around your neighborhood, even lawn mowing jobs or helping care for elderly neighbors.

Volunteer work might not have been paid, but it is still useful experience to include on your résumé. For example, have you been a volunteer at a local hospital, nursing home, or senior center? Have you completed any volunteer work for organizations such as the United Way, your local Food Bank, the Humane Society, March of Dimes, American Heart Association, Habitat for Humanity, Make a Wish Foundation, YWCA or YMCA, etc.? If yes, include this information and your responsibilities and accomplishments on your résumé in a section titled “Community Service Experience” or “Volunteer Experience.”

You could also include information about school projects on which you worked and positions you held in school activities or clubs, such as vice president of the senior class, manager of the student store, president of honor society, captain of a sports team, secretary of DECA, competitive member of Mathletes, member of the debate team, etc. List the club, your position, and then include what you did (responsibilities) and what you accomplished (results). If you can quantify your result, even better. For example, if you were the manager of the student store and you introduced new products and implemented promotions, include that information on your résumé, such as: “Introduced new line of healthy snacks and drinks, increasing student store revenue +17%.”

Another type of experience you can include on your résumé is internships. These can be both paid and unpaid internships. Be sure to explain your responsibilities and main tasks as well as any accomplishments or results (quantified) of projects you completed.

Finally, keep in mind that you might not be able to get the job you want, right now. When I began my career, I couldn’t get into the much-coveted marketing positions I was seeking. So I chose the industry and specific company for which I wanted to work and then I interviewed and obtained a job in their Sales Operations department.

I then spent two years “wowing” everyone with my skills and abilities. I also volunteered my time for two to four hours a week, helping out in the marketing department. When a job finally became available in marketing, I was the candidate of choice because I was a “known” entity. After going through the interview process, I received the job offer. Sure, it took me longer than I’d hoped to get into a marketing position, but I eventually got the job I wanted. Perseverance is key.

Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to add about the job search for college students/recent grads?

Finding a job isn’t a sprint to the finish line. The job search process is more like running in a marathon—you must be emotionally strong throughout, it can sometimes be painful, and you must be able to give yourself inner pep talks as motivation. Consider your job search a journey of self-discovery, one that will help you learn more about yourself, your unique qualities, and the areas you can work to improve. While a fancy looking résumé, a voluminous portfolio of work, or an incredibly chic interview outfit might get you noticed, it won’t get you hired. What will get you the job is what is in your head and in your heart—it’s about your knowledge and your passion for the job and for life.

Homework time! Lisa has so much good advice that we can’t choose just one piece to focus on. Take a minute to reflect on everything she shared in this interview and then choose one point that you’re going to act on. Feeling brave? Let us know what it is in the comments section below!

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