Tips to college grads seeking first job
By Christine Dugas
A college degree is no longer the ticket to the American dream. Graduates now must quickly learn how to promote themselves in the competitive job market.
When Kevin Holt, 23, graduated from California Lutheran University this year, he thought, having graduated with honors, that he had done everything right and had a good shot at getting a job.
Six months after Holt received a bachelor's degree in communication, he's still looking for work. "It's daunting," he says. "You feel like you're going after everything, and soon, there are no more opportunities to even look for." Holt, who lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif., hasn't given up, though he might move to Iowa or Minnesota, where he has family, to seek a job.
He's one of a growing number of frustrated job hunters sporting newly minted degrees. The unemployment rate of Americans ages 20 to 24 has climbed from 8.5% in 2007 to 15% this year at a time the overall unemployment rate hovers just below 10%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adding to the pressure to get a job, graduates on average are starting out with $24,000 in student loan debt, according to a new report about 2009 from The Project on Student Debt.
That's why experts say it's more important than ever for graduates to learn the best job-hunting skills and avoid mistakes as they compete with the many experienced workers who are also unemployed. Some tips:
•Attend career fairs and networking meetings. Don't just rely on online job applications or a single mentor.
Applying for jobs online is very time-consuming with little payoff. "Graduates send out hundreds, if not thousands, of résumés online, and they rarely get a response to any of them," says Lesley Mitler, president of Priority Candidates, which helps prepare graduates for the job hunt. "It leads to a lot of discouragement and depression."
Dina Wulinsky, a career counselor at Penn State York, says networking is how roughly 70% of jobs are found. Graduates should develop a list of people to talk to — from friends, family and neighbors to workers they met during an internship program, teachers and professional online resources. LinkedIn is an online networking tool that helps graduates make connections to other people, she says.
•Take advantage of the campus career services office or resources. "Our campus has a specific job-search tool for students and alumni, and other schools might have that, as well," says Wulinsky.
You also can hire a coach to provide skills. After Kim Bodson, 24, graduated from Boston College in 2008, her father hired Priority Candidates as a graduation gift for her. While meeting with them, Bodson revamped her résumé, practiced mock interviews and focused on networking. After a networking meeting, she landed a job in October working for a magazine as an advertising assistant.
•Make your résumé stand out, and don't crank out the standard fare. "It becomes a perfunctory part of the job process," says David Pinkley, founder of The Résumé Sage, a job-search coach.
Graduates often rely on a friend's or colleague's résumé as a model. Instead, take time to be introspective, Pinkley says. Even if you don't have much of a job history to include, you can mention summer jobs, internships, leadership in extracurricular activities and anything that highlights strengths.
You should write a cover letter for different types of job openings and try to tweak your résumé to show you are a good fit, Pinkley says.
•Do plenty of research. Majoring in the field you're targeting isn't enough. "Few graduates even pick up a newspaper," Mitler says. "They should be reading newspapers, periodicals, relevant books and watching cable TV shows that address issues in areas of their interest." Being on top of current events in the business can show that you have a passion for the industry.
•Consider doing an internship even if you've graduated. If you've applied for hundreds of jobs with no success, consider applying for an internship. Not all are just available to college students. Holt, who had an internship with a marketing director for a nutraceutical company when he was a student, now is applying for another one while he looks for work.
"Recent graduates are looking for internships to break into an industry and start their career," says Carolyn C. Wise, senior education editor at Vault.com, a career information firm. "There are thousands of internships across the country, and they are so diverse."
•Consider relocating. Different parts of the nation may offer more entry-level jobs. For example, there has been a rebound in the Midwest. "They've been down for a while and so they are coming off a low bottom, especially Michigan and Ohio," says Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.
•Be realistic. During the dot-com boom, salaries soared and pay still is being adjusted downward, Gardner says. Thomas Casey, 23, who graduated from Penn State University in December, applied for more than 400 jobs before he was recently hired by Scottrade as a portfolio technician. "I had to settle with a lower salary than what I want," he says. "But it's a good start, and I'm happy to be within my field."