Monday, May 4, 2009

10 Things Employers Say Every College Student Should Know About Getting a Job

At first the students didn't catch on. Then, they saw some of their friends have difficulty landing a job. They noticed that not as many recruiters were coming to campus to talk about available jobs. They began hearing more about people being laid off and losing careers that took decades to build.

Finally, they knew: They were about to graduate and try and get a job in a very, very tough market. The anxiety of being burdened with thousands of dollars in student loans, competing against much more experienced applicants that were flooding the job market and the erosion of many jobs overnight has hit graduating college students hard.

I spoke with many of them recently when I visited my alma mater, Oklahoma State University, as the Paul Miller journalism lecturer. They asked lots of questions about what they can do to improve their chances of landing a job, and I passed along the information I have been receiving from employers.

The key is that it shouldn't just be college seniors who need to be much more proactive in this market. Employers predict it may be tough going for the next couple of years, so sophomores and juniors need to also pay attention.

Here are some tips from employers who regularly recruit and hire college graduates:

1. Work on your personal brand. What makes you unique? How have you committed yourself to a cause or a passion? “You need to get accomplishments under your belt,” says Cathy Chin,employee experience manager for I Love Rewards, a web-based employee rewards and recognition program in Toronto, Ontario.

2. Look the part. "You can always wear a suit to an interview and look OK standing next to someone in jeans," Fuller says. "But not the other way around. Then you've made a faux pas. Dress like you're going to the White House."

3. Step forward. Bob Daugherty, U.S. sourcing leader from PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York, says he was impressed with a student after the young man not only showed up early for a presentation but sat in the front, asked questions, introduced himself and offered a resume after Daugherty’s talk. “The kid was a sophomore,” he says. “This is somebody we want to keep track of.”

4. Do the homework. “The people we hired had great phone interviews showing a lot of personality, poise and confidence. When we narrowed it down to a top 10 to interview in person, they showed up very polished and knew about us and our competitors. They weren’t going to have to be spoon fed if we hired them,” says Sue Fuller, director of talent management for EDL Consulting in Northbrook, Ill..

5. Walk the talk: “We want to see if you’re going to fit in with our company, and that means doing your research and being able to speak intelligently about the subject and our company,” Chin says. “But we’re also watching you when you walk around, from the minute you come into our lobby. Do you look at our awards? Are you nice to the receptionist? We want to see that you’re fully engaged.”

6. Learn to network: All those interviewed agreed that both graduates and undergraduates need to work on networking with other professionals, their faculty and the college career center. Students should strive to not only make these business connections in person, but also through online networking sites such as LinkedIn. A word of warning, however, comes from Fuller regarding some less-than-professional behavior online: “We’re very mindful of how people behave online. We do check. Business is about reputation and relationships, so we’re looking to see how they manage themselves online.”

7. Be yourself. "Our candidates showed up very polished, in suits. They were poised and polite. They were confident. But they showed their personalities and had just such a wonderful appeal because of their demeanor. They didn't have too many expectations, but they were not desperate," Fuller says. "They were there to impress us, but they were also authentic."

8. Working hard matters. Many of the students I spoke with at OSU worried about whether they had the right stuff on their resume. Was an internship necessary? What about extra-curricular activities? What if they had stayed out of school a couple of years to work? How important was a grade point? The employers I spoke with all said the same thing: They want to see students who have put energy and enthusiasm into whatever they were doing. So, being active in a fraternity and campus activities, participating in a college sport, working hard at a job that showed you moved up the ladder, having a terrific grade point, receiving awards -- those things were worth something to an employer.

"I like to see a demonstration of their passion and what they're giving back to their school. I want to see energy and enthusiasm and an ability to develop relationships. Some kids are so focused on getting those internships, but I think a big part of going to school is just enjoying yourself and taking the time to experience different things. Just do something different and enjoy yourself -- diversity makes you unique," Daugherty says.

9. Check the attitude. While there's been much written about the fact that some young workers can made demands about what they want and don't want in a job, the tough times may have changed that scenario. "The pendulum has swung back," Fuller says.

Still, Daugherty says that top graduates still have the "upper hand" when it comes to jobs. "This student body is one of the most talented I've seen," Daugherty says. "They're smart and communicative."

Adds Chin: "Don't be overbearing. Be energized, but don't make it about 'me, me, me.' When you come for an interview, we're watching you from the lobby. Do you look at our awards on the wall? Are you nice to the receptionist? Are you fully engaged and looking around?"

10. Keep the faith. All the employers emphasized that there are still plenty of good jobs available to college graduates, and students should remain hopeful. "There are lots of employers who understand that college graduates don't have a lot of experience. But they want that. They want that ball of clay to mold," Fuller says.

What other suggestions do you have for college graduates looking for jobs?


TL said...

Re-tweeting! One of the more helpful posts I've read on this topic. Excellent information!


Anita said...

Thanks much! The employers I interviewed were terrific sources, with lots of good advice.

David Benjamin said...


Great list you've put together. I stress networking like you have mentioned as a MUST. I also suggest that if they can gain experience through an internship or other 'free' work opportunity they take advantage.

I understand the need to make money and that can be done with a non-career job but to advance in their career they will need experience and this is one way to get it.

Anita said...

It was interesting speaking recently with college students. They understood that they needed to "network" but I don't think many of them really knew what that meant. What kinds of questions should they ask? How should they stay in touch? Who should they connect with? As I told them over and over, they should learn from their career center, from their professors, and from their own parents. You've given some great pointers. Thanks.

Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers said...

What a terrific post! This is such a competitive market, but your information illustrates that those who come prepared and polished will be able to impress and land jobs they desire.

I wrote today about the fact that this isn't a "come as you are" job market. I'm always telling my clients (young and experienced) that they have control of their careers in ways they don't realize. It is so obvious that employers respect those who take the reigns and "drive their own career bus."

Anita said...

It certainly sounds to me like you're giving your clients the right advice. What employers emphasized to me was that what a job candidate had shown to be in the past is what the person would show to be in the future. So someone who was energetic, committed, enthusiastic, etc. in whatever they did (sports, academics, volunteer work), that's what employers believed they would see from them in a job.

Ian said...

Great Post, Anita.
This brought back memories of my first interview that went horribly wrong. Where it somehow went into games, music & family stuff.

So I would add to the following to the list:

Use the career centre & do a practice interview before going to your very first interview/phone interview.

Also know what you wrote on the resume by reviewing it before you go in. This would be a good warm 5-10 mins before the interview.

Anita said...

Terrific suggestions! Let's hope everyone takes them to heart, because you're absolutely right.

Barbara Pagano said...

I agree with the others above. This is terrific post and valuable information. I'm sending it on. Thanks.

And for those grads who will choose a gap year or have time for a sabbatical experience, build it into your resume and interviews. Your Personal Brand (#1 in your list) matters!

Anita said...

Thanks...great idea about the gap year!