So You Just Graduated College in the World of COVID--Now What?

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Ryan Kay Star

Ryan Kay

ryank@refer.io

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Aug 17, 2021

Here is the best advice I have on how you can STILL LAND A JOB YOU WANT--and figure out what that is if you have no idea!

Congratulations! You just graduated college (or are going to be soon) and are entering the big, bad "real" world of employment. In this post-2020 work era, you may be feeling nervous or afraid about what kinds of job prospects actually await you.

Well I have good news, there are in fact A LOT of opportunities for those who are ready and willing to grab them.

Many recent college graduates who are searching for employment don't know how to define what sets them apart as a job candidate. As a result, their resumes are weak. And with a lack of experience and network, they can find themselves feeling discouraged by the job search, application, and interview processes.

I'M HERE TO HELP YOU!!!!

Before I give you some of the best advice I have--advice that can actually help you navigate to where it is you are trying to go: land a solid job and build a real, meaningful career--I need to separate you into one of two categories:

Category One: I'm a College Grad Who Knows Where I Want to Go - You went to college and picked a major with a very specific job or industry in mind--now you are trying to find a company that will hire you.

Category Two: I'm a College Grad Who Needs Help Figuring Out Where I Want to Go - You went to college and picked a major mainly out of interest (or purely because you needed to pick something!). You didn't have a specific path in mind and now you are like--what?! Where do I go with this degree?!

First things first, utilize your college or university's career center

If you have not already done so, I strongly, STRONGLY, encourage you to make use of what resources your college or university has for you. They typically have a career center where you can get free coaching, resume help, practice interviewing, and job search assistance. You already paid for this "free" service in tuition dollars and student fees, so you might as well get a return on your investment.

Do that, and take the following tips--and you'll find a great job in no time! Category One, read on! Category Two--skip to the end.

To get to where you want to go, build your brand, resume, experience, & network

If you have a pretty solid idea of where you are trying to go--the best vehicle to get you there is by building these four things: your personal brand, resume, experience, and network. These tools, working together, will help you find jobs, know which ones to apply for, and present yourself the best you can in an interview.

So how do you build them?

Build Your Personal Brand

What do I mean by "build your personal brand?!"

Imagine that you went to the dentist, and they told you that your enamel is looking weak and that they recommend you get an enamel-rebuilding toothpaste. So you go to the store and are shocked to find that EVERY toothpaste in the whole aisle says the same thing on its box: "Minty fresh breath guaranteed."

How are you supposed to know which one to pick?

In reality, when you walk down the toothpaste aisle you get to choose from tartar control, whitening, anti-cavity, gum protection, enamel-strengthening, sensitive teeth--and the list goes on and on! You get to pick a toothpaste based on your needs and its ability to sell you on it's benefits.

Branding yourself is setting yourself apart based on what unique benefit you have to offer. Every company has needs--that's what the job description is--a company describing a specific need. Your benefit is how you uniquely can fill that need.

When a person fills out a job application, they are essentially saying pick me to meet your need. Or, I have the benefit that will meet your need.

What I'm trying to say is that in today's world it is arbitrary that you are "good at working with people." That is like toothpaste boxes saying they guarantee to freshen your breath. If you can't help a company understand what sets you apart (how YOU, specifically, would benefit them) you will find yourself being crazy frustrated in the process of finding the right job!

So how do you define what sets YOU apart?

How to Brand Yourself

Debbie Millman, chair, cofounder, and professor of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, defines branding as "Deliberate Differentiation." She teaches a class to her undergraduates called "Differentiate or Die: How to Get a Job When You Graduate" and a class titled "A Brand Called You" to her graduate students.

A basic (yet profound) concept that she teaches is that in today's world, individuals have to know what their personal brand positioning (defining what sets you apart from other candidates with similar education and skill sets) is in the job marketplace. One way you do this is by creating your personal mission statement. What is it out there in the world you are seeking to do? Or as Debbie puts it, your mission statement is "your unique beliefs and benefits, stated with stature and sincerity."

I have a friend who is a wellness coach. Her personal mission statement is "I seek to empower individuals with the knowledge and skills to live happy, healthy lives." When Debbie was entering the workforce as a graphic designer years ago, her mission statement was "I seek to make the supermarket more beautiful." [*]

One version of my mission statement is "I use my knowledge, skills, and creativity to mentor job seekers in building successful careers." For me, I define successful careers as meaningful work, good money, and work/life balance. My favorite people to help are underdogs and single parents.

What do you seek to do? What are you wanting to do out there in the world?

Once you have defined what you seek to do, what unique "benefit" do you have to offer? You can use this to create your public persona.

Places and Ways to Begin Branding Yourself:

  1. Write your elevator pitch and personal mission statement.
  2. Use that pitch and your personal mission statement to start a LinkedIn profile. Craft these elements into your About you section.
  3. Get a professional outfit (depending on your preferred line of work, this may mean business professional attire and shoes) that reflects the brand you are trying to portray.
  4. Be honest with yourself about your hair (including facial hair), make-up, nails, general appearance, etc.--and if they reflect the right image you are going for. Does your physical brand say what you want it to say?
  5. Once you've updated your outfit and physical appearance, get a professional headshot taken (if you can't afford this, get in some good lighting and have someone take the best shot they can of you with their smartphone). Choose plain/simple backgrounds.
  6. Select a cover photo that helps speak to your brand that you can use along with your headshot. Use these images (headshot and cover photo) for LinkedIn and other social media accounts. (Potential employers do run Google searches, and you want everything out there to reflect your best brand and image.)

Build Your Resume

The word resume means "to sum up." This is literally a one page summary of your education, experience, and skills.

There are several correct ways to structure your resume. For a recent college grad, you will typically put your personal contact information (*including email address) at the top, followed by an objective (explanation about the specific job/position you are applying for; a great place to craft in elements from your personal mission statement and elevator pitch), and your hard and soft skills. Then you will put a section on your education--including the full name of your degree, and list courses you took that directly apply to your ability to do the specific job you are applying for. Finally, you will include a section on your work and other experience.

*Use a professional email address! If you don't have one, go and get one. None of this zombieslayer9@yahoo.com stuff! A professional email address typically is "yourname"@"emailprovider".com. If that is already taken, try using an abbreviation or initials or some combination of the two.

Resume + cover letter = application materials

An important side note to keep in mind, once you have finished your resume, you then need to write a cover letter. It is commonly expected that each time you apply for a job you will send a cover letter as well. This does vary based on the industry, but better to play it safe than sorry. Help with writing a great cover letter.

How to Format Your Resume Correctly

Go for a reverse-chronological (also called chronological) or hybrid (also called combination) resumé format. You can find a template through Microsoft Word or online. For some extra resumé help, visit this link.

Delete all headers, footers, and tables. Depending on the size of the company you are applying for--your resume will likely be sent through a piece of software known as an ATS--applicant tracking system. Headers, footers, and tables can throw off the software, so it is important to get rid of them.

Quick tips for getting your resume through the ATS--choose a normal, standardized font/typeface (Times New Roman, Garamond, Georgia, etc.), use abbreviated and fully written out terminology for skills and degrees. Save in .docx or .pdf format. For more info on applicant tracking systems and how they work.

How to Choose the Right Words for Your Resume

ALWAYS use keywords (the words, skills, terms that are used the most in a job description) in your resume. This means that you will likely need to sculpt each resume with each job you apply for.

Use present tense verbs for current experience and past tense action verbs to describe your skills and accomplishments. Here are some great suggestions of action verbs to use.

How to Select Skills to Include on Your Resume

What skills do you need in order to be successful at the job you are applying for?

Two important ways to find out: 1) they should have told you in the job ad/description, and 2) look up the person currently doing the job on LinkedIn--what skills do they have?

When you read over the job description and the credentials of the person currently doing it, you will come across hard and soft skills. Hard skills typically can be defined as technical training or knowledge. The ability to use Microsoft Word or speak and read another language are examples of hard skills. Soft skills can feel a bit more elusive to define. They typically have to do with the way you relate to others and information. Effective communication, public speaking, and being adaptable are examples of soft skills.

If you do not have all the necessary skills, are there certifications and trainings that you can do that require a minimal time or financial commitment from you? Resources like Hubspot Academy, W3Schools, and Udemy offer courses and certificates that can get you the skills you need--often for free or at a minimal cost!

According to Kerri Twigg, international career coach, when it comes to the work of the future, "collaboration, creativity, communication, [and] solving problems" are four soft skills that are needed. [*]

Indeed.com lists the following as the most sought after hard and soft skills in the current job market (understand that some of these are only relevant to certain industries):

Hard skills: bilingual or multilingual, database management, Adobe software suite, network security, SEO/SEM marketing, statistical analysis, data mining, mobile development, user interface design, marketing campaign management, storage systems and management, and programming languages (such as Perl, Python, Java, and Ruby).

Soft skills: integrity, dependability, effective communication, open-mindedness, teamwork, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, adaptability, organization, willingness to learn, and empathy. [*]

*You can always run a Google search or look up profiles of individuals on LinkedIn to find out what skills are most relevant to your industry and jobs you are applying for.

Build Your Experience

Highlight the experience you already have

Until you naturally build up other "work" experience, you can use this section to highlight internships, volunteering, clubs, extracurriculars and other projects and things you did that helped you develop skills that set you apart to do the particular job you are applying for.

When you are writing about your experience on your resume, hard facts and numbers are great things to include if you have them (specific GPA if you are proud of it, percent of student body/department you were able to get to attend a service project, number of donations collected for an event, etc.).

As you gain more "work" experience, you will likely choose to remove some of these from your resume and instead include it on your CV (if you are looking to go into an industry that wants to see a CV--typically people that want careers in academia).

Internships can be done anytime

A word on internships--if you didn't do one of these during school you can totally do one after you graduate! Also, don't be fooled, there is such a thing as a paid internship, and there are companies and businesses that are willing to create those kinds of opportunities for those who want them. You may have to be brave enough to reach out and ask!

Informal interviews are a great way to find out about careers and opportunities

If you have never heard of an informal interview, this can be a great way to find opportunities to intern or learn about ways you can get the experience you need. Informal interviews are literally you getting a hold of a person that does a job that interests you and finding out how they got to the position they did in their career.

Word of caution: if you are genuinely looking for opportunities and are proactive enough to try and create some for yourself, I would NOT approach an informal interview with the intention of being offered a job--EVER. I would approach it as a way to find out about a career path, company, and ask for suggestions from the person you interview about some potential courses of action they would suggest for you to get the types of experience they have that got them to the position/job they are in.

Build Your Network

Guess what--all those people you just went to school with, they are your network! This includes classmates (both people in your disciple/field of study and out of it, professors, and alumni)! I bet you didn't realize that you had such a MASSIVE network ALREADY, just walking out the door.

But how to connect with them? Hum...

Friends, NOW IS THE TIME TO GET ON LINKEDIN!

So you went through and created your resume. You wrote out your educational and work experiences, and you solidified your hard and soft skills. Now go on LinkedIn:

Steps for Creating a LinkedIn Profile and Network:

  1. Upload your quality headshot (and cover photo).
  2. Fill out your About section (pulling from your personal mission statement and elevator pitch).
  3. Copy over your skills--hard and soft.
  4. Copy over your educational, "work," and other experiences.
  5. Now, start adding connections!
  6. Go and endorse these individuals in the skills that they have put on their profiles. Ask them to endorse your skills.
  7. Reach out to them and professors who really liked you--ask them to write you some recommendations. You can also specify which projects or skills you want them to talk about in the recommendations.
  8. Follow companies and individuals you may be interested in working with or learning from.
  9. To build your network more: Join groups on Linkedin (Facebook, and other social media) and engage with them.

*Building your personal network takes time, but never hesitate to reach out and connect with people who genuinely interest you.

I have a friend who told me that the last two job offers she received were through LinkedIn connections that saw her profile. This stuff really does work! See if any alumni from your school are working at companies in your industry. Ask them if they know of openings or have suggestions for ways to get your foot in the door.

There are a lot of ways to find great jobs; don't overlook reaching out to people in your online and physical networks as a means to get leads. With that said, also recognize that if they don't have an opening to do exactly what you would like to do, you can work your way up with many companies, as well as transition over to a different department.

I know a guy who started as a customer service rep at a tech company that his friend already worked at. He let them know about his experience with computers, and over time he sought out promotions. Now, a few years in the future, he runs their entire network and IT department. Often, just getting in with the company is the trickiest part.

When it comes to hearing about the latest and best openings, you need to make sure people in your network know you are actively looking, as well as sign-up to receive job alerts!

A Few Tips on Applying and Interviewing

Applying is a two step process: don't forget to follow-up

So you have found some great jobs that sound promising. You went through and matched your resume up the best you could with the job description, you wrote a killer cover letter, then sent it off. How long do you need to wait? Is it appropriate to follow-up and make sure they received your application? Heck yes!

A huge mistake that recent grads make is NOT following-up.Typically, a week after applying is an appropriate amount of time to check on the status of your application and thank them for reviewing it.

Print yourself off a calendar and literally mark on it dates you applied, closing dates of positions, and follow-up dates--a specific day that you will reach out to a hiring manager, recruiter, or HR department to follow-up about the job.

Practice interviewing with questions specific to your industry and the position

You got a call back for an interview, awesome! If you haven't already, it is a wise idea to practice interviewing. Google search for good practice interview questions specific to your industry, then ask a friend or family member to practice asking you them, or go to your college's career center for help. Take feedback that they give you.

Focus on things like eye contact, body language, not rushing your responses (formulating answers), and feeling natural/at ease. Dr. Amy Cuddy, a Social Psychologist at Harvard Business School, studied the effect of body language on our confidence both going into and during interviews. Here is a reader's digest version of some of her suggestions: tips on great body language for interviewing.

When you interview, keep the company in mind

Before an actual interview, review the job description/ad again. Have examples ready to go of the skills they are looking for. A great way to prep for this is the "The Career Stories Method" by Kerry Twigg. Write out on note cards the story of what you are "the most proud of doing in any school project" or work experience that you ever did. After leaving that story alone for a time, come back and reread it. Flip the note card(s) over and write what strengths you have that were illustrated by that story. [*]

This will be a great example you can share/use in the interview to illustrate who you are and how you could benefit their company or team.

Before you go into the interview, you need to have researched the company

Go on their website and read the About page; learn about how they started and what they are trying to do. Come to the interview with two questions in mind that you want to know more about regarding their company and mission. There will likely be natural points in the interview where you can ask them--such as when they say, "Do you have any questions for us?"

Remember, when they wrote the job ad they were essentially describing "a problem" or need that they are trying to solve. How are you going to best position yourself in that interview as "their solution?" Paint the picture of how you personally can help solve their problem.

Once they offer you the job, check out this article (and my others about starting your new job): How to Prepare BEFORE Starting Your New Job.

Advice for Category Two: College Grads Who Need Help Figuring Out Where They Want to Go

Listen, all the advice I just gave above really does apply to you--it does. But if you aren't super sure about why you picked the degree you did (or you know why you picked it, but just couldn't figure out what you want to do with it, and graduation came too soon) know that you aren't alone in some of the feelings you are experiencing right now.

The percentage of people that don't actually end up working in a field that relates to their degree is pretty darn high. Don't be discouraged! In today's work world, transferable skills (especially soft skills) can serve you in a variety of industries. You just need to figure out what some of the best industries are for you--taking into account your personality and interests.

When I graduated college, it was actually in accounting. The truth is, I was under engaged at work and frustrated that I was employed in a position and industry that didn't really speak to me. Check out some of these resources:

If you do want to use your degree in a field of work that it directly applies to, that is awesome, and I'm sure you will gain more insight into what that is as you do your self-work.

Gaining more self-knowledge will help you pick an industry to work in and jobs to apply for

Here are resources to help you understand your innate gifts, talents, strengths, weaknesses, preferences, personality, and ways of thinking.

Once you have done some self-reflection, read the advice I gave to Category One College Grads. There are a lot of resources out there to get yourself trained, skilled, and hirable in a number of industries--whether your degree directly applies to them or not!

Wishing you every good thing as you put your best foot forward! As always, I'm here. Shoot me your questions so I can help!

-Ryan

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