Landing a Job After College How to Prep for Your Professional Future

Meet the Experts

Susan Hay Founder, LaunchingU Read bio
Jackie Martin Founder, New Heights Life Coaching & Career Consulting Read bio

Written by...

Chandra Thomas Whitfield Read bio

It's hard to put into words the elation and sense of accomplishment that come with crossing the stage, decked out in cap and gown, and receiving that hard-earned college diploma on graduation day. However, for many, those feelings of excitement and joy may quickly give way to fear and anxiety about the future. Getting a job is usually the top priority after college, but, unfortunately, that may be easier said than done.

The good news is that college experience is an asset in any student's or recent graduate's quest. In fact, in 2017, the employment rate of young adults was highest, about 86 percent, for those who had attained bachelor's degrees or higher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The employment rate for young adults with some college was at 80 percent, which was still considerably higher than the employment rate for those who had only completed high school.

Aside from having college experience in one's favor, there's still more one can do to lay the groundwork for finding a job. This comprehensive guide will provide insights, tips and expert advice on how to effectively land that important first job after college.

How to Get Job-Ready While in School

The job search shouldn't begin when a student graduates. Students should be preparing for careers throughout their college experience. In simple terms, the sooner a person starts preparing for a career, the better.

The fact that applicant tracking systems will weed an applicant out if his or her education, experience and skills don't match up with the job post requirements, asserts Hay, means that one shouldn't devote a lot of time applying online to jobs where that are not a strong fit. That time can be better spent preparing for what the person can better control, such as interviews.

"For [my clients], preparing for an interview starts by understanding what your accomplishment stories are and being ready to tell those stories in an interview," Hay says. "We teach our clients to become polished at behavioral interviewing, which is really a process of telling stories about how they have demonstrated the skills the interviewer is looking for in their past work or school or volunteer activities. You can Google 'behavioral interviewing' to learn more about this approach; it is the best practice out there."

The good news is that college campuses are rich with opportunities and resources to help students achieve their employment goals. They should consider building up their resumes, making the most of their LinkedIn profiles, investigating internships, practicing mock interviews and taking advantage of any training opportunities at the campus career center as stepping stones on the path to achieving their professional goals.

"There are several things that are different [about the job search process] over, say, the past 10 years," says Susan Hay, founder and career coach of LaunchingU, LLC, the City Keene, New Hampshire-based company specializing in career coaching for college students, new graduates and early career professionals. "LinkedIn has completely changed the game, and your LinkedIn profile needs to be professional. Secondly, you need advocates to help you get connected into a company you are interested in — someone who can say to HR or to a hiring manager, 'She (or he) is worth talking to for this job.'"

"Internships, co-ops and part-time jobs are priceless ways of gaining experience in a field of interest as well as with an organization prior to committing to a full-time role," explains Buford, Georgia-based career consultant Jackie Martin, founder of New Heights Life Coaching & Career Consulting. "Over half of students employed after college indicate that they obtained their current positions directly from their internships or internship contacts."

Experts also say it's critical to set job search goals oneself. "For example, initiate networking — aim to speak with three new people a week," suggests Martin.

It's also important not to get too discouraged if success doesn't come in the timeframe envisioned. Hay says the key is being both proactive and polished. "Don't just respond to job postings; find companies and organizations that you want to work for and figure out how to connect with people in those organizations and present yourself as a great potential hire," she says. "I have dozens and dozens of stories of new graduates going that extra mile to connect with people in the companies they are interested in — and getting hired. Be bold."

She says the biggest job-search don't is sloppiness. "Don't be sloppy writing your cover letter; don't be sloppy in how you show up for the interview; don't be sloppy by forgetting to send thank-you emails after the interviews. Be professional — show that you are ready for the opportunity."

One of the first ways for a person to jump-start the journey to employment is to create a resume that highlights the best of who that person is and what he or she has to offer as an employee. Start by prioritizing the work positions held while in college, emphasizing internships, work-study jobs and any other hands-on leadership experiences undertaken while a student. A person's resume should showcase his or her employment accomplishments, honors, awards and any relevant work with professional organizations and campus organizations.

"One of the biggest mistakes students make with their resumes is that they don't properly reflect their desires or purposes, nor is their experience tailored to fit what hiring managers are looking for," Martin says. "Likewise, with the increasing use of electronic screening tools, job-seekers must strategically employ keywords that will increase the likelihood of selection."

And, as with the cover letter or any documents that will be shared with potential employers, it's important to have several eyes on one's resume before applying for any jobs. Proofreading is important, as few things are worse than presenting a resume with typos and mistakes. A campus career center is a great resource for helping students hone their resumes. In fact, Martin says it should be a student's "first point of contact" in obtaining resume feedback. It's also worth considering hiring a professional resume company or writer with a proven track record of success to help ensure that ever-important document is presenting a candidate in the best light.

Nearly every industry uses LinkedIn to find and vet job candidates, and more than 90 percent of recruiters (yes, 90!) rely on the site, according to data from the Society of Human Resource Management. Many experts assert that it is the best platform on which to promote oneself as a professional, so it should be treated as such. So it's important that a person's LinkedIn profile does not end up being a boring, uninspired rehashing of his or her work experience. In other words, don't make the mistake of copying your resume verbatim; the profile should be used to add some personality to the professional story. As one industry observer once poignantly lamented, "It needs to be a living, breathing record of your professional life."

The goal is to create an engaging and accurate portrait of a person and the skills that he or she possesses that could be a valuable asset to a potential employer. Job-seekers should be sure to spend some time carefully crafting headlines and summaries and ensuring that their work experience accurately conveys what they have to offer. Having a professional-looking headshot is critical, too. "Job-seekers should strategically post articles, create blogs or make comments related to their accomplishments as well as their fields of interest," explains Martin. "You should follow key industry thought leaders and those with influence within the organizations of which you have an interest."

LinkedIn is important, but job-seekers should also make sure their personal social media accounts (well, at least the parts that are public) are reflective of the image they are trying to project as job candidates, too. A study by the job search website Simply Hired found that 38 percent of hiring managers search social media accounts, as they tend to offer a wealth of information about potential job candidates. Furthermore, a study by CareerBuilder.co.uk also found that 55 percent of employers who researched job applicants on social media said they found something that caused them not to hire an applicant. "All accounts should be professional in nature; nothing is private anymore, including pictures and commentary," warns Martin. "Your personal brand showcased online will be used as consideration during the application process. You should use that fact to your advantage."

Class attendance and grades are definitely critical parts of one's time in college, but so is gaining valuable work experience. Part-time jobs, internships, work study, volunteering with on-campus organizations and other related work opportunities help introduce college students to the world of work gradually. "They are extremely important — the most important thing you can do outside of having a strong GPA," adds Hay.

Additionally, these experiences provide the opportunity for students to learn the skills they'll need to thrive in the workplace, such as how to navigate office politics or how to work as part of a team, and they offer the chance to make a strong impression on the job, which could come in handy for permanent employment later. Many times, it's easier to start with on-campus opportunities and gradually work toward securing off-site positions. It's essential that a job-seeker always professional, keep an open mind, remain committed to learning (no matter what the position may be) and always do one's best to leave a good impression. After all, you never know when you'll need a recommendation letter, personal referral or an advocate in a company for a permanent position.

Where to Find a Job After College

  1. Campus career center

    Generally, campus career centers aren't placement agencies, and their staff counselors aren't recruiters, so students shouldn't expect them to hand out jobs. They should, however, consider this a valuable resource that can provide them with the training, advice, tools and help that they'll need to establish and meet their career goals. Plus, most of the services are free or low-cost to students and alum, so you can't beat that!

  2. Professional websites

    Sites like Indeed or Career Builder provide countless perks, such as expert blogs focused on everything from employment trends to job search tips, access to hundreds of hiring managers through the resume database services and job alert settings that can be helpful. "Identify target companies of interest based on culture, growth opportunities and relevance to your industry of choice," suggests Martin.

  3. Social media

    It's commonplace now for employers to also use social media to find qualified applicants. For example, LinkedIn, which is hands down the most popular and effective platform of them all, has a dedicated entry-level job postings page that is a great resource for young job-seekers. As with Facebook, some recruiters also extensively use Twitter to share job openings and information about their business or organization. In your job search, you may use social media to follow companies or topics and show your interest in a particular career (be sure to add your degree and some relevant skills to your Twitter and Facebook bios, too). And in some industries, especially creative ones, Instagram feeds may be used to showcase one's accomplishments and portfolio of work.

  4. Career consultants

    Nothing's wrong with needing help; hiring a professional to support you in your job search can be an investment that pays for itself almost instantly or gradually over time. "A career consultant, also known as a career counselor or career coach, can help guide you through the hiring process and properly prepare you for the many different tactics you can employ to land that first post-graduate job," notes Martin. You'll need to do your own research up front to determine whether he or she has a previous track record of success. It's often helpful to start by seeking out personal referrals from people whom you trust.

  5. Staffing agencies

    These agencies hire candidates for both permanent and temporary positions and the latter could help you get your foot in the door to land a long-term gig. Companies such as ROCS and Avenica find and recruit college students and recent graduate talent for businesses. Another plus is that staffing agencies tend to remove a lot of the burden of seeking out opportunities since they're connected to the local employers in your area. And you don't have to pay them because they're paid by the company for connecting them to viable candidates.

  6. Professional Organizations

    The national and local chapters of industry-specific professional organizations tend to be a great way to learn about job openings and network with others working in your field, which can potentially lead to securing a job.

  7. Family and Friends

    Your loved ones are great for emotional support during your job hunt, but they can also be a valuable resource that can make that oh-so-important professional connection. That is why most experts will suggest that you tap into your personal network first. "Don't let misplaced pride convince you that you should be doing this on your own," suggests Hay, who advises her clients to spend two-thirds of their time connecting with people who might be able to help and one-third focused on formally applying for jobs. "Use your connections whether they are parents, friends, ex-bosses, etc. and understand that the people who are competing with you for that job you want are certainly using their contacts. I suggest that they have people that they can talk with and that they keep busy." Start by making a list of those who you think could help and let them know for what you are looking. And it is important to be specific about the types of opportunities you're interested in.

Preparing for the Workforce

College provides an amazing opportunity for you to grow as person, learn new things, meet different types of people and figure out what you ultimately want to do with your life. That's why it's critical that you spend your time wisely, acquiring a wide range of knowledge and skills that will help you to successfully pursue and achieve your professional goals. How to communicate, write, research, work in teams, manage your time, get organized, solve problems, think analytically and overcome adversity are some of the many skills that you should walk away with that can prepare you for the world of work.

"Increasingly, companies are looking for soft skills. They are looking for people who play well with others, who are collaborative. They are looking for strong communication skills — and people with a track record of working well on teams," Hay says. "They are also looking for people that have a bias for action and have actually taken on roles of responsibility and have delivered. This focus means that in addition to your internships, experience where you actually had responsibilities in school clubs or organizations really counts." With that in mind, Martin asserts that a successful job search requires being focused and organized in presenting your unique skills. "It's always great to craft a purpose or a mission statement before setting out on your search," she says. "Use it as a foundation for your 30-second 'elevator pitch.'"

The bottom line is that searching for a job is not easy, but the payoff can be so worth it in the end if you stay the course and remain committed to reaching your goal. Think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. If you stay in it for the long haul, you'll prevail in the end. "I always tell my clients to remember, even if it is taking a while, you are going to have a career, you are going to learn and grow; just keep putting yourself out there."

Q & A with a Job Prep Expert

Jackie Martin, founder, New Heights Life Coaching & Career Consulting

What are the biggest misconceptions recent grads or soon-to-be grads have about landing a job and/or the job market after graduation?

The biggest misconception is that they will immediately and automatically land a salaried, dream job — or a job at all related to their course of study.

What should students and recent grads keep in mind about entering the workforce?

Identify what I call your "sweet spot" or purpose, which is basically the intersection of their passions, principles, priorities and potential; then use it as a lens through which to filter opportunities. You should then relentlessly pursue your purpose and chase your dreams. At the same time, new graduates should be open-minded and flexible in taking on roles that allow them to have broader experiences. Trying new things or working in an area that wasn't top of mind but is in line with your "sweet spot" could open so many doors to greatness.

What would you say are some of the biggest don'ts for the pre-and post-grad job search?

The biggest don't is relying 100 percent on job postings to find a role. Another don't is staying put too long in an unsatisfying "temporary" job to simply pay the bills and getting "stuck" doing something undesirable long-term.

How would you say the job search process has evolved in recent years?

Unlike in the past, at least 70 percent, if not 80 percent, of jobs are not published. This means that the vast majority of roles are filled through networking. Also, many people who receive these new roles were passive participants, meaning they weren't truly in an active job search but were given the proverbial "offer they couldn't refuse." Creating your brand digitally and leveraging tools like LinkedIn to network is critical in building a strong network.

Job hunting can be tough. How do you suggest recent grads and soon-to-be grads stay motivated throughout the process?

Find an accountability partner, like a career consultant, who can ensure you have a robust search plan and follow through on actions. Your partner can also provide support and encouragement while sharing best practices.

You mentioned the importance of not staying in a temporary or undesirable job too long. What are your suggestions for juggling the job search process while addressing immediate needs, such as paying student loans and rent each month?

Identify hourly, part-time or temporary jobs that are ideally aligned to your sweet spot and that also provide the flexibility you need to continue your search for a full-time role. Of course, it'll ultimately depend on your skillset, but don't be afraid to do freelance, project-based or contract assignments as well; these often lead to full-time assignments.

What are your favorite tips for preparing for and acing job interviews?

Practice, practice and practice some more. The STAR method, which stands for Situation, Task, Actions and Results, is my favorite tool to best prepare for interviews. Specifically, research typical behavioral questions and write out responses using a specific example for each, based on the STAR method. Then, use these notes as a way to review. Secondarily, doing research on the company, especially as it relates to recent news, is critical. Creating a Google Alert for top choice companies ensures the delivery of up-to-date information, which may uncover great new opportunities or red flags to consider.

For many parents, it's hard to watch their child tackle the ups and downs of the job search for the first time. What advice do you have for concerned parents?

Allow your grads to take the lead in charting their course, providing encouragement along the way. If they are overwhelmed to the point of paralysis or lost, consider hiring a career consultant to guide them in overcoming barriers, identifying opportunities and taking action. Parents should also open up their own personal network to their recent grads, making introductions to relevant associates who may be able to provide insights into their field of interest. And remember that love and support go a long way.