Compiled by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Note: Be sure to read: Your Senior Year in College: 15 Activities that are Pivotal to Your Job-Search Success.
Who are the best experts on making the most of your senior year in college? Those who’ve been there recently, of course. We asked recent graduates to reveal their most effective strategies for using senior year as a launch pad for career or grad-school success. All respondents graduated within the last five years when interviewed for this article.
Don’t neglect grades: “I should have focused on grades more than I did,” laments Jennifer Brooks, an executive assistant at Dixon Ticonderoga Company. “Your GPA is important — vitally important.”
On the other hand, strive for balance between grades and other activities: “Who cares what your GPA is?” asks Rachel DiCaro, sales and marketing coordinator for ETC in Orlando, FL. “If you got a 4.0, but you have a personality of a door nail, most likely you will not be successful,” DiCaro asserts. Speaking from the employer’s perspective, DiCaro points out, “WE LIKE BALANCE!!!! Show an employer not only were you president of your sorority or fraternity, but you balanced school, leadership, a job and an internship and were able to maintain a GPA of 3.2. DiCaro observes that this balance of activities is more impressive than high grades because it shows that the candidate possesses good time-management and conflict-management skills, along with leadership potential. “Why?” explains DiCaro, “because every employer has belonged to some type of organization in which he or she had to deal with people issues. You know what I am talking about. There is always one village idiot in every group.”
Set goals and make a plan: “Go after what you want, aggressively,” says Desiree Devaney, a financial analyst in the Financial Management Program for GE Capital. I was raised to believe I could do anything I want, and I truly believe that… but goals are just the first step. You need an executable plan as well, How are you going to get there? Make lists and lists and lists!!!”
Start early to explore employers and opportunities: “Research companies in the area you want to live in BEFORE you graduate,” advises Colleen Holuk, public relations coordinator for Carnaby, an Internet company. “Too many students wait until after they graduate to start exploring job opportunities.” Echoes Robert Ashodian, a human resources coordinator for Arthur Andersen LLP, Sarasota, FL, “Start early. Remember there are tens of thousands of other seniors who want jobs, too.”
DiCaro adds, “If you think the market is as fruitful as it once was, think again. You need to start researching grad school or the job market as soon as you make a decision. Procrastination will only get you to the unemployment line.”
“If you haven’t had an interview before Christmas break, you are way behind,” says Stephen Magennis, whose first job out of college was with TBA Business Groups at Hewitt Associates. “You’ve got to realize that companies do their staffing projections at least six months in advance, so they’re interviewing with several months lead time before they actually need someone, especially in this job market. Gone are the days when companies had 10 positions just waiting to be filled.”
Network: Networking was high on the list of most of the recent grads. “To land a great job you MUST, MUST, MUST network!” advises Nicole Infortunio, director of membership for The Pinnacle Club. “Unfortunately, I did not learn the true importance of networking until I was already in my job, where I am literally required to attend numerous networking events. It is amazing the new business opportunities that come about simply by attending events and ALWAYS having your business cards on hand. You never know when you may meet a potential client.” Adds Jerra Fortner, an assistant portfolio manager with Wachovia, “Try to get feelers out there through every possible avenue. You never know who someone knows that can help you out.”
Iris Owens, Associate Director of Development at her alma mater, Stetson University, agrees. “Network, network, network! I was offered this job because I was very an active student on campus who just so happened to [have a scholarship sponsored by a university trustee],” Owens relates. “When the Development Office asked me to speak at trustee dinners on campus or moderate campus events, I never said no. I looked at every event as an opportunity to meet someone who could help me later down the road. People say that I was lucky to get this job. I say that luck is when opportunity meets preparation; always be prepared! When I was offered a job at Stetson in the fall of my senior year, I never stopped attending career fairs and handing out resumes. You never know!”
“Utilize contacts — yours, your family’s, friend’s, etc. Now isn’t the time to be too proud. Just keep it professional. You don’t want to come off as desperate; people can tell,” advises Bryan Stoehs, channel manager for Gartner News, Stamford, CT.
Colleen Holuk notes that an important aspect of networking is joining professional organizations. As a communications major, Holuk, for example, joined the Orlando Public Relations Society of America and the Central Florida Marketing Association. “This is an excellent networking opportunity, and it is fun!” Holuk says.
If you haven’t yet obtained career-related experience, don’t waste another moment: “Have applicable experience in the sector you want to work in,” advises Jerra Fortner. “If you have any idea about the field you wish to enter, have some relevant experience in that area — and it does not have to be a paying job. For example, if you want to enter the financial sector, be the treasurer for an organization. It teaches you budgeting methods, money management, etc.”
Rachel DiCaro observes that internships are among the ways you can show an employer that you have some experience in your field. “Listen…” DiCaro exhorts, “You are competing against thousands of other graduates. How do employers separate the kids from the adults? By seeing who went the extra mile and did a lowly and sometimes time-intensive internship. Hey, do you think you are the only person on the planet who has done work for free? Join the club, kid. Which would you rather do — an unpaid internship — and as a result land a job — or no internship because you felt you were worth far more than a lowly internship. The point is everyone has done free labor. It’s a growing experience that makes you better prepared for the jungle out there.”
Stephen Magennis, who had two internships with a Wall Street firm, points out that an internship with a well-known company will get you call-backs and interviews. “It was that experience on my resume that got me call-backs from every other Wall Street firm I applied to as a senior,” Magennis reports. “At least it’s a start to getting your foot in the door. Then it’s up to you.”
Colleen Holuk blends the networking and internship approaches with her observation that “internships are great ways to meet professionals and can open up job opportunities.”
Practice interviewing: The recent grads we talked to were nearly unanimous in recommending that college seniors get some practice in interviewing for jobs. “Learn how to interview well,” advises Ashodian. “Practice greetings and firmness of handshakes, eye contact, appropriate attitude during interviewing (when to smile, when to be businesslike, etc.). Learn standard interview questions. All very important!” Ashodian exhorts.
Jerra Fortner notes that the interview “is your shot to make a lasting impression. It would not even hurt to videotape [your practice interview] so you become aware of any idiosyncrasies like stammering or fidgeting.” Rachel DiCaro advises asking questions in job interviews. “This shows interest,” DiCaro notes. “If you have no questions, then it could be interpreted that you don’t care enough to know what the company’s inner workings are.”
Both DiCaro and Ashodian suggest buying some professional attire. “There is nothing worse than seeing a recent graduate coming to an office in something that is definitely not appropriate attire,” DiCaro observes. “Remember, if you can wear it out Thursday night [the big party night at Stetson], you should NOT wear it to the office.”
Have confidence and be assertive: “Be confident in yourself,” Ashodian advises. Recruiters and interviewers can smell fear and uncertainty.” Adds DiCaro, “Get some gumption. Be like Forrest Gump and run. Just because you sent in a resume doesn’t mean you will get hired. You need to RUN WITH it. Call, write, ask questions. Show some interest,” DiCaro urges. “I think most students feel intimidated by calling about job opportunities, but hey, if employers didn’t want inquiries, they would say so. Be TENACIOUS! As business professionals, we LOVE go-getters! Show us you will go the extra mile. Doing this in the beginning will make a tremendous impact on a potential employer.”
Speak the language: “Learn and speak the management lingo. Service the inner and outer customers. Know your target market (including your supervisors, their supervisors),” advises Jennifer Brooks.
Manage your time and money: “Be strategic with your resources,” cautions Bryan Stoehs. “Don’t send out 500 resumes to random companies. You have limited time and resources; don’t be wasteful.”
Be realistic about salary: “Get over the fact you might not make over $30,000 your first year,” Rachel DiCaro advises. “Is this horrible? Will you die of starvation? Ummm, not likely. What you need to do is focus on what your goals are. What will you accomplish by accepting this offer? Is it just a paycheck? Is it a stepping-stone? Will this job be a start to a great career? You need to think about what the job means in terms of what you want, not how much you want to be paid.”
Lest we forget those who choose graduate school before hitting the job market, law student Trinity Hundredmark suggests planning for grad school early. “Take your standardized test as soon as possible; this way, if your score is less than you expected, you always have the opportunity to take it again,” Hundredmark points out. “Apply to as many schools/programs as possible. You never want to limit your options. It is important to see all there is to offer, and the more programs you apply to, the more they will fight over you. Also, if you have the opportunity, visit the school you are interested in. Talk not only with admissions counselors, but current students as well. Open houses are a great function for this, and students are more apt to be honest — remember they aren’t getting paid by the university.”
Finally, two words of sensible advice for college seniors from Robert Ashodian: “Focus. Breathe.”
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.