When you’re doing the math on higher education and student loans, the jobs you can get after college are central to the equation. As you work towards earning a degree, it’s important to keep in mind how you plan to use it — and what those jobs pay.
But many students feel ill-prepared for the post-grad job market.
Only four in 10 seniors feel their college experience has prepared them for the workforce, according to McGraw-Hill Education’s 2016 Workforce Readiness Survey. If you’re an Arts and Humanities major (like I was), you’re three times more likely to say you feel “not at all prepared” for a career.
The good news is that college is a great time to get career-ready, if you’re willing to do more.
“There are a lot of things that college students can do to make themselves more marketable, and many of them are actually fun things to get involved with during their time in undergrad,” says Valerie Streif, a senior advisor with Mentat, a career mentoring resource.
Here’s what students should be doing to prepare for their first jobs after college.
1. Visit your campus career center
Your university’s campus career center provides valuable (and free) resources to help you find your first job out of college. “The career center can help students learn the basics about job searching,” says Bianca Jackson, a career happiness expert and coach.
Most career centers will provide counseling to help you find careers you’re interested in and the qualifications you’d need to pursue them.
They also provide help with career skills like writing a resume. Creating a resume mock-up and getting feedback from a career center is vital to helping you put your best foot forward in applications for jobs after college.
A career center can also coach you through mock interviews and help you practice your interviewing skills.
2. Apply in-classroom learning
“My number one piece of advice for college students would be to invest in themselves by learning, reading, and writing more on subjects outside of the classroom,” says Jackson.
She suggests that college students get involved with student organizations, on-campus internships or practicums, or co-operatives to “round out their education [and] put the theories they’re learning to practical use.”
There could also be other ways to get more involved directly with your area of study. “Especially in big research universities, there are countless opportunities to get experience under the supervision of faculty, and oftentimes it is also paid,” Streif points out.
3. Get leadership experience
Joining on-campus organizations is also a way to get valuable leadership experience — something that 80 percent of employers look for in candidates, according to NACE’s Job Outlook 2016 survey.
“One of the best things to put on a resume is a leadership position, whether it be at a job or for an extracurricular club,” Streif says. You don’t have to be class president (though it doesn’t hurt). Even leading an ultimate frisbee team “shows dedication and willingness to lead,” Streif says.
Plus, “it can also provide solid material to discuss in an interview, making you stand out against other candidates who were just members of random clubs and didn’t put in the work to hold a leadership position,” she adds.
4. Analyze and track your achievements
As you prepare for finding a job after college, start to compile achievements, growth, and wins, suggests Erica McCurdy, a career and life coach who works with college students.
“Create a document that keeps track of success stories, hurdles you have overcome, opportunities you have taken advantage of, and challenges you have identified and either met or used as a chance to change something about your college experience,” McCurdy says.
If you track these things as you go, you’ll have actual experience and achievements to point to in cover letters and interviews. It can also help you better highlight what makes you stand out.
“Make note of interesting stories you can turn into anecdotes that describe your personality, work ethic, or ability to work as a team,” McCurdy suggests.
5. Build your network
Networking can be vital to students searching for their first jobs after college, especially as they struggle to get noticed among other applicants.
On-campus connections can help a lot, but “to really stand out, students need to talk directly to people who know the industry,” says Dr. Karina Dusenbury, a college and career coach and the founder of Maximize College.
For instance, Dr. Dusenbury suggests scouring the bios of professors, instructors, and other faculty members with non-academic industry experience.
“These instructors can give [students] the inside scoop on how to stand out and what employers expect,” she explains.
Students can also make valuable connections in their field of interest through their college’s alumni association. “Alumni can educate students about their field and recommend classes or extracurricular activities they found beneficial,” Dr. Dusenbury points out.
6. Complete an internship
”Hands-on work experience is far more valuable than anything you could ever learn in the classroom, so it is becoming absolutely essential that students at least have some experience working in the field they are hoping to get into after graduation,” Streif says.
For true real-world experience, an internship or relevant work experience can be irreplaceable. “Students should be working, interning, and attending as many field-specific events as possible while in school,” says Emily White, a talent agent and the author of the upcoming book Interning 101.
Internships take some work to apply for and get, which can further help you develop and test career skills. They also show you are a self-starter with a passion for your industry.
As a bonus, “internships will help you to sift through what the ‘real world’ is like and isn’t like before you are fully committed to a job or location,” White adds.
7. Get the right attitude as you prepare for jobs after college
One of the most important things you can learn from an internship or job search is that you don’t know everything. Humility, teachability, and a hunger to learn are central to the right attitude for getting a job after college.
“New college graduates should have an attitude focused on continued learning and a respect for mentors and seasoned professionals in the workplace,” says Dr. Heather Rothbauer-Wanish, a professional resume writer with Feather Communications.
“Employers can teach technical skills and abilities,” Dr. Rothbauer-Wanish points out. “In fact, they often look to ‘mold’ college students into their own habits, culture, and practices of the organization. However, people skills, strong communication abilities, and learning how to listen to others are all skills that are inherent to some people — these are the skills required at almost any job position.”
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