Remember a time where during your senior year of college, people had big hopes of graduating and landing that cushy job even if it was entry level?  Remember how companies threw themselves at the top upper echelon (grade wise) on campus? Ah, those were the days.  You barely had to do anything during your four years but go to class and get good grades.  And if you went to an ivy league or high profile school, you had it made in the shade. Not so much today.

I think our younger ladies are a little bit more aware than we were years ago.  The economy and job market are clearly evident.  Recruiting budgets have tightened, companies have collapsed, people have flooded the job market.  Upcoming grads are worried about finding any kind of job when they leave the comfort of college.  OK before you think this is another gloom and doom post, it really isn’t.  I’m here to tell you that you can make it.  You just have to get on the offensive and not wait for things to work themselves out.

I usually tell young people to focus on their studies during their first year without any thought to working if they can. I still stand by that, even as my own child approaches college. But by year two, you better start on your game plan. Hopefully by your sophomore year you have a pretty clear idea of what it is you want to do.  You may even have a part time job to tide you over.  But what you should be working on is internship. Internships (while mostly available for juniors and seniors) are an excellent way for you to get exposure in the industry you’re interested in. Take this time to investigate the types of internships out there, the companies offering them and the criteria for landing them. Talk to people who have interned to get an idea of what it entails.  Whether paid or free, you stand to gain some valuable experience and contacts if you play your cards right.  And remember, internships and volunteer work counts on your resume.  Don’t let anyone tell you any different just because it was an unpaid gig.

By Junior year, you should already have your internship research together and have submitted (and hopefully offered) for internships.  Here’s where you really learn stuff you can’t learn in the classroom. If you haven’t learned how to network yet, get to it.  The contacts you make now can serve you well in the long run.  Classmates, dorm mates, associates at internships all make great contacts. Get to know them and keep detailed notes on your meetings, any commonalities, and favors they’ve done for you.  Remember, it’s about building relationships and relationships are two way streets. Get out and meet the key players in your industry.  Ask for introductions as necessary. This is your time to get to know people and tell them about you.  Hold on, this isn’t meant to be a brag fest.  You are still a newbie to them. And this isn’t time meant for you to pester anyone for a job.  You are on a fact finding mission. Your objective is to learn as much as you can from the best.  You might even get a mentor or two out of it.

While we’re on mentors, get one (or three). This is the best time for you to ask for a mentor relationship.  You are still green and people love to be able to pass their wisdom along to up and coming talent. Don’t let you young ego get in the way. You must remember you don’t know everything (and in some cases, anything).  Show your mentor that you are serious about learning and that you are willing to do the work it takes to be successful.  Don’t waste your mentor’s time.  When you meet with them, have questions ready and research available on issues you still need clarity on.  Make sure you make the meetings worthwhile.  Mentors have busy schedules and a lot to do.  Mentoring you is a small microcosm of their world. There is business to be done and deals to be made. So be respectful of their time.  Do more listening than talking. No further explanation needed. Learn what they like (golf, tennis, etc) and then learn it yourself. Trust me on this. It’ll come in handy.

By senior year, you should have the mentoring, networking and internship thing down.  And hopefully you’ve taken most of the classes you need so your schedule shouldn’t be as tight.  The beginning of senior year should be the time you start researching the job market and getting to know recruiters and hiring managers.  Pay attention to the market and the type of jobs out there.  Reach out to recruiters to get an idea of how they can help you.  Don’t waste their time either.  Remember, they are there to fill jobs with the best candidates, not find you a job.  Ask for tips on getting your resume noticed.  Share with them your professional goals and any past experiences (internships, volunteer work, etc).  Attend open houses and career fairs.  Typically I don’t like job fairs, but you can learn a lot from them and get names of recruiters you can reach out to directly after the events.  Turn to your college career office to seek some advice from counselors.  Use them to get an indication of what’s out there as well.  Have a professional resume done.  No, not a template you snatched off the internet.  Have a professional put together a solid resume that shows your accomplishments.  If you’re in a sorority, tap into that as well.  Your sorors can help you in many ways, especially if it’s a very active sorority.  

Now, I’m going to deviate just a little bit to sound like a “girl”.  You know how they say image is everything? Well it is.  No doubt, for the last few years you’ve been throwing your hair into a ponytail or wearing a hat to cover up and I will venture to guess you haven’t been shopping for professional wear.  Well now is the time.  I know you’re thinking in this economy, how could I possibly preach about shopping and pampering yourself?  Don’t panic. There’s a method to my madness.  Find that fashionista friend and ask for some input.  Of course you can’t afford to get an image consultant as a student (unless you’re loaded).  So this is the next best thing.  Have this friend go to the mall and boutiques with you to try different professional styles.  Ask the sales reps for opinions and see if they offer up any suggestions. Learn what colors, fits and styles work best on you.  Take magazines with you as guides.  Here’s the creative part.  While you’re looking at the prices and clothing at these malls and boutiques, make notes.  Then go to the best consignment shops and get these items (or similar) for dramatically less money. I once picked up a Chanel suit, that looked brand new, for $5.  So don’t laugh!  Pick up key classic pieces that can be mixed and matched.  And by all means, get appropriately fitting underwear, tasteful accessories, 1 or 2 pairs of good shoes and a classy handbag.  Save the patchwork Coach and multi colored LV for weekends.  I’d even throw in a classic briefcase (depending on what field you’re going in).

Use online social networks responsibly. I know you like to be free to post what you feel and what you want on Myspace, Facebook and a host of other sites.  I caution you to think before you post.  If you are going to have a page on social sites, keep them separate from your professional identity. Recruiters and hiring managers do use these sites to source candidates.  And yes, what they find can make or break their decision to reach out to you.  Always keep a sense of dignity and decorum about yourself and never post anything distasteful on your pages.  Linked In is great for a professional profile, as is Viadeo if you want to do some international networking.  Don’t create a resume page, rather, an overview of what you’ve accomplished and your professional objectives. Don’t over do it.  Leave readers wanting to contact you for more details. If you’re going to be blogging, I beg you to please keep it clean and sane.  The last thing you want is recruiters to find you arguing with some moron on the internet over an inconsequential topic. Watch what you say and when in doubt, read three times before hitting send, and even then, ask someone else to read it.  Your online image weighs heavily on your real life image.

Finally, I would say that you should make it a point to join groups in your industry.  Make it a point to attend the various meetings, which are often monthly.  You can make key contacts and learn some valuable intel that can help you with your search.  Get to know the people and don’t be afraid to volunteer.  Remember, you want to get your face and name out there.  Become a part of the conversations by keeping up on your research and sharing what you learn.  This is also a great time to ask for clarity about things you’re unsure of, and you’ll get it straight from people in the know.

So if you’re a student in college, don’t wait until senior year to try to make things happen.  Your career is an ongoing process. You have to cultivate it and do your part to make it come to fruition. Nobody is going to prepare you, so you must prepare yourself. Start your game plan as soon as possible and while I cannot guarantee total success, you’ll be ahead of the curve and ahead of many of your classmates.

Til next time,

Adrienne Graham

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