When I walked across the stage at my college graduation in June, I had no idea what I was walking toward. After eight competitive internships (most unpaid), three high-level academic research projects, several positions on campus, and countless coffee dates with mentors and prospective employers, I was graduating without a job.
It was faint comfort that I was not alone. Even though the employment rate for college graduates has increased in the past couple of years, the picture is not that bright. Job growth is not what it should be, humanities graduates are not in high demand, and roughly half of college graduates are underemployed in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Many of my friends are in unpaid internships that provide experience, but don’t put food on the table or help to pay off high student loans.
So what’s an unemployed college graduate to do? You’ve done the internships, you got good grades and even academic honors, you were the president of a campus organization, and always went to your professor’s office hours. Now what? How can you tip the scales in a job market teeming with similarly qualified applicants?
I would like to offer my younger peers a few of the unwritten rules of the job search process so that they can learn from my mistakes and hopefully experience a happy ending to their stories.
1. The old adage, “it’s all about who you know,” is true. Don’t fight it.
You may have heard this a million times like I did, but that’s because it’s unfortunately true. So, rather than ignoring it or trying to prove them wrong, ask yourself: how? How can you take advantage of this and make it work for your benefit? How can you get your foot in the door for internships and jobs?
Many of us may not be fortunate enough to have the familial connections that can lead to a position. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways. Think about the people you’ve worked for, friends from your classes, those you’ve met through common advocacy efforts - not everyone who comes to a position of power had a parent with friends in high places, but almost everyone has a mentor or colleague that helped to open some doors. So, get started early. It’s never too soon to begin building your network or to take your first internship (I was a sophomore in high school). And when making connections for your future, be open-minded. You never know who will be able to help you down the road.
2. You cannot network once.
You may have heard the phase: “lobbying once is an oxymoron.” The same is true for networking. Both are about relationships. When I first started “networking,” I made it my mission to collect as many business cards as possible. I thought if I could get ahold of a business card and email the person later, they’d be able to help me. But, I was wrong. As I came upon the end of my senior year - jobless - I pulled out my box of business cards, sure that someone in there would be able to help me out. Not only did I barely remember who the majority of those people were (or if they even held the same positions), but I highly doubted any of them would remember me. However, the relationships that I created with people I worked with or met over the years and maintained - whether through catching up at an annual conference or the occasional email/Facebook message - opened more doors for me than I could’ve ever imagined. When you give people a reason to remember who you are, there is no limit to the opportunities that can arise.
3. Don’t simply add things to your resume.
Work experience is vital, but it rarely gets you the job alone. If it’s just a few lines on your resume, without the skills or relationships that come with it, then it probably wasn’t worth your time.
Internships and campus leadership positions can allow you to develop incredible skills that will transition well into the workplace and give you the opportunity to develop close working relationships with people in your field of interest. Employers today complain that recent college graduates have the skills to succeed in the classroom but not in the workplace. So, make the most of your experience. Offer to do the Excel project everyone’s been putting off; ask your boss out to coffee; get to know people in different departments, etc. Think of internships as a trial run, for both you and your organization. You get to see if this company or type of work is what you want to be doing with no long-term commitment, and they get to see if you would be a good fit when you graduate. Ultimately, you want to be able to know how each line on your resume added to your skillset and who from that experience will be able to provide you with a recommendation or connection for your next step.
4. Don’t be passive.
This is crucial. There are two important lessons from this point: Be assertive and know what you want.
No one is going to take responsibility for finding you a job. You must own your future and fight for any potential opportunity. Follow up with people if they don’t get back to you in a week and send that extra note to someone to let them know you appreciate their time. Many people will tell you finding work in a particular field is about “timing” or “luck.” But those two things will mean nothing if you are not already on a company’s radar as a qualified candidate when the position becomes available. As Seneca said: “Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.” Live by it.
Though it is good to be open to many different opportunities when you first graduate, you have to be clear and direct with what you want so that people can help you find the right position. You may not have the perfect answer to “where do you see yourself in five years,” but that’s okay. Know your skills and what you enjoy doing. Research your potential employer and try to be specific. Don’t tell someone who has agreed to meet with you that you’re interested in “foreign policy.” Distinguish yourself from thousands of other job applicants by relating to their specific area.
5. Do not cut the cord.
Relationships are living, moving and evolving - always. You never know when these relationships may be valuable to you for future jobs, to help in your current position, and beyond the workplace. One Hill staffer told me that the contacts he made during his three-year job search process have proven useful for his day-to-day work, such as gaining support for legislation. And, if you’re anything like me, a 9:00-5:00 job may not be enough to provide personal fulfillment. Your mentors and network can help to connect you with opportunities to serve on the boards of different organizations, become a delegate to a conference, or bring you in on exciting projects after your typical work hours.
6. Don’t give up.
As I learned, the most meticulously constructed resume does not automatically lead to a job. No matter how much mutual respect you might have with a potential employer, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. The timing is wrong. The fit isn’t perfect. Someone with better connections has to be hired. Be confident in your abilities, analyze your job search techniques, learn from your mistakes, be self-critical, and keep pushing ahead.
In my case, after being turned down by one department in an organization, a different position unexpectedly opened up and I was hired. My contact was someone I had kept in contact with since an internship with a different group three years earlier.
Maybe the final lesson is that as tough as it may be to find work after your graduate, the actual process of looking for a job and engaging with different kinds of people is the most valuable learning experience of all. I certainly wasn’t taught that in school.
Raquel Saxe, a 2013 graduate of UCLA, works for a research institute in Washington, D.C.