Book excerpt  Chapter 10 of I CAN Finish College

Eighteen Steps to getting a job before you are out the college door: A job search action plan

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

While you’re in college, you should always be preparing for what comes next  Along the way, you can be putting in place the structure you’ll step onto next.

You’ve been building skill sets to serve you in your next phase. You should be a much better writer now and know how to do research. You should know how to think critically and support contentions with evidence.  You now have facts and information you never dreamed you would.  And you will be surprised, along life’s path, at how randomly things crop up that you remember and find useful.  As you  have been learning to overcome obstacles and use the resources at hand, you established practices and behaviors that will serve you well in your new life.

Ideally you have had more than one internship, part time jobs, and engaged in campus activities and community service. These constitute your resume when you graduate and show what you can do. Perhaps most important, you built a support network of classmates and even faculty and administrators who can continue to be there for you for years to come. 

Getting A Job Before You Get Out Of CollegeKeeping your eye on the idea of work after college can help get you through college.  But, you need to remember that what you are seeking is your first job, not your last.  The reality is that for the first eight to ten years after graduation it is not uncommon to move around to as many as four different jobs.  You’re at the first rung of the career ladder.

Your search for that first job needs a plan of action.  Some parts of that process help you develop skills that you’ll use repeatedly.  Remember, the free resources of the career office cost thousands later in life—like the gym, it is a “free” resource that your tuition actually pays for.  You are fully entitled to use it to the maximum, and many schools let you continue to do so as an alumnus for the rest of your life.  Following is a job search timeline that you can use in conjunction with those resources.

Visit the career office and learn the resources that you can tap.  Ideally, start doing this as a freshman or sophomore, but any time up to the middle of your senior year is useful.  You give yourself time to build your resume that way.  By the second half of your senior year, it is late to start the process—not hopeless, but not nearly as effective.

  • Tests may be offered that help you see your strengths and how they align with your interests or with fields you want to explore.

  • Use the library of books on various career paths and what is expected.  Trade publications are magazines that cater to particular fields—Ad Age for the advertising industry, Women’s Wear Daily for the fashion and retail trade, for instance.  These can reveal trends in the business, who is moving around, which firms are strong and which faltering.  They can help you target your search and be more knowledgeable for your interviews.  There are also online resources and blogs for particular industries.

  • Watch for special presentations on campus by alumni or others in your field of interest.  They can offer valuable information on what it’s like to be in those fields and provide opportunities to network.

  • See if there is an alumni network or mentor program that facilitates networking and informational interviews, which give you the opportunity to learn more about working in a particular industry or job category.  You might learn directly from an experienced worker’s perspective, for example, that what you thought was exciting in the area of public relations entails long hours, including evenings or weekends, and lots of travel, which would not suit your family life or you may feel the chance to travel is what you have always wanted.  This type of interview is not job-specific, but broadens your information base, so you can make better career choices and be better prepared when you do go for actual job interviews. It is also good to talk to younger employees (fairly recent alumni) whose experience at the entry level would more closely mirror what your experience would be.

  • Engage in internships. These are a good way to test the waters in a field of interest, build a resume, and build your networks.  The career office can help you find and obtain internships, but you may also hear of them through campus organizations and your department, and on the Web.

  • Use resume services to be sure that yours is polished and professional, and maximizes your opportunities.  You may have mistakenly excluded your role in student government or your volunteer work—these can be more revealing than your stint at Starbucks, in terms of your leadership abilities.  The career office picks up on such items.  They will also review your cover letter, which is crucially important.

  • Watch for a career week event when employers in the area come to your campus and recruit for jobs.  You should dress for success for these events and bring copies of your resume.  This is not a gum-chewing, baggy-jeans moment.  Recruiters are seriously looking for viable talent, and you should present yourself at your professional best even when you know that ultimately the work environment may be more casual.

  • Keep an eye on all kinds of Web sites, want ads, and job boards for opportunities.  Use the online and actual job boards or listings your school offers.  Also check sites such as,, Idealist, and other targeted sites.  You can search by geographic area, job title, or other criteria.  If you can be flexible about location, do so.  Some parts of the country have more options available than others and may have more in fields of interest to you.  Some fields such as the film industry or oil industry just about require that you be in specific geographic areas. [ Absolutely look at small to midsized growth firms where you may be able to shine sooner and get lots of valuable experience and even grow with the firm. Look at lists like the INC magazine 500.  where you will find growing entrepreneurial firms. ]

  • Take every opportunity to network.  Whenever you get a chance to talk to someone about your career interest, do it.  Certainly talk to your instructors or administrators who know you well.  You may have conversations with a customer in your field who you see regularly at your Dunkin’ Donuts job, or you may make more formal contact through social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn.  Go to conferences or events related to your field.  Every campus has events that it struggles to find students to attend, but a guest speaker can open all kinds of doors for students who are poised and confident and approach with an eye to learning more. If you are shy you can take their business cards and send a note or email to thank them for coming, ask a question, ask for a networking interview or just introduce yourself. Just be sure that whatever you send is polished and brief. Volunteer to help at events—charity events, for example, can link you to individuals who may be helpful and can also add to your resume.  Even shows like Good Morning, America now have job-related Web sites.  Up to 85 percent of jobs come through personal contacts.  The more persons you know and who know you, the better off you are. 

  • Research salary levels for your field of interest.  You have to be realistic and prepared for what may be typically not-high salary levels for entry-level positions.  If you come in with great grades and lots of experience from summer jobs and internships, you may be able to get a bit more, but as a new college graduate, you are starting at the lower end of the job ladder, and that means lower pay scales.  At the same time, salary levels vary widely.  Some industries or job titles may pay more and vary by geography.  For example,’s salary finder shows that an accountant in New York City makes on average six thousand dollars more than one in Denver.  But the cost of living is different in the two areas.  Armed with this information you can more clearly assess whether you’re facing race or gender discrimination in a job offer, or you know better how to negotiate upward if you can.

  • Look into the culture and reputation of a company. Reading the trade publications and blogs can help but also look at the lists of best companies to work for that are published annually by Working Woman, Fortune Magazine and Black Enterprise. These may yield insights into the kinds of firms where you would fit best. And again talk to people who are in or have been in the firms you are exploring.

  • Target jobs and employers of interest once you’ve done your research on them.  Plan to send out many letters and resumes.  Your cover letter shows that you’ve done your homework on the field and the firm, from your informational interviews and reading of trade publications and blogs.  Use these letters to show the match between your background and the firm or field you’re trying to get into.  Be enthusiastic about your interest in the firm, job, or industry.  These materials also act as samples of your writing, so do them well and have others look them over for typos or other errors.  In your research, look for the key person at the hiring firms, whether in Human Resources (HR) or the head of the department you’re interested in.  Address your letters specifically to that person.  Indicate that you will follow-up in a week and then do just that.  (But do not overdo it—that works against you.)

  • In some cases, you may come across a hard copy or online application form.  As with grad school applications, these must be filled out with great care and attention to detail.  Some areas may be personally tricky for you.  If you do not have a green card or visa or if you have been incarcerated, ask your career counselor how to handle these issues.  They may not be insurmountable, but they may limit your choices.   By law, there are areas that employers are not allowed to question, including your marital status or whether you have (or plan to have) children, or your age, ethnicity, or religion.  (These can’t be asked about in interviews either.)

  • Employers do background checks of various sorts.  You should clean up your Facebook pages, so that if an employer checks on you, nothing pops up that can do you out of a job because they cast you in an embarrassing light or reflect (youthful?) poor judgment.  Also, change your e-mail address and voice mail messages to ones that are professional (use your name or initials), instead of something such as  Employers also check your credit ratings to see if you are financially responsible.  Obviously, for certain jobs there may be questions or checks on any brushes with the justice system.  If you’re an ex-offender, then be sure to tap organizations that are geared to help you reenter the workplace.  Many public colleges also have special programs to support you.

  • Practice your interviewing skills.  Your career office may offer practice interviews, or you may just have to ask friends to practice with you.  Sometimes professors or others who are invested in you will help out.  There are standard questions you might expect.  Google “job interview questions,” and a host of sites offering interviewing advice appear.  Expect an interviewer to ask, for example, why you want the job, what your strengths and weaknesses are, what you are most proud of, or what has been your biggest challenge.  Strategies exist for responding that cast you in the best light. [Showing your energy and enthusiasm as well as revealing your tech savvy skills can give you an edge over a more experienced candidate.] Again, do your homework in preparing for the interview.  Don’t forget that interviewers also likely ask whether you have any questions.  You should have at least two that reflect the research you’ve done on the firm and the field.  Never ask about benefits or salary until there is an offer or you are further along in the process.  Again, your career office can help you with this.

  • Prepare for phone interviews as well. Dress as though you were meeting in person and also that you have the Web site of the firm up in front of you.  Have your resume and cover letter at hand, too.  Smile while you’re on the phone—it shows in your voice.  End the conversation with a verbal handshake, such as “I enjoyed speaking with you.”

  • First impressions are a make-or-break moment.  Think like the employer, who is envisioning your impact on customers or colleagues.  It’s important that you have a firm handshake, good eye contact, and a friendly smile.  Aim for looking as though you fit in and are likeable.  Be sure that the suit (or dress) you wear is one that makes you feel good and at ease—it should add to your self-confidence.  Have an “interview suit” in your closet.  It should be dark gray, black, or navy, perhaps brown.  It must be clean and conservative in cut (the exceptions to this preference may be the fashion, film, or advertising industries, which favor a bit more creative, though professional, flair.)  Look at what businesspersons are wearing in publications such as Fortune, Crain’s, Inc., or Business Week, which include photos.  Accessories—ties, scarves, pieces of jewelry—can add color and personality in an interesting, but not crazy, way.  Have your hair well cut and groomed and, for women, your nails done in muted shades or no polish at all.  If you don’t have much to spend, check resources such as Dress for Success or the Bottomless Closet for women, or for men, places like Men’s Wearhouse offer good value.  Sometimes charity thrift shops offer great gently worn outfits for little money.  Look for the shops in high-income neighborhoods for real bargains.  No jeans or sneakers, flip-flops, halters or baggy pants, please!

  • After the interview, send a thank you note typed on stationary (like your cover letter), wherein you thank each of the persons you met with and again restate your interest in the job and the reason you’re a perfect fit.  This should be a short letter, but you may include a line or two, for example, that you may not have been able to get into the interview.  At the end of the interview, you should have learned the process and timetable for making the hiring decision.  Using that timeline, you may want to schedule follow-up calls, but again, do not be annoying.

In the end you will have been building to the first job from the first day of college. It will be there for you if you do your home work in every sense. Rewards come to those who are prepared when opportunity knocks.

Marcia CantarellaDr. Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide  () and a consultant on higher education, access and success. See more in Chapter 10 of I Can Finish College.