Career Advice for New College Grads: Think Like An Employer

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time

2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This third post covers the second key career strategy: Think like an employer.

Think Like An Employer

Before we talk about thinking like an employer, I want to say a few words about the job search process. And this is important, because up until now, I’ve been talking about YOU, about what YOU want, and about how YOU get where you want to go. But when you’re in the job search process, the tables are turned. Sure, the initial 10% of the job search is all about you. You get to decide where you’re going to apply and what kind of work you think you’re suited to. But the next 80%, which includes the resume, the cover letter and the interview, is all about the employer and the employer’s needs. Only once they’ve metaphorically “fallen in love” with you and you’ve been offered the job, do the tables turn back. The ball in the final 10% of the process, once the employer has made the offer, is back in your court. You get to decide whether to accept the offer.

Given how much time the employer is in the driver’s seat, it makes sense to see things from their point of view.
Once you’ve identified where you’d like to work, visualize the hiring manager at your ideal employer reading your resume and cover letter. Imagine she’s reading hundreds of applications and within 10 seconds she’ll make a decision whether to pursue your candidacy.

You can almost imagine her sitting there with a check box, picking out key words on your resume, and trying to find ways to screen you out—because it is, unfortunately in most cases, trying to screen you out vs. screen you in.

When most people talk about their experience, they emphasize the areas in which they have achieved the most. But your highly developed technical skills and ability to create top quality websites may be perceived as irrelevant in a sales position.

The key to thinking like an employer is to focus like a laser on the requirements of the position, and put your relevant qualifications front and center. Consider the format of your resume and the way you’ve ordered your accomplishments. Do the required abilities show up first? Does your cover letter make it easy for an employer to visualize you in the job?

And while we’re talking about cover letters, use them as a way to show you’ve done your homework about the company and can give a compelling argument about why you’ll be helpful to them.

Obviously your resume needs to be easy to read, up-to-date, with no typos. But your application materials also need to shout out “I have the qualifications, the experience, and the enthusiasm you need. I can add value.”

One final word about thinking like an employer is this: consider whether the employer really needs someone with your particular skill set, and how many applicants they are likely to have. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out the odds if the only positions you seek are likely to have over a hundred equally qualified applicants.
A sound piece of advice is to spend most of your time identifying the hidden job market (jobs that aren’t advertised) rather than indiscriminately applying to hundreds of online postings on the off chance that when they’re shuffled you’ll show up on top!

Consider where the unemployment rates are lowest and the job openings are highest. North and South Dakota, for example, both have unemployment rates of lower than 5%. If you’re more of an East Coast type, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is substantially below the average, at 7.2%. And if you’re going to be really strategic about where you apply, consider that according to a survey by, in a place like Chicago, there is one job for every seven applicants, whereas in Washington DC, there are six advertised positions for every applicant. Not surprisingly, the states of Virginia and Maryland that surround DC, have some of the lower unemployment rates (7.2%).


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