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Job Search 101 for College Seniors

If you have a 3.9 GPA, a multitude of extra-curricular activities and a winning personality, read no further.  For everyone else, follow these tips and you’ll be the one walking out of the interview with the job offer:

Find a Career Advisor.  Everyone can use an advocate in the job search, so make friends with a career advisor. The more they know about you, and your interests and values, the better able they will be to help you find and pursue opportunities.

Learn how to format your cover letter according to accepted business norms.  Unfortunately, this critical skill no longer seems to be taught in high school.  So it’s not surprising that many students don’t know where the address of the recipient goes, how to address your future employer, how to place the letter within the page, or how many spaces you have to put between your closing sentence and your name.

Pay attention to the content of your cover letter.  The purpose of a cover letter is not just to put on top of your resume, but rather to entice an employer to interview you.  Most employers will want to know how you found out about the job opportunity, what you have to offer and why you want the job.  Cover letters are critical to some employers, yet deemed totally unnecessary by others.  Unless an employer has specifically told you not to send one, however, consider it an essential part of your application.

Get a second or third “read” of your resume and cover letter to make sure they have no typographical or grammatical errors.  Some employers immediately eliminate candidates whose materials are not word perfect.  When you’ve been working hard on a document, you may not notice that you wrote “who’s” instead of “whose”.  It matters.  Have a detail-oriented friend proofread for you – every time you send a letter or update your resume.

Have your resume critiqued.  The obvious reasons are to eliminate careless errors and to make sure the resume is appropriately formatted.  But there’s another reason to get a critique:  to make sure the focus of your resume is as close to the focus of the job you desire as possible.  What image does your resume give of you?  If it says you’re a brilliant academic, but you really want to go into business, you need to re-orient it.

Don’t rush.  It’s tempting to use a similar cover letter and resume for each job.  Although the basic format can be the same, you need to customize each one.  Employers can sniff out “form” letters a mile off.  If you give the wrong title of the position you want, it’s a dead give-away that you’re searching for multiple positions.  Every employer wants to feel that you want their job, not any old job.  Make them feel special!

Project enthusiasm.  If you can’t get excited about the job, you’re unlikely to get it.  You may see it as a boring, entry level, position, but your future employer is probably investing significant time and energy in hiring the right person.  To be that right person, you need to indicate through your application that you’re familiar with the job and the company (read the website carefully and do your research), that you know what you can contribute, and why you want the job.  In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, enthusiasm for the job was one of the most important factors in the employer’s decision-making process.

Be selective where you apply.  That’s difficult to do if you don’t care where you work and you just need to make money.  However, your attitude will show through if you use the “shot-gun” approach.  Think of it this way:  You will be unlikely to compete well against other candidates using a generic approach – even if you apply for more than 50 positions.  On the other hand, if you do ten really thorough applications, your efforts will stand out, simply because so few people pay this amount of attention to the job search.

Follow through.  You set yourself apart from other applicants even more if you follow up in person on your application.  Some employers state that they do not want telephone calls.  In that case you will need to email to ensure that your materials have been received.  However, a telephone call gives you the opportunity to start to build a relationship with your future company, and to give them a sense of you as a person.

Build relationships with adults!  There are plenty of people who want to help you find a position if you give them a chance. Faculty, staff, former employers, career advisors, friends and relatives can all be invaluable resources for identifying opportunities, promoting you as a candidate and, except in the case of family members, acting as a reference.  The more people know about you, the better able they are to sing your praises.

The Career Advantages of Study Abroad

What’s your dream?  Touring castles in Scotland?  Walking on the Great Wall of China?  Working to improve the lives of women in rural Uganda?   If you’re thinking of studying abroad, there’s no end to the places you can go, things you can see, and subjects you can study.  At many top schools, like Duke, Tufts or Brown, over a third of the junior class take the opportunity to complete part of their education out of the United States.  Even if your school doesn’t have an extensive study abroad program, you can often get credit from a different school.

Multiple benefits accrue to those who spend significant time in another country, and a significant proportion of students see the experience as an important part of their college years. You’re likely to have fun. But if you’re also thinking about study abroad as a way to gain a critical career advantage, read on.  You’ll find that all foreign experiences are not created equal in the minds of employers.

Employers are looking for graduates who can communicate well with others, both in person and in writing.  They know the importance of cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation for different points of view.  They gravitate towards students who demonstrate maturity, initiative and creativity.  All of these assets can be demonstrated through your study abroad, but it’s going to be much harder to set yourself apart if you’ve taken the “easy route”.

It’s not hard to find the “easy route”:  that’s the one where you go with your friends to another country; all the arrangements are made for you by the school—including the American-style apartment where you live with your classmates.  In this scenario, it doesn’t matter which country you go to, because all your classes will be in English, possibly even taught by your American professors.  You’ll undoubtedly have a somewhat different experience, but to do the “easy route” is to forego some of the major advantages of your time away.

Consider these ways of standing out from the applicant crowd and finding your “hook”.

  • Study in the language of the country wherever possible, even though it makes for a tough first few weeks. (That’s assuming the native language of the country isn’t English!) You’ll smile when your potential employer realizes you really can conduct an interview in your fluent Spanish.
  • Live with a family, rather than with fellow Americans.  You’ll start to understand the nuances of culture and how things work:  great for a question on cross cultural communications.
  • Select courses that take advantage of your study abroad location, such as Art History in Florence, or a study of lemurs in their natural habitat of Madagascar.
  • Seize the opportunity to do an internship, volunteer assignment or work in the place you’re studying abroad.  You’ll get a completely different view of the country if you work with the local community.  It may also make you want to come back after college!
  • Experience things you’ve never done before, like joining a family for a religious celebration, or bargaining for a carpet in a souk in Morocco.  Not every experience is a good one, but a certain level of discomfort or failure can make you more resilient.
  • Explore, explore, explore.  Make your own arrangements.  Take trains and buses. Get off the beaten path.  Find villages that are not on any tourist map.  Talk to the local people in their own language—however bad your pronunciation.

Study abroad can be a welcome relief from the rest of your studies, or it can be the most formative experience of a lifetime.  It can be just one more item on the resume, or it can provide the most colorful examples in your interview.  If you take a few calculated risks, plan in advance and take advantage of all study abroad has to offer, you will become that “memorable candidate”—the one who truly gets the employer’s attention. In the process, you will have developed skills and attitudes that will stay with you for a lifetime.

First published in Going Global, Transitions Abroad, and the Duke University Study Abroad Guide