The First Job Hunt: 10 Steps to Landing a Job After Graduation
Amanda Ruehlen, Former Project Management Director
A new college grad's first job hunt is a different beast than any job hunt you will likely do in the future - you have to somehow show you are qualified without having any real-world experience. Plus, right now you have to paddle upstream against the economy and other recent grads in the same boat. I spent much of my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill applying to jobs, and I was lucky to have one by the time I graduated last month. I'm not sure how many of my "strategies" actually helped me land my job at Viget, but some magical combination of this game plan (sprinkled with some good luck and good timing) led me to my new role at Viget South as a Web Project Manager.
- Have an open mind: No matter how worthless you think a networking fair or career fair is going to be, go anyway. At the very least, it will be good practice talking to companies. I almost didn't go to a networking fair put on by UNC's journalism school in April because I thought a "networking" fair sounded even more painful than a "job" fair, minus the job openings. Even though it was a Friday afternoon and I didn't think anything would come of it, I still went. When I finally made it to the table with the cool people wearing blue and orange shirts, Emily, Carolyn and Jillian introduced me to the world of Viget. And three weeks later, I had a job.
- Cast a wide net: Be open when you are searching for your first job. I didn't realize what a good fit my interests and skills would be for web project management until I met some of the Viget crew at the networking fair. If I'd had a narrow focus on getting only a certain type of job, I may have passed over the Viget table. Don't give up on any dreams or pursue a job you truly have no interest in, but there could be a cool job out there that you may not even know exists.
- Be direct: I got nothing out of networking events I went to in the beginning of the year - I was timid and afraid of coming off as too eager. I eventually learned that at these fairs the ball is in your court as a job seeker, so it's the perfect environment to ask direct questions that will help land the job. After I explained to Emily my experiences and my interests, she told me I had unknowingly just described a project manager at Viget. I asked her more about what a project manager does, if there were any openings, could someone right out of college apply, and how to apply. I figured out pretty early on in our conversation that she was a critical person in the recruitment process, so I wanted as much insight from her as possible before I applied. I walked away from the Viget table very informed about a job I was excited to apply for and with three solid contacts.
- Strike while the iron is hot: No matter how busy you are, make everything in the interview process your first priority. When I was interviewing with Viget, I was in the middle of the most stressful part of the semester - final exams, term papers, presentations - basically the worst time for any college student. I'll admit, it was tempting to say, "Actually, I need to study for finals. Can we push this interview to next week?" Instead, I kept the ball rolling and worked to schedule everything as soon as possible as I moved further along in the process. Viget was awesome and they probably would have been understanding since I was a student, but I didn't want to take any chance they'd forget about me if I wanted to postpone in favor of school stuff.
- Be a good sport: If you do end up shuffling things around in your personal and school life to make room for interviews, don't be a martyr. I don't think it would have worked in my favor if during my interviews I went on and on about the endless hours I had ahead of me to study for exams, even if it was always a lingering thought. If I couldn't gracefully juggle final exams and my Viget interviews, then that might have been a red flag that I wouldn't be a good project manager.
- Prepare targeted examples: Coming straight out of college, there was no hiding that I had little professional experience, so I needed to be able to showcase that I had potential and could grow into something awesome. I compiled a list of words that were relevant to the job description (like initiative, conflict, leadership, deadlines, organized, detailed, big-picture, potential) and then wrote down examples from internships and past experiences that demonstrated each word. This was a great way to prepare, and it gets your brain flowing if you review it right before an interview.
- Be loaded with an arsenal of questions: Questions will become your best friend. In total, I talked with 13 Viget people throughout the interview process. (Thanks, Emily, Carolyn, Jillian, Ben, Peyton, David, Kelly, Kevin V., Cindy, Tom, Rob, Brian and Andy!) I don't know if I could have physically talked for that long in that many interviews if I didn't have my own questions prepared. Just make sure they aren't questions that lack substance and could easily be answered by your own research on the company web site. The ability to ask meaningful questions shows that you are inquisitive, thoughtful and curious - all good qualities for a future employee. Also, if you are lucky enough to get a job offer, the answers to these questions will be crucial when it comes time to make a decision.
- Go beyond the company web site: To help prepare for the interviews and to build my arsenal of questions, not only did I thoroughly comb through Viget's web site and its blogs, but I did my own research (i.e., lots of googling). Just to highlight a few examples, I found a profile about Viget in .net magazine, an interview with Brian on YouTube, and a post on a web design blog. Not only did this help me prepare for interviews, but it gave me a better feel for Viget as a company and its culture.
- Practice makes perfect: Any smart candidate will practice a presentation they are expected to give in the interview - that is a no-brainer. I practiced both my hypothetical ShamWow kick-off meeting and the presentation I gave to Brian and Andy as often as I could before the interviews. What will make your presentation extra polished and stand apart is practicing the parts that most forget about - an introduction, transitions, and the end. It's easy to think these parts will just naturally flow without having to practice, but these elements of a presentation can turn a decent, choppy presentation into a seamless, professional one.
- Back up your backup's backup: Have a long chain of backups for any presentation. For the presentation I gave Brian and Andy, I had saved it on my laptop and flash drive (in multiple formats), saved it as a Google Docs presentation, emailed it to myself and brought hard copies. This is beyond overkill, and I'm a self-admitted over-preparer, but it gave me a calm mind knowing I could still present under any circumstance. (Yes, I know how unlikely it was that my laptop, flash drive, Gmail, and the power would all stop working.) And who cares that I felt like a nut job having so many backups - no one else knew the ridiculous number of worst-case-scenario plans I had, and if for some reason a crazy situation did happen, I would have looked like a superstar if I could present anyway. Things sometimes just go wrong, so I wanted to show that if they were to hire me and there was a technology glitch in a client meeting, I could handle it.
While this was my thought process and strategy throughout my Viget interviews, most of this can be applied to any first job hunt. The most important thing to remember is to treat everything as a learning experience and to be grateful for any opportunity you are given. If it had turned out that I didn't get the job at Viget, I know I would have been exponentially more prepared for future interviews and I would have made some great connections. And if you get as lucky as I was, you'll find a new home at a company as awesome as Viget.