- Category: Advice & Tips
- Published: April 25, 2014
- Written by Ben Carpenter
Most soon-to-be college graduates are apprehensive about their job search—and rightly so. In an unforgiving economy and overcrowded job market, finding a position is a difficult challenge. Here, Ben Carpenter tells you what you need to know in order to hear those much-coveted words, “You’re hired!”
Hoboken, NJ (April 2014)—Graduation is almost here. And while it’s a day you’ve been working toward for four (or more) years, the closer it gets the more your sense of dread escalates. The reason why is no mystery: Despite endless web searching and countless emailed résumés, you still don’t have a job. And it goes without saying that the competition is fierce. The rather bleak fact is 40 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed. So, what can you do to give yourself an edge?
According to Ben Carpenter, it’s time to switch from “college” thinking to “real-world” thinking. If you treat each résumé-and-cover-letter combo the same way you do midterm papers (i.e., write, submit, hope for the best), you’ll spend eons in job-search purgatory.
“Yes, simply filling out and submitting a job application used to be enough to get your foot in the door…but times and expectations have changed,” says Carpenter, author of the new book The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Stay Out of Trouble, and Live a Happy Life (Wiley, April 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-91702-2, $25.00). “If you don’t hit the ground running—and I mean that literally, you might have to show up in person at company headquarters—you’ll be overlooked.
“You’ve got to approach everything about your search, from networking to targeting a specific job to interviewing, with an eye toward standing out from the hordes of other seekers,” he says. “It’s not about following a formula. It’s about really considering what employers want and finding a way to provide it.”
The Bigs teaches how to do just that as it conveys an actionable mixture of perspective and often very counterintuitive advice. Using detailed, colorful anecdotes from his own career, he lays out a blueprint that employees of any age and level of experience (not just recent grads) can use to get—and do—a great job. Having done it all, from opening his own bar to working his way through the Wall Street ranks to becoming the CEO of a major international financial services company, Carpenter is the perfect coach.
“As a recent graduate, you’ll have a lot going for you,” Carpenter notes. “Your understanding of social media, the Internet, emerging technology, and more will set you apart from older job seekers. However, because of this particularly unforgiving economy, you’ll also be competing against a lot of professionals who have decades’ worth of experience and knowledge: what bosses want, what HR is looking for, how to navigate office politics, etc. But The Bigs can help you compete against those with more experience. Even more importantly, it will help you compete against your peers who may have more impressive résumés than you.”
Don’t think about what you want to do. Think about what you can do.
You’re probably trying to find a job that will fuel your passion and make you happy. If so, Carpenter’s first piece of advice might feel like a cold wake-up call: Spend less time figuring out what you want to do and more time thinking about what you can do. In other words, seek out a career doing something that you’re good at.
“Choosing a career you can do well, rather than one that seems fun and exciting, might sound unappealing—but it isn’t,” he states. “The satisfaction you get from doing your job well will far outweigh how entertaining it is. Plus, think about how unhappy you’d be if your heart’s desire failed to pay the bills. For instance, if you’re a good writer, you might not want to pursue magazine feature writing—it may sound glamorous, but the field is crowded and jobs can be low paying. Instead, you might consider technical writing.
“From personal experience, as well as from observing family, friends, and coworkers, I can state that most professionals are happiest doing what they are good at, while pursuing other passions—that their careers give them the means to finance—on the side,” he adds.
Always ask yourself, What’s my edge?
What makes you unique and different? Why should other people pay attention to you? What do you have to offer? What gives you an edge over the competition? Be ready and able to articulate your edge at every step of the job-search process: in cover letters, at networking events, and certainly during interviews.
For instance, you could say, “For the past three summers, I worked at one of your company’s retail locations. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the retail location, and I’m grateful for the experience I gained there. I’d like to continue my career at your company, and I feel that my time in your retail stores gave me a unique perspective on how this organization works from the ground up. Plus, I’m already very committed to its mission and values.”
“What’s my edge? is a great question to ask yourself in a multitude of professional scenarios, not just while you’re looking for your first job,” notes Carpenter. “If you’re starting a business, it can help you to define your product or service’s niche. If you’re going after a promotion, it can help differentiate you from your coworkers. In all situations, it will help you define how you can become your personal best.”
Be creative and bold. Long gone are the days of being handed a job just because you have a diploma. There are millions of job seekers with the same qualifications as you, so if you want to receive one of a limited number of opportunities, you’ll need to stand out. For instance:
- Instead of sending out a résumé that will probably get lost in HR Purgatory, stand outside Company XYZ’s offices with a cardboard sign that reads, “Please let me tell you why I’m the person you want to fill the junior systems analyst position you posted on Monster.com.”
- If you’re interested in a graphic design position, create a mockup redesign of the company’s website. Then send it to the prospective employer with the headline, “Get ready to be blown away by your new look!”
“Or take a page from a friend of mine’s book: After identifying her dream job, she walked right into the ‘big boss’s’ office, handed him her résumé, and told him she’d call him later that afternoon,” recounts Carpenter. “The tougher the situation, the less you have to lose—so the more radical your actions should be. The worst that can happen is that you don’t get the job.”
Aggressively work your network.
Your generation has really honed your social connections. You have friends, fans, followers, circles, and more. Now it’s time to put all of them to good use. Put some feelers out and ask, “Does anybody know anybody?” Especially when opportunities are scarce, finding a job is often about who you know as much as what you know. And don’t worry about “imposing,” says Carpenter.
“Keep in mind that everyone has gone through some version of what you are going through,” he says. “Most people vividly remember their first job search and therefore are likely to help with yours. Finally, most people enjoy doing favors for others and, when the favor entails talking about themselves, they are normally more than happy to oblige.”
Make face-to-face connections with informational interviews...
Odds are, you’re very effective at connecting digitally. But how are your in-person skills? Even if (especially if!) face-to-face, real-time communication is outside your comfort zone, you’ll need to work on in-person networking. Connecting a face and a personality to your résumé can be a game changer. Think about it: How many of your peers will potential employers meet (and thus remember) sans computer screens? Not many.
“Ask for an informational interview, in which you talk to someone within a company about his or her career,” Carpenter suggests. “This is a great way to get your foot in the door. Plus, informational interviews will help you build your confidence so you won’t be as timid, nervous, and unsure when you finally get a job interview. You can set up informational interviews by reaching out to your network—family, friends, friends’ parents, alumni of your school, etc.”
…and don’t be afraid to “ask for the order.”
Yes, you should absolutely use informational interviews to get a job interview! At some point toward the end of the conversation, if it hasn’t come up already, say, “Your company sounds exactly like what I am interested in. Do you know of any job openings I might be able to interview for?” And don’t feel like you are imposing or being too forward by asking that question, assures Carpenter. All reasonable and experienced professionals will expect you to be assertive. In fact, they may think less of you if you aren’t!
“If your interviewer can’t personally recommend any jobs, you still have two arrows in your quiver,” he continues. “First, ask, ‘Could you introduce me to someone in Human Resources?’ The person you’ve interviewed with may not know about all of the open positions at the company, but HR will definitely know. Second, you can ask, ‘Do you know anyone else in the industry who might be willing to talk to me?’
“Yes, it takes courage to ask these things of someone you’ve probably just met,” Carpenter acknowledges. “But the truth is, when you’re looking for a job, you can’t afford to be shy! And if you work on developing your assertiveness and tact during your job search, these social skills will help you have an outstanding career in whichever field you choose.”
Reach out to a lot of people.
At this point in your job search, how many people have you contacted for interviews? How many more do you intend to contact? If you’re like many of your peers, chances are the number tops out around 15 or 20. That’s nowhere near enough, says Carpenter.
“I tell young people they should prepare to contact at least 40 to 50 people in the industry of their choice,” he says. “While they never say it to me out loud, I can almost hear them thinking, You’ve got to be kidding! as their eyes widen and their eyebrows shoot up. You may have a similar reaction, but let me assure you that making 40 or 50 connections is necessary. It may take you fewer—or more—interviews to get that coveted offer, but this is a good number to plan for in order to conduct a professional, and ultimately successful, job search.”
Practice talking about your résumé.
At most interviews, you’ll be asked questions concerning your résumé. You never know what will catch the eye of an interviewer, though, so you need to practice framing everything on your résumé in the best possible light. Also, hone your ability to bring any questions that aren’t about your résumé back around to what makes you qualified for the position. Not all your answers will be jaw-dropping showstoppers…but they all need to be well thought-out and designed to show the interviewer why he or she needs to hire you.
“For instance, for a job in public relations, advertising, or marketing you might be asked, ‘Did you enjoy being an English major?’” Carpenter says. “While your answer could be lengthy, an effective brief answer would be, ‘I enjoyed it a great deal, and one of the reasons I am so excited about public relations is because I want the opportunity to put my strong writing skills to use.’
“Here’s another example,” he continues. “What if you’re applying for a job in sales and are asked, ‘Did you like being in a fraternity?’ While I believe lengthy conversations about fraternity life are a bad idea for most interviews, a good answer would be, ‘I enjoyed my fraternity a great deal, but what I liked the most was giving my sales pitch to freshmen regarding why my fraternity was the best. I have always enjoyed the challenge of getting people to see things the way I do, and that is what excites me about sales.’”
Understand whose problem you’re trying to solve.
Once again, Carpenter reiterates that the key to being offered a job is showing the interviewer that his or her company needs you.
“Most young people I interview think their goal is to convince me how smart, accomplished, or nice they are,” he shares. “And yes, those are all laudable qualities. But the fact is, I’m not looking for Miss or Mister Congeniality. I’m looking for the best person to help my company succeed! In other words, interviews aren’t about solving your problem (finding a job); they’re about solving the employer’s problem. Every word that comes out of your mouth has to support that goal. Before sharing something about yourself, consider why the person sitting across from you should care.”
Get comfortable with rejection.
If you haven’t experienced rejection on the job search trail yet, you almost surely will. For most people, this “game” entails a significant amount of “noes” before that “yes” finally materializes. Don’t allow rejection to discourage you, Carpenter urges—use it as fuel for your determination and improvement. Most of all, he says, be fearless.
“Being fearless means not spending all your time and energy worrying about being rejected,” he explains. “If you can be fearless, you’ll greatly increase your chances of success because you won’t try to avoid rejection by not going after an opportunity or not reaching out to an intimidating, but experienced new contact. Plus, most people respond well to confidence. It’s a great trait to show on your job search.”
Show your excitement.
Yes, there’s something to be said for staying cool under pressure, especially during a nerve-wracking interview. But don’t take your calm demeanor too far, Carpenter warns. You must show excitement for the job!
“Companies don’t want to hire clock-punchers; they want team members who will be motivated, innovative, and solution focused,” he insists. “At the end of each interview, say something like, ‘We’ve covered a lot of ground, and I have really enjoyed our conversation. Most of all, though, I want you to know how excited I am about the possibility of working here. Nobody you could hire will work harder to help this company succeed.’
“As someone who has hired many individuals, I can tell you that enthusiasm really can give you an edge over candidates who might have more experience or a more impressive résumé than you!” he adds. “However, if you find yourself having to fake enthusiasm, it might be time to find a different field—interviewers can tell if your words or tone don’t ring true.”
“Here’s one final piece of advice: After each interview, stay in touch with your contact,” Carpenter concludes. “Send an email no later than the next day thanking the interviewer for his or her time. Think of this note as an extension of your interview—another opportunity for you to show why you are a great candidate (hopefully the best candidate) for the job.”