College Voices

9 tips to help you find your first job — and nail the interview

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It's that time of year again — college students across the country are in the thick of the hunt for jobs and internships.

Hiring slowed way down during the Covid pandemic, making it really tough on the graduating classes from the past few years. But the job market looks good for the class of 2022: Employers plan to hire 27% more new graduates from the class of 2022 than they did for the class of 2021, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And, the number of job openings overall in the U.S. economy is more than 11 million, according to a recent report from the Labor Department.

"Right now, it's looking great," Patrick Madsen, executive director of the career center at UNC Charlotte, told local NBC affiliate WCNC in a recent interview. "There are more jobs than there are graduates nationwide … I have been seeing a lot of students that are getting multiple offers."

That being said, you have to be smart about it if you want to land your dream job. You have to do your research, network, go in prepared and be able to clearly tell the hiring manager not just why you want the job but what you bring to the table.

Here are a few tips to help you find the job and nail the interview:

1. Use your college's resources

Oftentimes, the most overwhelming part of finding a job can be figuring out where to start looking. And the best way to start is figuring out what you already have. Most universities and colleges have career centers, and these centers are there to help you. Resources like resume workshops, job hunt seminars and even email newsletters detailing job openings may open the door for you to find your next opportunity. 

Most schools also offer career fairs — a fantastic way to get to know (and get exposed to) many different companies at once.

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Kelly Barnett, director of the career development center at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, said that going to a career fair is a way for students to keep all their options open. For younger students, it's good practice to attend and explore what options are out there for the future. And for older students, Barnett encourages them to keep an open mind, even if their dream company is not visiting.

Barnett is constantly in contact with both recruiters and alumni, and she says that many students find it helpful to meet one on one with her and the other career counselors. Meeting one on one allows students to talk about the specific nuances of their situation, Barnett said, and in turn she can make recommendations and facilitate connections based on each student's past experiences and future goals.

2. Social media can be your friend

Luckily, we live in an age where the internet has endless resources. Websites like LinkedIn, Indeed and Ziprecruiter can be great sources for finding job openings, but social media can be a great window into the company.

"It's interesting to see what a company puts out there compared to what their employees might say in an interview," said Barnett.

Social media, to an extent, shows a company's values and culture. But Barnett also warns that employers may be looking at prospective hires' pages, too.

"Make sure that your footprint online is something that is appealing and professional, and that it's the best version of you," she said.

3. Only ask for advice

It is SO important to reach out to alumni or current employees at the company you want to work at.

Barnett said that in most cases that she has seen, students have gotten their first job through networking versus just applying cold online. She recommends reaching out to people on LinkedIn and taking advantage of any alumni lists or groups your school may have.

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But how do you keep the conversation casual and real? Barnett said the key is to ask for advice — not a job. 

"You can't ask somebody to do something for you," she said. "Always come at things for a point of advice, like, 'Do you have advice on applying to the internship program? Or would you be willing to talk to me about your background and experience?' Make it about the individual first."

She said that using this approach makes the contact feel like a whole person, rather than a means to an end. And, it's a lot less heavy of an ask to seek advice rather than a job, especially when they may not know you and what you bring to the table.

4. Develop relationships

"I can't stress personalization enough when it comes to networking," Barnett said. "If you think about any relationships that you've created in your life that you weren't born into, you bonded over things that you had in common."

So, whether you're writing cover letters, interviewing, or just asking questions, get to know the actual person behind the email address. By developing real relationships, your job search will be more engaging, meaningful and most likely more successful.

5. Your network is closer than it may appear

Have you ever heard of Dunbar's number? According to the theory, any given person can maintain connections with 150 people at a time. In turn, your close connections have their own connections. This web creates limitless opportunities for networking!

Meredith Welborn, a senior creator at VaynerMedia in Los Angeles, used networking to secure her job. The 2021 graduate of Southern Methodist University said that after touring the VaynerMedia office on a school trip with her advertising program, she kept in touch with the SMU alumni and their co-workers that she met. When it came time to look for a job, she simply reached out. 

"I really value that experience," she said of SMU's networking opportunities. "You have to be willing to work hard, but in my opinion it's all about who you know."

So, check out what networking opportunities your school has to offer, reach out and conduct informational interviews to establish connections, and keep in touch to develop those meaningful relationships.

6. How to nail the interview

Congrats! You got an interview. Now, go and do your research!

Never go into an interview blind — be prepared and know exactly what role you are interviewing for, what the company does, and what your questions are.

Identify what they are looking for. Whether you have set up informational interviews with people in that role or have studied the job description — show that you have the skills and traits they are asking for by drawing from your past experiences. Know what makes you unique and why they should hire you. What would you bring to their team?

Ramit Sethi, personal finance coach and bestselling author of "I Will Teach You to be Rich," has three tips for interview success: 1) Make it clear you have researched the company when you answer questions. 2) Prepare answers to highly predictable questions. Knowing your resume, goals, strengths and weaknesses, and reason for applying should be easy to answer and thought of beforehand. 3) Make sure you "communicate your key messages." Show the employer everything you want them to know about you.

7. Know what you bring to the table

You need to know what you bring to the table and be able to articulate it. But, depending on the type of company, different skills and traits may be needed for each interview. So, don't go in with a cookie-cutter approach for every interview. Tailor your cover letter, resume and interview talking points to that specific company and position.

Zebedayo Masongo is founder of The Grnwood, a media platform highlighting Black excellence and Black creatives (named after the community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was destroyed in the 1920s), and he is currently interviewing potential interns. He said as a start-up founder, he has some very specific needs in order to grow his business and may be looking for something different than an established corporation, for example. As students are looking for jobs and asking questions in interviews, Masongo makes a great point about different company cultures. 

Zebedayo Masongo, Syracuse Law School student and founder of The Grnwood.
Source: Zebedayo Masongo

"I think that, in a bigger more established company, they have set systems already in place," said Masongo. "I don't have the systems that the bigger companies have. So, with this first group that I'm bringing in, this is me creating a culture that bigger companies have already established."

If you are looking for a job with more exploration and trial and error, then a start-up may be a great fit. Masongo said he wants new hires to be self-starters and to value learning throughout the process.

8. You are more than your resume

You have always heard the age-old advice to "be yourself." When it comes to job hunting, that's really true!

"I think that sometimes resumes and report cards are a poor reflection of someone's true work ethic," said Masongo. He reasons that, while resumes are a great way to show your past experience, he would rather see a portfolio, or what you accomplished in your work, as well as getting to know you within the interview.

Welborn said she also got the advice to let her personality show in her interview. "If you're trying to be something you're not, they're going to see right through that and it's not in the best interest of you or the company," she said.

"There's a larger story," continued Masongo. "I think that oftentimes the resume becomes a snapshot, and we miss the bigger picture about who someone is and what they can contribute to a team."

9. Change your mindset

Your job hunt shouldn't be a chore. This is an exciting time in your life to find opportunities that inspire you. No one else is in charge now. You decide what you want to do, where you want to work and how you go about getting it. You never know where your career path will lead! So get out there with motivation and determination to find the right job at the right company in the right city for you.

And, if the door you're knocking on doesn't open, just get out there and keep knocking on the next one and the next one. A lot of times, the door you didn't expect provides an even more exciting opportunity than the one you originally wanted!

Dream big, utilize all of the resources available to you, practice meaningful networking and prepare for your interviews. Your opportunities will be endless!

College Money 101″ is a guide written by college students to help the class of 2022 learn about big money issues they will face in life — from student loans to budgeting and getting their first apartment — and make smart money decisions. And, even if you're still in school, you can start using this guide right now so you are financially savvy when you graduate and start your adult life on a great financial track. Katie Hopsicker is a graduate student within the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. She was a spring 2022 intern for CNBC's talent development team. The guide is edited by Cindy Perman.

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