There are few things in this world more terrifying than trying to get hired for your first real job. Not only do you put constant pressure on yourself, but you also feel it from parents, siblings, and peers who have already snagged a killer job or who are well into their career. On top of this, you’re most likely in your early 20s, which means you’re a professional at pretending to be an adult, but you actually forget to feed yourself and sometimes you can’t remember the last time you did laundry. You hear tales about “The Real World” from recent grads who longingly reminisce about their college days and practically brush away tears as they tell you to “enjoy these days while they last.” It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
I’ve been on the job hunt for about six months now and, as a young twenty-something, I am neither stating or even pretending to be a career counselor, job match-maker, or life expert. What I am an expert at, however, is talking to people. Over these last few months I have dedicated myself to meeting with directors, professors, recent grads, my parent’s friends, and my parent’s friends’ friends, to try to answer the question: “So, how exactly do I get the job I want? How do I move from A to Z without having to live in a cardboard box with ramen as my staple diet?” And here is what I’ve found.
1. Informational interviews are your best friend.
I cannot stress this enough (hence its status as numero uno on the list). Informational interviews are not only the best thing I’ve done as a college senior, but they’re also something you can start doing at any point in your collegiate or professional career. Forbes has an excellent article on the subject, but what an informational interview boils down to is having a conversation. It sounds simple, but preparation is key here. These interviews straddle the fine line between casual getting-to-know-you’s and a formal job interview. They are meant to be engaging and meaningful, but not a chance for you to ask if they would like to hire you for a job. In a way, informational interviews are like first dates: a chance to get to know someone where it’s slightly awkward because you’re just getting to know each other, but you want the promise of a second date. And a third. And so on and so forth. Ultimately informational interviews are the best way to continuously build your network (see #2) and have a person keep you in mind for potential job opportunities.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not about what you do, but who you know.
Many of my peers have spent endless hours over the summer and during academic years building resumes. Resumes, we’re told, are essential. Resumes get people jobs. They are a reflection of who you are, of what you’ve accomplished, of what you’re capable of offering a business. Well, yes and no.
Having experience, especially in the field you’re interested in pursuing, is certainly beneficial, but when hundreds or even thousands of people are applying for a position you want, what’s going to make you stand out in the crowd? Not what you’ve done, but who you know.
Now this rule is not airtight; impressive credentials are capable of landing you a job. But hiring a new employee is often times a two-way street: you want to work for the company and they want you to work for them. That means they have to like you, which means they have to know what your personality is in relation to the hundreds of other potential hires. So how do you make yourself stand out? Network, network, network. Don’t be afraid to approach a professional and ask career advice, ask if they have advice for someone in your position, or if they know anyone you can talk to. Ask for an informational interview. Ask and get to know professionals you admire, because the fact of the matter is people get people jobs.
3. No two paths are the same. Stop comparing.
It is so easy to compare yourself to Joe Shmoe who just landed a job at Google or Susie Lou who is somehow supporting herself as a freelance writer in Paris and think Jesus, what am I doing with my life?! Never fear, fellow job hunter. A few months ago I received the best advice about this very FONGAJ (Fear of Not Getting a Job). I attended a career panel for students interested in pursuing careers in the arts and one young woman raised her hand and asked what it takes to get from Point A to Point B in the arts. What were the steps she should take to get the job she wanted?
This question seemed to resonate throughout the room and one professor leaned back in his chair, smiled, leaned forward onto the table in front of him and said: “How many of you know someone in business school?” Everyone raised their hand. “Okay,” he said, “now how many of you are in business school?” One person raised his hand, and I know for a fact that he was literally just there for the free snacks. “You see?” the professor continued, “You all know someone in business school and so you almost unconsciously begin to compare your own career path to theirs.” He paused to look at the group dead-on. “Stop doing that.” No two paths are the same in the job hunt. If someone wants to be a doctor, their path is going to be drastically different from someone who wants to go into marketing, for example. Just because someone already has a job doesn’t mean you’re not going to get one. Breathe, have a beer, and continue forth.
4. “No” means “Try Again.”
There are few times in life when this phrase is actually applicable. The Real World Job Hunt, however, is one of those times. Applying for jobs is a numbers game and, unfortunately, that means it’s a competition where is going to be a winner and many, many not-winners. I deliberately neglected to use the word “losers” here because not getting a job does not mean you’re a loser; it simply means that you have to try again.
Be open to opportunities and something will find you. The other day I spoke with a woman on the phone about her job as a project manager at a historic home. “It’s funny,” she said, “I actually desperately wanted the assistant curatorial job that was advertised, but they gave it to someone else.” Disappointed, the woman began applying to other jobs when the historic home called her back and said a position had opened up that they thought she would be a good fit for. She’s now in a position that was made permanent for her and one that better suits her professional character. Just because someone says no now doesn’t mean they won’t change their minds later. Keep your network alive, consistently demonstrate your passion and drive, be open to opportunity, and something will find you.
5. Learn everything you can about yourself and then learn how to convey it.
When I started college, I was told that this was the opportunity to “find myself.” Finding yourself is all fine and dandy, but your Job Self is different than your Personal Self. Your Personal Self is the self that comes out at parties, that asks that cute guy or girl on a date; your Job Self is the self that knows what you want and demonstrates curiosity and drive in going after it. The fact of the matter is that finding your Job Self is a pretty tough process. It requires you to examine what kind of work environment will suit your personality and work ethic, where you see yourself in five years, and asking yourself what skills and experience you have both from and beyond your work experience.
When a potential employer says “Tell me about yourself,” they aren’t asking what your zodiac sign is or what your favorite T-Swift song is. They are asking what makes you a unique candidate for the job. Think of it as an employer asking “What makes your personal and professional experiences the best candidate for this position?” It is difficult to convey who you are coherently and concisely, so you should find the opportunity to practice. Yes, please, practice talking about yourself. If you haven’t reached the point of talking about your Job Self, I’d recommend buying a book like What Color Is Your Parachute, which contains witty, useful, and relevant ways to figure out exactly who your Job Self is.
Finally, you should always remember that you can do this. I know the Real World seems scary and the job hunt may seem impossible. Someone once told me that success is just a matter of hanging on when others let go. So, darling, don’t let go just yet. If millions of graduates have made it out alive, then you can too.