In a few months, a new group of freshly minted college graduates will enter the workforce. When these students graduate, they will have spent the last three semesters of their college careers navigating a pandemic that has drastically changed the landscape of college campuses.
These students have had to finish their college careers virtually, with very little benefit of the meet and greets and job fairs that colleges usually pepper throughout the academic year, hoping to see their graduates find that elusive first professional job.
The job search will be different for Class of 2021 graduates
The job search will certainly look different for this population of new graduates. They will have to navigate different avenues and most of their interviews will be online, with little or no opportunity for in-person meetings before being hired.
This is also a time when personal connections will be more valuable than ever. Getting the name of someone who works in the desired industry is like getting an enviable “Golden Ticket.” What should a student do when they’ve been given a coveted contact from a personal connection?
I interviewed several high-level professionals (through Zoom, emails, and messaging as the current climate dictates) in different industries for their insight on how a student or young adult looking for a job in these “unprecedented times” can be successful.
There were many common themes in their advice, despite the diversity of professions. Whether Biotech, Marketing, Television, Sustainable Energy, or Governmental/NGO work, there are certainly best practices when it comes to successfully navigating the interview process.
Best ways for college students to use personal connections in a job search
1. Contact in a timely fashion
Do not delay reaching out when given a name. Chances are this person was given a heads up that someone would be contacting them. It is respectful to all involved to follow up quickly. Most professionals expect to be contacted within two weeks of their name being given out. If it takes longer than this, they may assume you are not interested.
A prompt acknowledgement of the agreement to meet, and an introduction, is a clear sign that someone respects my time. If it takes more than two weeks for someone to reach out to me, I begin having doubts about the seriousness of the meeting.Dr. gene lee
Even if you are anxious, try not to delay reaching out. You don’t want to send the wrong message. “Reaching out” is not the interview, it’s just establishing contact and setting up a time when you can meet, a time that works for both parties.
Don’t worry if you have finals coming up, or a big project due — most professionals will be understanding of this and be willing to work around it. Making that initial contact will not only get the ball rolling but will also show that you are truly interested.
2. Reach out without fear
Most professionals are happy to talk to people about what they do, especially if the other person is interested in their field. They feel like it is “giving back” or “paying it forward.” They are rooting for you and are on your side, so don’t be afraid. They understand that it isn’t easy for you, and most will try to put you at ease. Lisa Cohen, former Chief of Training at the US Peace Corps and current self-employed coach, consultant, and facilitator, confirms this by saying, “I consider it a duty and a privilege to make myself available to younger people interested in my field(s). It’s paying it forward so I always make time to talk with people who reach out to me.”
In fact, some seasoned professionals are so eager to reach out to young people that they are proactive about it. Michelle Monti, a Communications Consultant, is exuberant about talking to young people:
I love talking with students so much that I throw that idea out there to people myself and suggest that they call me. I happily volunteer at my alma maters’ alumni centers to be someone that people call. I’ve always benefitted from mentors in my own career, and I know firsthand how it helps.Michelle Monti
Many successful professionals are happy to talk to young people, but they also remember just how hard it is to make that initial contact, sometimes with hands shaking. Lincoln Bleveans, Executive Director of Sustainability & Energy Management at Stanford University, says,
I find that just that initial outreach is by far the hardest part and if there was one thing I could say, to an auditorium of a thousand kids, it would be, ‘just make the call, grab another cup of coffee, screw up your courage, and make the call because these people want to talk to you!’” He then adds, “the truth is almost everybody [that you might talk to] is cheering for you to succeed — they want you to succeed. They are literally cheering you.lincoln bleveans
Calling someone in a professional capacity might be a bit intimidating, especially when you are used to seeing them in a different context. This shouldn’t be a deterrent. Someone who used to come to your little league games, who cheered you on from the sidelines, is going to continue to cheer you on from these new, unfamiliar sidelines where “suiting up” might look a little different. They are still rooting for you.
3. Be prepared
If you are lucky enough to get an informational interview with a professional in your field of interest, be prepared. It isn’t difficult to look up anyone on LinkedIn and find out a few important things about them. Familiarize yourself with some pertinent information about the employer/organization.
Have a few well-researched questions prepared for the person you are meeting with; it will show you are invested in the process. Most people love to talk about their experiences and will be happy to share that with you.
Ask how they got to the position they are currently in — their answers might surprise you. If you are nervous, anxious, or shy, the more questions you have prepared going into the interview, the easier it will be for all parties involved.
Cohen says, “I’m always surprised when someone doesn’t take the opportunity to ask me things like how I got to where I am, what my work is actually like, what advice I have for young people in my field and (a big one) who else they should be talking to.”
This is a tremendous learning opportunity, so be prepared to ask — and then listen. Lisa Pratt, VP, Customer Engagement Marketing, UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group), agrees that knowing the interviewer’s background lays the groundwork for a more successful interview, “Look the person up on LinkedIn. Have some questions prepared that make you seem interested in what the person does or their company.”
In addition, by doing your homework before the interview, you might stumble upon information that intrigues you.
Monti notes, “It’s a huge positive when someone says, ‘Oh! I saw on your LinkedIn page that you worked at WGBH. I’m interested in that. Can you tell me more about that?’ It makes a difference if they show me that they’ve done a little homework.”
It’s also worth noting that almost everyone I interviewed mentioned that anyone coming for an interview should “do the homework,” so if you thought your homework days were over, you were wrong.
4. Talk about yourself
You were given a connection and that got you in the door, and now you need to show the interviewer why you are there. Be sure you can verbalize why you are at the interview. “Getting your foot in the door is the first step for many people interested in exploring a new career, and having connections offer a big advantage. It’s up to the owner of that foot to make the best use of that advantage” says Gene Lee.
You may have been granted an interview because your mom or dad or neighbor knows someone, but once you are there you have to be more than your connection. You have to give your own reasons for why you are there, why you are interested, and what experience you have, no matter how brief.
This kind of self-promotion shows your commitment to this particular career path. Lisa Pratt expects the interviewee to bring their own credentials to the table,
“Once a person is granted an interview they need to be able to stand on their own merits. I have found that the connection gets you in the door, but then it is up to the person to make themselves stand out.” She adds, “I won’t recommend someone if I don’t know something about them. ”
You need to bring YOU and what you bring with you to the interview. Your connection alone will not get you a job. Al Higgins, Executive Producer of The Kominsky Method says,
If all you have is a resume and I went to high school with a friend of your parents, that doesn’t tell me anything. If you have all that, plus you’re making short films, or have your own comedy troupe or are doing other things to pursue your passion then that allows me to push you along in the right direction.Al Higgins
It is every interviewer’s hope that the young person they are meeting is motivated to make the most of their time together. This requires significant preparation on the part of the interviewee. Interviewers want to know something about the person they are talking to, but they also need to know what they, however inexperienced they might be, bring to the table.
It won’t take an interviewer long to decipher if they are talking to someone who truly wants to be there, and has done all the necessary footwork and research, or if they are only there because their mom said, “You should talk to this guy.”
5. Grow a network
Not all interviews will lead to a job, and this is okay. You are creating a network. Every interview is adding another person to your ever-growing network. If you do your due diligence and make a favorable impression, you never know when this person will remember you down the line and put in a good word for you. Use every interview as an opportunity to grow your network. Never leave an interview without asking for another name, another contact.
Monti points out that one should never ask, ”Can you give me a job?” She then adds, “I was told this early in my career, never ask a networking contact for a job, never. It’s not why you’re calling. You should, however, always ask for another name of someone else to call, and keep growing your network.”
You are growing and cultivating your network. In fact, Cohen likens networking to a well-tended garden.
I often use the metaphor of planting seeds. It’s wise to plant many seeds (talk to many people, follow up on a variety of contacts) today so that in the coming weeks and months, some of those seeds will sprout into people contacting you to advise that a position is now open or people telling those in their circle about you who they met a while back but fit the description of what they’re looking for.Lisa Cohen
You are learning how people in your field of interest got where they are and how. In these conversations, you might learn of avenues you never thought existed, and you should get more contact names from every person you talk to, and eventually, through talking to many people, you might just come across a job. Talking to more than one person is more important than you might realize. Higgins wants to know that he is not the only person you are talking to: “You should try to have more than one iron in the fire so I can see that you are hustling and will make it with or without me.”
The wider the net you cast, the more likely you will not go home empty-handed (unemployed).
6. Keep Learning
An information interview is a great time to find out what else you need to learn, what skills could help you land your “dream job.” Continue to build your skills while you are job searching. There are lots of free classes on YouTube that could bump your skills up a few notches.
Monti suggests, “Just spend time taking classes and workshops. You can find so many free things online to just build up skills in areas that are lacking. I tell students to do this, during their job search. Take free workshops on Photoshop or you can volunteer for the organizations that you love like the animal shelter, or Unicef, or Planned Parenthood”
If you are going to be graduating college soon, you might be feeling relieved that the “education” part of your life is almost over. Any successful professional will tell you that the learning never ends. Your education needs to be a life-long endeavor to stay relevant and informed. Even if you are still in college, it’s never too early to build skills outside of your normal coursework.
7. Be respectful
Not everyone has the benefit of good contacts. Show your appreciation for your good fortune by initiating contact in a timely manner, doing your research, and writing timely thank you notes (email seems to be the preferred manner of communication). It is important to realize that when you are given a contact, someone is putting their professional reputation on the line for you. Show them that you are worthy of that. It will open many, many doors for you.
Bleveans heartily endorses follow-up, explaining, “What I don’t see nearly as much as I would love to, is that 30-second email, a week later to say, ‘You know you suggested I talk to [insert name]? I talked to him and we had a great conversation! Thank you so much!’”
This kind of follow-up is so valuable and appreciated. It’s not easy for an interviewer to know what happens after an interview. There is no way for them to know that their time with you was meaningful, or the contacts they gave you were fruitful unless you tell them.
Take the time to say, “you really helped me” or “I learned a lot from our conversation and because of our conversation I registered for (insert relevant class here) next semester.” Or, “the contact you gave me led me to an internship this summer! Thank you!”
People are also taking a professional risk when they give out contacts to a young person.
They are putting faith in you that you haven’t necessarily earned yet. Let them know that you are worth that risk. Higgins is always happy to help a young person out but wants to know that his efforts will be shown this due respect, “I know it’s difficult to start out, and if I am able to get you your first job, I want to know that you will be hustling and making me look good by putting you in that position.”
Showing respect to the people you meet during your job hunt extends well beyond the interview process. If you are lucky enough to be hired, your commitment to the job and work ethic will reflect back on them, since they recommended/hired you.
One of the professionals I interviewed recalled a time when a co-worker managed to get his nephew an interview, and the young man was ultimately offered a position at the company. Once he got the job, he slacked off, dressed inappropriately, and was often late. His uncle was understandably mortified. Eventually, the young man was let go, and both parties suffered personal consequences. The uncle had a tarnished reputation and the nephew was out of a job.
Show respect for yourself and all the people who help you along the way — this is a never-ending process.
Finding your first professional job (during a pandemic) is no easy task, and if you have a contact to get your foot in the door you are quite fortunate. Take every advantage of this good luck. Try to remember that people aren’t looking for you to fail, but they are looking for you to show up, and show what you have to offer. This is not a time to be modest about your qualifications or abilities. Let yourself shine. Talk to as many people as you can, and while you grow your network, build your skills at the same time. Everyone is rooting for you. Everyone wants to help!
As Bleveans so wisely pointed out, “if you’ve reached an upper floor, send the elevator back down.”
And now, it’s up to you to be brave and get on the elevator.
Word of caution for the parents reading this: Do NOT ask a friend or family member to meet with your child if your child is not actually interested in the job. This is a huge waste of everybody’s time and will only hurt relationships.