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Taking the leap to your future career

Your career questions, answered.
Career Advice

Let’s say you’re a 20-something in your final years of college.

You’ve worked hard your whole life – getting A’s and passing all your finals, selecting and getting into your dream school, and still managing to make time for track practice, your job at the library, and hanging out with friends. But now that's coming to an end. If you’re a college student today, you're probably thinking about – or totally overwhelmed by – where life is going to take you next.

As it turns out, while there are almost certainly a handful of college students out there that will need to be dragged kicking and screaming from school and into the real world, most students today are actively thinking about their careers. In fact, as they think about their futures, students today consider more employers than in the past. And it’s not just the stereotypical humanities majors who consider any job under the sun – even specialized students like engineers or computer science majors consider upward of 25 employers, on average. Either Millennials are optimistic and open-minded, or simply have no idea what they want to do – but this openness to employment options has been a growing trend that shows no signs of stopping.

The disconnect between students and employers

While an eagerness about the future is generally positive, this level of openness is not necessarily all good news for students. With each student considering and, presumably, applying to more employers than in previous years, competition for their peers only continues to increase. What’s more, jobs for recent grads are still pretty scarce. While the unemployment rate has been declining considerably since 2009, it still hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels – and is still high enough to make students and their parents uneasy. No matter which way you look at it, securing a job right out of college is not an easy feat. While students, their parents, and national data will tell you that there are few jobs out there, employers will often counter with the argument that there are jobs – they are just impossible to fill with the right people. According to many employers, students are leaving college poorly prepared to enter the job market. Unfortunately, both sides are right in this situation: Employers do have difficulty filling roles, and it is tough for many students to find jobs after graduation. This disconnect isn’t going away anytime soon, and many students are left asking: What do I need to do to improve my chances of securing a job after I graduate?

Experience is crucial

Academics is often the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to a student’s employability. That said, going to a “good school” is relative – and it’s definitely not enough to secure your dream job. “Bachelor’s level education has become so expected that it’s merely a checked checkbox, rather than a differentiator,” says Heather Huhman, founder of Come Recommended, a content marketing and digital public relations consultancy for job search and human resources technologies. “In fact, I would far rather hire someone who had relevant internship and work experience but no degree than someone who had a degree but no relevant experience.”

Internships, part-time jobs, and even extracurriculars are equally (if not more) meaningful than a candidate’s academic pedigree. Although academics are important, employers are increasingly focused on skills – so it's critical for students to show employers not just what they know, but what they can do. In order to help bring recent grads up to speed with on-the-job skills and industry-specific knowledge, employers have begun to invest heavily in internships and training programs. Students need to take advantage of these programs and build the skills employers are looking for.

Got skills? Prove it!

Often, students already know that getting experience is important, and do have experiences to share – but don’t know how to relate what they've learned to potential employers. Instead of talking about the skills themselves, students should come to interviews equipped with “accomplishment stories” that demonstrate a history of success. “They don’t have to be examples of when a candidate found a cure for cancer,” says Susan Hay, career coach and founder of LaunchingU LLC. “It is my experience that almost all new graduates have some examples to share, but they are hidden. Students don't recognize them and therefore do not bring them forward in a powerful way.”

How can students uncover these accomplishment stories? Too often, students simply talk about what they’ve done, without focusing on the how, the why, or the what I’ve learned. A good exercise for potential candidates is to think about the skills they've learned throughout their experiences, outside of the context of the experiences themselves. Even jobs not necessarily oriented toward a particular career – waitressing or bartending, for example – will teach valuable skills that can be applied to a slew of future positions. For example, “juggling multiple responsibilities, learning to think on my feet, and navigating many personality types” says a lot more to a potential employer than simply “waiting tables” or even “serving customers” – and can be applied to many different roles.

Even when students do focus on what they've learned, they often have difficulty communicating this well to future employers. It's easy to talk about high-level concepts like "good communication," or "analytical skills" or "leadership" – but what do these terms actually mean? It's about showing, not telling. A story that illustrates good communication will be much more effective than simply saying you’re a good communicator. Talk about the time you resolved a misunderstanding between two roommates, for example, or when you successfully explained a difficult concept to a classmate. Likewise, don't simply say you're driven – share a story about a time when you struggled for hours to learn something new and, despite repeated frustration and setbacks, describe the sense of achievement you felt when you finally accomplished it.

Students should use their skills and experiences to guide how they think about employment.

Focus on skills and values when considering your options

Just as students should focus on skills and values as they reflect back on their experiences, they should also use these to guide their future employment options. As traditional career paths continue to blend and employers focus increasingly on skills, candidates should follow suit and keep an open mind about their job prospects.

This is not to say that students should be desperate to take any job – employers are evaluating candidates on passion and energy for the job at hand. Rather, students should reflect on what they liked about their experiences, what their strengths were, and where they could apply those next. By thinking outside traditional industries and focusing on skills, students might uncover new opportunities and open up career paths where they can truly succeed.