10 Tips for College Students Looking for a Job in a Tough Market

There’s no magic formula, but there are ways to enhance your odds of getting hired.

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Many students are worried about how they'll finish college, and some students are even more worried about how they'll find a job after college—especially given the current employment situation for recent college graduates. We've invited visiting professor Susan Schell to offer her very best tips on how to approach the current job market. She should know: In addition to having worked at a major law firm in the tobacco wars of the 1990s and as a lawyer for Wal-Mart, she taught organizational communication at Purdue and currently directs career services at the University of Arkansas Law School. Here's her advice:

When you are actually looking for a job, it is always a "bad" market. Today's market just happens to be a little more so, especially if you happen to be an autoworker or a "big law" associate. But while many people lost their positions during the "Great Recession," others have found interesting and rewarding jobs. There is no magic formula for finding a job, but there are ways to take control of the process and enhance your odds of finding a job. Here are 10 tips for finding a job in an economic wasteland.

[See the best careers for 2010.]

1. Know what it takes. Different fields have different application requirements, and you need to know what those are for the field you are interested in. Do you need a résumé, a cover letter, a writing sample, a portfolio, etc.? You also need to know what these materials look like in your field and which skills and experiences you need to emphasize. A legal résumé is different, both in form and content, from a management résumé, which is different from a marketing résumé. Don't have a clue? Try to arrange an informational interview with a professional in the field to which you aspire to learn what it takes.

2. Perfect your application materials. Always have your application materials reviewed by someone who is a better editor than you are. After polishing and massaging your résumé 100 times, you are probably too close to see the nits that need to be picked. Have your materials reviewed again whenever you make revisions or add updates. Don't know any good editors? If you are in school, try your career services office.

[See how to turn an application into an interview.]

3. Activate your network. Tell everyone you know what type of job you are looking for. There is no sin in looking for employment, so you need to get everyone in your network working for you. While your hair stylist is not a lawyer or a management consultant, he or she may know one. Follow up every lead you are given; you never know who knows the person who can get you the job you want.

4-Star Tip. If you have a professor who has worked in industry or does extra work in the field you're considering, make sure to invite him or her to use their contacts on your behalf. Often, even an informal recommendation from a professor can open doors.

Extra-Pointer. If a parent, family friend, older brother or sister, or employer of yours works in the field you want to go into, enlist their help, too. You never know who has the contacts that count.

4. Join a professional organization. Most occupations, from restaurant professionals to engineers, have professional associations. Join one. (Many have student rates.) Attend meetings, go to seminars, and read the materials. Like an anthropologist, learn the language and customs of your field, the issues of the day, and identify the key players, so that when you land an interview, you will "speak the language" like a native.

5. Be patient and persistent. Set aside time every week to check for job postings, to do research on employers in your field, and to send out a manageable number of applications. It is probably not realistic to try to send out 20, letter-perfect, individually tailored applications in a weekend, so pace yourself. It is better to send five high-quality applications than 20 generic ones. Treat the job search as a marathon rather than a sprint. When you work on the job search regularly, rather than in fits and starts, it is easier to stay focused and to control the stress that inevitably accompanies the job search.

5-Star Tip. www.job-hunt.org, www.wetfeet.com, and www.careerjournal.com are three of the many websites that will help you in your job search. They provide job search tips, career research information, company profiles, and many other features.

6. Don't treat an interview as an interrogation. If you are fortunate enough to land an interview, treat it as an opportunity to establish a professional relationship with the interviewer. Know the employer, and be prepared to ask intelligent questions. Engage with the interviewer, and do not be shy in letting the interviewer know how much you know about the employer and how much you want to work there. Be enthusiastic, not desperate.

Extra-Pointer. It's always a good idea to do a little Web research before the interview on the company—and, when possible, on the individuals—that will be interviewing you. You'll make a much better impression when you know what the company is doing and how you might fit in.

[See how to answer 10 tricky interview questions.]

7. Practice out loud. Try to anticipate the types of questions you will be asked, and practice your responses. If you lack experience or feel uncomfortable in interviews, find someone to do a mock interview with. Like any other skills, communication skills get better with practice. And though you may think you have a perfect answer in your head, you won't know it until you actually articulate it. In an interview, there is the answer you plan to give, the one you do give, and the one you wished you'd given. With practice, those three answers come together.

8. Be "on" from the start. In this age of security cameras, you may be recorded from the moment you hit the employer's parking lot. Act as if the employer is watching you from the outset. Dress the part. Be friendly and respectful to everyone you meet. Stay focused. Even if you are left cooling your heels in the reception area, do not be tempted to check your phone. If you cannot resist the temptation, leave your phone in the car.

9. Make that first impression count. With everyone you meet at the employer, but especially with the interviewer, you want to make your first impression count. Stand up straight. Look the interviewer in the eye. Smile, and extend your hand for a firm, but not knuckle-crushing, handshake. (Again, these introductory behaviors can be practiced with your friends and family to polish your behavior and enhance your confidence.)

10. Be positive. Stay upbeat throughout the interview. Smile—it will register in your voice. Do not let the interviewer's facial expressions or tone of voice throw you off your game. Do not assume that a particular answer is "wrong" or that you have "blown it." Stay confident. If asked about a perceived negative, do not make excuses or provide elaborate explanations. Give it one sentence, and move on. Remember that there is no "perfect" candidate; just be the best you can be.

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