Five tips for graduating students trying to crack a tough job market



For those of you who are graduating this year, April marks the cusp of the school-to-work transition – a scary proposition for many.

Victoria Cabral graduated from university in 2010 and spent seven years working as a campus recruiter for several large Canadian companies. She’s now at the York University Schulich School of Business career centre, helping students navigate the job market and working with employers who are interested in recruiting on campus.

Here are her five tips for graduating students looking for their first real job:

Don’t undersell your part-time job experience

Students and recent graduates have a tendency to undermine the experience and skills they acquire through summer internships, co-op and part-time positions, Ms. Cabral said. The soft skills gained through this type of work, such as adaptability, communication skills, effective time management and the ability to problem-solve and manage conflict, are valuable to prospective employers and they are often acquired through work, extracurricular and leadership activities, she added.

Ms. Cabral recalled one interview she conducted while working as a campus recruiter for a large company. The candidate had no previous corporate experience but was able to show that she was a great candidate for the role by making connections between her work as a retail sales agent at a local mall and the skills necessary to be successful in the job she was applying for.

Specifically, the graduating student showcased her knowledge of the client relationship, showing she understood that knowing the company’s products helped her best serve her customers. She also identified the importance of building and maintaining good relationships in order to keep her customers happy and returning each time they needed new products. Both of these skills related directly to the job she was applying for.

In other words, this candidate effectively capitalized on the soft skills that she acquired through real-world experience in order to prove that she could be valuable in a corporate setting. “How you market and position yourself is just as important as the experience you acquire,” Ms. Cabral said.

Don’t undersell your education

The value of postsecondary education has been debated at length. Ms. Cabral believes academia offers students a mix of skills and knowledge gained through classroom learning as well as access to experiences such as studying abroad, jobs and internships, research and leadership projects, and the opportunity to join student clubs. All of these elements result in the ability to think critically and learn, she said.

Ms. Cabral has some advice for students and recent graduates struggling to make the connection between what they studied and the jobs they are applying for: “If an employer asks you how your degree relates to the job you’re applying to, you can highlight that the critical reasoning you gained through your education will help you continuously question and rethink assumed solutions and their basic premises. This is so critical for the continued success and growth of businesses that have acknowledged the value of diversity of thought in creating future business success.”

Bottom line: Employers need graduates who can solve problems and work proactively. As a postsecondary graduate, that’s exactly what you offer.

Know yourself

Self-awareness is central to understanding if the job or industry you’re interested in will ultimately suit you, Ms. Cabral said. By understanding your values, interests, strengths and weaknesses, you can make better choices.

Getting to know yourself – what you like, what you don’t like, what you’re good at and what you’re bad at – can be tricky, but the good news is that you’ve likely already had life experiences that can help you figure it out. Ms. Cabral was able to learn the most about herself through internships and part-time employment. The hands-on experience she gained allowed her to explore where she excelled, what she liked to do and what she absolutely loved to do.

As you explore your first steps into the world of work, consider your experience – whether academic, professional or gained through involvement in clubs and teams – and start making connections between how you fared in those experiences and the jobs, careers and industries you are considering.

Build a strong personal brand

Today, having a strong personal brand, which is the way you present yourself and the impression you leave in the minds of others, can be just as important as your resumé. It can make it easier for prospective employers to get to know you, as well as the skills and attributes that you’ll bring to your future workplace.

Ms. Cabral suggests that these four steps can help you build your personal brand. The first, she said, is to understand the attributes, skills and values you want to be associated with. From there, she suggests that you take part in activities that allow you to showcase and build credibility around those attributes and skills (for example: join student associations and clubs that offer employer engagement and speaking opportunities).

The third step is to invest in building an online presence that showcases your thought leadership and knowledge of the job or industry you are interested in. Finally, Ms. Cabral said that building a strong personal brand is an ongoing endeavour. She suggested leveraging media like LinkedIn that feed you updated information on relevant topics and then sharing, commenting and discussing with others in industry as one strategy for staying up to date and relevant.

Leverage on-campus career resources

I’ve argued before that students should leverage all the resources available to them when looking for a job, including their on-campus career centre. As a campus career professional, Ms. Cabral agreed. She recommended that students at all stages of their postsecondary education seek out the resources of their career centre, which she said is a great channel to employers and serves as a fantastic resource to help you with career readiness. Most importantly, perhaps, Ms. Cabral said that career centres are filled with experts who can advise on choosing an industry and career path, what recruiters are looking for, and what steps students can take in order to be successful in their job search.

There is one caveat, though: “While career centres can equip students with the tools they need to be successful, students ultimately drive their own success – it’s up to you to seek us out, leverage our expertise and take advantage of all the tools we have available.”

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