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Consulting Interview Case Studies and More

Posted by James M on December 9, 2008

If you are interested in the field of consulting, as many young entrants into the work force are, then indulge in this consulting smorgasbord I have put together for you.  I’ve included links to over 15 case study examples and explanations straight from the websites of some of the world’s top consultancies.   In addition, there are some great links to delve more into what a consultant actually does and what the companies themselves look for.  To view the referenced information, just click on the highlighted names or phrases which I’ve linked to the websites.

1) Let’s start with what you are probably most interested in—details about the dreaded case study interview.  I have complied a list of practice case studies (over 15 in total) and other interview preparation tips from some of the biggest names in consulting:

  • Oliver Wyman offers a fantastic, comprehensive interview preparation website with case method overviews, tips, strategies, a breakdown of different types of cases and 2 interactive full length practice cases.
  • Bain and Company offers 3 sample cases and a helpful set of “Crack the Case” interview tips.
  • One of the perennial rivals to industry leader McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) offers 4 practices cases as well as 1 interactive case.
  • Shrouded in secrecy, but purportedly able to fetch over $10,000 a day for a small team of consultants, McKinsey is the employer of choice for major MBA programs like the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Wharton’s famed business program at the University of Pennsylvania.  Their website is filled with case study information including two online cases, a case preparation video, and a downloadable tip sheet.
  • Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, better known simply as Deloitte Consulting, offers 3 practices cases for entry-level Analyst positions as well as 2 in-depth case examples for MBA hires.

2) Ace The Case offers three representative cases with sample responses including basic accounting calculations when requested by the interviewer.  A large volume of sample cases is available for a fee (Boo!! We like free stuff!).

3) Graduate Tutor has two resources for those interested in case interviews, an overview of the case interview process and a Top 10 Tips page.

4) Business week offers a great day-in-the-life series which includes several employees at consulting firms.  To view each person’s day-in-the-life, simply click on their name.

  • James FitzGerald is a government consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton.
  • Adam Watson founded his own consulting company Sequitur.
  • Courtney Anne Cochran is founder and principal at Your Personal Sommelier, a wine-consulting company.
  • Punam Ghosh is a strategy manager with Accenture, one of the largest consulting firms in the world.
  • Kelsey Leigh Kitsch is a Senior Consultant with Ivey Business Consulting Group, a small 12-person firm based out of Toronto.
  • David Grrison is a senior associate at Katzenbach Partners, a management-strategy consulting firm.

5) MBA Podcaster offers terrific programing for those thinking about going back to get an MBA.  In particular, they recently released a special consulting podcast featuring a panel of three top industry insiders:

  • Rich Schneider, Director of the MBA campus recruiting program at Deloitte Consulting.
  • Peter Sullivan, U.S. Director of people services at Booz Allen Hamilton.
  • Richard Wallen, Human Resources Manager at Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Click here to listen to the special consulting podcast.

6) If you are willing to shell out some cash (why does everything cost money!??!), Vault offers some great information online as well as providing hard copies in stores.  They specialize in compiling industry data and conducting surveys.  I have a couple of their books at home and find them generally helpful, especially if you are interested in finding out what current and past employees have thought of a particular firm, or if you are interested in reading advice and interviews from industry professionals.  Click here to view their online consulting page and view the limited amount of info available for free.

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Additional Career Resources

Posted by James M on December 5, 2008

In case you can’t find what you are looking for on my blog, I’ve put together a list of terrific resources:

Career Point – 5 Tips for College Student Resumes offers 5 simple tips on how to improve your resume.

Lindsey Pollak has a wonderful blog with a great format that many new college grads would find very useful.

Collegegrad.com has a terrific set of resources including a job search database as well as interview and resume tips.

About.com has one of the most comprehensive set of resources for job seekers available anywhere.

Enjoy Your Job’s compact set of 7 great tips for your resume.

Geek Hunter’s 10 simple, but amazingly powerful advice about how to be competitive in your job search.

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Career Profile – Systems Engineer

Posted by James M on December 2, 2008

Systems Engineering is a fairly new field that developed out of modern large-scale integration projects like those at Boeing and other system integrators.  System Engineers generally work across multiple teams on projects involving integration of two or more systems and often perform so-called trade studies to evaluate several possible solutions to a technical problem.

One piece of advice I would give those interested in this field is not to focus too intently on the term ‘Systems Engineer”.  For example, in my old position I was part of a software group and held the job title of Real Time Software Engineer.  Even so, I didn’t written a lick of code in 3 and a half years and my work was best described as Systems Engineering.  Instead, you should focus more on the type of work you want to do and then find job descriptions that meet that criteria.

So for example if you look online at the staffing system of a particular company you may see a lot of openings for “Systems Engineer”.  In addition to those positions try looking at more traditional engineering job titles as well and delving more into what your day-to-day activities would be as you move through the hiring process.  This will probably involve asking the employer at the interview about how much multi-disciplinary work you’ll have the opportunity to take part in.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Systems Engineers are often facilitators.  Because you work across multiple large and complex systems and teams of people, you can’t know everything about every system.  Therefore, a Systems Engineer often relies heavily on members of other teams and often acts as an intermediary to bring people from different teams together to find a solution.  Systems Engineers often end up specializing in a particular area (i.e. real-tme software) and over the course of a career eventually get to the point where they have medium depth knowledge of a wide range of technical areas.

The best Systems Engineers I know can balance not only the technical aspects of a problem but also the business aspects and the long term life-cycle impacts.  This is because the best technical solution doesn’t always imply the best solution from a cost, schedule, and risk point of view.

There are a few skills I notice good System Engineers having and they all revolve around the multi-disciplinary aspects of large-scale integration.  First, good System Engineers have a lot of experience with suppliers, subcontractors, and customers.  Knowing how to deal with a subcontractor when they are late developing a key item or negotiate with a customer when an important component doesn’t meet specifications is a very important skill.

Second, they know something about evaluation and testing and by association “selling off” a requirement to the customer.  When a contract is signed the goods or services provider signs a contract with the customer detailing the requirements of the good or service (these requirements are just one part of a larger contract structure).  At some point in time, these requirements must be tested to satisfy the customer that you are delivering what you promised (whether a requirement is well written is often defined by its testability).  Because System Engineers often work with requirements and requirements relate directly to testing, a good System Engineer is always evaluating how a particular technical solution will be tested.

Third, Systems Engineers know something about the life-cycle of a program.  When you deliver an aircraft to a customer, for example, that is not the end of the story.  The aircraft must be maintained and the parts, labor, and knowledge-base to repair an aircraft have to come from somewhere.  In addition, aircraft are often modified years after delivery as technology continues to improve.  Good System Engineers have the long term life of a product in mind as they search for the best technical solution.

Of course on top of these business oriented skills, a broad technical knowledge of a particular system is always required.  Usually this just comes with time and experience.  The best Systems Engineers I know probably have an average experience level of 15-25 years.  Of course, you have to start somewhere, so don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge required to be successful.

As far as the type of tasks a Systems Engineer might work on, I can try to give a fictional example that demonstrates a typical situation and the issues you might deal with.  Say, for example, a supplier is suppose to deliver a hydraulic spring for use in a landing gear, however you recently discovered the spring isn’t rated to the appropriate tonnage and you get tasked with figuring out a solution.  (These sorts of disconnects happen all the time–why would you choose a supplier in the first place if their product doesn’t meet your requirements?  A variety of factors lead to these surprising sorts of problems.)  One answer might be to work with the supplier to modify the spring.  But because the spring has to be re-egineered there is a cost and schedule delay to completing the landing gear module.  Maybe the supplier offers instead to sell you a higher weight-rated spring that it already produces, but that is a slightly larger size and therefore doesn’t connect properly with the landing gear wheel housing.

So what do you do?  There are a variety of possibilities.  Perhaps you work with the current supplier and help provide resources to re-engineer the spring to meet specifications.  Perhaps there is an adapter you can buy that will help the more robust spring fit with the already fabricated wheel housing.  Perhaps your company is frustrated with the supplier’s schedule delays and you decide to risk trying to find a new supplier that already has a spring that meets your specifications.  Perhaps you conduct a study to show that, although the original spring doesn’t meet spec, it nonetheless provides a safe landing gear for the customer.  In that case you may have to rewrite the prime contract specification with the customer and try to sell them on the idea.

Other things you’ll need to consider when searching for a solution:  spares–what happens when the spring breaks, how will the spares be supplied, how easy is the spring to repair when it breaks, is the supplier in danger of going out of business soon (this happens to many small companies), if so who will supply the spring?  Testing: if you choose the more robust spring and adapter, how will you test it?  Requirements–do any requirements need to be rewritten or can they naturally be interpreted to be independent of the spring selection.  Other technical teams–if you choose the new spring does it add extra weight to the aircraft that might affect handling?  What about aerodynamic affects during take off and landing?  Will the sensor and/or software that monitors the spring’s hydraulic pressure need to be modified?

You can see that these sorts of situations get very complicated very fast and for that reason can be exciting, challenging, and frustrating all simultaneously.  And I think the complicated nature of these problems lend themselves well to people who have both a broad technical and business background.

If you like those kind of problems, you will probably like Systems Engineering.  The caveat of course is to make sure you can get on a good program with good people around you. I know some Systems Engineers who do the type of work I’ve mentioned above and others who sit at a desk working with requirements all day compiling comments other engineers made into a spreadsheet (obviously much less glamorous).  Again, I think this goes back to trying to find a job doing good work and worrying less about having the title of “Systems Engineer.”

Let me know which career profile you’d like to see next by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at: collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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Welcome to Job Advice for New College Grads!

Posted by James M on November 28, 2008

This blog is dedicated to students who are about to graduate from college or are seeking an internship, and recent alumni who are still in the process of seeking employment.  Although those applying to graduate school and those further along in their career may find this blog useful, it is primarily designed for college job seekers.

I write this blog because of a strong passion for helping college students based on my own experience when searching for a job.  I have over three years of experience working with college students and have spoken on numerous career panels and at career related events, and have assisted hundreds of students with resume consulting.  In addition, I have been a company representative at career fairs and spoken at corporate information sessions with The Boeing Company where I started my career.

I hope you find these posts useful.  They represent a collection of practical information I have shared with students over the past several years.  Most students find the information extremely valuable and useful during their career search.  If you have any requests for posts, questions, or comments please let me know.

In addition, I would love to give you tailored advice regarding your resume or any other aspect of your career search.  Please feel free to e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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Negotiating Salary

Posted by James M on November 14, 2008

Aaah, the ever popular question: to negotiate or not to negotiate.  Every time I speak to students at workshops and career panels the issue of salary negotiation inevitably arises.  It seems to be all the rage to “win” a negotiation by squeezing every penny out of a potential employer and get away with “one-upping” them, not to mention getting a healthy ego boost. I will never understand the mindset behind this desire and it is one I discourage.

I usually discourage negotiating salary for several reasons.  First, and most practical, employer salaries are not created out of thin air nor are they somehow made up on the spot.  They are based on a wide range of data including geography, median salaries in the industry, and the financial health of the company itself.  Companies very rarely, if ever, are trying to “put one over on you” by making an offer unreasonably low.

By not accepting the job in favor of negotiating, you risk having the company rescind their initial offer or, potentially worse, creating a sour and awkward beginning to your new career.  Moreover, as a matter of principle, there’s much more to a job than money—trust me.  As a high-level executive at Boeing once told me when I started my career there, “sometimes you’re overpaid, sometimes you’re underpaid, but by the end of your career everything usually balances out.”  Rather than focusing on negotiating, I would recommend working exceedingly hard after you begin your career and making your employer see what you are worth first hand.  Money always follows success regardless of industry or position.

There are a few limited circumstances where negotiating might be reasonable for an entry-level candidate. The most obvious is if you have multiple offers and the salary or some other tangible benefit really is the deciding factor.  For example, if you already have an offer from Company A for $55,000 a year and Company B offers you $50,000 a year, it is reasonable to discuss with Company B that, although you are excited about the possibility of working for them, another company has offered you a higher salary and unless they can match it you’re afraid you’ll have to respectfully decline their offer.  However, think long and hard about situations such as this.  Giving up $5,000 in salary starts to seem like a bargain if you get stuck working long hours in a job you despise.  In my opinion you are better off making a decision based on “fit” and work-life balance and ignoring the salary (within reason).

Other situations where negotiating may be reasonable might include the case where you clearly have a select set of skills and competencies that a normal entry-level candidate lacks.  This may occur for various reasons including work experience acquired before you started your university study (or perhaps if you took a year or more off during college to pursue a career), or if you have some extraordinary academic qualifications such as a dual degree in engineering and finance, for example.  Even in these situations however, I would proceed with caution.

If you do decide to negotiate your salary or other benefits I recommend doing so with facts and data.  This means doing a lot of research about the company and typical industry salaries and their associated experience level and making a strong quantitative argument about how you stand out from a typical candidate based on this information and what your target salary would be.  In addition, it goes without saying (but I’ll do so anyway) that you need to negotiate in the most cordial way possible and retain any contacts you have at the negotiating company if the negotiation breaks down and you decide to go elsewhere.

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How To Win Big At A Career Fair

Posted by James M on November 3, 2008

Career fairs are one of the most under utilized parts of the job hunt and one for which many soon-to-be graduating job seekers under prepare.  A typical student might stop by for an hour or so between classes, browse the vast array of company booths, and escape with a plastic bag full of free stuff.  If they are industrious they may stop by a booth or two and drop off a resume.  Career fairs, however, are a great opportunity and one that you should put time and effort into.

If you have never been to a career fair, rest assured it is pretty straight forward.  There are booths staffed by representatives from various companies.  Sometimes they are from the college recruiting division, but they may be volunteer employees from some other division or in some cases the hiring managers themselves.  The number of employers varies between career fairs.  Some are more specialized such as Management Consulting or Forest Resources fairs that may only have 10 companies, while others are larger, more general fairs that could have 50-100 companies.

Career fairs are often under emphasized by students, however this is a mistake.  Career fairs represent your first face-to-face interaction with a company, often times by a representative who will be interviewing you or making a hiring decision.  In addition, these fairs offer a terrific opportunity to gain insight into aspects of a company that are impossible to find online.

Today, I’d like to talk about some of the tricks of the trade and give you some practical tips to help survive a career fair:

Make a good first impression
Treat a career fair the same way you would treat an interview–dress the part, research the company, sell yourself.  Because the atmosphere may seem more laid back don’t forget you are interacting with company representatives, many of whom are in the Recruiting or HR departments and are often the same people who do on- (and off-) campus interviews with new college hires.  It is not unheard of for a company to conduct interviews at a career fair if they spot top talent.  I have even heard of a couple of cases of companies making offers at a career fair.  You heard right.  So be on your best behavior and don’t fall into the trap of treating a career fair as a casual affair.

Dress the part
When finding a job, “dress the part” usually means you should wear a suit (for men) or pant suit or similar attire (for women).  This is not always the case if you know the dress code of a particular company is less formal, but since at a career fair you will be interacting with a wide variety of companies you need to dress to the highest common denominator.  Trust me, it makes a really bad first impression if you stroll in with jeans and sandals on, so do yourself a favor and change out of your casual school wear before hitting up the fair.

Ditch the bag
To me nothing looks tackier than a man wearing a suit who has on a backpack.  The same goes for a women in a pant suit or wearing a skirt.  Here you are in a nice, clean, pressed, professional outfit and you are hauling around a dirty, heavy symbol of the fact that you are still not part of the working world.  Do everyone a favor and ditch your bag.  You’ll look infinitely more professional and, once you liberate yourself from your bag, will feel much more free and confident.  And as a practical matter, hanging on to a 20 lb backpack for 3 hours while you’re walking around nervous as hell about getting a job isn’t my idea of fun.  So what should you do with your bag?  This easiest and most obvious choice is to swing by your house and drop it off.  If you feel you don’t have time (maybe you have an evening class after the career fair or are worried about traffic), think of other creative solutions–ask a friend to hold on to it, leave it in a classroom or lab that you know will be occupied by trusted colleagues, or see if your school’s career center will hang on to it for a few hours.  Whatever you do, leave the bag behind, you wouldn’t bring it to an interview, you wouldn’t bring it to work, so don’t bring it to a career fair.

Research the company
Do your research about a company before you go to the career fair.  If you ask simple questions a career fair, the kind that anyone can find an answer to on a company website, you are really wasting your time (and not helping your chances of impressing the recruiter).  Go above and beyond, ask questions that probe details about a company that you won’t be able to find on the internet.  It is quite impressive to college recruiters when you show your knowledge about a company early on in the job search process.

After you do your research, I would make a sheet of notes for the top 5 or so companies you are interested in, take these note sheets to the fair, and review each one just before talking to the respective employer.  Facts you might write down are key attributes the company is looking for in an employee, any specific job openings you might have seen on the company’s website, perhaps a (very) brief history of the company, the company’s CEO, recent sales, reminders of any important news stories. This information will help guide your discussion and really impress the representative if they happen to ask “Are you familiar with our company and products”, which is a very common question.

Customize your resume
This is really a nice touch.  At the very least you should update your resume’s objective by mentioning the company by name.  If you already know the position you are applying to make sure that you mention that as well.  But most importantly, instead of using a generic resume, make sure it matches the company’s values and desired skill set of the position you are applying for.  We’ll have a very large and in-depth discussion on resumes later.

Have a spiel

Have a 20 second introduction about yourself.  What you are majoring in, what interests you about the company, how your skills match the position.  When you go up to a booth at a career fair, shake the employer’s hand and give your spiel.  Because you will inevitably memorize your spiel, you’ll really need to watch yourself so it doesn’t sound robotic.  I’ve heard many a perspective employee come by and sound like Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (I just realized I am dating myself with that movie example, but it’s a classic you should pic up and watch anyway).  Try with all your might to make your spiel sound organic like you just came up with it on the spot.  You should even practice this in front of a mirror.  Be ready to abandon your spiel at the drop of a hat, it is there to get things moving. Sometimes a perspective employer may ask you a question–“Hey how’s it going, have you had a chance to check out this cool new product we brought with us as a demonstration?”  If the initial conversation gets going without you using your spiel then great!!  As you go about your discussion it is still key that you work in important pieces of information such as your knowledge about the company, why you want to work for them, and what skills you bring.

Also, note that it is best, like all your interaction with a particular company, to tailor your dialogue to the specific employer of interest. Here’s an example of what you might say:

“Hi my name is Lisa, I’m a Communications major graduating in June.  I had an internship last summer with Northwest Broadcasting Incorporated and I really enjoyed working in the video editing department the most.  While looking on your website I saw you have openings for Editing Assistances and I really think my experience at NBI as well as my strong academic background would make me an ideal candidate.  I was wondering if you could tell me more about the Editing Assistant career path.”

Yes, I know people don’t actually talk like that in real life, but I think you get the point.  You have to find the words, tone, and pacing that are natrual for you.  But remember, show your passion, show your knowledge, and sell yourself.

Be engaging
It is really anticlimactic when a student walks up only to mumble with their eyes staring at the resume in their hands.  Be confident!  Be interested!  Ask questions!  Far too many students speak in monotone voices and seem only casually intersted in what company representatives are telling them.  Yes you are nervous, but let your passion for the company and your excitment to find a job show.

What if I don’t know about a particular company?
If you are caught off guard and don’t know about a company you happen to see that looks interesting, don’t waltz up lazy and uninterested.  Trust me, this happens all the time, especially to smaller companies with less name recognition and this lacadizical attitude is really offputting.  Be bold and confident!  Tell the recuriter you were passing by, found the booth interesting and would like to know more about the company.  Work in the generic version of your speil and be yourself.

Don’t start with your top choice

This is a more subtle and often overlooked tip.  Most people who attend a career fair are eager to start talking to representatives from their short list of companies.  That eagerness in conjunction with the fact that most people are often nervous and a little awkward when first attending a career fair often spells disaster.  You want to put your first foot forward when speaking to companies at the top of your list.  So do yourself a favor and start with companies that aren’t on your list.  Work out your introduction, get a feel for the pacing of the interaction and what sorts of questions work well.  Listen to other students talk to employers and get a feel for what does and doesn’t work for them.  After you have your nerves worked out and you’ve hit your stride, then go up and talk to your top companies.

Ask Questions!

Unless your uncle works for a particular company, a career fair is probably the best place to have face-to-face interaction with a company employee.  Really take your time and leverage all of the valuable information you can get there.  Here are some questions you might ask during the career fair:

  • What do you look for in a successful candidate?
  • What are the biggest challenges to a new employee?
  • What is the structure of your interview and hiring process?
  • What is your favorite part about working at the company?
  • What was your career path with the company?
  • What is the typical career path for a [insert your position of interest]?
  • I noticed that [insert product] is launching later this year, will there be any openings to work on that project?

You can also ask follow-up questions about information you found online such as information about:

  • A particular opening you saw online.
  • An entry-level employment program such as a Rotation Program or Leadership Development Program.
  • The main location of particular work group’s offices.
  • Company diversity programs.
  • Company work-life balance.
  • Corporate citizenship practices.
  • The list goes on…

This list is by no means the final word on questions you might want to ask.  It is merely presented to give you some examples of a few good questions and to get your juices flowing.  You should prepare questions that are interesting to you and relevant to the goals of your job hunt.  Remember, you have a limited time with each employer so pick and choose a short list of your highest priority questions and ask them in order of importance to you.  If you don’t get a chance to ask all your questions you’ll have another chance during the interview process.  Also remember that many of the questions you ask will come naturally as part of your dialogue with the recruiter.

I hope that this discussion has highlighted the importance of the career fair in the job seeking process and given you the tools you’ll need to be successful.  If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below.

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