Job Advice for New College Grads

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What Should I Focus On To Help Make Me A Good Candidate (More Than A Year Before Graduation)?

Posted by James M on January 9, 2009

This post is dedicated to those students who have a year or more left before they graduate from university.  For those that have less than a year, I’ll be writing a post for you soon.

In this post I’ll rank the key areas of focus in order of importance.  These rankings are not absolute and we’ll talk about some of the exceptions as we move forward, but all things being equal this is how I would rank them.

  • GPA
  • Work Experience
  • Research
  • Volunteer Experiences
  • Study abroad opportunities

Let’s break this down a little further:

GPA

For better or worse your grades are the number one factor influencing employers (at least on paper).  That isn’t to say if you don’t have a 4.0, you can’t get a job.  You most assuredly can.  But if you have 1 year or more left in your college career, you have enough time to significantly alter your GPA.  More importantly you have the chance to establish a strong upward trend in your academic performance.  So although you may not be able to say “I have a 3.8 cumulative GPA.”  What you might be able to say is, “Although I struggled early on in college and only achieved a 2.8 GPA going into my last year and a half of college, I was able to focus and achieve an overall GPA of 3.4 in my final two years.”

It is also important to note that your GPA is the only piece of your application that has minimum requirements for some entry-level positions.  Often times I have seen companies who require a 3.0, 3.2, or 3.5 GPA to apply for a particular position. This is not true of work experience, volunteer experience, undergraduate research, etc.  So, while your lack of work experience or research may inhibit your application, your GPA can, in a very real way, completely exclude you from particular positions.

The final reason to focus on your GPA is more of a philosophical one.  You are going to college to learn and your GPA is as good a measure as is readily available of your success in learning the target subjects.  Volunteering is good for the planet and work experience provides professional self-enrichment, but you are not going to school to work.  You are in school to learn, so that later in life, namely after you graduate, then you can begin a career.  Someone is paying a lot for your education, maybe your parents or a family member, maybe the government, maybe yourself, but either way your time in class is being paid for.  Do your best to respect yourself and your personal academic pursuits and the parties that are paying for your education.

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Work Experience

Work experience is the next most beneficial item for boosting your application.  Although, a terrific research opportunity or volunteer experience may be worth giving up an internship or co-op for, work experience inherently offers something the other two options can not—a chance to work in the “real” world.  The chance to earn a paycheck.  The chance to be a legal member of a corporation or non-profit and have the responsibilities that go with that position.

Work experience is also the most practical of the areas I’m discussing here.  The reasons are obvious—if you are looking to work at a corporation or non-profit after graduation, what better way to prepare than working for one of those entities before graduation.  Make the most of your internships and co-ops, taking on extra responsibility when possible, turning in only the highest quality work, and doing as networking as possible.

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Volunteer Experience

I am a big fan of volunteer experience, and I think it only becomes more important and applicable as your time in university diminishes.  My belief is based on the wide array of so-called “soft skills” (leadership, teamwork, etc.) than can be gained while volunteering.  Many of these skills and experiences are highly sought after by employers and are one of the key components they look for in work experience that we discussed above.  Work experience often has the benefit of being more relevant, however volunteer experience has the advantage that it is often more accessible.  Given a year or more, it is not at all uncommon to be able to lead multiple major projects, one every few months or so, at one or more community organizations in your neighborhood.  These projects don’t have to be complex, leading a park cleanup, organizing a food drive, or helping to make partnerships with new clients are all exceedingly valuable experiences that will really make your application stand out when recruiting season comes.  So start talking to organizations in your area and see what leadership roles that have now, or in the near future that you can hop aboard.

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Research

Research has both benefits and drawbacks.  Because research takes place in the academic environment it offers a great chance for personal enrichment in a particular area of academics.  Indeed most research projects involve very specific investigation and experiments in search of an answer to a specific hypothesis.  This narrow focus, benefits the student by making them a subject matter expert, at least in principle, on a particular topic.  But because of this specificity, the broader subject knowledge and body of skills used in a typical entry-level position in a corporation are not developed.

This has to be weighed against one’s ultimate career goals.  For some, who hope to go back to graduate school or get a post in a research laboratory or academic facility, research may be the most important experience to acquire while getting an undergraduate education.  However, for most students that is not the case, and in general an undergraduate research post does not offer the practicality and breadth of experience as more traditional internship or co-op work experience.

That being said some school’s research programs partner with outside organizations in more of a joint approach.  If this is the case, especially if the collaborative program is with one of your companies of interest, you should well consider this opportunity as one of the most valuable available to you as an undergraduate.

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Study Abroad

Studying abroad is a great opportunity, especially if it incorporates a language component.  However, from an academic point of view, these experiences still amount to you attending classes at a university which has no more value than what you would have been doing if you stayed at your home university.

There may be exceptions to this rule depending on the company or field you want to work for.  For example, if you know in your heart of hearts that you want to work for a company in Italy or with a company with very close ties to Italy, then a study abroad experience in Italy may well be worth its weight in gold.  Barring such a situation however, study abroad experiences may not significantly change your application status.  This does not mean that you should avoid it however.  Studying abroad may well be your most enriching personal experience, and ultimately personal growth is more important in the long term than career growth.

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The Final Word

All of this must be taken in context.  Of course there are amazing internships, research projects, and volunteer opportunities available that would shatter this structured hierarchy.  And if you come across such an opportunity then I strongly encourage you to take it.  What constitutes a great opportunity will vary depending on your career and life goals, but be bold and trust your instincts and these opportunities will reveal themselves to you.

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Should I list a low GPA on my Resume?

Posted by James M on December 4, 2008

I’ve gotten a few e-mails lately regarding putting a low GPA on your resume as well as a ton of referrals from Google searches on the topic so I thought a post addressing it was in order.  Ok, let’s not waste any time!

Table of Contents:

  • What will happen if I don’t put my GPA on my resume
  • What about just putting my major GPA on my resume
  • Arguments for listing your GPA
  • Arguments for NOT listing your GPA

Additional Blog Posts to help with a low GPA:

What will happen if I don’t put my GPA on my resume?

In most cases the recruiter will probably assume you have a low GPA.  Think about it, if you had a 4.0 is there any doubt you would slap that achievement front and center under your Education section?

How low will they assume your GPA is?  Well obviously that depends on the recruiter, but I think typically they will assume your GPA is somewhere between a 2.5 and 2.9 which is where, in my experience, most GPAs lie on the spectrum when they are not listed.

Rest assured all recruiters have seen many resumes without a GPA and have had to ask follow-up questions to obtain this information.  Therefore each recruiter will bring their own bias about what an unlisted GPA implies for a particular candidate.

What about just putting my major GPA on my resume?

The question of whether you can exclude your cumulative GPA in favor of your major GPA on your resume is a tricky one.  It is true that most employers put a premium on your major GPA over your cumulative GPA, however many may still require that you provide your cumulative.

In addition, major GPAs are more relevant for graduating students than those seeking an internship.  With graduating seniors a major GPA represents two years of continued in-depth work with increasing focus and difficulty as one moves from 300-level classes to 400-level classes (from Junior-level to Senior-level).  A major GPA for a college junior is usually made up of just a handful of classes which makes it much less relevant.

By listing a major GPA you may entice a recruiter to have follow-up communications to determine your overall GPA at which time you can begin an engagement about why your other relative merits should outweigh your GPA.  On the other hand there is the chance they will need your cumulative GPA to process your application and won’t have time to contact you to obtain that information.  More on that in a bit.

Of course this is all under the assumption that your career of choice is in the field you majored in.  Simply listing a major GPA if you are a career changer won’t do much for you—who cares about your Forest Management GPA if you are trying to go in to Construction Management?

Many of the arguments I provide in this article regarding the discussion of a no GPA vs. a cumulative GPA strategy also apply to a cumulative GPA vs. major GPA placement.  I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you want to solely put your major GPA on your resume, however I strongly recommend a dual strategy of placing both GPAs on your resume as in:

* Communication Major GPA: 3.41, Cumulative GPA 2.94

That way you highlight your major GPA while at the same time playing it safe if a recruiter wants to see both.  Let’s discuss some more argument for listing your GPA and then follow it up with some counter arguments about why it might be better not to list your GPA.

Arguments for listing your GPA

I think the arguments for listing your GPA differ depending on whether you are applying in person or online.  First, I’ll talk about in person applications and then online submittals.

In Person Applications

If you are applying in person there are really two strategies representing two different schools of thought of career consultants.  The school of thought I subscribe to is that you should list your GPA, and there are five main reasons I believe in it:

1.  Recruiter Assumptions – By using a resume with an unlisted GPA, the recruiter will almost always assume you have “low” grades, defined, as we talked about above, by their experience working with students who don’t list their GPA.  So the recruiter may assume you have a higher or lower GPA than is actually the case.  Either way this is bad for you—if they assume your grades are higher than they are it will be a let down when they find out your actual GPA; if they assume your grades are lower, you are going through the application process with an unnecessary handicap.

2.  Peace of Mind – Since no company is likely to hire you without finding out your cumulative GPA first, why not reveal it up front.  If you don’t, you’ll always have the fear in the back of your mind that when the recruiter does find out your GPA, they’ll kick you out the door.  I would rather go through the process knowing the recruiter is at least open to the idea that I am more than my grades.

3.  Minimize Recruiter Effort – I am a fan of making a recruiter’s job as easy as possible—I want my resume to be completely self-contained with all information easy to access.  Making the recruiter inquire about your GPA is one more thing they have to do.  This may not be a big deal if they are looking at one resume, but after looking at 100 in a matter of a few hours, it starts to get annoying.  You don’t want to be the brunt of a recruiter’s bad day.

4.  Recruiter Error – In addition, let’s imagine the recruiter forgets to inquire about your GPA or doesn’t notice it in the initial contact session with you.  Now imagine the recruiter has whittled the 100 resumes they spent two hours looking at down to 6 finalists.  But here’s the catch—they only have 5 interview spots open.  Given two candidates with similar experience do you think the chances are better that they will take the time to e-mail you and wait for your response, or simply choose to interview the candidate that has included all relevant information on their resume?

5.  Mitigation Techniques – There are a variety of resume techniques you can use to mitigate a low GPA on your resume.  See the links at the top of this article for more information on the technique specifics.

Online Applications

Submitting a resume that includes a GPA is even more critical when using an online application process.  Let’s talk about why.

1.  Difficult Engagement – During a career fair, company information session, or interview it takes a matter of seconds for a recruiter to inquire about your GPA and solicit a response.  When submitting online, the employer no longer has that luxury.  At a minimum, they have to take time away from what they are doing and give you a call or send you an e-mail.

In the best case situation you pick up their phone call or see their e-mail right away, but what if you don’t?  You could easily find yourself playing a game of phone tag and at worst the recruiter might get frustrated and give up.  And what about your e-mail, what if you are out of town or simply don’t check your e-mail for a few days?  This back-and-forth communication is all a waste of time at the expense of not only you, but also the recruiter.

2.  Busy, busy, busy – During a career fair, company information session, or job interview, the recruiter is able to carve out some one-on-one time and really spend a few minutes addressing your candidacy for the position.  In an online review process, that same recruiter may be sifting through hundreds of resumes trying to find an ideal applicant.  The only way to stand out in this case is on paper, and that means having a complete and well-flowing resume that doesn’t require the recruiter to do anything but read.

3.  Online Applications – Many online applications contain text boxes or drop down menus where you are required to list your GPA.  In this case not listing your GPA becomes moot point.

Arguments for NOT listing your GPA

Although I do not subscribe to this school of thought, there are some valid arguments which I’ll try to represent fairly.

In-Person Applications

1.  Recruiter Prejudice – Listing a low GPA subjects you to the subconscious prejudice of recruiters who won’t be able to separate you from your low GPA.  Although most recruiters are good natured and are there to help, it is true that all people carry biases regardless of how hard they try not to.

2.  Recruiter Engagement – Not listing your GPA allows you to engage the recruiter when the subject does come up.  Once the recruiter asks you about your GPA, you’ll be able to instantly address the shortfall and provide a verbal mitigation describing how your other qualities outweigh your low GPA.  However, I feel that this same strategy can be used when listing your GPA.  There is nothing stopping you from obtaining all the benefits of listing your GPA on your resume and at the same time engage the recruiter during first contact.

3.  Alternative GPA – As I discussed towards the beginning of this blog post, sometimes simply listing your major GPA is enough to satisfy the curiosity of employers regarding your academic aptitude.   This is because most employers put a premium on your major GPA over your cumulative one.

4.  Much Ado About Nothing – Maybe all this emphasis I am putting on GPAs is just overblown.  Personally, I think your GPA is one of the biggest contributing factors to your hire with a particular firm, but I am just one guy writing a career blog.  It is completely reasonable and possible that you’ll get a recruiter that just doesn’t care about GPA.  Maybe they can identify with low GPAs and so they don’t ask, maybe they judge you by their rapport with you first and grades second, maybe they think previous work, internship, or volunteer experience speaks volumes more than your grades.  Whatever the reason, all recruiters are unique so the importance they place on your GPA is all relative.

Online Applications

Choosing a strategy of an unlisted GPA on an online resume is extremely risky.  Since you won’t be able to use the engagement strategy for unlisted GPAs I described above during the submittable process (as you can during a career fair or other recruitment event), you’ll have to hope you make it to the interview rounds where you can begin this discussion.  In addition, as I stated above, many online applications have a separate text box or drop down menu for you to list your GPA, so not listing it on your resume becomes moot in that case.

Well that’s it for today, I hope you found this post useful.  As always, if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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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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