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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Guesstimation Interview Questions

Posted by James M on December 9, 2008

Guesstimation interview questions are in the same family as logic questions and require a similar type of response framework.  They are used primarily in the high tech and consulting industries.  In this post I’ll try and tackle one of the most famous of these questions: How much does Mount Kilimanjaro weigh?  Remember, these are not trivia questions, but rather questions used to test your ability to make assumptions, simplify complex problems, and maintain a logical framework to problem solving.

Before you waste your time reading my ramblings, you might consider viewing this video from Vault.com.  It approaches this type of question from a sample interview point of view, and gives some very helpful tips.

Thanks Vault!!  Now I’ll try to tackle the Mount Kilimanjaro question with an analysis provided below. I’ve written my equations in numerical values instead of writing them out in English for clarity and simplicity while reading.

How much does Mount Kilimanjaro weigh?

“Oh, wow, a lot?  Ok, well I think I have seen pictures of the mountain and I remember it is suppose to be pretty tall, maybe like 15,000 feet.  So I guess let’s assume it is 15,000 feet tall.  And in the pictures I seem to remember it was pretty wide, it looked wider than it was tall, so maybe it is 20,000 feet from end to end along the base. So to figure out how much it weighs I just need to figure out the volume and then figure out how much that volume weighs.  So I’ll do the calculation in cubic feet and then just multiply by the weight of one cubic foot of rock.

So to make the calculation manageable lets assume the mountain is a perfect cone, basically a cone with these dimensions I wrote down—a radius of 10,000 feet and height of 15,000 feet.  So, let me think.  The formula for a cone is…(1/3)pi*(r^2)*h.  So let’s see r^2 is 10,000^2 which is 100 million feet.  100 million times the height of 15,000 feet is 1.5 trillion feet.  So 1/3 of that is 500 billion.  So 500 billion*pi feet cubed is the mountain’s volume.  Ok, how much does rock weigh?  I remember I helped my dad build a small stone wall by our old house a few years ago, and the rocks were about a foot square and six inches deep.  So that is half the size of a cubic food.  I think they probably weighed about 70 Ibs.  So I can assume the weight of 1 cubic foot of rock is about twice as much, so that would be 140 pounds.  So 140 which is the weight of one cubic foot of rock times 500 billion*pi which is the volume of the mountain is 7X10^13 pi Ibs.  Wow, that is a lot.”

Analysis
So, there are really there components to answering this type of question involving math and estimation.  First, you need to be able to make reasonable assumptions.  Making assumptions is part of any job especially engineering—you have to simplify tasks into manageable parts which involves assumptions.  So if you say the density of rock is 12 Ibs per cubic meter or that Mount Kilimanjaro is 5 miles high, this might indicate to the recruiter that you will have trouble creating grounded assumptions.  Again, the best way to make assumptions is to use reference points.  For example, I mentioned the photo of the mountain I remembered seeing and the stone wall I helped my dad build.

Second, you should be able to do the basic math involved in these sorts of problems.  Yes, the numbers were big in this example, but they involved lots of zeros so it really wasn’t that hard.  In addition, you’ll have scratch paper during the interview.

Third, and most importantly you need to have a chain of logic.  Again, it is not the right answer that is important, but how you talk through distilling the problem to its essence and the steps you go through to get to the answer as you describe it in your opening problem statement.  In reality Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,340 ft and the density of rock is more like 167 Ibs per square foot, but since this isn’t trivia, but about problem solving, the assumptions we made will do just fine.

Well that’s all for today.  If you have any questions or would like free resume consulting, feel free to e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.  Thanks for reading!

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