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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Resume Formating Template

Posted by James M on December 2, 2008

Welcome to the first in a series of resume template blogs I’ll be writing.  Each one of these templates will be tailored toward a specific type of candidate—worried about a low GPA, nervous about your lack of work experience, concerned that a previous job was more relevant than your current one—I’ll be providing resume structures and tips to cover all of these issues.

Who is this format good for?

This resume format is ideal for the candidate who is not concerned with their GPA and who’s background is biased towards work and/or internship experience (as oppose to volunteer experience or strong classroom involvement such as class projects or undergraduate research).

Resume Format

This resume uses the format:

  • Objective
  • Education
  • Experience
  • Computer Skills / Additional Activities / Community Involvement / Etc.

Example Resume

Objective: Position with the Microsoft Technical Leadership Program utilizing my real-time software internship experience and leadership skills gained through extensive student government work

Education:
Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Expected Graduation Date: Jun 2009
Grade Point Average: 3.54

Work Experience:
Intel Simulations Division
Phoenix, AZ                                                Jun. 2008 – Sep. 2008
Real-Time Software Engineer

  • Created software simulations that administered CPU performance tests on a GE X45 processor hardware test bed
  • Used efficient coding techniques to create simulations that saved 20 minutes over the previous testing run time
  • Created and maintained ISO-9450 compliant user documentation on 5 major simulation branches

Associated Students of the University of Washington
University of Washington, Seattle, WA            Jan. 2008-Jun. 2008
Elections Committee Chair

  • Coordinated the successful completion of the 2008 student body elections while managing a committee of 4 people and a budget of $8,000
  • Increased the number of candidates by over 40% and voter turnout by 4.3% (1615 total votes) over the 2007 totals

UW Leaders Program
University of Washington, Seattle, WA            Aug. 2007-Jun. 2008
Co-Director

  • Administered a program containing 15 mentors and 25 undergraduate participants
  • Oversaw weekly organization of leadership curriculum and guest speakers
  • Raised $800 and organized a weekend retreat
  • Increased program applicants by 100% and yearly funding from $500 to $2000


Computer Skills and Languages:

C++, Java, Python, FORTRAN, CORBA Interface Patterns, GE X45 Simulation Test Bed, Microsoft Access, Linux

5 Format tips

1. Font Type and Size – I suggest using a simple font type like Arial or Times New Roman in a type face of 11 or 12 points.  Try to avoiding using multiple types of fonts even for your name or address.  Multiple font types are often over utilized by students at the expense of readability and professional appearance.

2. Using Caps – Avoid using all cap headings.  Studies show that caps decrease readability.  Try reading an entire paragraph in all caps and you’ll quickly see this is true.  The exception is online application that offer a plain text box entry system for your resume.  Since these don’t allow font modifications such as bolding, all caps services as an acceptable alternative for your headings.

3. Bold, Italicized, Underlined – You can create a completely readable and clear resume using only bolded headings without other text effects.  Like font type, font effects are used far to often, almost always at the expense of clarity and flow.

4. Consistency – Check, double check, and triple check that your resume is consistent.  This means that all font is the same size, all spacing is the same, and dates, company names, and job positions appear in the same place in the same format throughout your resume.

5. Text Position – I think the text format that provides the easiest flow, and gives you the most bang for your buck in terms of available space on your resume, is left aligned headings with text appearing underneath (not to the right) of the heading.

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