I remember the palpable fear of senior year at Williams. The last three years had been a hell of a ride, and I was grateful for the unforgettable memories. But, now, I was only months away from being smacked in the face by the Real World. Having my parents spend over $60,000 every year for four years so I could walk away with a diploma and no job was not an option.
Still, there was hope: a campus career center filled with helpful staff, organizations that were recruiting on campus, and a network of alumni.
Below are eight of the most valuable lessons I learned on the job hunt. I was oblivious to many of them at first. The missteps were embarrassing. The consequences hit hard. My tears were hot and salty. But picking up those lessons late was better than never. And in the end, they landed me a job before graduation.
- Your time is precious.
As a college senior, your job is to get a job (unless, of course, you’re planning on graduate school, or saving children in the Andes).
Want to know the worst thing about being a senior? It’s not the massive responsibility of figuring out what comes next after this year, nor is it the conflicted feelings that come from knowing this is your final year to do the things you always wanted to do in college. The worst thing about being a senior is how fast the year flies by. That’s because nothing is new anymore. You’ve seen it all before.
So time is precious. Time is a diminishing resource. Make every day count. Set aside time each day Monday through Sunday to tailor your resume, chat with the people at the career office, reach out to alumni, and apply to things. Remember to work smart—only follow up on leads that you feel can lead to somewhere. If something feels like a dead end, drop it.
It’s okay to let your academics and other commitments slide a little. Don’t beat yourself up too much if your professors are getting a bit testy with you. Some things can afford to wait. Other things can’t. They need to understand that.
- Keep your answers under 60 seconds.
I had a friend who was brilliant. But he lacked one important thing: self-awareness. Self-awareness is my favorite word because it captures the essence of something that’s so important in life. It’s the ability to be mindful of how you appear to the people around you, and how your words or actions affect the way they perceive you. It lets you know when you’re breathing too heavily on the necks of the recruiters who are tabling at the campus job fair, when you’re acting too hyper in front of your interviewers, or when you’re putting them to sleep with your ten-minute answers.
That was his mistake—responding to every question with a ten-minute answer. He burned through every interview.
Besides, when you walk into an interview, you’re already going to be dehydrated from the adrenaline, which leaves you with a dry mouth that sprays saliva everywhere if you ramble for more than minute. If you absolutely have to give long answers, bring a bottle of water.
- Keep your cool.
For my first interview, I showed up in my best suit, gave a firm handshake to the interviewer, got out my pen and paper, and proceeded to tackle the case study he read out loud to me. A few minutes into jotting down my notes and adding up some numbers, I felt his hand on my back.
“Alex, calm down. Take it easy” he said to me. I looked at my right arm and realized it had been shaking for the last couple of minutes. I was so fixated on nailing the interview that I let the adrenaline get to my head. I knew I blew it.
The lesson? It won’t matter how padded your resume is. It won’t matter how thoroughly you nail that case study. It won’t even matter how awesome your answers to their question are. None of that will matter if you can’t keep your cool.
No matter how bad things get, no matter how perversely evil your interviewer turns out to be, no matter how mildly irritated you become when he lifts up one of his legs to let out a huge wheezing fart while you’re still in the middle of answering his question, you have to keep your cool. Breathe it in, smile, and finish answering the question.
They’ll see you’re the kind of person who can handle the job even when things are falling apart, and they’ll love you for it.
- Find your fit.
A few months into senior year, a top consulting firm came to campus to recruit. I crammed my way into their info session, squeezed in between a hundred other students. But I was stunned when I saw the alumni who were hosting the session. They were ten of the most macho dude-bros I had ever seen. It was like looking at the cast of Mad Men, plus fifty pounds of brawn, and minus the ladies.
But the most conspicuous common denominator among them was that they had all been varsity athletes during college. They were nice guys though, no doubt. I enjoyed talking, grabbing drinks, and even interviewing with them. But in the end, I didn’t get the job. None of us did, except for one guy who looked, walked, and talked just like them. And you know what? I’m okay with that. We both knew I was a terrible fit.
Every firm has its own culture. If it’s run like a frat, it will look for the frat types. If it’s big on data, it will attract geeks. If it works in interior design, it will gravitate towards the artistic minds.
But you have to find what’s right for you. Take a close look at your interviewer and ask yourself: Would I enjoy being around this person for the next year?
- Don’t beat yourself up for things you can’t control.
So you stayed up all night to revise your resume and polish up your cover letter for that dream job. You nailed that preliminary interview with flying colors. You patted yourself on the back when you got invited back for that final interview at their office. You ironed your suit, booked your Greyhound tickets, and made sure to map the route from your hotel to the office on your smartphone. It went fantastic. Your answers were fire. You liked your interviewers, and they liked you. A week later, you got a rejection letter.
Where the hell did you screw up?
You toss and turn in bed, obsessing over those “what ifs”. What if showing up thirty minutes early was a bit too much? What if you hadn’t made enough eye contact with your interviewers? Come to think of it, your eyes do wander sometimes whenever you’re talking to someone. You grit your teeth thinking about all this. If only you had been a tiny bit better, you would’ve had an offer by now.
If you find yourself obsessing over details like this–STOP.
Consider this: What if you never even had a chance to begin with? More often than we realize, the outcome of an interview was already decided before you even showed up. Sure, you were a strong enough candidate to be invited to the office. But so were ten other people, and if there was only room to hire one person, chances are they already knew who that “one” was going to be. Still, they brought you and the others in, partly because they thought that was the polite thing to do, and partly because they didn’t have the stomach to retract the invitations.
Stop beating yourself up. Let the shit roll off your back. You have to keep moving forward.
- Be an actor.
People always say you need to be yourself in an interview.
I think that’s terrible advice.
You need to be better than your real self. If you’re shy, be confident. If you’re tired, be energetic. If you’re eccentric, be normal.
I once blew an interview because I forgot to be normal. My interviewer saw on my resume that I was the host of three radio shows on campus, and asked me “What do you like to listen to on the radio?”
She stared at me like she wasn’t quite sure what I just said.
So I repeated myself. “Howard Stern!! He’s the best! ”
Looking back, I realize that Howard Stern, the shock jock who turned rectal humor into a specialty, was probably not the best name to drop in the office of a high-level manager at ten in the morning.
I was emailed a rejection letter exactly twenty two minutes after I walked out of her office. I cried on the way home.
- Network. Network.
I know you’ve heard this a million times before. I know you already smell the cheese here. I hate cliches, but networking is just so important that we’re going to have to make an exception just this once.
I’ve lost count of how many times I saw someone get an amazing offer, whether it was at TripAdvisor or at a large charter school network, because they knew someone on the inside.
That someone can be anybody. An old team member. Your supervisor from a summer job. That guy who lived down the hall sophomore year. The girl who sat next to you in that class. That friend of a friend.
Whoever they are, get in touch with them. It’s understandable if you’re nervous. Maybe you haven’t spoken in a long time. Maybe you two were never even that close. Still, there’s a bridge that connects the two of you. Even if you can’t see it, it’s there.
The bridges that you built throughout your college years are as important as the diploma that’s handed to you on graduation day, so be careful not to burn them.
- Life is longer than your first job.
So how does it feel to finally get the job? Well, it’s different for everybody. In my case, a friend summed it up perfectly—he patted me on the back and said “Your watch has ended.” It was relief like nothing else. No more having to scale icy ramparts or hunt Wildlings in the Land Beyond the Wall. I was going to be lounging by the Narrow Sea and drinking something fruity out of a wooden goblet. My days in the cold were over.
But for others, the Watch has not yet ended. Always be respectful of that.
My honeymoon ended on the day I started my job, when I found out how much I hated it. Wearing a suit and managing IT accounts so a client can keep track a billion dollar budget makes me feel like I already have a foot in the grave.
That’s not to say that a monthly paycheck and health insurance aren’t things to be grateful for. They are. They give you safety and security.
But when you’re young and dumb, tunnel vision can be a real thing. It’s hard to find validation in yourself when you don’t even know who “yourself” is yet.
Take a breath. You’ve got a long life ahead of you. Bask in the world outside college, where the dynamics of life can be refreshingly normal. Live a little. Laugh a lot. Cry a bit. You’ll be okay.