One of the great frustrations of my college job searches was the myth of the “entry level” position. Most jobs for college students and recent graduates seem to require a certain minimum background – even those without specific requirements often seem to go to applicants with significant experience. It is often said that you cannot get a job without experience, but you cannot get experience without a job. Although neither is strictly true, it is true that the more skills and background you can present in a job application the more competitive you will be. If your résumé is barren it may seem like a herculean task just to get the internship or campus job that will provide the experience you need to move toward the post-college career of your dreams. Fortunately, as sophomores at Haverford you have ample time and opportunities to ensure that by the time you are looking for internships or, ultimately, a job, you will have developed the skills and backgrounds to make yourself competitive for that job of your dreams.
So, what steps should you take if you want position yourself competitively for internships and post-college employment?
First, if you have not already, consult with the staff at the CCPA to assess your interests and abilities and explore various career fields. You can stop by the CCPA for a walk-in appointment from 3-4pm, Monday through Friday, or schedule an appointment in advance. Through individualized consultation and tools such as CareerBeam, StrengthsQuest, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, and the Strong Interest Inventory, you can develop a sense for what you want to do and where you want to go. From there you can network with alumni, reach out to personal contacts, or apply for an externship to get a feel for whether a field is right for you and, if so, what qualities you should develop to help break into it.
Once you have a sense of what you want to do, try to cultivate experience that will help you on your path. If you have a specific goal in mind, the more targeted the experience the better. However, general experience is also extremely valuable and will help you develop skills that will transfer to your ultimate pursuits. There are three primary vehicles to obtain formal “work experience” while at Haverford: internships, research, and campus jobs. You may also be able to work off campus, however whether or not that is right for you will depend on your situation.
Again, targeted experience is best. If you want to eventually work in an environmental non-profit, pursuing an internship with such an organization or doing environmental research with a faculty member would be an ideal way to prepare yourself to work in that field. But almost any job can help you move toward your desired career. Building a reputation as a reliable, hard-working, amiable employee is something that will translate to any future career. Plus, if you think strategically you may be able to integrate some elements of your field of interest into your internship or campus job. For instance, volunteering to help “green” your office can help boost your environmental credentials even if you are working in an entirely unrelated field.
What if you have not yet been able to land a job or internship? If your resume is spare, the prospects of securing a job to fill it may seem bleak. Fear not! There are many ways to enhance your credentials before you obtain a job or internship. Consider:
An important consideration for any job or internship is the familiarity of the candidates with the job, field, or work practices in use at that organization. This is especially true at nonprofits. Find a volunteer opportunity in your area of interest, shadow someone, get involved with professional organizations, or contribute to the discussion on social media. This shows interest and commitment in the résumé, and will help you to articulate your interest in the interview.
Leverage Your Extracurricular Pursuits
There are so many skills crucial to employers that can be developed in your volunteer and student activities. Seek them out. Lead people, solve problems, manage a budget, raise funds, connect people, handle public relations, manage social media, market the organization, make presentations, hone your public speaking skills, advocate for your group. Try on these responsibilities in your student groups if you can, especially if they are directly relevant to the jobs or internships you are striving for. Many nonprofit organizations crave volunteers to take on these responsibilities, so reach out to the leaders of the groups you are involved in or find ones that match your interests.
Look for Ad Hoc Opportunities
Sometimes you may not be able to make a long-term commitment to work or volunteer somewhere. Likewise, sometimes an organization cannot manage to give you ongoing responsibilities. You may be able to find a one-off opportunity to build a skill, however. For example, even if you cannot be a regular contributor, it may be possible to get an individual piece published somewhere. It may be a blog, the Bi-Co News, the local paper, or even an academic publication. Any of these would help demonstrate your bona fides to employers that are searching for effective writers and communicators. Similarly, you can often volunteer for one-time events that will allow you to develop some of the skills listed earlier but without the sustained commitment.
Most modern organizations desire technical proficiency. Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and often Access or Publisher), Adobe (InDesign, Premiere, Photoshop), and Google Drive are common needs. The more prolific you are with these tools the better off you will be. Check the college events calendar for workshops and other training opportunities to master these skills. Once you do, remember that there are many ways to sell your expertise. Yes, you can list your software mastery in the skills section of your resume, but you can also show examples of your work and collect endorsements on LinkedIn, and reference any grades or certificates you receive for training.
Additionally, many fields have specific technologies that they rely on, such as CRM or Constant Contact. Familiarity with the appropriate software is often strongly preferred, if not required, for many jobs. If your jobs or internships are not preparing you to use the technology of your chosen field, speak to the staff at the CCPA. They may be able to connect you to an opportunity to get the exposure you need, for instance by connecting you to an alum who can show you the basics.
Translate Your Skills (Especially if you are inexperienced)
If you have gone to school, played a sport, participated in a student group, volunteered, done things for your church, etc., then you have developed many skills that employers value. It can be very challenging to see just how lacrosse practice translates to working in finance, but don’t sell yourself short. Think about what skills and competencies you have developed in the activities you have participated in to date, and learn to articulate them on your resume, on LinkedIn, in your cover letters, and in interviews. Do not underestimate what you have accomplished and how you have developed so far. As always, if you struggle with this, the CCPA can help you out.
Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees
Finally, although there are tons of specific ways to enhance your professional profile during your time at Haverford, nothing is more important than showing up and being the best possible version of you. Yes, developing particular skills will go a long way to help you get the job you want, but nothing is quite so effective as a ringing endorsement from someone who has seen you be all-around excellent in your job, internship, group, class, or volunteer work. The most important job skills are intangible – punctuality, commitment, creativity, leadership, integrity, approachability, friendliness, drive, and so on. Make them your calling card. They will take your farther than any skill or experience ever could.