Getting hired and getting ahead: five important tips for the career-minded college student or recent grad

My alma mater, Wake Forest University, has a “career connectors” group on LinkedIn, and there’s currently a thread where one of the university’s career dev folks asks for some input on a project she’s working. Specifically, she asks: “If you were hiring a recent graduate, what top five professional skills do you want him/her to possess to be a strong candidate in your profession?”

Great question. Since I’m all in favor of young Deacons taking the world by storm, I thought I’d try to contribute some advice. Here’s a slightly buffed out version of what I wrote.

1: Develop communications skills. Especially the ability to write clearly and flawlessly. The erosion of writing skills over the past 20 years has been dramatic, and a student who can demonstrate this ability has a huge advantage over the competition. A warning, though. When you show us a writing sample, it needs to reflect what you can do, on your own, right now. Too many new grads will present a prospective employer with a sample that’s just gorgeous, but when they’re assigned to write something on day one in their new job it’s clear that the sample was the result of a painstaking semester-long process involving editors, professors and talented friends. In fact, the new hire isn’t prepared to contribute on one of the job’s important criteria.

It’s like showing up for a date and realizing that your date’s profile picture was one part photo and two parts Photoshop. The reality isn’t what it needs to be and you now know there’s no hope of ever trusting them. It’s bait-and-switch and depending on a variety of factors I might fire you on the spot.

Also – and this applies mostly to women (although not exclusively) – speak like a professional adult. Way too many young women have adopted what we call “upspeaking” (or, more technically, the “high rising terminal”), an inflection pattern that sounds like there’s a question mark at the end of each sentence. What this communicates to the listener is that you have no idea what you’re talking about or that you have no faith in your own judgment.

Listen to accomplished professionals speak. They say “we need to increase our direct marketing spend,” not “we need to increase our direct marketing spend?”

In sum, I’m not going to take you seriously if you don’t.

2: Show me that you understand the difference between earning something and being entitled to it. The Millennial Generation has cultivated a reputation as the Entitled Generation, and while it’s the fault of the parents who raised them and the educational system that failed them at every turn, not their own, they’re still the ones who have to deal with it.

When you graduate from college understand that you’re entitled to nothing but a diploma and you have earned nothing but an opportunity. Those of us who have worked our asses off in our careers will respect that attitude, I promise you.

3: Work on your critical thinking. Another thing Millennials have to confront is that while they’re exceptional in teams and are very good at executing on clearly defined tasks, they come from an educational paradigm that has placed almost no emphasis on the ability to think critically or solve problems. When they encounter a situation they haven’t seen before, they tend to “go limp.” However, if I can hit you with a brand new challenge and you can think your way through to a working solution, you’re going to get lots and lots of opportunities to shine.

Sadly, this one is easier said than done. Effective critical thinking is something that takes a long time to get really good at and it evolves in three stages: 1) something you do; 2) something you are; 3) something you can’t stop doing. You won’t reach stage 3 quickly no matter how hard you work, but if you show up for an interview in stage 1 you’ll help yourself immensely.

4: Cultivate resourcefulness. Once upon a time, back in the good old days, we had these things called “budgets.” A budget, for those of you who have never seen one, is this pile of money that can be used to run operations, hire talent and solve problems.

These days, even people at my level (heck, especially people at my level) are asked to do more and more with less and less. Somedays it feels like we’re expected to do everything with nothing. “Here, here’s a piece of string. Can you dominate a mature, commodified market by end of day?”

Anything you can do to demonstrate a faculty for achieving top shelf results with very little in the way of monetary resources is one that will set you apart in a hurry. The good news here is that you’ve probably been involved in student organizations, and these groups rarely have a lot of money to work with. So your undergrad experience may provide you with quantifiable proof points that will impress a hiring manager.

5: Understand the big picture. At the entry level we’re asked to do small tasks and they may not always make sense to us. But somewhere, hopefully, there is a guiding strategy that provides a context for everything an organization does. Or most of it. Some of it, anyway. Anyhow, your ability to succeed at the entry level and to progress up the career ladder will be helped immensely if you’re able to understand the organization’s overarching strategic goals and where the work you’re doing in the trenches fits in.

People who can do this become leaders. Those who are more at home focusing on tactical executions are going to spend their lives in middle management. This is fine if it’s what you want – and a company with weak mid-management is in dire trouble no matter what – but if you want to lead at a high level, work on understanding the big picture and the long term. (By the way, good middle managers have some strategic grasp, too, so your ability to succeed at this level will require you to understand as much about business drivers as possible.)

This isn’t a comprehensive guide to success, by any stretch. But a recent grad who’s smart, works hard and gets these five concepts will have a big leg up in the interview process and will likely outperform his or her entry-level colleagues.

Best of luck, even if you didn’t go to Wake.

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