A Graduate’s Ultimate Guide to the Post-Grad Job Search
How to build a CV, negotiate job offers, handle rejection and know your value while searching for the perfect job after graduation.
This article was first published in The Post-Grad Survival Guide.
When I walked away from the final exam of my undergrad degree a year ago, the working world seemed right in front of me yet entirely out of reach.
The post-grad job search that followed was an emotional see-saw.
One minute I felt confident about my education and experience; the next, I felt entirely incapable and short-skilled. I overthought every stage of the process, weighing my worth up against my invisible competition. Paired with the radio silence that comes along with so many job applications, it was a recipe for disaster. At my lowest, I felt that I had no chance of getting a good job anywhere.
Of course, that wasn’t true. Once I got both my mindset and practical approach in check, I quickly found a position that aligned with my goals and allowed me to upskill. I even got promoted within months. Now, I’m also in the position to go freelance and start my own business.
Feelings of inadequacy are common among new graduates looking for their first “real” job. Navigating any significant lifestyle change is hard enough without competing with hundreds of other applicants, and stepping out into the job market at an uncertain time doesn’t help matters.
As the class of 2020 faces the challenges posed by COVID-19 to the global market, having a robust post-grad job search strategy will prove more important than ever.
As overwhelming as it all may seem right now, the right opportunity will come your way. It might require patience and a little pivoting, but you have the potential to find a suitable and satisfying role.
In this article, I’m sharing the structured approach that got me multiple interviews and offers (including billion-dollar tech companies), increased my employability, and helped me stand out against the competition. Even more importantly, it helped me to understand my value in the workplace.
1. Make the most of college services while you can
You may have already finished your classes and gotten your exam results. Your student card might have expired. You’ve mentally checked out and are ready to move on.
Don’t move so fast. There might still be something your college can do for you. Since you’ve already invested your time and money into college, why not make the most of it?
One of the most overlooked college services is career guidance. This is a group of professionals who research and analyze your career options for a living — why wouldn’t you avail of their insights? Depending on your school, they might offer one-on-one appointments, job fairs, CV workshops, alumni mentoring sessions, and LinkedIn clinics.
You might have attended some of their workshops in the past, but the final semester is the perfect opportunity to reach out and see what they have to offer. Many guidance services have moved online due to COVID-19. Since many students refrain from using them, now’s your chance to get ahead of the queue. Even if you don’t find an opportunity this way, at the very least, it’s an extra pair of eyes to proofread your CV.
2. Don’t sleep on networking
Take it from an introvert: leaving college with no professional contacts beyond a handful of lecturers and administrative officials is just as daunting as that networking session you’ve been dreading, and it doesn’t even come with refreshments.
Starting your career (and LinkedIn profile!) with zero contacts put countless opportunities out of reach. I’m not talking sleazy get-jobs-through-connections methods, but simple things like addressing your cover letter to the right person. It can cost you job opportunities and good first impressions, making you look less experienced and capable than you are.
So what can you do if you’ve already graduated and found yourself short on contacts?
Don’t worry — all is not lost. Here are some quick remedies to get you started.
Fill out your LinkedIn profile, updating the education, skills, and work experience fields. Make sure these are optimized for search appearances by including relevant keywords that will help recruiters find you.
Tune into your inner 2008 Facebook persona and add anyone you’ve connected with professionally in the last few years. School friends, people from college societies, colleagues from part time jobs, hiring managers you’ve talked to, lecturers even. Remember, LinkedIn is a professional network, so it’s unlikely any of them will find your connection request weird.
Review your online presence and your privacy settings. Here’s the thing: employers do conduct background checks before they hire someone, and yes, this includes social media. Most of the time, the screening process involves a Google search for major red flags. Since social media networks are often connected with your email, which you might be using to apply for jobs, make sure to review them before applying anywhere to avoid embarrassment down the line. Check the public information on all your profiles — especially ones you’ve had since you were a teenager — and consider archiving posts or deactivating accounts you no longer want in the public domain. As a general rule of thumb, make sure most of your profiles are set to private.
3. Figure out what you want
When I first started looking for a job, I dove right in and responded to job descriptions I didn’t understand, positions I wasn’t qualified for, and companies I liked the sound of, but that weren’t the right fit. This set me up for a lot of rejection, and I quickly lost faith in the process and myself.
Taking the time to note down my priorities would have saved me a lot of time and tears.
If you know what you’re looking for, you’re more likely to come across relevant openings, create more effective cover letters, and feel more confident when making decisions about offers. Here’s how to do it.
Have a rough idea of the field you want to get into. This may or may not align with what you studied. If you don’t have your entire career path figured out, you’re not alone — research shows that the average person changes jobs 12 times in their career, so your first job or career path likely won’t be where you end up.
Research entry-level roles in your chosen field, paying attention to the keywords, top skills and qualifications that employers are looking for. Keep this in mind later when creating your CV. The information source I found most helpful is The Balance Careers website.
Make two lists: one of the things your future role needs to have and another of things that aren’t non-negotiables, but would be nice to have. Are you looking for a 9-to-5, or a flexible schedule? Does it need to be local, or are you willing to relocate? What kind of salary range are you looking for? Keep these things in mind when reviewing job descriptions. And remember: the safe option isn’t always the right option for you. By compromising on your non-negotiables, you’ll just run a higher risk of hating your job.
Keep an open mind about the specific position you’re looking for. It’s easy to assume that the job you get straight out of college will define your career path for the rest of your life, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The job market is constantly changing, and new careers are forged every year in response to market needs and workforce skills. Not to mention, most entry-level roles are far from glamorous. Sure, you might need to do menial administrative tasks while you learn the ropes, but this could be a great stepping stone in the long-term.
In short, know what you’re looking for, but don’t pressure yourself to find the perfect job right away.
4. Take stock of your skills
As a graduate competing for work not only against other graduates, but also against seasoned industry insiders, it’s easy to feel inadequate and underskilled.
But give yourself some credit. Take a moment to consider all the hours of reading, attending lectures, writing and submitting essays and assignments, preparing for exams, and researching. You’ve done and learned more than you think. Now it’s time to take stock of it all.
Consider everything you’ve done — in school, college, work, and your personal life. What marketable practical skills have you acquired? Have you learned to use specific software, or demonstrated excellent customer service? Did you organize events or send out emails as part of a college society? Have you designed posters or learned a language?
It’s always a good time to upskill. The world has never been more open to learning and development, both online and offline. There are a vast number of resources out there that can help you gain the qualifications you need. By watching video tutorials on YouTube to learn how to use a design program, or reading a finance book, you’re one step closer to meeting the qualification criteria. A resource I found very helpful when learning about digital marketing, photography and content creation was Skillshare. They’re kindly offering a free two-week trial to What Now, Nat readers — get yours by clicking here (affiliate link).
Don’t forget about soft skills. These are intangible, personality-focused abilities that go beyond technical knowledge and certifications. Employers want to know that you’re qualified for the job. Still, they also want to make sure you’ll fit in well with a team, be able to communicate effectively, demonstrate excellent leadership, and employ creative problem-solving tactics while working under pressure. Make a list of your strengths and think about situations you’ve experienced where these strengths shone through.
You never know what a hiring manager will be looking for and what will set you apart from the competition. One thing you can be sure of, though, is that a well-rounded candidate who is interested in learning and developing their skills will stand out in a sea of CVs.
5. Beware of dodgy internships
Internships can be a bit of a controversial topic. While they can provide excellent opportunities and get your foot in the door when you’re first starting, they can also be thinly veiled exploitation.
Before setting out to find internship opportunities, research intern workers’ rights in your country. Many laws are ambiguous on the topic of unpaid work, and the right to payment often comes down to the type of work you are doing and how it compares to the rest of the workplace. If you are doing the same work as a paid employee, you are likely entitled to at least minimum wage compensation.
Only look for internships that are valuable to your career progression. Getting someone’s coffee while they do the work you want to learn about is not valuable, but sitting in on meetings or getting hands-on experience might be. Be crystal clear on what you want to get out of an internship before you apply.
Prioritize searching for paid internships — even if they only offer basic compensation. Not only does this put you in a better situation financially, but it also demonstrates better company values.
Consider entry-level roles that will provide you similar skills and insights. Most companies offer ways to move up, progress, or switch between departments. With no set career path in most fields, there is usually more than one way to any position.
Before you jump into an unpaid position, calculate its monetary value. For example, if I took one of the currently advertised full time 6-month unpaid positions, I would lose at least €10,000 in income. Most graduates are simply not in the financial position to do this, and with bills, travel, and grocery expenses, this can be a slippery slope to mounting debt.
If you have no other choice but to take an unpaid internship, always look out for red flags. Make sure your time is paying off, that you’re still learning, and that you’re making valuable connections. Take the initiative, stay accountable for your development, and keep an eye out for opportunities. As with most learning experiences, you will only get out what you put in.
6. Create a strong resume
Chances are, you already have a CV. You might have used one when applying to part-time bartending jobs or handed out stacks of them to local restaurants.
Having screened job candidates in the past, I’ve been on the other end of those resumes. I’ve seen it all — spelling mistakes, tiny 8-point fonts, triple-spaced pages, no visible work experience section. Worst of all, I’ve seen an alarming number of CVs written in Comic Sans.
If you’re looking for employment beyond the service industry, your potential employers are looking for different things from your resume, and they see a lot more of them daily. They’re less likely to look past mistakes and inefficiencies, and more likely to move onto the next candidate without thinking twice.
Your CV has to be immediately eye-catching to stand out from the crowd. It has to reflect not only the type of career you’re looking for, but also your personality, attention to detail, and professionalism. You can do this through a custom resume design. Gone are the days of lengthy Times New Roman CVs. A modern and effective CV is one or two pages long, contains visual stimulants such as colors, icons, and graphic design elements. You can get creative with Photoshop or online tools such as Canva or Resume.io to easily create eye-catching customized resumes.
Triple check that your CV displays your contact information. How can they offer you the job when they can’t reach you? Depending on the industry, you might also include links to your online portfolio and LinkedIn profile.
Don’t treat your CV as a one-and-done job. As you apply to jobs and continue to upskill, make sure to tweak your CV to include all relevant skills and experience. Use relevant keywords you’ve seen in the job description (if they’re true, of course!) to show that you’re not just a candidate, but the ideal candidate.
7. Write tailored cover letters
One of the most amateurish mistakes you can make in the post-grad job search is using the same cover letter for each job application, or worse — neglecting to write a cover letter at all!
While your resume is the first document your potential employer will look at, a cover letter is what truly sets you apart. It’s an invaluable opportunity to demonstrate your interest in the company’s mission and provide further detail about the skills and experiences that make you the ideal candidate.
Through a well-crafted cover letter, you can convince potential employers that while you might lack some of the qualifications, they’re looking for, your enthusiasm and interest in developing your skills make up for it.
There’s no need to ramble. Keep your cover letters focused and to the point by matching key sections of the job description and responding to specific requirements.
Don’t just echo your CV. Instead, take this opportunity to draw the recruiter’s attention to your greatest strengths. Provide quantifiable examples to highlight your achievements. This could be your 100% on-deadline record at university or the 98% satisfaction rating you got at your part-time customer support job.
Show them you’ve done your research. A good opening demonstrates your interest in the company and how their vision fits in with your own.
Address your letter correctly to make a better first impression. Who wants to read a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern”? Try to find out the name of the hiring manager or talent acquisition specialist in the branch you’re applying. LinkedIn can be a great place to do this.
Visually match your cover letter with your CV to make your application look cohesive and memorable.
8. Check job boards — often
When you’re first starting out in your job search, you’ll have to decide where to look. There are hundreds of job boards out there, some international and others local. At the same time, certain companies stick exclusively to intenal job boards to attract candidates that are already interested.
Do a little research on the job boards most commonly used in your industry, and in your local area. Some safe bets include Indeed, Simply Hired, Career Builder, and LinkedIn. Create a profile on these, and upload your CV and skills for quick access.
Create alerts for your targeted listings — particularly if you’re looking in a competitive field. To avoid overwhelm, many recruiters publish listings for just a few days, or even hours, and make selections based on the first batch of applicants. Sometimes it’s a case of first-come, first-served, especially if the position needs to be filled urgently. Being an early applicant makes you look focused, enthusiastic, and serious about your search.
It might seem counterintuitive, but don’t let job boards take over your life. Just like social media platforms, job boards are designed to be highly addictive. You could be scrolling for hours in search of the perfect listing, losing track of your priorities and wasting time that could be better spent upskilling. Find balance by setting aside particular times each day to check your alerts, and only apply to relevant listings.
9. Stay organised
In most cases, the job search is not a sprint but a marathon. You might send out dozens of applications before you get an offer.
The good news is, you’ll gain insights with every application and get a more effective at crafting cover letters and tailoring your resume in a hurry.
The bad news? It gets messy. Your inbox will be full of alerts and auto-replies, you’ll have to juggle closing dates and interview appointments, and your brain will turn to a jumble of job titles and company profiles.
The key to keeping a clear head is staying organised and keeping track of every position you’ve applied to.
Make a spreadsheet on Google Sheets that you can easily access from anywhere. Update it every time you apply to a new position, adding the job title, company, location, deadline, and key names and contact details. Also, add the application status — whether you’ve applied, gotten an interview, or if the job has expired or disappeared entirely. This way, you’ll always know where you stand.
Save copies of all the cover letters and tailored CVs you have sent out. Not only is this helpful when you get an interview and have completely forgotten what you wrote, but it also provides handy templates for future cover letters you write to similar job openings. Any way to speed up the application process counts, especially if you’re fighting for that early applicant slot.
10. Learn to handle rejection
One of the most challenging aspects of the post-grad job search is the volume of rejection you’ll experience. Unless your skills are in exceptionally high demand (software engineers, I’m jealous), chances are your first ten, twenty, or even fifty applications won’t get much attention.
You’ll likely not receive responses to most applications at all, as recruiters are prone to ghosting candidates due to their sheer volume.
That’s why before you begin, you need to take steps to build resilience.
Job applications take a colossal amount of time and effort: reading descriptions, researching companies, tailoring your CV, writing the perfect cover letter, and completing online competency assessments or answering targeted questions — all of this adds up. By the time you hit ‘Apply’, you might have already visualised yourself in the role, sitting at your desk and chatting with strangers you saw on their About Us page.
And to be rejected after all that? It can be crushing.
In my job search process, I got my first interview on the twentieth attempt, and that’s with three years of work experience, a first-class honors degree, and multiple qualification certificates under my belt.
All my previous applications were met with silence, rejection, or a sudden listing disappearance. Some of the rejection emails were carefully crafted to spare applicants’ feelings, while others were coldly impersonal. Each one stung just the same.
While rejection may happen because of reasons outside of your control — maybe a hundred applicants had more experience than you, or perhaps an internal applicant was chosen instead — you do have control over how you react.
There will be days when rejection makes you want to give up. Your motivation will dip, and you’ll consider lowering your expectations or compromising on your priorities. You might feel inclined to take unsuitable roles just to have anything at all.
Allow yourself to feel these things, but don’t let them take over. Choose to replace every rejection with a constructive action instead.
The hope is that after a while, you’ll develop a tougher skin. You’ll become more competitive, more driven. You’ll want to craft better cover letters, further develop your skills, create more portfolio work, or pivot in your approach. With this constructive mindset, you can keep applying, knowing that your chances are higher every day.
One thing to keep in mind: rejection doesn’t feel good for either party.
During my post-grad job search, I found myself sending as well as receiving rejection emails. If you go through an interview, get an offer, and don’t immediately want the job, it’s a clear sign that the position is not the right fit. You don’t have to accept an offer you don’t want to take, even after a successful interview process. Weigh it up against your list of needs and wants before you make the final call.
Surviving the search — a final tip
Throughout the process, give yourself time to find balance. If you’re miserable spending all your time checking job boards and stressing over emails, this will show in applications and interviews, lessening your chances of getting hired.
Set aside time every day to relax and do things that motivate and inspire you. Make sure you’re getting enough fresh air, exercise, and healthy meals. Where possible, spend time with family and don’t neglect your hobbies. Don’t let the job search take over your life — it is only the beginning.
Good luck with your searching! I hope each one of you finds exactly what you’re looking for, and starts confidently on your dream career path. Do let me know how it goes on Instagram or in the comments below!
And while you’re here, feel free to check out my latest blog posts here.
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