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Graduating soon? You should be looking for that first job now

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If you're finishing up school and will need a job next year, you should be looking for one right now. For students pursuing a full-time spot at Fortune 500 companies, prestigious consulting firms, nonprofits, and the government, you could run out of time if you don't.

I talked to Tom Dowd, executive director at the Career Center of Muhlenberg College, Jill Tipograph, cofounder of Early Stage Careers, and counselors at the University of California Berkeley and Georgetown University to find out how to get a headstart on the hunt.

Make a good plan

Dowd says to create a landscape of companies and organizations to target before you start your career search. Keep it as broad as possible, but not over 30 organizations spanning a couple industries. You want to do a good job of learning as much as you can about each one. Quality is more important than quantity. Act like it's your dream job and focus on both the company and the position, according to Dowd.

Tipograph and others stressed going for jobs you're qualified for. They said that many students do not understand how competitive the market is and they routinely overestimate their skills. Make sure you apply to a few very safe jobs.


The most important thing is ‘networking’

It's the first thing every counselor I've ever talked to will tell you. Numbers vary, but many counselors say that anywhere from 60 to 85 percent of jobs are obtained through networking. Some say about 70 percent of job openings are unadvertised. Dowd says that less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies fill jobs through normal interview process.

It's not about what you know, how amazing your resume is, or even how good an employee you are. It's much more about whom you know and how much they like you.

To get to know more people, get as many internships as possible. Go to career events and chat with people. The reason I put "networking" in quotes is because it's probably not what you're thinking of. Remember that it's not about bragging, name-dropping, asking a perfect series of questions, and writing sycophantic e-mails. It's about being yourself, but the best version of yourself. Get to know as many people as you can who like the real you, who know your story, and can support you in your career.


Keep your LinkedIn profile clean and up-to-date. Connect to your second contacts and ask for introductions. Ask people if they have 15 minutes to get coffee with you and make sure you offer to pay and send thank you e-mails. Always try to connect to at least one other person through the original contact.

Muhlenberg's Dowd says to send a follow-up about a month later, telling them how your semester is going and what you're doing.

Make use of resources

Get to know your professors and ask them for application and job hunting tips. Ask your career counselors for your college's alumni network. Keep in touch with your college counselors once you graduate.

Intern. Intern. Intern. According to Tipograph of Early Stage Careers and counselors at Berkeley and Georgetown, most companies hire from their summer internships (this is also pretty much the only way to work at law firms, big consulting companies, newspapers, and other prestigious places).

Internships are important so that you can have diverse recommendations, experience in relevant sectors, and connections in the industry you're interested in. Dowd encourages career counselors and universities to have more formal meet-and-greet events and road trips to big companies in New York City or Washington, D.C., that will sponsor students for a day. If your college has these programs, take full advantage of them.


Avoid easy pitfalls

Make sure your resume follows standard formats because companies use automatic scanners to check them. Tailor your cover letter to what you can do for the company and focus on the top three things the employer will care about. Treat the cover letter as an opportunity to tell a story about your skills and how they relate to each other.

Extensively prepare for interviews . Prepare for video interviews, and set up your voicemail. Professionalize the way you communicate but don't overdo it or use flowery language. Make sure you fit the culture requirements the company is looking for.

Finally, when you get an offer, don't just jump on it. Do something part-time or get a fellowship if it's not the right choice or if you don't land a job.

Isvari Mohan can be reached at voice@isvari.com. Follow her on Twitter @IsvariM.