College seniors: the time to find a job is now

It's only early February, but if this is your (or your son's or daughter's) last year of college, it's time to get the job search in full gear. Here are ways to increase your odds of success.

First, let's be clear. Your goal isn't to get a job this month, but rather to lay the groundwork so that you'll have a great job when you graduate.

Start conversations, not interviews: Before you get interviews or offers, you need to start interacting with people who are already in the workforce. Reach out and have intelligent conversations with them.

Contact alumni from your school who are working in industries or jobs that might appeal to you. Reach out to friends of your parents, neighbors or professors. Read articles like crazy, and send notes to those who wrote or were featured in articles you found interesting.

You have two goals in these outreach efforts. The first is to learn about what people do and where you might best fit in. The second is to create a line of evidence (for use months later, when firms are hiring), that you really do have strong interest in a particular area. One of the best things that can happen in, say, early April is for an executive to observe, "I remember you. We talked back in February."

Interact with class: Not everyone follows through in a professional manner, and the people who do stand out. Value the time of every person to whom you speak. Do your research before you speak and know as much as you can about his or her company, division and job.(Example: is their stock up or down? Why?)

Send thank you notes immediately after speaking to someone. When you connect with another person to whom they introduced you, send a brief note to let them know, and to thank them again.

Be incredibly curious: You're about to take one of the pivotal steps of your entire life, and the job hunting process doesn't have to be stressful. You can think of it like being a kid in a candy store. Learn as much as you possibly can. Read everything you can get your hands on about intriguing companies, industries and opportunities. When you get a chance to talk with someone, be genuinely interested. The depth and intelligence of your questions are one of the best ways you have to demonstrate that you are a person with true potential.

Get real: Coming out of business school, I interviewed with one of the top consumer goods companies and was telling the interviewer all about what I could do for his firm. He finally stopped me and asked, "Do you have any idea what an assistant product manager does?" I didn't, and was pitching like a budding CEO, instead of someone who is going to add numbers and follow-up on details.

You're going to have to pay your dues, and prove your value. Understand the realities of the jobs they give recent college grads. When you describe your skills, explain them in this context.

Set your expectations right: Your first job isn't going to make your dreams come true. It's a transition between school and a career. Don't expect self-actualization, incredible wealth, and six weeks of vacation.

But you should expect to work for a company you respect, and with people from whom you can learn. If an offer doesn't provide you with a positive step in the right direction, don't take it.

Will you be successful?

The job market remains challenging. Not every college graduate will get a great job. But if you start taking these steps right now, you will vastly increase your odds of success.

Update (Feb 11): With gratitude for the many comments added to this article, I'd like to respond to those who wrote something along the lines of, "February is too late to start looking for a job." Their basic point is that you should have already had internships, had other jobs, and started networking. Yes, the more experience you have and the more contacts, the easier your job search will be. But it is never - I repeat, never - too late to adopt the positive habits described in this article. Give it all you have, and never quit until you get what you want.


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Image credit: Esther Gons

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