Updated: Jun 20, 2020
From someone who just did it.
While this is not a comprehensive overview of my job pursuit strategy, I selected the 5 most important tips I provide when giving advice to students. What this article doesn’t contain is a list of cheat codes that will allow you to skip other required steps. You still need to work hard in school to build the required skill sets, and it is still on you to execute during your interviews. More than anything, these tips will help you get a foot in the door which is what most of you are probably missing right now. I have tried to put forth honest and unfiltered advice, and have even supplemented each suggestion with real examples from my life. If you hate reading, just skim the 5 main points and take in the TL; DR notes.
1) Prove that you are learning outside of the classroom.
I lived out my college years by the motto I created my sophomore year: “Your education should start at the edge of the classroom, not end there.” I want you all to take a minute and picture some of the jobs you hope to work in the future. Unless your job is in education it almost certainly does not take place inside of a classroom. Therefore, it should seem obvious that you need to be learning in environments that are not classrooms or lecture halls. I am a major advocate for personal projects and serious student organizations. Pick one or two of these in your field and dive as deeply as you can into them. While it won’t show up on your transcript, it will be some of the most important learning you do in regards to landing a job. Side note, your GPA doesn’t mean nearly as much as you think it does, so don’t be afraid to devote time for learning outside of the library. A lot of students have excellent GPAs, but very few students have a solid array of real-world learning experiences. The practical learning will stand out even in a group of high GPAs.
Throughout the years, I was fortunate enough to be a part of several fantastic clubs and work on a few personal projects. I tried out a few different clubs but by the middle of sophomore year I was deeply invested in Transcend, IoT lab and one major personal project per semester. Aside from these projects netting our teams over $25,000 in awards, this is where I did the majority of the learning that I applied in the real world. Also, the more experience you garner outside the classroom the easier it is to answer interview questions like: “Tell me about a time where you _____”. I loved these questions because I always had examples ready from the organizations and projects I worked on.
TL;DR: Everyone in college goes to the library, it is the hands-on learning through internships, student organizations & personal projects that will set you apart.
Presenting one of our projects in Qualcomm’s Board of Directors room out in San Diego, CA.
2) Personal connections are key. Online applications are (usually) black holes.
If you’re currently on the grind of filling out 5–6 online job applications a day, do yourself a favor and just stop. Ultimately you will be hired by and work alongside humans. So, human interaction is key if you expect to land a job offer. This is where personal networks become HUGE in the job search. Ask your friends and family if they know people working for companies that you are interested in. Don’t feel bad for asking, if you are hard-working and talented they will ultimately benefit from referring you to someone that hires you. What if you don’t have a strong network? No worries, there are plenty of ways to make connections. Career fairs and info sessions are a great way to meet people at these companies. LinkedIn also makes it easy to connect and message people that you can’t meet in person. One caveat to building personal connections, is that it is a lot more work than filling out online applications at your desk. So, realize you’re not working hard by doing online applications, you’re just tricking yourself into being lazy.
I filled out A LOT of online applications before I learned my lesson, about 95% of these I never received a response from. I’ll also give an extreme example of making a personal connection. This past semester I was very interested in a role for a company that was recruiting at our campus, but not for the role I wanted. After making no progress after 3 separate visits to the company’s career fair booths, I turned to LinkedIn. I emailed 5 different UW grads that worked at the company, but I didn’t receive a single response. Not wanting to give up, I decided to do something bold. I looked up the head of the program and messaged her directly. While this may seem crazy; she responded and personally helped to arrange an interview for me. I received a full-time offer for that position exactly one month after I sent that message. I would have never received that offer if I hadn’t formed a personal connection. Trust me, I filled out 3 separate online applications for that role using different emails and never received responses on them. *
*Side note: I didn’t do this for Intuit (they recruit PdM positions on campus) and I am keeping the company anonymous for obvious reasons. :)
TL;DR: Your best chance at getting in the door for an interview is to establish a personal connection with someone who can get you in. To do this you need to get off your butt and put yourself out there.
This cold message on LinkedIn would kick-start the process that would eventually lead to a full-time offer.
3) The small things matter. The small things also take up a lot of time.
When I reflect on the events that ultimately led to my job/internship offers I must admit that they weren’t all that flashy. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to bail when I was waiting in line for hours at career fair booths or how anxious I would feel after two hours at a networking event, especially when I had a midterm the next morning. In the moment, these tasks may seem mundane and inconsequential; however, these are ultimately the “small” things that make a BIG difference. Get in the habit of making the “small” things your top priority during recruiting season. Is your favorite company having a networking session on campus? You better get your ass there (and be the last one to leave). Does your major’s career fair fall in the middle of your class schedule? Ask your friend to take notes, because you need to be at company booths more than you need to be in a lecture hall that day. Does your resume look sloppy? Spend a few hours researching how to improve it. I’ll admit that these tasks take up A LOT of time, so it’s understandable to want to skip out on them to focus on other things. That’s why it’s so important to train yourself to treat them as your top priority during recruiting season.
In technical fields especially, I think people tend to turn their noses up at these things since it seems below their other work. Technical students often think along the lines of: “I received an A in (*insert difficult course here*), my work should speak for itself.” In some ways, these students are correct; however without putting the effort into the small things, no one will ever find out about those accomplishments. You’ve already achieved the difficult tasks, so don’t waste them by overlooking the small things just because they seem so much easier in relation.
During my junior year, I was in a tough position. It was spring semester and I still didn’t have any internship offers. Most companies had already completed their recruiting in Fall, which meant it would take even more effort to find an internship. To make matters worse, I had a heavy course load and was beginning to fall behind in school. One Thursday afternoon in February I was left with a tough decision. I walked out of a Transcend meeting and realized there were still 45 minutes left at the career fair. This was complicated by the fact that it was snowing hard (classic Wisconsin) and I needed to travel a mile across campus to reach the Kohl Center. For a moment, I considered just walking to the lab to finish my program that was due the next morning. Luckily, I had my priorities straight and opted to sprint across campus to catch the end of the career fair. When I arrived at the Kohl Center, most companies were already tearing down their booths, but there was only one company I wanted to talk to there. I grabbed a map and power-walked straight to their booth. Luckily this company still had one person manning the station. Completely out of breath, I walked up to him and introduced myself. That booth belonged to Dell, a company I would end up interning under for two summers.
TL;DR: Waiting in line for company booths, attending networking events, and cleaning up your resume all may seem like a drag, but these “small” things make all the difference.
If I hadn’t ran across campus in the snow that night, I would have missed out on 2 great summer internships at Dell.
4) Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
We live in both an imperfect and competitive society. In an ideal scenario, you would be able to interview with your top company first and land a job without spending time chasing other paths. But sadly, this is not the case. Companies follow different timelines, and sometimes things don’t break our way. The truth is none of us really know where we are going to land ahead of time, so it is important to keep your options open. One mistake that I see countless college students make is putting all their eggs in one basket. These students will shoot for only their top choice and expend all their time and energy on that option. Sometimes it works out for students, but much more often they are handed a rejection letter at the very end of the recruiting cycle. This is a big reason for why there are so many highly talented students that enter the summer without an internship or job.
Here’s how to avoid this situation. During each recruiting season make sure you target at least three companies. At least one of these companies should feel like low-hanging fruit that you are confident you can land an offer from. Go through the process with all your target companies. Stop by their career fair booths, accept the interview if they offer (NEVER turn one down while you are in the search stage) and try your best to land an offer at each one. What you will find is that if nothing else you will be able to practice real-world situations and hone your interview skills.
DISCLAIMER: Some people will claim that what I just suggested is dishonorable. Do not be swayed by them. You have just as much right to protect your own best interests as companies have to protect theirs. However, you DO NOT have the right to mislead or lie to companies. Not only is this disrespectful, but in some cases, it may be illegal. So, it is vital that you are transparent and honest with every company you are being actively recruited by.
Any quality company will respect your final decision as long as you respect their time by keeping them well-informed.
My last semester of school I received 4 full-time job offers. I accepted the very last job offer I received since it was my top choice. In a perfect world, I would have interviewed with only Intuit and they would have extended me an offer right away. But I realized it is an imperfect job market so I had to pursue multiple options to protect myself. The year before, I didn’t even land an interview for an internship at Intuit, so it would have been foolish for me to just assume I could land a full-time role there. It also would have been easy for me to just accept my first job offer; and end my search prematurely, even though it wasn’t the best fit for me. Instead, I went through the process for all four companies in a respectful and transparent way. I called to personally turn down each offer the day that it was no longer my top choice. In the end, I landed the position I wanted, and didn’t burn any bridges in the process. I also maintained healthy relationships with the HR contacts at each of the other three companies, and have sent talented candidates their way whenever I’ve seen a fit. The hiring process isn’t built upon guarantees, it’s built upon mutual respect. Remember that and you won’t get yourself into trouble.
TL;DR: There is nothing wrong with pursuing multiple options, in fact you should absolutely do this to protect yourself. However, it is equally important that you are open and transparent with all parties throughout the process.
5) Fake it till you make it
“Fake it till you make it. What happens when you do?”
-Chiddy Bang in Big Sean’s song Too Fake
Despite all the suggestions I’ve laid out already, I feel that there is one thing that deters college students from landing offers more than anything else. The truth is that many students are afraid they might actually land the position they want. Why are so many college students afraid? It is largely due to the prevalence of the impostor syndrome among students. Many students are under the impression that they are under-qualified for most positions and that everyone else at the company is an expert. Let me give you some quick insights that three summers’ worth of internships taught me:
· Everyone started somewhere.
· Nobody at any company has it completely figured out, including industry veterans.
· The vast majority of knowledge required by a company needs to be learned on the job.
If you are honest during the hiring process, you will almost never land in a position that you can’t handle. So, what happens when you do make it? You do what you’ve done at every other stage of your life, you work hard and learn.
I’ve felt under-qualified going into every position I’ve ever held. Before my first internship, I didn’t think I had enough technical knowledge to be an engineering intern. When I landed a software developer internship, I felt that I hadn’t coded nearly enough. I was especially scared when I was the only product management intern at Dell that wasn’t an MBA candidate. Even now, I sometimes feel under-qualified to be starting as a product manager for a company out in Silicon Valley. However, all I need to do is reflect on how I’ve always worked hard and learned what I needed to learn, so that I could have success in my previous positions. It will be no different when I start out at Intuit in March.
TL;DR: Don’t let impostor syndrome deter you from chasing a position that you want. Everyone started somewhere and the skill-sets you have learned in college will enable you to learn what you need to on the job.
Even Steve Wozniak started somewhere. Luckily he didn’t let impostor syndrome stop him.
I know that there are those of you out there right now that are feeling frustrated or even desperate with the spot that you are currently in. In many ways, you may even feel lied to by the education system. For years, you have given your all in school and received the results on paper, only to be stone-walled during the job search when it mattered most. I have felt your pain; and that is the reason I wrote this article, in the hopes that it may open your eyes to some of things you have been missing. To quote one of my mentors, David Cooks:
“A job search, if nothing else, will keep you grounded and humble. You are not as great as you think you are, but you are not as bad as rejection is saying you are…keep moving and don’t stop.”
You are much more talented than you may feel right now. That is why it is so important that you don’t give up even if things haven’t gone your way. Learn from your mistakes, and do it right the next time around. Our society needs you to be in the position you deserve just as much as you need it.