It’s graduation season, which means a new crop of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young adults will walk across auditorium stages across the country (funny hat and all) and enter the workforce. If reading that sentence made you break out in a cold sweat, you’re probably a member of this new class, and we’re here for you.
Landing your first ever “real job” doesn’t have to be panic-inducing, but it does require you to do your homework—in most cases, no one is going to just hand you an employment contract if you say “please.” mental_floss spoke with Don Raskin, a marketing executive with over 25 years experience and the author of The Dirty Little Secrets of Getting Your Dream Job, via email to find out what young candidates can do—and should not do—to stand out from the pack and get their foot in the door.
1. GO THE EXTRA MILE.
The unfortunate truth is that many, many qualified candidates will apply for the job you’ve got your eye on. So to stand out from the pack, Raskin says, you need to do something that clearly demonstrates your dedication and preparation. “The biggest issue I see that is problematic is having candidates show up to an interview with their resume thinking that is enough to win the job,” he says. “Did you bring a portfolio or did you come prepared to speak about a class relevant to the position you are interviewing for? I recently interviewed an entry-level candidate for an account job on our fast food account. She started the interview by telling me that she took a train 45 minutes to visit the restaurant in order to discuss her observations in our meeting. That was a wow for me.”
2. BE SMART ABOUT YOUR RESUME.
Raskin says that the most important part of any resume is the “experience” section—even for recent college grads who might not have a ton under their belt. “I am always looking for entry-level candidates who have very strong internships that are specific to the job they are interviewing for,” he says. “That tells me they have planned out their path to landing their first job properly, and those are the candidates I want to hire.”
What should you do if you didn’t intern during college (maybe you had a job or spent your summers volunteering)? “If you don’t have relevant internship experience, you want to emphasize in whatever work experience you do have that you are a responsible, hard-working candidate,” Raskin advises.
3. KEEP YOUR COVER LETTER SHORT AND TO-THE-POINT.
The general rule of thumb is that your cover letter should never be more than one page in length. But before you start fiddling with margins and font size, Raskin recommends keeping your letter even shorter: “I like cover letters that are no more than three paragraphs in length,” he says.
According to Raskin, the biggest cover letter mistake he sees is oversell. “Often, candidates throw everything they can into the cover letter in the hope that something will stick … When I get a cover letter, I want to see a brief opening paragraph about why they are applying for the job. Then, in the second paragraph, I want to read about work or school-related experience that is relevant to the position. Finally, in the closing paragraph, I want to see an indicated action.” By this he means a plan for following up. “The candidate should not leave it up to the person they are sending their cover letter to for next steps,” he says. “If you end with ‘and I will email you in one week to see if you feel, as I do, that I am a great fit for this position,’ you are more likely to get a reply.”
4. DON’T NEGLECT YOUR EMAIL COVER NOTE
So you’ve got a resume and cover letter that highlight your relevant achievements—now, how do you get the hiring manager to look at them? You write a killer email cover note.
The temptation is to copy the first paragraph of your cover letter into the body of an email, attach your materials, and hit “send.” Resist it! Raskin says there should not be much overlap between your cover note and cover letter. “Remember, you are telling your story,” he says. “What you want to do is unveil the story in a way that captures the interviewer’s attention. In the email cover note, keep it brief but say something that will get the interviewer to open the attached cover letter and read it. If you say ‘and I worked for XYZ company in a capacity that matches the job you are recruiting for’ I am going to open and read your cover letter.”
5. MAKE EVERY IN-PERSON SECOND COUNT.
If you follow the above advice, and if your experience truly does match the job description of the position you’re applying for, Raskin says you’re likely to be called in for an interview. When you come in for your interview, remember that it begins the moment you walk through the door—not the moment you shake hands with your interviewer. “You are interviewing for a job, and sociability is part of any work environment,” Raskin says. So “talk to the point of entry person, but know when to stop as that person has work to do as well. Smile at others in the company who walk by.”
Raskin says it’s not unusual for hiring managers to ask receptionists for their first impression of the candidate, so turn off your phone, put your book or magazine away, and make polite, engaged small talk. Then use the few moments you have to wait before your interviewer greets you to silently go over your talking points.
6. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.
According to Raskin, the best way to combat interview nerves is to “Prepare. Practice. Close.” “It is the same way you feel when you go into a big test and you know in your heart of hearts you didn’t study enough,” he says. “Compare that with how you feel when you do study well—you can hardly wait to get into the room and take the test. If you prepared yourself and know all about the company and the people you will meet with, you should do well.”
Raskin says that usually the first thing the interviewer will do is ask you to give a rundown of your background and experience. Since you know this ahead of time, there’s really no reason to flub it. “Practice the presentation of your resume material three times, making sure you make eye contact and are not looking down at your resume during your presentation. By the third time you do this, you will be ready,” Raskin says.
7. WORK ON YOUR CLOSE.
Another common place young candidates fall short is the end of the interview. After you’ve asked your thoughtful, well-researched questions of the interviewer, you might say something like, “That’s all I have!” and let the interview peter its way to an unmemorable end. “You need to close the interview by asking if the interviewer believes you are a good fit for the job and when you will hear back from the company,” Raskin says. “That will give you a solid indication of how well you did in the interview.”
8. THANK YOUR INTERVIEWER.
In his book, Raskin says the golden window (or, really, the only appropriate window) to send your interviewer or interviewers a thank-you email is within 24 hours and no longer than 48 hours. But don’t be too hasty: “I have gotten emails so soon after an interview that I wonder if the candidate wrote them in the elevator on the way down to the lobby. Personally, I don’t like this,” he writes in Getting Your Dream Job.
Take the time to personalize your thank-you note, and think of it as your final chance to sell yourself. “Your thank-you email should quickly highlight one or two main points about your background meaningful to the position. Be sure to reference some type of personal interaction you had with the interviewer,” Raskin writes. A good option is to send a link to an article you discussed in the interview, or answer a question you promised you would think about.
9. IF THINGS DON’T GO YOUR WAY, ASK FOR FEEDBACK.
Let’s say you did all of the above and still didn’t land the job. Even more frustratingly, you got a standard rejection note that simply said, “We have decided to go with another candidate.” Raskin says that if this happens, you should definitely follow up by asking for feedback—that’s the only way you’re going to know how you can improve in future interviews: “The best way to phrase this is, ‘Thank you for letting me know that I didn’t get the position. Can you let me know what one or two things I can do better during the interview process that will help me land a job?’ It opens the door for the interviewer to give you some feedback without hurting your feelings.”
All images courtesy of iStock.