Five tips for job seekers

Whenever we post an available job at Collegewise, it’s humbling how many smart, likeable people take the time to apply.  We never take it for granted how lucky we are in that way.  But we also see a surprising number of applicants who make the same mistakes.  Looking for a job is never easy or fun.  You deserve to give yourself the best chance of getting hired.  So here are a few tips I hope will help, whether you’re looking for a job here at Collegewise or someplace else.

1. Get the details right. 

It doesn’t matter how qualified you are—if your resume has typos, or you misspell the name of the company, or you forget to switch out the company name from the last cover letter you sent, you just look careless. Details matter, especially when people are sizing you up.  Kevin Costner explains this well to his pitcher played by Tim Robbins in Bull Durham:


Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.”

It’s OK to be funny, to be irreverent, and maybe even to take some liberties with your language (at least for us).  But you’ve got to get the basics right.  Proofread everything.  Make sure you spell the company name right.  Grammar and punctuation are important even if you personally couldn’t care less whether someone uses “your” or “you’re.”   And read aloud what you’ve written to make sure it makes sense.

2. Follow instructions. 

Good companies want people who show initiative.  But that doesn’t mean you should ignore instructions, especially when looking for a job.  This is one of the basic attention-to-detail things you’ve got to get right. Read the instructions before you fire off your resume, call, or just show up unannounced to inquire.  What are they asking you to do?  What materials are they requesting?  Don’t decide that you’ve got a better or more impressive way to take the first step.  Show them first that you can follow instructions.  There are other places you can dazzle them with initiative.  Which brings me to #3…

3.  Don’t play the numbers—play matchmaker.

I understand why applying for jobs can feel like a numbers game where the more resumes you send out, the better your chances of getting hired.  But that’s like going on and sending an identical email to 100 different people hoping to find your soul mate.  Sure, you might get a great match that way if you’re lucky.  But your odds improve if you narrow the field and become more personal.

Instead of sending the same generic cover letter and resume to 50 companies, why not be a matchmaker?  Pick the 5 or 10 jobs or organizations that you’re most interested in and focus your efforts there.  Take the initiative to learn everything you can about the organization and the position.  Learn about their mission, products and what they do.  Learn about the people who work there.  Make your cover letter personal, one that the company knows you wrote just for them.  Spend your time communicating the match, not just playing the numbers.  Sure, it might take more time.  But applying generically will get you a generic job.  You deserve better than that.

4. Get rid of “resume-speak.”

Too many resumes are loaded with resume-speak like “Initiated and cultivated relationships with various product teams.”  Resume-speak tries to make something sound impressive.  But it doesn’t say anything.  It takes what might have been interesting and hides it behind jargon and buzzwords.  So don’t use it.  Instead, be clear and direct.  Tell them what you did, how you did it and what impact you made by doing it.  I don’t care if the job doesn’t sound classically impressive.  There are no insignificant roles. If you worked hard and did a good job, be proud of what you did and don’t hide behind resume-speak.

5. Don’t ignore the cover letter.

This is an extension of the matchmaking tip, but it’s important enough to mention here. Cover letters are important.  Don’t relegate yours to a bland introduction you re-use over and over.  Nobody in the history of job-searching stood out by writing, “I seek a challenging position such as this one where I can utilize my various talents” in their cover letter.  A great cover has a voice.  It’s got some oomph.  So put some personality behind your writing.  Don’t write the same bland lines everybody else is writing. Make yours stand out.  I’m not saying you should necessarily write a haiku or anything.  But there’s no reason an interesting person should submit a boring cover letter.

Don’t try to learn about admissions this month

This month, the majority of seniors will hear their admissions news. For freshmen, sophomores and juniors, this is when you'll hear people making bold declarations about how and why students did or didn't get in.  It will sound like this:

"He got in because he wrote a great essay."

"He got rejected because he didn't take AP Calculus."

"She got in because of her SAT Verbal score."

"She got rejected because she got a 'C' freshman year."

"He got in because he picked 'forestry' as his major."

"He got rejected because he didn't do full IB."

"She got in because her dad is an alum."

"She got rejected because too many kids from our school applied." 

When you hear those statements, remember that most of the people making them have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. 

The only people who really know why a student did or did not get in are the admissions officers who read the file and ultimately made the decision.  A high school counselor is sometimes privy to that information, too.  But most other people didn't see the file.  They didn't read the essays.  They didn't see the letters of rec, or sit in on the interview, or hear the conversation between the admissions officers who decided.  

So don't try to learn about admissions this month.  Or, at least don't try to learn about it from the wrong people.  Even admissions officers themselves can't always point to one factor that got a student in or kept him out.  This is a complicated process, one that sometimes defies explanation to outside observers. 

If you learn anything this month, notice that just about all of those kids got in somewhere.  And while you're at it, learn from all the college freshmen who come home for spring break just how much they love college, even those who didn't get into their first choice.

Find out how they got there

Here's a good way to learn more about colleges, majors, and the many paths that can lead to being successful. 

Pick five people who are doing something you find interesting–writing, video game design, sports management, whatever.  If you don't know or can't think of specific people, pick a company that does something interesting to you, visit their website, and find the names of five people who seem to be doing important jobs there. 

Then find out how they got there.

Read their bios.  Google them and find out where they went to college, what they majored in, and what jobs they had before they got here. Connect the dots from where they started and where they are now.

I think you'll find two things:

1.  The line is very rarely straight. 

Most successful people didn't create a scripted 10-year plan to get there.  They got there by working hard and making the most of opportunities that presented themselves along the way.  If you're struggling to name your intended major or career, you might find it encouraging to see successful people who could never have predicted at age 18 what they would eventually do with their lives. 

2.  There isn't a lot of correlation between how successful they are and the relative prestige of their colleges.  

Parents: How do your conversations about college make your family feel?

It's good for families to talk about college.  But be mindful of what you actually talk about when the subject comes up.

If your family often talks about what an exciting time this is, how many great colleges there are, how much your student is doing right, and what an amazing four years your son or daughter is almost certain to have at whatever college is lucky enough to be the one, the conversations will probably make your family feel pretty good.

But all your family talks about are perceived SAT score deficiencies and whether or not a tutor might help eek out an A in trig, if you constantly compare your student to other students and worry about how you'll address his or her weaknesses, if you talk incessantly about whether or not Stanford or Princeton or Georgetown will say yes, your conversations are going to make everyone in the family feel bad.

If all your talk about college just makes the family even more stressed, you don't have to change the subject.  You just have to change what you're saying about it.

Does your high school have a “drop” option?

At most colleges, students can jump in and try a course for a week or two to see if they like it.  If they decide they don't want to take it for any reason, they can "drop" it, meaning they officially drop out of the class.  As long as they do so within the specified limit of the trial period, there are no negative ramifications on their academic records.

It might be worth asking your counselor if your high school has a policy like this (or if a counselor/teacher might allow you to avail yourself of it).  For example, if you're picking classes for next year and you're unsure about AP Chemistry, honors trig, or whether you can really handle an extra class before school, ask your counselor if it's possible to drop the class within a limited time without hurting your record.  If you can, jump in with reckless abandon and see what happens.

It's much better to ask about the option before you begin the course, rather than asking once you get a C- on your first exam.

How to make peace with the college admissions process

As college decisions begin to arrive in the next few months, some students are going to feel that they weren't treated fairly, that other seemingly less qualified students were admitted instead of them. 

It's important to accept that the system of college admissions–deciding who gets in and who does not–is not perfect.  The same can be said of job interviews, first dates, and just about anything else meant to size up complex human beings based on limited information.  This isn't the hundred yard dash where whoever runs the fastest is the clear winner. 

But remember two things.

1.  Every admissions officer I've ever met works very hard to be fair and thorough when they evaluate students.  They believe applicants should be treated with respect and they never make any decision lightly.  While it might feel bitterly personal when they say no, it really isn't. 

2.  Just as most qualified work seekers still end up with jobs and good people still end up in relationships, nice kids who work hard still get into college.  It may or may not be your first choice, but you'll almost certainly get to go somewhere.  

Another reminder for seniors

For seniors, whether you're scheduling a college interview, reserving spaces for a reception a college is holding locally, making arrangements for a campus visit, or even just calling the admissions office with a question, please remember one thing…

Don't let your parents do it for you.  You should be doing these things yourself.  Colleges will notice. 

And parents, unless you're making an inquiry about financial aid (which is fair game for parents to take on), don't hijack these jobs from your kids.  Let them find their own way and show both you and the colleges that they're mature enough to handle these administrative tasks themselves.   

Why seniors and their parents shouldn’t worry

Colleges are making admissions decisions now.  Some early returns have already arrived.  But most seniors will learn the rest of their news in the next 3-6 weeks.  So, exactly how much time should those seniors and their parents spend worrying about it?

None, if they can swing it.

I'm not suggesting you should be indifferent.  But worrying about whether or not your dream college is going to say, "Yes" doesn't do you any good.  If you spent all day every day from now until the decision arrives worrying about it, wishing and wanting a particular outcome, you won't do a single thing to influence the result.  So why do it?  How will all that worrying improve your life?  How many other more productive, positive things could you spend your time thinking about?

Almost everything you did before you applied to college was in your control.  But after you submit your applications, you're no longer in charge.  The most successful students accept that what happens from here is out of their hands.  They'll spend their time dreaming about how great college is going to be, how much they're going to learn and how much fun they're going to have no matter where they go. 

And if their dream school says, "No," they'll bounce back much faster because they didn't spend all their time leading up to the decision attaching themselves to one particular outcome.

A new way to look at senioritis

There's a great exchange in the movie Office Space that goes like this:

Michael Bolton: "You were supposed to come in on Saturday. What were you doing?"

Peter Gibbons: "Michael, I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be."

I completely understand why so many of today's college-bound seniors wish they could morph into the high school version of Peter Gibbons.  You're tired.  You've done the AP classes, SAT prep, college applications, activities, essays, and everything else you're supposed to do to get into college.  You really want nothing more than just to relax and do less, maybe even do nothing.  I think you deserve that luxury.  But you know you just can't do it quite yet. 

Every year, some seniors let the party start too early and end up with one or more of their grades plummeting.  When that happens, the colleges that have admitted you reserve the right to take back their offers of admission.  Then you have to find a new college to go to.  It's an awful experience.  

So here's my senioritis proposal.  Just delay it a little bit.  Keep working for another semester, but plan a summer of senioritis, one in which you carve out three months to do whatever you'd like to do.  

I'm not saying you necessarily should do nothing for the entire summer.  But you could make your summer what YOU wanted it to be.  You could get a part-time job with your friends, play guitar in your band, read a few trashy romance novels and still sleep until noon two days a week when you don't have to work.  You could take a road trip with your friends.  You could finally join that rec basketball league at the gym and just play for fun.  You could rent the DVDs for your favorite TV show you never had time to watch and view the entire second season in one weekend.

Having the summer off is nothing new.  But what I'm suggesting is that you look at this summer as your reward for everything you did to earn the right to go to whatever college is lucky enough to get you next fall.  It will give you an extra something to be excited about and help you finish strong in this one final semester of high school.

Every college in the universe wants its freshmen to show up wide awake and eager to get started on their college careers.  One of the best ways to do that is to catch a serious case of senioritis this summer.