College Seniors: Do These 11 Things to Graduate With a Job

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By Laura McMullen

After you teetered and fell a few hundred times as a baby, you took your first steps as a toddler. After you practiced your English nouns and verbs in elementary school, you pored over Spanish homework in middle school. After you packed up the academic and personal lessons of high school -- along with your extra-long twin sheets -- you ventured off to college.

And after this year of college, you'll take another step toward the unknown. But this time you're not entering another phase of school -- you're beginning the rest of your life. "It's not just a thought in the future," says Debbie Kaylor, director of the Career Center at Boise State University in Idaho. "It's: 'ohmygosh what am I going to be doing one year from now when I don't have the security of college?' "To help you answer that question, add the following classes to your senior year course load:

Introduction to Storytelling

1. Get specific. Simply wanting "an engineering job" when you graduate doesn't cut it anymore. What kind of engineering do you want to pursue, in what kind of role? What companies interest you, and where do you want to live? Kat Clowes, author of the new book "Put College to Work: How to Use College to the Fullest to Discover Your Strengths and Find a Job You Love Before You Graduate," says students should map out specific goals and plans early, "so they know what they need to do tomorrow in order to make that happen at the end of the year."

Kaylor adds that this step is particularly important for students pursuing humanities or liberal arts degrees, which don't always yield linear career paths. Fortunately, on-campus career centers can help point students in the right direction with assessment tests, informational interviews and other resources.

2. Fill your gaps. Now that you have a solid idea of the career you want to pursue, take a look at your skills, strengths and weaknesses. Where do you need to step up? One way to tell is by reading through entry-level job postings for the positions you're targeting and noting which skills and experiences you're missing. "Identify those gaps, so then you have a year to do something about them," Kaylor says. Now is the time to throw in a refresher course in business management, take on a leadership role in your part-time job or fraternity or squeeze in an extra internship or volunteer opportunity.

3. Tell your story. Once you've honed your career goals and have begun rounding out your skills and strengths, work on packaging all that work for employers. As Kaylor puts it: "Tell your story," or articulate what you bring to the job and what skills and experiences you have that make you a perfect fit for the jobs you're pursuing. Keep this story in mind when interviewing and writing cover letters and resumes. (By the way, here's what an entry-level resume should look like.)

Mapping your goals, boosting your skills and articulating your story will help you jump into the job search fully prepared. "Go into it like you're going into battle -- have your plan, know what your skills are, know what your mission is," Clowes says. "It's like you're the hero of your story right now."

Marketing 101

4. Create a LinkedIn profile. Here's the thing about stories: Not many people know about them unless they're published. One of the best places to tell your story is on LinkedIn, so create a profile today. (Get started with this advice for newbie LinkedIn users.) And don't stop with a profile. Connect with your school's faculty, former internship supervisors and other professional contacts, join groups and reach out to alumni. For more guidance, check out students.linkedin.com.

5. Build a website. A simple website can show employers you're tech-savvy and help ​recruiters and employers discover you in a Google search. And your site doesn't have to be anything too fancy, Clowes says -- just something with your basic information, professional experience and samples of work.

6. Scrub your social media profiles. Delete unsavory social media posts, and keep ​profiles clean going forward, Kaylor says. And it's not just the beer-bong ​photos that'll haunt you. Here are the top social media turnoffs, according to Jobvite's 2014 Social Recruiting Survey of more than ​1,800 recruiting and human resources professionals: illegal drug references, sexual posts, spelling and grammar mistakes, profanity, guns and alcohol.

Advanced Networking

7. Create business cards. Sure, business cards may seem a little old-school compared to social networking, but they'll come in handy when you need to make a lasting in-person impression. Keep them "elegant" and simple, Clowes says, with your name, up-to-date contact information and website URL. And before doling them out left and right, read up on the rules of business card etiquette.

8. Join professional organizations. If you've yet to join the professional organizations of your industry, get to it. To pinpoint the best fit, take a whack at a Google search or request the help of career services staff, as well as instructors, ​classmates and alumni in your field.

Take advantage of these organizations' affordable student membership fees, Clowes says, and in return, you'll get access to professional contacts, conferences and networking opportunities. Attend meetups and lectures for expertise you may not get in the classroom. "Being an expert doesn't mean you're Stephen Hawking yet," she says, "But if you know just a little more about a particular area than your classmates, you're going to stand out a lot more in your interviews."

9. Connect with alumni. Your alumni network is the "hidden gem of college," Clowes says, so use it. Your career services staff and alumni association can help connect you with former students who are succeeding in your target industry, role and maybe even company. And now that you're a LinkedIn guru, you can also find them there, by clicking "Find Alumni" under the "Connections" tab of the LinkedIn homepage.

Request informational interviews with these valuable contacts, Kaylor says. During your meetings, don't plead for a job, she urges, but ask direct questions about what the industry is like and what skills are crucial. And those connections you made through your industry organizations? Ask to meet with them, too.

10. Attend job fairs. Your college and community will likely hold job fairs, so partake -- with gusto. "Don't just go and wander around and shove your resume at people," Clowes says. Make a plan, and do your homework. Research the heck out of your target companies represented there, and personalize resumes and cover letters to give them. Dress in business attire, and practice telling that story you honed.

11. Get personal. Give every connection you make a personal touch. Customize your resume and cover letters for every job you apply to; personalize LinkedIn invitations instead of sending the generic template; and, after graduating, ​keep in touch with instructors and other people who've helped you along the way.

Oh, and send thank-you notes to everybody -- hiring managers who took the time to hear your story, alumni who shared their insight and industry connections who pointed you in the right direction.

Yes, this is extra credit, which is exactly why most of your peers will skip these steps, and you'll be ahead of the game. As Clowes puts it: "You have to do more than everyone else to give yourself an edge."

Laura McMullen is the Careers editor at U.S. News and was previously a Health + Wellness reporter. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, circle her on Google Plus or email her at lmcmullen@usnews.com.
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