How To Get A Job After College Before you earn your diploma, you need to focus on a different piece of paper: a resume. Here's how to think about what you want to do, and then go out and get a job — maybe even a career.
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How To Get A Job After College

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How To Get A Job After College

How To Get A Job After College

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ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. And I'm Elissa Nadworny, an education reporter. What are you going to do after you graduate? God, yeah, I know - it's seriously the worst question. Some students hear this question super early, like before classes even begin.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now, did everyone know that you are in an exploratory phase of your life?

NADWORNY: Did you? I mean, come on. College is for growing and learning and figuring out a whole bunch of stuff. But these are hard questions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What are your strengths? What are your passions? How do you want to get involved in the community? How do you want to gain experience? How do you want to explore different careers that are out there for you?

NADWORNY: To start to answer some of these questions, students at Grinnell College - a small school in Iowa - they're spending time during orientation to make something called a Wandering Map.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'd like you to flip over your green sheet.

NADWORNY: The idea is to write down a bunch of stuff that they enjoy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How do you use your free time? Like, what type of YouTube videos do you just totally go down a rabbit hole - and then, like, I could just watch these for hours?

NADWORNY: And once you write all the stuff down, then you draw lines to demonstrate the connections. You're looking for themes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And it's a way for you to reflect on your story up to this point.

NADWORNY: In this episode, we'll help you reflect on your story. We've got tips for how to think about what you want to do and then go out and actually get a job, maybe even a career. And look. I get it. It took a lot to get to this point. I mean, you got into college after all. And if you're about to graduate, woo. But it's just kind of assumed, like, yeah, sure, you'll get a job when you're done.

KELCEI WILLIAMS: My career ideas would change all the time. Like, I was never 100% set on what I really wanted to do and what I would be good at.

NADWORNY: We'll hear from a student who changed directions. Like so many young people, she thought she was on a pretty clear path.

DAVE EVANS: You're doing that stuff they told you you should do since you were 6. You did all that stuff, you know, and then it's supposed to be great. Just do all these things. That'll be great. And now you're suddenly graduating. And like, where's great? I thought this thing was coming in a box, and it's not showing up. And then you suddenly realize they didn't even really tell you how to make that transition at all. And now it's upon you. It's really scary.

NADWORNY: But it doesn't have to be scary. Figuring out what you want to do can actually be really exciting. This episode of NPR's LIFE KIT is not just for college students. The advice can be used for anyone - if you're looking for a new job or if you're switching careers. More after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: So let's jump in. Takeaway No. 1 - start early. Most campuses have career services. It's usually staffed with advisors to help you through all this stuff. But so many students - they wait until their junior or senior year to wander in.

MARK PELTZ: Perhaps when the students feel a sense of urgency.

NADWORNY: That's Mark Peltz, who leads the career center at Grinnell, the small college in Iowa.

PELTZ: Maybe they're heading home to confront family on what they have or have not been doing in terms of preparing for what comes next.

NADWORNY: Mark says, by then, you may have missed a whole bunch of opportunities. Certain jobs hire in the fall, so if you wait until right before graduation, you may be too late. There are also internships and fellowships that are only available for current students, so the earlier you learn about those, the better.

The other thing is what you do professionally - it can be completely different from what you study in college. So starting early allows you time to meander a bit, to ask questions like, what do I like? What brings me joy?

PELTZ: If you're just starting to examine those questions, you know, 60 days before you graduate, that's a pretty rapid timeline (laughter) to cover a lot of ground.

NADWORNY: So if you're listening, and you're, like, oh, snap, this is my final year - or I'm graduating this semester - don't worry. It's better now than never. And look. You're listening to this guide, so you're basically already doing it.

Takeaway No. 2 - study yourself. Use your own life as data. You don't have to guess when it comes to what you enjoy. You can actually just observe yourself and gather insights.

PELTZ: You got to really start with you. You got to take stock of who you are, you know, what matters to you.

NADWORNY: When I was struggling in my career, a friend recommended a book that totally changed how I viewed my job, and it helped me reframe what I wanted to do. It's called "Designing Your Life," and it's based on a class at Stanford University.

Dave, hi. I am such a big fan of the book.

EVANS: Good morning. This must be Elissa.

NADWORNY: Dave Evans co-wrote the book, and he still teaches the Designing Your Life class at Stanford. The class and the book - they're a way to answer these questions. It's all trying to get to how to know what you want to do.

EVANS: So in design thinking, we build our way forward. You start with curiosity. You got to at least begin with what you know. You've got to begin with you.

NADWORNY: To do this, Dave suggests an activity called the Good Time Journal.

EVANS: Each day, at the end of the day, you sit down and you jot down all the key activities you did. And then you just annotate your engagement and your energy, how involved. Did it have your attention?

NADWORNY: Do this for a month. Or if that's too long, a week or two will do. Evaluate everything - your classes, walking your dog, reading articles on Facebook, even your part-time job - everything. This becomes your empirical evidence. That's information you gather by observing and experimenting. It's actually part of the scientific method.

EVANS: You know, when I'm doing the Good Time Journal, what am I doing? I'm trying myself out. I'm observing myself being me and taking notes on how that's working.

NADWORNY: Love the Good Journal. I've done it myself. It works. It's so helpful...

EVANS: Yep.

NADWORNY: ...In kind of figuring out what you like and what you don't like and how to cut down on stuff you don't like.

EVANS: Right. I'm not sitting on the couch thinking about me. I'm watching me do stuff.

NADWORNY: When you're done with the Good Time Journal, you'll have a better sense of you - what you like, what drains you and therefore what you should avoid. And it goes beyond just the subject or field. It's really about, how do you want to spend your time? Because most jobs, they take up a big part of your life. The other thing - you can do this Good Time Journal more than once. If you have a summer job or an internship between semesters, try it then because figuring out what you want to do is an ever-evolving process. Mark Peltz from Grinnell - he's actually used the Good Time Journal, and other similar journaling exercises, on himself and his students.

PELTZ: It's not static. It's not like you just, you know - it doesn't fall out of the sky. It's an active, participatory process.

NADWORNY: Once you have a sense of you, it's time to turn outward to explore what's out there. So takeaway No. 3 - do your homework. Research, research, research.

PELTZ: The opportunities are vast, and some of the things that today's graduates are going to be doing don't even exist yet, right?

NADWORNY: This phase is all about exploring based on what you're into and how you like to spend your time. This is where you start to research current jobs out in the world. You can start with the Internet.

PELTZ: What are people in this field reading? What professional associations do they belong to? How can you become more savvy into what's going on, into these fields that are intriguing to you?

NADWORNY: And it's not just reading about all this stuff. Actually go try some of it out. Instead of crafting a to-do list, Mark encourages Grinnell students to develop a try-stuff list to test their ideas, gather more info and clarify what they want to do. Dave from Stanford says this can take many forms. It can be a job shadow. It can be going to a lecture or a presentation on campus. It can be a hands-on class.

EVANS: It can be a ride-along. It can be a visit. It can be a small project. Think of really cheap, fast, dirty, little ways to go try something out.

NADWORNY: Dave also suggests using your time in class to explore things you might like to do. You are paying the school to further advance your development after all.

EVANS: Take any class you're currently working on that includes some paper you have to write or some project you have to do and find a way to cleverly manipulate that project into getting college units for finding out what it is you want to find out about the outside world and talking to those people.

NADWORNY: A little double dipping, if you will.

EVANS: Totally double dipping, I mean, absolutely.

NADWORNY: For example, when Dave was a senior, he got three credits in an engineering class for planning his summer.

EVANS: I was inspired by the book "Travels With Charley."

NADWORNY: He had just finished John Steinbeck's tale of his cross-country road trip.

EVANS: I was an engineering student, and we had to do this big project as the final, you know, course requirement.

NADWORNY: So for this project, he did all the research for his own Steinbeck-like adventure, including redesigning a van for travel and a detailed map of the trip.

EVANS: So that's the kind of thing you want to do - manipulate your college into maximizing that for you. So get some credit for this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: Do you remember what it was like trying to figure out how to get a job?

STACEY HARRIS: I remember that it felt like there was a lot of information coming at me, and yet I wasn't sure how to decipher that information.

NADWORNY: Stacey Harris works with young adults at community colleges in New York City, part of a program called Year Up, an organization that get students ready for internships and careers. Many of the students she sees have retail and food services on their resumes.

HARRIS: For us, it's really just about taking that - taking what they already know, taking those experiences and helping them to kind of reframe that in a way that it is going to be understood by the corporations for whom they want to work.

NADWORNY: So that's our takeaway No. 4 - tell your own story. There are a couple ways to do this. And the first is all about the spin. You're essentially translating what you've done and who you are for others.

HARRIS: You have more experience than you think, and it's just about reframing that in the right language.

NADWORNY: Stacey says you can do these translations for all types of jobs. Let's say you've worked answering phones or in customer service.

HARRIS: It comes with experience in deescalating difficult situations. It comes with experiences of having to work with colleagues to figure out what your shifts are going to be for the following week.

WILLIAMS: Hi, my name is Kelcei Williams, and life before Year Up was me just working between food and retail services.

NADWORNY: Kelcei did the Year Up program while working her way through an associate's degree at Northern Virginia Community College. Before she started, she worked at Lowe's Home Improvement Center and Dunkin' Donuts. She thought she'd be doing retail for a long time. Now she wants to be a software engineer.

WILLIAMS: As someone who's going in to a more technical profession, I had to be able to speak on things I didn't really think about, that I did in passing like running diagnostic checks on register terminals, any of the software that I had to manage and utilize.

NADWORNY: Those were all parts of her job working at Lowe's. And in addition to the concrete things, her time spent serving coffee and helping customers gave her a bunch of transferable skills. She works well with people. She's a team leader. She learns fast. And she can solve problems on the spot. The story that you tell is also on a piece of paper. It's called your resume, and it lists a lot of your experiences. But you don't have to just put things down that you were paid to do. Here's Mark from Grinnell.

PELTZ: Some of your most relevant, meaningful experiences might come from other parts of your life.

NADWORNY: You can put a club that you led or research opportunities you did or maybe your volunteer gig. Just keep the document easy to read and uncluttered.

PELTZ: Remember, resumes are scanned, so making sure that it has a clear layout and design is really important.

NADWORNY: You will probably also want more than one resume. So Stacey from Year Up says keep a version that's easy to change, like, in Google Docs.

HARRIS: It's important for you to do a lot of drafts or iterations of your resume. Your resume should always be changing based off of the experience that you're getting.

NADWORNY: And as you get more experience and you're applying to different jobs, you'll be updating and editing it. During that time, don't be afraid to get feedback. You can ask your friends or professors to look it over. You can also bring your resume to the career service center on campus. They can help you make sure the document is free of spelling errors or weird formatting.

Another important way to tell your story is the elevator pitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: Yeah, whenever you're ready.

HARRIS: Awesome. Yeah, sure. So my name is Stacey Harris.

NADWORNY: An elevator pitch is basically a mini-story of who you are and what you want to do. The name comes from the idea that if you ran into someone in an elevator, you'd be able to do a proper and thorough introduction of yourself by the time the elevator ride finished. We asked Stacey from Year Up to give us hers and explain the parts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: I am the associate director of the career immersion program at Year Up in New York and New Jersey.

So in your elevator pitch, you always want to make sure that you're starting by introducing yourself with your name because this is, you know, for a stranger. You also want to make sure that you are talking a little bit about kind of your history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: I have about 10 years of professional experience in education and workforce development and non-profit work...

Telling a little bit about your current work...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: ...Helping to connect young adults with positive and strong career opportunities.

Also talk a little bit about your goals for the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: I am hoping that in the future I can expand the Year Up program for which...

It allows you to be able to then talk about that with the person that you've just met. The idea is that this is the beginning of a conversation that you can have with anyone.

NADWORNY: Once you've figured out what to say, practice, practice, practice. Try telling a friend or a classmate. Say it out loud in front of a mirror. You can even write down some bullet points and read it the first couple times until it becomes natural and you can easily fill in the blanks.

HARRIS: A couple of my students have actually hopped into an elevator with me just to practice their elevator pitch as if I was a stranger.

NADWORNY: It can be a little weird to talk about ourselves. Like, who are we? We don't have a story. But everyone has a story and maybe, more importantly, most humans - they love stories. Here's Dave Evans.

EVANS: We are story-making machines. We now understand in this era of neurophysiological research that your mind is a story-maker and your memory management system is narratively organized.

NADWORNY: And if you've collected data on yourself through the Good Time Journal or through the Wandering Map like the students at Grinnell, at this point, you should have a pretty good understanding of what you like and what you're interested and curious about. Plus, you've done all that research, so you actually are knowledgeable about the fields you're interested in.

EVANS: You can't tell a story unless you're reflecting on your life in a meaningful way - and here's what I'm learning, and here's what I'm curious about, and here's what I've noticed is going on. Hey, what are you noticing?

NADWORNY: Did you hear that right at the end? Here's what I'm noticing. What are you noticing?

EVANS: Hey, what are you noticing?

NADWORNY: Dave is making the story, the elevator pitch, incorporate the person he's delivering it to. And, actually, he'd prefer that we call these elevator pitches elevator conversations because it's not just something you memorize and deliver. It's an open door to a conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: OK. So here's takeaway No. 5 - look to the future and hit send. OK. Basically, do a ton of informational interviews. These are conversations where you can gather more information about specific jobs, what they're like, and if you'd like to do them. You can also learn about how people arrived at those jobs. It's basically taking your research to the next level. You can ask, who are the people in the world that are doing interesting things? And then you go talk to them.

EVANS: It turns out there are people today who are living in the future you're imagining now, and you can get closer to what that future is like by getting in front of them. And you're not asking them for money. You're not asking them for a job. You're asking them for the story.

NADWORNY: Once you get that story, Dave says, go out and get more. One easy way to do this is to have your last question be, who else should I talk to? In his experience, people are looking for a connection. And who doesn't love being flattered?

EVANS: You think you're fascinating. I think you're fascinating.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

EVANS: We agree. We should get together and share that common interest. Just tell me all about the fascinating illicit.

NADWORNY: You know, when you put it like that, I would do tons of informational interviews.

EVANS: You know, most people's favorite thing is themselves and what they're doing. And if you're genuinely interested, if you can bring genuine curiosity, go for it.

NADWORNY: So one thing to keep in mind here, sure, people like to be flattered. But they're also busy, so be specific. You don't want to just blanket email a bunch of people because you can. You want to have a goal. Think about what you're trying to get from each person you talk to. Is it to understand the path of how they got to where they are now? Is it about information on a current job posting? You want to be transparent and genuine about your curiosities and your interests. I asked Mark from Grinnell, how do you actually go about doing this?

What do you say in your email? Like, that's kind of scary. Do people actually, like, want to take the time and talk with you?

PELTZ: (Laughter) I think so. I'm talking to you.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

PELTZ: No, I...

NADWORNY: Because I can seem daunting, right?

PELTZ: Oh, absolutely. Right? There's that - there's the five seconds of fear before you hit the send button. You know, it's a pretty low-risk endeavor. Worst-case scenario, maybe they don't respond. The best-case scenario is they do respond, you have an amazing conversation.

NADWORNY: Kelcei Williams, the student in Virginia, she struggled a lot with confidence and she wasn't sure quite what she wanted to do. So when she was told to email a bunch of strangers about herself, she was a bit skeptical.

WILLIAMS: Reaching out to these connections, I did feel a bit intimidated because I'm being encouraged to reach out to people that I've never laid eyes on before, I've never spoken with before.

NADWORNY: But everyone kept telling her you have to.

WILLIAMS: I had to get over that. I had to buckle down and just reach out because I had the resources. I had the tools.

NADWORNY: And it worked.

WILLIAMS: So when I went for it, every connection that I met, they've always been so helpful and genuine and caring.

NADWORNY: She also tries to send thank-you notes after she meets with people. Handwritten is lovely but not necessary. An email will work, too.

WILLIAMS: That can go a long way to keep you in consideration. It makes you stand out more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: OK. So sometimes talking to all these people, swapping stories, can lead to a new opportunity, even a job. And other times, you'll just have to apply or send an email without a conversation. For that process, it's helpful to do takeaway No. 6 - study up on business etiquette.

HARRIS: There are norms for any environment and any occasion, but business norms are really specific.

NADWORNY: Ah, the good old business norms. The truth is there are lots of different workplaces with different rules, but since you won't actually know those nuances until you spend time in the office, it's best to proceed with caution. Here are some of Stacey's tips.

HARRIS: One of the first things that we have our young adults do if they do not already have it is to create a more professional email address.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: So say goodbye to bubblegum123. Mine was actually clikk1234 with two K's, like, spelled incorrectly - so weird. Instead, you want an address that has your name, and if you can't get that one, you can try a few numbers afterwards. Then there's the subject line, an underutilized and oh-so-important part of an email. Be short and put important stuff first, and definitely don't leave it blank. For example, if you're emailing an alum of your college, you can include the name of your college in the subject line, so you're basically signaling that you have a connection.

HARRIS: The subject line should tell you what's coming in the email. So your subject line is a little bit like a title if you are writing a paper, and it is a summary of what the email is going to be about.

NADWORNY: In the body of the email, she says to start with a greeting, and always end with your signature that includes your name and how to reach you. If you have a website or a LinkedIn profile, you can put it down there. Beware of spelling errors, and make sure to use proper capitalization. In Stacey's Year Up class, she has students write emails that are timed just to practice being efficient. They also practice handshakes - not too hard, not too soft - and they curate their social media presence.

HARRIS: Your social media is certainly a part of you and of your brand, and so you would want to curate that in the same way that you curate your professional appearance, your dress, how you speak to others in person, et cetera.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: Kelcei Williams, the community college student in Virginia, she just finished up an internship at Capital One. She's now much more confident, and she says her mom brags about her successes to her friends. Kelcei offers this piece of advice.

WILLIAMS: You don't have to have it all figured out, despite what pressure you may feel. You have time. And this is my personal issue - stop doubting yourself. Go for it.

NADWORNY: And remember Dave Evans' advice - don't despair.

EVANS: You are nowhere near alone. You can do this. And it'll take a little bit of time and a little bit of energy, but all you need is your curiosity and some sincerity, and you can get there from here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: OK. So now it's time for a recap. Takeaway No. 1 - start early. Say hello to career services. You can be thinking about this from the beginning. Takeaway No. 2 - study yourself. You don't have to guess when it comes to what you enjoy.

PELTZ: You got to take stock of who you are and what matters to you.

NADWORNY: Takeaway No. 3 - do your homework. Research, research, research. Takeaway No. 4 - such a good one - tell your own story.

HARRIS: You have more experience than you think, and it's just about reframing that in the right language.

NADWORNY: Takeaway No. 5 - look to the future and hit send. Basically, do a bunch of informational interviews.

EVANS: Most people's favorite thing is themselves and what they're doing. And if you can be truly curious, go for it.

NADWORNY: And finally, No. 6 - study up on business etiquette.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got a guide on friendship, including one about how to maintain friendships over big life changes like college or a new job. If you like what you hear, make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. Then while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming out every month on all sorts of topics. And here, as always, is a completely random tip. This time, it's from LIFE KIT producer Sylvie Douglis.

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: If you ever make too much guacamole, which debatable if that's a thing, put the leftover guac in an airtight container, tamp it down a little bit, pour about 1/2 an inch of water on top, and then put it in the fridge. And then when you're ready for more, just pour off the water, give it a little stir and it'll be good.

NADWORNY: If you've got a good tip or you want to suggest a topic, email us at lifekit@npr.org. I'm Elissa Nadworny. Thank you for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: Study yourself. You own life - use your own life - you - you do own life. That's another takeaway. That's for a different LIFE KIT.

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