Student Job Searches: Get Real Fast

I talk with students almost every day about their career goals and job searches. One of the main points I make is to be honest with yourself about what you really want and what you can really get. I see too many people squander opportunities because they either aren’t looking hard enough and/or they keep barking up the wrong tree for far too long.

So, build a plan and work it hard!

This will be another “get real” post. (Which is different from “don’t dream” or “don’t reach”). We’ll walk through some high level considerations, lay out a framework for thinking through a game plan in this post and then walk through a few case studies in a my next post.

The Specific Challenges for Students

Everyone looking for work and seeking a career faces similar issues, but the context in school is challenging in several specific ways (particularly in b-school).

Reality 1: Your timeline is fixed. You won’t change your graduation date or when summer internships happen. Stated differently, you’re accelerating to a brick wall from day 1.

  • Hidden Reality: You are unemployed, so are hugely influenced by the job cycle in your graduation year.
  • Hidden Reality: You have less time than you think to make some preliminary decisions. Some MBAs are earning internships in Oct/Nov for their summer. (At 3M, I made offers to certain high potential candidates at summer conferences before they even started school.) For undergrads, sophomore year internships are increasingly important.

Reality 2: You are in a pool of talented people looking for the same types of opportunities. So the competition can be intense.

  • Hidden Reality: Because you’re inexperienced, you can easily misunderstand the competition and how it is being judged. For example, a higher GPA probably doesn’t trump someone else’s 5 years of related work experience. GPA for many firms matters, but only as gate criteria. So find out what matters to recruiters.

Reality 3: It’s YOUR search. Counselors want to help. But it’s not their job to motivate you. It’s their job to help refine your skills. The responsibility for drive and follow through is with the candidate.

  • Hidden Reality: School career centers are set up to drive volume in placement. This means they tend to focus on recruiters who hire similar profiles in bulk and “traditional” career paths. They’ll help unconventional candidates where they can, but that’s not their target audience.

Reality 4: There’s an inherent herd mentality. It can be hard to figure out what you think when all everyone talks about is their career, offers etc. It’s like an echo chamber. It can be easy to slip into the group mentality if you don’t have strong convictions.

The Traditional vs. “Off-road” Search

It’s important to understand the type of search you’re engaging in so you can plan appropriately. Let’s start with the premise that there are really only two types of searches at the highest level.

Note: These are labeled “traditional” and “off-road” based on where you are. An i-bank is a “traditional” and well documented career path, but maybe not for someone at your school or with your major. So keep the relative comparison in mind.

Traditional – Here you are looking for something that is fairly common given your situation. A good hint…If a company holds an information session at your school for the position, it’s conventional. Positions will be posted through the career center. Think “corporate finance”, “brand management”, “investment banking” if you’re at a b-school. There will be published guides for these paths.

Traditional paths are typically competitive, but well documented. The recruiters are well known. There are alumni in the roles at the target companies to talk to. There are clear expectations around timing of recruiting, interview type, salary etc. The key challenges include understanding the process, determining your fit to their profile and then out-competing others in a fairly well defined process. There are a lot of “knowable” things if you simply do a little research.

Off-road – I use the term “off-roading” to describe less conventional searches. Here there is less of (or no) “blazed trail”. If it’s posted at all in your career center, it’s likely below the radar. The path is usually much less clear, there aren’t easy comparisons, alumni mentors or career center references to call on.

You’ll have to network like crazy and put a lot of energy into even figuring out who to talk to. People you meet may not know what to do with an MBA, may not have a position right now…may not even want to talk to you. So you have to learn to be comfortable with a longer, more ambiguous discovery process. From a b-school standpoint, “off-road” could include non-profit management, government, education or industries that don’t typically recruit at your school. It could also include a different location than most graduates from your program go to (eg: Hong Kong if you are in Minneapolis).

Both paths can be exciting and fulfilling. The difference is in the kind of effort and the nature of the competition. And most importantly, in what you want. It’s important early on to suss out early which path you are on. The implications on both your time, activities and required effort are significant.

Are You a “Template” Candidate?

There’s a dirty little secret that most people won’t tell you, companies CAN’T tell you and even most advisors tend to shy away from.

The reality is most recruiters look to recruit a particular “template”. By this I mean there is a profile they strongly prefer based on their experience and needs. It’s critical that you determine if you are the template. If you aren’t your road will be MUCH harder.

Elements of the profile usually include: grades, school, degree, experience (both amount and type), age, diversity considerations (gender, race) and location.

If you aren’t the template, it doesn’t mean you can’t win a position. It just means you will have to outperform or really impress on most or all of the elements that you can influence.

It’s important to understand early if you aren’t the template so you can both manage your own expectations as well as prepare to compete most effectively on the dimensions you can control.

For example, you are the age you are. It won’t change. But if you are younger than normal, you can make sure to dress and act maturely and show a command of the subject matter more typical of someone older. Similarly, if you are older than normal, don’t wear clothes that accentuate it and be sure to speak smartly to business topics in a way that show understanding of current trends.

To be clear, this is about “odds” and “risk management”. Sometimes “template” candidates lose to non-template candidates, but they usually don’t. (There’s a reason there’s a template!)

So How Do I Develop My Plan of Attack?

Here’s a breakdown of key questions I propose to help think through your planning. Turn it into a research and personal development plan that you adapt over time.

What do I want? What do I love?
(activities, interests, passions)
What am I (demonstrably) good at?  
What are my personal priorities?
(eg: salary, flexibility, challenge etc.)
What jobs/careers line up with my interests and skills?  
What can I get? Given where I am, what are the “traditional” placement options? Who actively recruits on campus?
Where have a significant number of our alumni gone?
Of those industries and firms, what seems a good fit for my interests and goals? 
Do I look like a “template” candidate?
(If no, how far off am I or can I get over the gap?)
Do any “offroad” or non-traditional opportunities seem compelling? What themes emerge from my interests?
What secondary and primary research do I need to “qualify” themes into actual search parameters?
How will recrutiers see me? (or “am I a template” candidate?) What are the firms I am interested in looking for?
How close or far am I from their “ideal”?
What can I do to influence my experience and the perception of it from this point forward? What school activities could help me explore or reinforce skills and interests?
How do I approach my search? How do I want to prioritize my (limited) time based on the mix of my passions and a hard headed assessment of where I am?  
Given my choices, what is my networking plan?   
What additional preparation do I need for whatever path I choose?
(eg: interview techniques, industry knowledge etc.)

Here are some additional posts that may be helpful:

Figuring out what you want / Networking / Interviewing

Implicit in all this advice is the need to take action. Explore proactively and learn. It’s better to really look hard at something and decide it’s not for you early than to assume it’s what you want until it’s too late to do anything about it. That point comes a bit earlier in school than you may think. So whatever path you pick (and you can explore more than one), really explore it.

I also encourage you to push through difficulties. If you’re really interested in something, you shouldn’t mind talking to 20+ people about it. If that’s a drag then either you aren’t really interested in it or you’re not driven.

In an increasingly competitive world, you need to go compete.

Here is my advice for each profile:

Template Candidate/Traditional Search: Amy Achiever

Non-Template Candidate/Traditional Search: Steve Striver

“Off-road” Search: Bridget Blazer

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