Student Job Searches: Steve Striver’s Traditional Search

Continuing the series on student searches. This week we’ll talk about Steve Striver, a non-template candidate seeking a traditional position. See my prior search posts for more details: Student Search series: Student Job Searches / Amy Achiever’s Traditional Search / Steve Striver’s Traditional Search / Bridget Blazer’s Off-road Search

Profile: Steve is a “non-template” candidate with a mix of characteristics that make him “imperfect” on paper. It could an “ok” (but not stellar) GPA, a perceived “fluffy” major, unconventional work experience, being a different age than target etc. The more accumulated discontinuities and/or the worse the job market, the tougher the road. We’re not talking about an unemployable candidate. Simply someone with enough question marks in recruiters’ minds that they’d prefer a template candidate.

For sake of this case, let’s call Steve 34 with a liberal arts degree and a non-profit professional background who became enamored with either Finance or a Finance-oriented consulting tracks. His UG GPA was 3.4 as an English major, OK but not great in a field considered “soft” by recruiters in his chosen field. In his favor,  he had outstanding leadership experiences with challenging student organizations and scored a very high 750 GMAT (standardized graduate b-school admissions test) result entering school.

Situation: Steve will not have people seeking him out for his desired path. His academic and professional background don’t clearly indicate either interest or aptitude for his chosen it. Because of this, he will have to really do well (3.8+ GPA?) in his program and actively network to work his way into the consideration set for traditional employers and positions. His choices about activities and classes in school will also be important. He’ll have to show excellent results in “hard”/quant classes.

Key Challenges:

1 – (Perceived?) Lack of Desired Attributes – The reality is that the “template” that established, traditional employers have exists for a reason. There’s a “fit” assessment they are conducting based on experience about what kinds of candidates both do well and stay with the firm. Plus there’s a supply of talent/demand for position dynamic. As mentioned in my last post, when 1000 people apply for 15 spots, the employer can afford to be picky. You can overcome this shortcoming in a number of ways we’ll discuss, but you also have to evaluate the return on effort (ie: do you really want this?)

2 – Clarity of Goals – You’d better have clarity very early about what you want and hit it hard if you are trying to overcome hiring profile issues with a traditional employer. Their processes run on the schedule they run on and you won’t change that. So make sure the bus hasn’t already left the station by the time you decide a ride might be nice. This is particularly important in the most competitive industries (like banking and consulting).

3 – Convincing Firms to Seriously Consider You – If you just submit your resume, you may not even get a look. You HAVE to network extensively. Over coffee with supportive alumni you can both convince someone to support your candidacy and get feedback about a firm’s process. Most of my students who have pushed through at very competitive firms have had significant internal support. Winning this support means not just reaching out, but impressing the alumni. Remember, they’re spending social/career capital to get you a look.

4 – Being Prepared for the Process and Excelling– If you don’t have the expected prior work experience then you have to figure out how to relate your experience in a relevant way to interviewers. If there are case interviews, you need to be fully prepared to nail them. You get the idea. You have to OUTPERFORM other candidates. All things being equal, if you are “equal” to a more conventional candidate, they represent lower risk and will usually (not always) get the nod.

Potential Pitfalls:  

1 – A Slow Start – I hit on this above. You can’t wait to start figuring things out if you are already behind in the race.

2 – Falling Short on One Too Many Criteria – Just because you burn for it doesn’t mean you can get it. Sometimes, you just don’t have the required profile and perceived capability to push through. For Steve, a 3.6 GPA might doom him at consulting firms given his other template inconsistencies, whereas a 3.9 might get him his look based on a “diamond in the rough who’s put it together” storyline.

3 – Overvaluing Networking & Undervaluing Performance – Yes you need to network. But you need to do it well and make positive impressions. You also need to be learning about each industry/firm and their expectations. The candidates in this process that “win” and get offers are fully prepared for interviews and understand the importance of the performance. Remember to fully prepare for recruiting and interview process.

4 – Failing to Really Understand What Recruiters are Looking For – It’s usually different than what you think. All the filter criteria are NOT decision factors in the end. The final pool is all well qualified. Then it’s intangibles like drive, creativity, leadership etc. But you have to meet all the threshold criteria.

5 – Failing to take ownership of process. Expecting the career center or an alum at a target firm to own your process for you is needy and whiny. Own your own plan and process.

6 – Getting Discouraged – If you are trying to push for something hard to get and are starting in a deficit position to other candidates, guess what? It’ll be hard! There will be a number of firms that just won’t talk to you. Others will offer verbal encouragement to be nice, but have no intention of giving you a real look. You’ll get a lot of direct or indirect “no’s”. But as former sales manager of mine used to say, “selling starts at ‘no’!”

If you want it, don’t lose energy or confidence. Grind, improve and keep getting up for the bell. If you don’t get it after giving it your best, then it wasn’t meant to be right now. At least then you know what it took and can go for plan B with few regrets. I find most of my students who are professional and persistent get close to what they wanted.

Best Approach:

Prior to school starting:

You need to have thought about your desired path fairly deeply, as you are starting in a deficit relative to template candidates. You can absolutely outcompete, but not if you stay in the starting blocks too long. Hopefully your application process and the research around it helped you at least name 2-3 paths you are interested in.

Your career center will have at least limited resources. Use them. Even if you are remote and don’t have physical access to the center, get in contact to do a few specific things.

1 – First, have them send you anything they have from last year’s recruiting process. Overviews, guides etc. It’s all good to read and get background. Access to the career center website may be possible and give you initial sense of job descriptions etc.

2 – Set up a meeting with a career coach from your campus. Whether on phone or in person, making contact well before school starts gets you a jump. It also puts a name to a face and creates a positive first impression about you and your drive.  Don’t forget, you’re also competing for attention from school staff.

3 – Do serious preliminary research on your field(s) of interest. It’s not hard to get reasonable smart pretty quickly. For the consultant wanna-be, go to vault.com, Consulting Magazine, the recruiting website of any potential target firm…you get the idea. Generally, get on it and get moving.

This will prepare you for more active engagement when you hit campus.

As school starts:

Steve won’t look too different from Amy Achiever (the template candidate) here. It’s more a matter of emphasis and effort.

In the first weeks and months of school Steve has 4 equally important career search threads to work through (while maintaining a required high GPA).

As with Amy, Steve needs to do all the normal things available to begin the search. Go to career sessions, panel discussions, conferences…anything that helps develop perspective. At most schools (regardless of discipline), traditional employers are present and there are well worn paths to orienting yourself. Initial contacts are particularly important for Steve. He needs early feedback on his profile and what he can do to improve his candidacy as he goes through his program. Initial contacts with recruiters are important, as they allow him to stay in touch, show progress and demonstrate consistent interest.

Next, you have to start building your personal narrative. This includes both form (or HOW you talk about yourself) and content (the choices you make early in school to signal your interests). So, are you talking about yourself the way recruiters in your preferred area talk about candidates? More importantly initially, are you choosing classes and activities that align clearly with your stated interests?

This is particularly crucial for Steve, because he is trying to overcome potential skepticism from recruiters about both his capability and his suitability. The smarter and more polished you can be early in the process the better. Get help from career center coaches. Participate in workshops. Reach out to alumni for insights and practice.

Another area for Steve to be more careful and thoughtful in than Amy is what activities to take on.  Choose carefully. To overcome perceived shortcomings, you need to focus on activities that either A) signal your interest, B) help you understand the opportunity better and/or C) build relevant skills. It’s always better to pick one or two things and do them well than to skim across too many activities.

Finally, Steve needs to develop into a well-oiled interviewing machine. Take every opportunity for feedback on resume, practice interviews etc. As I mention above, you may look great on paper, but you need to confirm people’s positive impression and then outcompete other strong candidates.

As Internship search heats up (Fall into Spring)

Different approach than Amy. Steve may need a transitional position to get experience and “prove it” for any number of reasons. So the internship search may need to include firms that are like your targets, but not necessarily your top choice(s).

For example, when I ran recruiting at 3M SBD there were often candidates we would tell “go find a marketing internship and stay in touch”. We couldn’t hire for summer because they needed more specific marketing or strategy experience to be successful in a quick 10 week internship. But we would consider them for full time the following Fall if they followed through. I can point to several people who made that transition. So think carefully about multi-step moves.

As with Amy, obviously start tracking and reading the literature in your chosen area (ex: Journals, WSJ, trade magazines, blogs etc.) to demonstrate passion, commitment and knowledge.

Determine formal slate of targets and actively network and explore. Students have several inherent advantages; everyone knows you’re looking for a job, you share a common bond with many alumni who are interested in helping you, you have a more flexible schedule than many professionals etc. So take advantage of them.

If you are a Steve, it’s critical to actively listen to feedback about your candidacy. Treasure any direct feedback you get from alums or recruiters about what gaps they perceive in your profile and ideas they have for how to address it. Alums are particularly valuable because they understand your context. They can offer advice about specific classes, clubs and other ideas that relate to your situation.

Make sure to understand (and document) targets’ hiring process, timelines etc. Believe it or not, I have had top students miss application deadlines or other entirely avoidable mistakes. Don’t become a cautionary tale.

Interviewing and Summer Internships I have talked about these before here:

Interviewing / Summer Internships

Summer

If you have taken a position that isn’t your ideal target, make sure to stay in loose touch with your target firms and keep alumni or supporters apprised of your progress and growth. Clear and consistent interest can make a difference in at least getting a serious look.

A word of caution here. I keep saying follow up, stay in touch etc. But I’m assuming you are doing it professionally and not ignoring negative signs or feedback. So don’t be like the Abominable Snow Monster in Looney Toons and love your targets to death! They may not want to be “hugged and squeezed” and “called George”…

Second year search for full time position: Fall

You return to campus in early Fall, internships completed and (hopefully) with offer in hand. Much of the advice is that same as during the internship search, but with a few twists.

The first twist is that for attractive candidates with good internships, a lot of the conventional recruiting is basically done by November. National firms with prestigious programs will complete MOST of their hiring from intern pools. They’ll then swarm on campus to fill in gaps based on need while there are still candidates they like around. Then it’s over. In 2008-9 this varied as hiring was waayyy down, but it’s the case for “normal” markets. So you have to hit it hard, early and with a plan.

Another important twist is that this time through the process, you hopefully have an offer in hand. If so, this means you have a baseline offer and can focus time only on what seems more interesting to you. For many, they can target 1 or 2 firms and be satisfied. Many won’t even look beyond their offer if it’s a knockout and they like the firm. This is a big blessing and hugely narrows your search costs.

Note how much space this opens up for other candidates. Some of the “best” candidates are off the market. It’s like a sports draft. You draft differently in the 4th round than in the 1st. There may still be great value, but candidates in this tier aren’t “perfect” (ie: scores, grades, school, experience etc.) So you can talk your way into great positions. Be sure to find out if any firms handled their summer internships poorly. They will be more hard pressed to hire in Fall for full time and represent a great opportunity for candidates.

Because you now have a summer at a firm under your belt, you also know more. You can use this learning to more effectively target (or re-think) your search. For me, a summer CPG/Brand Management internship helped me cross it off the list. “Consulting, here I come!”

Steve has a higher probablility of things dragging out longer because of his profile. If your search continues into Spring, no worries. There are many firms that don’t have full fledged recruiting engines. They will tend to hire to need and closer to actual start dates. So February thru May can yield some wonderful positions. But these will be a bit more opportunistic and you’ll have to keep your eyes and ears open. So networking and staying on top of developing a pipeline will be critical.

One of my talented “switchers” last year wanted a conventional corporate internal strategy/consulting position. He was definitely a “Steve”. By March, he was getting down because he hadn’t landed anything yet. But critically, he kept seeking feedback and improving his interview and networking skills. It took until early summer, but he landed a well branded, not easy to get, internal consulting position at a very good salary. Attitude and effort matter.

So take a proactive approach and it can all work out! Good luck.

What’d I miss?

Student Search series: Student Job Searches / Amy Achiever’s Traditional Search / Steve Striver’s Traditional Search / Bridget Blazer’s Off-road Search

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