Career Advice For New College Grads: Find Your Hook

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time
2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time
3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better
4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections
2) Think like an employer
3) Find your hook

This fourth post covers the third key career strategy: Find your hook.

Find Your Hook

Anyone who’s been admitted to a selective college is familiar with the notion of finding a “hook”. That’s what separated you from all those with a similar background whom the college chose not to admit. It’s the same for the job search. Like the graduates in Smart Moves, you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.

The more you know about what you want to do, the easier it is to identify a potential hook. It could be a specific skill, like an unusual language. It could be some specialized training or the fact that you started a successful business out of your dorm room. More likely, your hook will be something quite simple, like persistence combined with a winning personality.

Let me give you an example from one of my former students at Brown University: David was a sophomore who was desperate to get a banking internship in London. With limited background in economics, he was really at a disadvantage. But he took my advice and went to England over winter break to talk to alums in London, staying with a family friend to save money. He made good connections and continually followed up but still hadn’t got something nailed down by Spring Break. Finally, he stayed up till 4am one night to catch the alum in her office at 9am. She was so impressed that she offered him the job.

How do you figure out your hook? You need to adopt your potential employer’s point of view and identify ways that you can add value or ways that you can get noticed in a positive way.

Here’s the best news: Even if you have no unusual skills or talents, you can set yourself apart from other graduates and find your hook by doing your homework and following through. Sounds obvious? It is. But it’s amazing how rarely candidates go beyond a cursory glance at a company website, do what they commit to, or take the time to write thank you notes to their interviewers.

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