How to Get a Job Out of College
What you don’t learn in the classroom
After brief introductions, we jumped right into it:
“Can you tell me a bit about what interests you about investment banking? Also, what specifically about Piper Jaffray?”
I wasn’t expecting to be asked interview type questions. It was just supposed to be a catch up. Just getting to know each other, or so I thought. Scrambling, I replied:
“Well, my step-dad works with Mike on your private placement team. I’ve heard great things about your company and I’m a finance major, so it made sense to connect.”
My body was suddenly awash with heat and I could feel the thumping of my heart, dutifully preparing a fight or flight response to address this modern threat. But there was no place to flee.
There was a moment of silence on the other line and I could almost visualize my listener thinking aloud: “Uh, that’s it?”
Having immediately realized that I was completely unprepared for a substantive conversation, my ‘interviewer’ changed her tone. She mercifully pivoted towards pleasantries for several minutes. Eventually, a very early knockout was delivered:
“Thanks Alex, I appreciate your time. It sounds like you have some work to do on learning about the industry. Let’s stay in touch and talk again next summer.”
Translated: Dude, really? Come back when you aren’t going to waste my time.
And thus ended my first ever professional interview, which I didn’t even realize was an interview. It was at the end of my junior year. What a disaster.
It wouldn’t be until years later that I would appreciate the magnitude of my screw-up: a coveted investment banking summer internship that would have been a near guaranteed pipeline to full time offer up graduation. One that was handed to me on an exclusive, silver platter from a family connection, no less.
While it was an epic sundering of my self confidence, it was also a much-needed jolt of reality. Indeed, it turned out to be a pivotal turning point in my career journey, one that made me seek skills not found in any classroom.
Fortunately, my story eventually found a happier ending. After getting utterly embarrassed in my opening act, I went through a gauntlet 6–8 months of blood, sweat and tears that culminated with a full-time offer in the hyper competitive investment banking industry. Two years later I was fortunate enough to break into another very competitive finance industry, private equity, by applying a lot of what I learned in the first process.
Along the way I made tons of mistakes, was mentored by thoughtful professionals and learned a lot. It turns out that getting a great job is not rocket science, but does require some good old fashioned commitment and risk taking. Had I relied solely on what I had learned in school, mostly questionably applicable academic material, I wouldn’t have made it very far past my graduation ceremony.
Over the years I’ve developed a framework for thinking about job searches, one that is tightly bound to functional strategies and the realities of the modern workplace. I’d like to share some of that framework, as it’s been tremendously helpful for me and can be applied to almost any job or industry.
What lies ahead
- Reality Check: The Job Market is Zero Sum (Mostly)
- Networking is More Important Than Anything
- Go Cold or Go Home
- Convert: From Connection to Relationship
- Experience is More Valuable than Education
Reality Check: The Job Market is (Mostly) Zero Sum
The first thing you need to understand about getting a great job is that the vast majority of them are essentially zero sum competitions.
That means for you to get a job that many people want, you have to beat someone else for it. This is certainly the case for finance and business, where there is a massive supply of qualified students and a much smaller number of really good open positions.
Adding to this dynamic is the fact that technology is displacing jobs in some industries, including those traditionally viewed as professional services and un-replacable.
Because of the competitive nature of most great jobs, good grades, extracurricular activities, and relevant coursework isn’t going to be enough to ensure success. Thinking that high GPA and leadership experience is going to seal the deal for you? Think again. Those are the table stakes, you need them just to play the game in the first place.
What you should be really asking yourself is: How can I position myself ahead of my competition outside the standard metrics? How can I differentiate? After all, how special is a strong GPA when your employer is looking at a stack of resumes where everyone has a strong GPA? Not special.
Remember: unless you are targeting an industry with really favorable supply/demand dynamics (looking at you software engineers), graduating students are usually a commodity. Employer X, Y or Z doesn’t need or want you until you convince them otherwise. Come ready, play to win and be prepared to articulate your value. It’s the extra stuff that counts.
Networking is More Important Than Anything
The number one mistake college students make by a ridiculous margin is not networking enough. Hands down. That immediately puts it into the “extra stuff” or “differentiating” category.
For many industries, especially those in business, networking is ~70% of the battle in getting a job and you should spend your resources accordingly.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen kids with good academic pedigrees (good GPA, relevant classes, etc.) go nowhere because they haven’t done a lick of networking. ‘A’ students with ‘C’ networking skills will get dominated by ‘B’ or ‘C’ students with ‘A’ networking skills all day long.
At the same time, I know exactly why students don’t like networking: it’s hard. And because it’s hard, we avoid doing it, which deprives us of networking’s practical benefits. But here is the surprising part you may not know: like anything else, it’s actually pretty easy once you get the first few under your belt.
For most of us, including myself, talking to random people we don’t know in formal settings is not something that comes pre-wired. The thought of cold calling some business person or striking up conversation at a networking event can be terrifying for many.
But like all things, practice makes perfect, and I can’t think of a skill that is more universally beneficial than networking and relationship building. What makes networking valuable is that it serves so many functional purposes that support each other.
For example, you might try networking because person A has a job you want. Well, talking with person A also helps you polish your spoken communication skills, an extremely desirable trait for new hires. It also may help you get insider information about the company or industry, which might be valuable in a future interview. Or it might give you access to other professionals in person A’s network who would be valuable connections. The list goes on.
Am I saying ditch everything else and exclusively focus on networking? Of course not. But assuming you’ve taken care of business in the other areas (good grades, relevant experience, etc.) networking is the most important, highest return on investment behavior related to getting a job out of college. It will make the difference when other variables are common across candidates and no longer matter. Tie goes to the networker.
There’s a little framework I created to help explain getting started in networking for beginners: the Three Ring Networking strategy.
The Three Rings of Networking
When you first start networking and are wondering who to reach out to, you might think about approaching it in three phases, or rings.
As a general rule, the closer to the inner ring you are, the easier it is to successfully network with a connection, and vice versa. For example, it’s easier to get your brother to talk to you about his job than your neighbor, right? Talking to your neighbor is probably easier than someone you haven’t met, and so forth.
A successful networking strategy includes attacking all three of these groups, with tailored strategies for each.
Ring One: Starting Network
The first ring is your starting network. They are like belly buttons, everyone has one. Some, naturally, are better than others. Before you start spending time and effort looking for new people to network with, consider who you might already know.
Whether your family owns a dairy farm in Iowa or a bank in Manhattan, you probably know somebody who works in X industry, even if you don’t know it yet (ask around). And if you don’t directly know somebody, it’s likely that mom, dad, sister, brother, uncle, cousin, etc. know somebody. Exhaust family resources first and then move to close friends — these are the people that are most willing to help you.
Another wonderful thing about Ring One connections is that they make for great practice and confidence building. Leading off your networking journey via a casual conversation with your cousin who works as an analyst is a lot easier than a high-stakes call with a business executive or recruiter.
Ring Two: Shared Network Connections
Included in the second ring are potential connections that exist through shared networks. The golden example is alumni of your school(s). These are people who have a shared history or interest with you, which gives them a reason to care about your future (in theory). Usually a fellow Razorback, Longhorn, Wolverine, or X team/school identifier alumni will be more willing to spend time helping an eager student at their alma mater than some random person.
Outside of alumni, other examples of shared network connections include people from your neighborhood, from your hometown growing up, people in shared associations, sports teams or anyone else that you could have an “in” with.
What you will find is that some Ring Two connections, if cultivated properly, will become fierce advocates for you. I have both taken an interest in students (that I otherwise didn’t know) with a shared association and also benefited from mentors taking an interest in me. These can often become mutually beneficial, very rewarding relationships over the long term.
Ring Three: Everybody Else
The third ring is both the least approachable and simultaneously the most valuable, because it encompasses such a large pool of potential connections. Ring Three is where the real networking mastery occurs.
If you are networking at the pace and breadth that you should be for a serious job search, you will quickly exhaust your Ring One and Ring Two connections. For some lucky networkers, the first two rings of connections will yield fantastic leads and perhaps even a job offer or two. But many will need to journey further with a targeted campaign outside their immediate networks.
While Ring Three connections are typically tougher to get a hold of because they don’t have any shared history with you, they offer you an opportunity to tap into resources not constrained by the physical limitations of your network.
Well honed cold emails, calls or messages (we will cover these in detail later) can get you on the radar, and with persistence, open up doors. Similar to Ring Two, Ring Three connections done right can become mighty allies, exposing entire groups of new networks or giving you invaluable insight into a particular job, company or industry.
Go Cold or Go Home
So you’ve identified professionals that you want to network with, now what?
This is the part where many people give up, because the risk of failure is greater than success. It can suck spending time on things where you A) have no idea what you’re doing (yet)and B) have no idea how it will turn out. But you’ve got to get beyond that; failure is a normal part of the job search process. Toughen up and embrace it.
Expect for people to not return your messages or just ignore you all together. Expect some people to be jerks or rude to you for no reason. Don’t take it personally. Remember that many of these people are busy professionals who are short on time and have other priorities outside of talking to you.
While there is conventional ‘go-getter’ wisdom out there that you should just pick up the phone and call people out of the blue, also known as cold calling, I don’t think that is a particularly good strategy for most people. For one, cold calling is really hard to do for a young person with little formal communication experience. Secondly, for every one person who is impressed by your effort, you might have several that are busy and annoyed by your ‘sales effort’, who might have otherwise responded to something a little less blind-siding.
Said another way, some pre-planning and arranging can (potentially) set up a more meaningful experience for both sides. However, if you are an exceptional people person who can pick up the phone and dazzle, by all means, let it rip. Just don’t forget to mix in message based intros as well.
Personally, my favorite types of cold networking are messages on LinkedIn or cold emails, if you have their email. Tactics may vary by industry, and you should spend some time understanding yours, but I’ve found both LinkedIn and email to be potent networking weapons in almost any circumstance.
Cold Intro Examples
Since figuring out “what to say” tends to be a challenge, below I am going to share with you some actual cold intros I have written:
Student to Professional (Ring Three example)
I hope this message finds you well. I am a finance student at University of Arkansas interested in learning about investment banking. I saw that you work at JP Morgan and have quite a bit of experience in the industry. I’d love to find a time to catch up and hear more about your job, including some of your experiences throughout your career. I understand that you are very busy, so I appreciate any time you are willing to offer.
Below are some times I am available this week — let me know what works for your schedule:
Wed — Fri: 2pm to 9pm EST
I’m attaching my resume for reference on my background. Really looking forward to connecting further!
Professional to Professional (Ring Two example)
I hope this message finds you well. I’m a former private equity and investment banking professional that just recently joined the University of Texas at Dallas as director of a new finance program.
I saw that you are a finance alumni at UTD. I’d would love to catch up sometime to learn more about your background and current role at PepsiCo.
I’m free on Monday between 12pm CT — 5pm CT. I’ll propose 1pm CT, but if that doesn’t work, feel free to offer another time. I’m also open at similar times on Thursday and Friday.
Looking forward to catching up.
Let’s break down some of the important elements in these cold intros:
- Don’t come out with a hard request right off the bat. Even though you might be technically “looking for something”, whether it’s an internship or a full-time job lead, don’t lead with that. Use language like “I am interested in X” or that you “want to learn more about Y”. If you attach your resume (I would), make sure it’s clear you are doing it so they have a background reference. Most people, especially busy professionals, don’t like being used. Instead, make it all about them and their experiences. Try taking a genuine interest. If you endear yourself to someone this way you’ll find that many will offer to help without you even having to ask.
- Always, always propose multiple days/times. Not doing so is a major rookie mistake. By not picking a time and leaving it open ended, all you accomplish is making it more work for your potential connection to respond and thus lower your conversion rate. Pick multiple days/times that work for you to chat and offer those up — that way all they have to do is pick one and say yes. Don’t forget to factor time zones as sometimes your connection lives in a different one than you.
- Start and end graciously. I usually open up with “I hope this message finds you well”, but there are plenty of other soft openers that break up the coldness of an unknown person messaging you. At the end I will usually make a note about how much I am “looking forward to connecting” or “looking forward to catching up”, which serves the double purpose of declaring the assumption that you WILL connect or catch up. That may seem small, but those little psychological cues make a difference.
- Leave the actual means of communication generic (e.g. “catch up”). In my experience, having a call (as opposed to meeting in person) is usually preferable for both parties for a first time meeting. However, in-person meetings can be extremely effective IF you are ready to impress. If your networking skills and story aren’t rock solid, stick to the phone calls at first.
- Every communication you have from this point on is an interview. Treat it that way. When you are speaking to anyone about anything professional related, regardless of who they are, treat it like an interview. Never take a session or person off. Why? For one, by always being in “game mode” you will find that your average performance is much better. Secondly, you never know when a person is going to be gauging you for a job or assessing whether they want to refer you someplace. The margin between success and failure is razor thin in these engagements — always aim to impress.
Convert: From Connection to Relationship
After you’ve done the hard work of making a new connection, it’s time to convert that resource into a relationship that has value. Usually this means catching up and meeting each other, whether on the phone or in person. The strategies and preparation for these engagements are usually the same either way.
Do your research ahead of time
The best way to make a good first impression is to show that you have done your diligence (without being a know it all). Commit time and effort to be informed. That means making a best efforts to understand what they do, where they work, their industry, and relevant current events in that space.
One of the common “dings” (a word used to describe a person being removed from the interview process) I hear is “they didn’t really know much about the company or industry”. Don’t lose an opportunity because you were too lazy to do your homework.
Tell a story, don’t just list the facts
One of the most important things you should do when speaking to people, especially when you are recounting your own background, is tell a story instead of listing the facts in dry, chronological order. This could come after “tell me about your background” or “walk me through your resume”, but don’t wait for those questions if you are driving the conversation (which you should try to do, if possible).
In addition to making your background easier to remember, a compelling narrative can impress a connection and give them an indication of your strong communication skills.
My first reaction when I hear students tentatively listing their experiences off a resume, going bullet by bullet, is: 1) this person isn’t an effective communicator, 2) I already saw the resume, you don’t need to read the bullets back to me, and 3) this is an extremely boring conversation.
To build a story, start with a strong, inspiring foundation and think about what pivotal moments in your experiences would be most relevant to your connection (e.g. relevant job experience or interests). Start with why you attended the school you did, talk about some of the experiences you’ve had and why they were important to you. Remember to tie it all back to why you want to talk with your connection.
It’s very possible that you don’t think you have a compelling story to tell, or that you’ve just been living and haven’t thought about it much. If that’s the case, spend some time thinking about your journey and come up with one. If you can’t create an interesting narrative about yourself, why should anyone else get excited about it? We could write a small book on this topic alone — it’s important, spend time on it.
Ask good questions
During your research be sure to come up with some well informed, good questions. Well placed questions are one of the most effective ways to impress people.
There are standard questions you should ask every person you talk with, such as “tell me about how you got interested in Job Y?” or “what are some of the interesting projects you work on currently?” But just as important as the standard questions are the non-routine inquiries that allow you to showcase how informed you are or that you learned something from another person in the company.
Here is a relatively generic finance related question: “How have the all-time low interest rates impacted your business? I saw the Fed’s guidance on raising rates this summer— what’s your opinion on how that will impact your market niche?”
This “good question” has several effective elements:
- Shows that you know something fundamental about the industry . In this example— that interest rates impact most finance related businesses.
- Demonstrates that you are up to date with important matters and care.
- Allows your connection to express their opinion, a very useful piece of information you could use later to impress somebody else.
- Expands the conversation past the repetitive stuff covered in every single interview or discussion, making you feel more interesting.
Save your asks for the end
Similar to the cold intro messages, don’t come out swinging with direct requests in a conversation. You want to tell your story, ask great questions, evoke a conversation about their background to understand the path of their career, and learn all that you can. The right time to ask about internships, job opportunities or connections with other relevant professionals is towards the end of the conversation. Usually I’ll cap off a conversation with something similar to the following:
“Great. Well Max, I really appreciate the time today — this has been a super helpful conversation. I am going to be looking for an investment banking internship for next summer, so if you know any firms who might be hiring or have any connections you think would be beneficial to speak with, I’d love to reach out to them.”
Any “asks” you have should attempt to obtain the following:
- Whether they know of any job opportunities relevant to you.
- Other similar professionals you could speak with. This is a big one, as it gives you a continuous lead flow to pursue. If possible, try to get them to connect you via email with their contacts, instead of just getting the information itself. This gives you a warmer intro, which increases the likelihood the new connection will respond and engage
- Anything they know about a company you are interested in. “Inside info” about a company, such as something about their culture or a perspective about their business is very valuable information to use in later discussions or interviews.
- Any tactical advice they have for getting a job at X company or in Y industry. These folks have been there and done it. Listen and learn.
- Interesting opinions or information about the industry that you can leverage to impress others.
Experience is More Valuable Than Education
I know, I know. Shots fired. But hear me out.
In the context of searching for a job out of college, an additional amount of professional experience will outweigh an additional amount of education. What do I mean by that? I mean that getting a relevant internship will be more valuable than adding another academic achievement, usually. It means that working with a professional in industry will be more valuable than working with a professor, on average, when weighing the contribution towards finding a job.
Sure, academics are important and certain school-related extras, such as taking that extra theory class, or doing a research paper on an interesting topic, do have some weight. Some.
But more often than not, professional work experience (including internships) will give you much more in your job search battle than academics by itself. There’s reasons for that:
- Jobs give actual experience, defined as the ability to do things that generate value. School only sometimes does. Part of this is because school isn’t just designed to just teach you how to “do things”. It’s also for being exposed to new ideas, growing as an adult, developing socially and a whole host of other stuff. But you know who really likes skills that generate value? Employers. School may offer a conceptual idea of work, but it’s far less valuable than real experience. But school teaches you how to think, you might say. And jobs don’t? Nothing teaches you how to think like solving actual problems that have real consequences.
- Internships often lead to full time offers. This is especially true in industries like investment banking, as I noted earlier. You can make life a lot easier on yourself by hitting the internships early and often, increasing your options at graduation significantly.
- Work experience is a differentiating factor and it de-risks you significantly. Internships and work experiences can really make you stand out from the pack of pizza eating zombies (students) who just attend class and take tests. Not only does it give you a more unique story to tell, but it lets employers know that you’ve actually done something in the real world and had to deal with real professionals. And guess what, that’s a lot of what having a job is, working in the real world and dealing with people. It’s often nothing like the sheltered, sensitive bubble that characterizes many campuses. By choosing a candidate who has relevant work experience, one who has worked professionally, employers can reduce the risk of making a bad investment of their time and resources.
- You might just find something you really like doing. And more importantly, what you don’t. “What type of jobs should I look for” has to be one of the most common questions I get from young students. It’s a really hard question to answer for somebody who hasn’t done anything besides go to class, which as we discussed, isn’t usually reflective of what happens in the real workplace. Getting internships and work experience can give you perspective on what you like or don’t like, which is critical for getting your career off to the right start. Plus, when you can tell an employer that you would really love X job, “because you spent a summer doing it”, it resonates much more than “because I am a [finance] major”.
You’ve Got This
You know what you need to do next. Start digging into your networks and putting yourself out there. Set a quota for yourself to reach out to 10 people a week, or whatever number you think is reasonably achieved. In this zero sum world your success will be tied directly to working both hard and smart.
Obviously there are many other important topics we didn’t cover in detail (e.g. resumes, interview prep, how to optimize school, etc.), but I promise that if you apply some of these foundational principles even semi-consistently you will see dramatic progress in your job search.
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Want to get in touch? You can reach me on LinkedIn.