Hustler’s Handbook: The Undergrad’s Guide to Landing Your Dream Job at a Top Company

When you hear the word hustle, your first thought might be something negative. For some, it conjures up thoughts of used car salesmen pushing dicey merchandise or con artists trying to make a quick buck. Recently however, the word has started to change.

Dozens of recent blog posts and articles have espoused and applauded the changing definition of the word in a business context. Different conferences and trade shows have begun to incorporate it into their branding. Some business leaders have even gone so far as to call it the most important business skill you can have.

With this shift in mind, I’d like to propose a modern definition of ‘hustle’:

Hustle (verb): 
“To display a dedicated and energetic work ethic, coupled with resourceful & assertive actions.”

The ability to hustle has allowed me to get to where I am today.

My Story

I recently started with the Business Leadership Program at LinkedIn. My peers in the program have matriculated from the likes of top tier universities: Harvard, Stanford, U Penn, UCLA, Northwestern, and some of the best schools in Europe and Asia. But not me.

I graduated from Ohio University last May. My guess is that the large majority of the population has probably never heard of OU and if you have, you might think that we’re in Oklahoma or that our mascot is Brutus Buckeye. Point being, we are not incredibly well-known among the world’s top companies, and the McKinseys, Goldman Sachs’, and LinkedIns of the world are not coming to campus to source candidates.

Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for OU students to get into these companies. I personally know classmates of mine that have joined all three of the aforementioned organizations after graduation.

It just takes a little hustle.

The Reality of the Recruiting Ecosystem

If a company recruits from a top tier school like Harvard, the chances are high that candidates will be able to perform the responsibilities of an entry level role, because they were smart enough to get into Harvard. However, this assumption does not apply in the same way when discussing ‘non-target’ schools. Companies may experience a lower return on investment for time spent sourcing and interviewing applicants and therefore, recruiting from these schools can be considered riskier.

The fairness and ethics of this practice is a topic of discussion for another time, but it’s important to realize that this is frequently the reality of the situation. To put it simply: it is harder to get into a top company if you don’t come from a ‘name-brand’ or target school, but it’s not impossible.

The Fundamentals

To overcome this common ‘target-school-only’ recruiting practice and get a top company’s attention, you need to be able to show that you can handle the work before you start the job. This can be done through a combination of hard skills, soft skills, and an observable breadth & depth of experience.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Goldman Sachs employee. While on campus, she led the Fixed Income Group, which is a student-run organization that manages and invests about $5 million of the University’s endowment fund.

In the organization, she gained deep industry knowledge, the ability to conceptualize and use complex financial models, and how to combine it all to convince others to invest in a particular bond. She’s employing many of these skills in her job today.

My situation, in contrast, was a bit different. I had almost no sales experience before interviewing for my current sales role. What I did have however, was a wide variety of experiences and a well-developed set of interpersonal skills. These were garnered through my intense involvement on campus with organizations like Residence Life, the Walter Center for Strategic Leadership, and my professional fraternity Delta Sigma Pi.

These examples serve to illustrate that in order to be considered by a top-tier company, you need to have a rock solid experiential foundation, coupled with well-developed hard and soft skills. With a strong foundation formed, you can then begin to plan how you’ll get your foot in the door.

The Playbook

Too often, students are compelled to play by the rules and think about their job search in pre-defined ways: go to the career fair, apply online, wait for the result. While this may work for some, if you’re looking to differentiate yourself and get noticed, it becomes incredibly important to be creative in your approach. Here are a few strategies that I’ve found successful:

Network, Network, Network

Networking is arguably the most important thing that you can do throughout your career. Skilled networkers gain access to opportunities that many others don’t know about and develop professional credibility with a much larger audience. In doing so, they greatly increase their chances of being successful in the long-run.

During my four years at OU, I made it a point to meet as many people as I possibly could. This included introducing myself to guest speakers, visiting professors during office hours, and even setting up coffee sessions with peers I admired. I would even make it a point to walk up and introduce myself to people simply based on the fact that I saw them around campus frequently.

My efforts paid off when I was approached by an alumnus I had introduced myself to while on campus. He wanted to refer me for a full-time position with his company in Chicago. Although I ultimately didn’t pursue full-time employment there, it was impactful in helping me to understand the power of knowing people and the opportunities that can present themselves as a result.

Create Personal Brand Awareness

As your network starts to grow, you also want to create a brand for yourself and make others aware of that brand. This can be done by talking with many different individuals about your career goals, companies you’re interested in working for, or roles you’d like to take on. Point being, the more people who know you and understand what you’re trying to accomplish, the more likely you’ll be connected with opportunities you didn’t even know existed.

Senior year, I knew that I wanted to be in tech, in San Francisco, at a startup. So I told everyone. I made sure that people knew I was passionate about the idea and would do anything to make it happen. When my boss at the time found out that an alumnus from a tech company in San Francisco was on campus, she went out of her way to connect me with him. This ultimately led to me moving out to San Francisco to start my first job with Sumo Logic.

If I hadn’t been vocal about what I wanted, my boss wouldn’t have thought to connect me to the opportunity, and I may have never made it out to San Francisco. In a sense, talking about the opportunity created the opportunity itself.

Utilize Informational Interviews

The idea of the informational interview is to try and create a professional relationship with someone centered on shared interests or experiences. If these interactions are genuine and mutually beneficial, you can leverage these new relationships to gain insight on company culture, new recommendations for people to connect with, or, in the best of cases, an internal referral.

With the advancement of the digital age, it’s incredibly easy not only to find relevant people to reach out to, but also to uncover information about their interests and backgrounds. LinkedIn, for example, is one of the easiest ways to do this by creatively leveraging your 1st connections to meet 2nd connections.

I had firsthand experience with this as an undergrad. Senior year I wanted to learn more about Twitter as a potential place to work. Using LinkedIn, I was able to find a Twitter employee who was a 2nd connection. After a warm introduction through our mutual connection, I had an hour long phone call with the Twitter employee about her experiences in the tech industry. Not only did I gain valuable knowledge about Twitter as a place to work, but she even offered to refer me to open positions in the company.

Leverage the Internal Referral

Studies show that employees that are hired through referrals tend to stay at the company longer and are overall more productive than employees hired through other means. Therefore, incentivizing employees to refer colleagues is a win-win for both the employee and the company. The employee receives some sort of compensation, and the company taps into a great source of talent.

Think about it this way: if you were trying to gain access to some guarded location, would you rather try to scale the 100 foot wall in the front, or have someone let you in through the backdoor?

The wall in this scenario is the blind-application through the website. There’s a chance you make it over, but it’s not very likely. Instead, if you can garner a referral from a current employee, they can ‘pull you in’ through the back door and greatly increase your chances of getting an interview. I personally chose the backdoor.

While I was still a student, I was able to meet an alumnus who lives in Chicago and works for LinkedIn. After networking with her a few times and showing off my interpersonal skills, we set up an informational interview. This resulted in a solid, professional rapport, and eventually she offered to refer me to the BLP program. This led to an interview and, further down the line, a job offer at my dream company.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully some of the strategies I’ve shared will inspire you to start thinking creatively about how to land your dream job. Regardless of how you do it, remember this in your approach: be assertive, be creative, and most importantly, be genuine.

Happy hustling!

Have you found any success with these strategies? What other methods or strategies have you seen used?

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This article was originally posted to by Hayden Humphrey. Hayden is a blogger and free-lance writer based in Chicago.