Seven tips on making job searching as a student suck a little less

Internships, jobs, and permanent employment after graduation — the search can seem endless, fruitless, and horribly daunting. I know what it’s like, and how stressful it can be to balance school work and applying to countless jobs.

If all of that sounds familiar to you — I am reaching out and letting you know you are not alone. I’ve been there, felt your pain, been stuck sending out applications for what seemed like endless hours and have come out alive on the other side. I want to help other young university students get the positions they want, and that will help them succeed.

First and foremost, you need to define what you want to do. This is not what your parents want you to do, or what is expected of you to do for a summer. What do you love doing so much that doing it hardly seems like work at all? I’ll use myself as the guinea pig for this example: I love to write (with purpose), create, problem solve, and most importantly, I want to know that the work I am doing is helping people and our planet be better. All of that might seem generic and nonspecific — but analyzing your interests is the key to building a path to finding positions that suit your interests. Do my interests match some job where I will be filing all day for a big health company? Do my interests match data processing and analysis? Probably not. It’s important to set these wants out in the beginning so you don’t waste your time applying to jobs you don’t want in the first place.

Second, you need to do an audit of the skills you bring to the table. This goes beyond what you are studying in school — as a major only defines what you are studying, not how you get those grades or opportunities. Are you a strong writer or thrive when presenting to a class? Do you crave to analyze datasets and challenge yourself with long equations? Does process evaluation or programming speak to you? Are you an artist that loves to create? If thinking of your own skills makes you uncomfortable, ask your friends, former employers, or even professors what makes you different and desirable in a workplace.

Why is this important? Well, beyond understanding your strengths — it helps you in applying for positions. In the 2013 Campus Recruitment Report by the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers, the following information might surprise you:

  • Employers Most Valued Pre-screening Criteria was integrated learning (Co-op, Internship, Service Learning) and co-curricular involvement (Clubs, Societies, Varsity Sports) above academic performance.
  • The highest reported skills preferred by employers were: communication skills (verbal), teamwork skills, analytical skills, strong work ethic, problem solving skills, initiative, and working well with others.
  • The lowest ranking skills preferred by employers were: creativity, tactfulness, entrepreneurial skills, strategic planning skills, and the bottom was a sense of humour.

The report comes to the conclusion about what the data collected means for the preferred and less preferred candidates:

  • Most preferred: Hard-working team player who solve problems through analysis and communication.
  • Least preferred: Creative, funny, big-picture people who aren’t afraid to take chances.

WHAT does this information mean? And should you change who you are to fit these categories — absolutely not, unless you want to. I believe data such as the examples I gave are important when choosing where to spend your time in developing yourself to be a stronger candidate now and in the future.

Third, you need to have a strong resumé, cover letter, and application skill set to even hope to get a chance to meet with the interviewer.

Gone are the days in which your resume is a flareless list of your experiences, you need to stand out and convince the person screening the applications you deserve a chance to interview. If the job is about being creative, show that you can do it in a professional manner in an application. Play around with different resume formatting techniques to make yours stand out from the crowd. Remember, the person reading your application is reading hundreds and sometimes thousands of them — give them something to be excited about. When I applied to my Summer 2017 position that turned into an offer to work for them during the school year — I knew I wanted to work for them. So, what did I do? I showed this in my application. The position was for an environmental organization that needed help with their Communications (ie. Social media, web design, graphics, etc) so in my application I created example posts and added in writing samples. I went onto their website and created event posters for ones happening in the next month — as well as showcased my previous work. If you want a job, you need to show them you do. My extra effort was well worth it — as I received a reply to my application the same day I sent it to them. I now have a job I love that has given me endless opportunities — that could be you.

Fourth, you need to find jobs to apply to — otherwise all the other work you’ve done was for nothing. While yes, you can search job boards such as indeed, Monster, Workopolis, government sites, and your school’s employment postings — one way you may not of thought to find a position is by using your network to see who is looking for summer students or would be open to the conversation of having one.

Take a deep breath, because this means mentioning doing something most students are ridiculously scared of….. networking.

Still with me? Good. Networking isn’t scary, well it is, but only in the beginning. But guess what, if you are going to an event that has a sole purpose of professionals meeting each other, chances are other people want to meet you too. How do you find these places? A good place to start is by going to Eventbrite, selecting your city, and finding the events tagged “networking”. Still can’t find any? Try looking for events being put on by organizations and companies in your industry. For example, the environmental sector has something called Green Drinks, an international collective of environmental networking events. They post all their events city by city on the Green Drinks website.

Fifth, don’t let the “Only 2% of applicants get an interview” stat get you down.

Sounds optimistic, right? Let’s dive into it and make that 2% sound a lot better. How do most of us apply to jobs nowadays: the internet. While this ease of access to every single job posting and the mantra many people subscribe to that “the more jobs you apply to, the better chance you have” — is actually hurting your chances and letting you be part of the discarded 98% of applicants. Think about it — if you are applying to anything and everything, how much time are you spending on those applications? Are you tailoring them extensively to the position? Doing research on the company or organization, looking for ways to make yourself stand out? Or are you firing them off left, right, and centre hoping that the recruiter somehow has legilemency and can feel your fit for the position by reading your mind through your cookie-cutter resume.

Last week I moderated a panel on Sponsorship for Environmental organizations and one of the panelists said something that stood out to me:

If you aren’t willing to put in 1–2 hours researching a possible sponsorship ask to know everything about them, you aren’t worth sponsoring”

This got me thinking, if you aren’t willing to look up the company you are applying to and figure out what it is they do, why even apply?

The more applications you do with intent and purpose, the better you become. Look up writing help for cover letters and resumes, see if your University hosts workshops on it, or even ball out on a professional to sit down with you to help you see where you are going wrong.

Sixth, know the things that are subconsciously holding you back. Did you know that a 2014 Hewlett Packard internal report found that “Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them” (Harvard Business Review). While this statistic has been cited as an indication of confidence imbalance between women and men, the author of the HBR article points out three possible alternative reasons:

  • “Men are often hired or promoted based on their potential, women for their experience and track record. If women have watched that occur in their workplaces, it makes perfect sense they’d be less likely to apply for a job for which they didn’t meet the qualifications”
  • “Girls are strongly socialized to follow the rules and in school are rewarded, again and again, for doing so. In part, girls’ greater success in school (relative to boys) arguably can be attributed to their better rule following. Then in their careers, that rule-following habit has real costs, including when it comes to adhering to the guidelines about “who should apply”
  • Certifications and degrees have historically played a different role for women than for men. The 20th century saw women break into professional life — but only if they had the right training, the right accreditations. These qualifications were our ticket in, our way of proving we could do the job. We weren’t part of an old boys club in which we’d get the benefit of the doubt. That history can, I think, lead women to see the workplace as more orderly and meritocratic than it really is. As a result we may overestimate the importance of our formal training and qualifications, and underutilize advocacy and networking.

What does this all mean? Well, no one is quite sure. However, it is worth highlighting that your uneasiness applying for a job you desperately want but don’t meet all the qualifications for may be a manifestation of internalized notions of what is expected of you.

My unprofessional advice? Apply anyway.

If you truly want the job, and you show you can do it — who knows what might happen.

Let’s clear the air once and for all — a job posting of “qualifications” is NOT a set of rules outlining if you can or cannot apply for a job. A job posting is what they think an ideal candidate would look like, not what might work best for them. While some hard skills such as knowledge of certain programming language or a degree in social work may be hard and fast decision makers, some other experiential constraints are not.

When I applied for my current position, I only fit about half of the qualifications and less if we are being objective. The first “qualification” for the position was ‘being enrolled in a program related to marketing, communications, event planning, non-for profit or community development’. Guess what, I’m studying Health Promotion. Why did my current boss even give me a chance to come interview over other applicants? I asked her, and here is a summary of her response:

“Mostly because you took initiative and included some sweet examples of graphics you had made in the past. I think your resume looked aesthetically pleasing and you obviously had experience volunteering and working, there were no typos and you followed the application instructions… Oh and [back to the graphics] you made a graphic for one of our actual upcoming events which showed even more initiative. I think it was mostly the initiative, I didn’t want someone I had to handhold all summer and you seemed together!”

The reason I got the job was that I SHOWED her I wanted it, and could do what she was asking. If there is a position you feel you would be a good fit in, show them. Put in the work. Go the extra mile. Hiring managers aren’t mind readers that can connect with your brain through a plain old resume.

Last and most certainly not least — get comfortable with failure and rejection. It’s a part of life, and the sooner you get real with how uncomfortable it can be, the better. This past January I was vying for a summer research position at the Ivey International Center for Health Innovation — I went to the information sessions, talked with the presenters and thought I had a good rapport with them. I worked for a month on my application and thought I would at least get an interview. Guess what, I didn’t. I’m not going to lie and say I was ok with it, I was crushed. I thought I was a strong candidate — but honestly looking back, I can see the flaws in my application. I was too confident that I would get an interview, and then I took the experience and used it to make myself better. Sure it sucked for a few weeks, but I got over it.

Sometimes, things don’t work out — and I am so glad they didn’t. In my situation, that door closed but the one that opened has offered me so many opportunities in a sector I love with people I admire and who inspire me each and every day.

Another important lesson I learned is that sometimes, its not about you and more about the people who apply against you. I did not have any professional writing experience or any articles published. Why? I’m not trying to make a profession out of research. While the position may have looked good on paper and opened may different doors for me, I’m happy it didn’t.

Sometimes failure means you feel bad for a while, but there’s always tomorrow.

Kaitlyn Tyschenko is the Communications Coordinator for the London Environmental Network, and a BHSc (Hons) Candidate at Western University. She is always open to speaking with young professionals about their experiences in the workplace, and is working towards a stronger more sustainable world.

Special thanks goes to:

  • Lisa Boyko: Community Engaged Learning Coordinator — Curricular Programs (Experiential Learning) at Western University for the employment trends data
  • Skylar Franke: Communications Coordinator at the London Environmental Network for the reflective input on why she gave me an interview in the first place

and last but certainly not least,

  • Every job I applied to where I didn’t get an interview or an email back — you made me hustle harder and appreciate the chances I have even more.
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