Dear Unemployed Recent Grad: You’re Not Alone
When 1 in 10 Millennials is unemployed, it’s time to stop treating unemployment as a personal problem.
It was the summer of 2012 when I drove away from my college campus for the last time. I recall the sense of endlessly expanding opportunity that swelled in my chest as I looked out over the bay. I thought about how far I had come in just a few years — so far from where I had thought I’d be when I moved to Boston in 2008. But for the first time, I was proud of what I’d achieved, and I couldn’t wait to see where the future would take me.
It had taken me a while to find my stride. I was overjoyed to be accepted to a top music school when I was seventeen; but after five difficult semesters that extinguished my passion for performing, it was clear that it was time to close the door on that chapter of my life. Once I had transferred to a public university, I quickly nailed down two new majors: psychology and sociology. I found myself eagerly raising my hand for question after question, falling in love with the feeling of being good at something without having to exhaust all of my energy just to scrape by, as I had felt in my music program. (You can read more about this piece of my story in this post.)
I raced through a double major’s worth of credits in just two years, determined not to waste any more time; and after just a year, graduation was already on the horizon. I was afraid to lose my momentum. I couldn’t even picture what life would be like outside of school. I wanted to spend just a little more time in this safe, predictable, fascinating space.
I began the process of applying to graduate programs, certain that no matter what kind of career I decided to pursue, a master’s degree in a widely relevant field like psychology would aid my success. I was accepted to five programs, and I chose one that packed an entire degree into just two semesters. I assumed that future employers would see how quickly I had completed two degrees as proof of my work ethic and potential for success. I was impatient to get on the right career path and achieve as much as I could at the youngest possible age.
However, as it turned out, the program was perilously stressful, sucking my reserve of passion dry and jeopardizing my health. It was my unwavering belief that a master’s degree would help my career immensely that got me through that deeply challenging year. In between attending classes and composing my thesis, applying to jobs helped me to stay focused on the light at the end of the tunnel. The first careers that made me feel invigorated were in college admissions and academic advising, where I could use the insights I’d gained from my challenging academic tenure to help younger students to find the right outlet for their talents.
My applications were met with radio silence, however. With no direct experience and a superfluous master’s degree, I was beaten out by the recent grads who had always known what they wanted to do — whose resumes were a straight line of accomplishments, not a circuitous trajectory. I networked like crazy in the academic world; and though I found a handful of kind mentors who extended a hand to me, nothing could make up for the fact that I was over-educated and under-experienced. A personal letter of recommendation from a college admissions director couldn’t even get me a “no thanks” — just the silence that I would come to know well over the next year. Unless I had demonstrated a steadily growing passion for the same career from the time that I was in college, they weren’t interested.
As I walked across the stage to accept my diploma with no job prospects waiting for me on the other side, I didn’t know that I was entering a period of unemployment that would last an entire year. However, I was far from alone: In June 2013, 1 in 10 Millennials was an unemployed recent grad.
Millennials were told a story about higher education that was no longer true by the time that we graduated. To gain acceptance to good colleges, we packed our schedules with high-level classes and extracurricular activities from the earliest possible age. Any college degree would be worth the hard work; jobs were waiting on the other side of the most expensive four years of our lives. Not just jobs, but jobs in the field we majored in, making use of the knowledge that we’d worked so hard and paid so much to learn, with an upward trajectory and a living wage.
After the pomp and circumstance of graduation had faded, what did we find?
When we applied for entry-level jobs, we discovered that “entry-level” was a clear misnomer. These positions were entry-level in salary and responsibility, but hiring managers sought 2–3 years of experience on top of a relevant college degree. This was particularly true in cities like Boston, where the market was oversaturated with unemployed recent grads, all desperately competing for the same mediocre jobs. Our competition for these open roles also included the not-so-recent grads, who already had the required 2–3 years of experience under their belts, but also couldn’t find roles that would give them the titles and salaries that they deserved. How was it, I often wondered, that I couldn’t get a job without work experience; but I couldn’t get work experience without a job?
“When there are many more applicants than jobs, employers tend to impose overexacting criteria and then wait for the perfect match.”
— The New York Times
I considered a number of career paths that year. I’d identify a job where it seemed like a master’s in psychology would be an asset, then throw all of my resources into getting any open role — because what else could I do? College admissions. Academic advising. Market research. Human resources. Teaching. I had a handful of interviews, but I hit the same wall every time: An unnecessary master’s degree was no substitute for work experience.
My degree had become a liability, giving hiring managers the impression that I wanted a better title and salary than applicants with a bachelor’s degree, but qualifying me for absolutely nothing. Racing through school hadn’t helped me one bit. While I had been taking summer classes to graduate as quickly as possible (and for what? This?), other students had been getting internships. They racked up work experience, transferrable skills, and glowing recommendations, all of which resulted in real job offers. Where I had believed that a master’s degree in a subject like psychology would help me wherever I wanted to go, nothing could replace actual work experience.
There’s nothing like protracted unemployment to make you realize that your identity is completely up for grabs, changing at the whim of the circumstances swirling around you. The longer that you go without a job to anchor your identity upon — as dangerous as it is to let a job to define who you are — the more that you lose sight of the unique spark that separates you from the competition. As an unemployed recent grad, it’s incredibly easy to fall victim to the belief that you don’t have any noteworthy strengths or valuable qualities. If you were extraordinary in any way, you inevitably wonder, wouldn’t you have found a job by now?
As the months crept by, I began to forget what I was trying to prove to hiring managers in the first place. Everything that I had ever achieved had lost its meaning. Did I have any tangible proof that I was particularly good at anything? What differentiated me from the anonymous people that were getting jobs over me? Was I somehow broadcasting, “I AM UNQUALIFIED AND SLOWLY LOSING MY SANITY” to every hiring manager that I interacted with? If I was the person that I had always believed I was, why was opportunity after opportunity slipping through my fingers as I desperately tried to hold on?
“The longer you’re without a job, the less likely it is that you’ll get called back for an interview — by the eighth month of unemployment, the callback rate falls by about 45%.” — Forbes
I had always been able to rely on my intuition. I always knew when I had done a good job, or when I had left an impression on someone. I’ve never been one to overestimate my own abilities — if anything, I’ve always been too hard on myself, reluctant to internalize a positive view of myself without a great deal of unbiased, unprompted feedback. However, this was an unusual circumstance, where mixed signals were coming from every direction. Nearly every hiring manager candidly expressed that they thought very highly of me, and that I stood out from every other candidate in recent memory. Their comments seemed entirely genuine — if they didn’t sincerely feel that way, after all, they needn’t have said anything. However, when this was inevitably followed by rejection, it was impossible not to call my own perception into question.
What I came to realize was that each of us needs to do two things during the hiring process. The first is to leave a lasting impression. Take every opportunity to make a personal connection and give a coherent sense of who you are, why you’re there, and what working with you would be like. The second is to convince them that hiring you is not a risk. Display that you’re fully qualified and committed. Visualize yourself from the hiring manager’s perspective, figuring out how to market your most attractive qualities to them, while reassuring them that any gaps in your resume should not concern them. Articulate why this is the position that you want — this job title, at this company, over any other. Reassure them that if they make you a job offer, that you’ll accept it, give it your all, and stick around for a while. Convince them that hiring you benefits them as much as it benefits you — otherwise, why would they hire you, and why would you accept the job?
I feel certain now that none of the rejection that I endured as an unemployed recent grad had anything to do with me as a person. When it came down to it, hiring me seemed risky.
I’d had interview after interview where I’d been given every reason to believe that the job was all but mine. I’m sure that I walked into those interviews with the same insightful, determined, enthusiastic demeanor that has gotten me every job that I’ve wanted since then. But there was no clear narrative tying together each of the entries on my resume into a cohesive picture. With no real work experience to vouch for my skills or reliability, I was a risk. As they brought in other candidates, their tangible qualifications held more weight than my ability to connect with each person that I spoke to, or to tell a convincing story about my passion and potential.
When it came time to make a decision, I can picture each hiring manager holding my resume in their hands and thinking, “I genuinely liked her; I believe in her as a person; and I wish her all the best. But we need someone who’s a sure bet, and there’s just too much uncertainty here — we’d better keep looking.” After weeks of speaking with me, however, they should have had the courtesy to turn me down. They shouldn’t have strung me along, wanting to keep me as an option in case they didn’t find anyone less risky, until they forgot that no one had actually told me that I hadn’t gotten the job. Even being blindsided with a rejection would have hurt less than waiting weeks and weeks for job offers that never came, my daydreams of what my life would be like at each job slowly fading as the time passed and all I heard was silence.
It was this pattern that kept me in a constant state of purgatory. I had always just interviewed at a promising job or had applied to a position that I was certain would lead somewhere. I was perpetually killing time, avoiding getting tied up in anything long-term so I would be available to start working the moment that a job offer came through. As irrational as it might seem, the more time that went by, the more terrified I became of getting an offer and having it rescinded in the blink of an eye because I did something wrong.
I largely couldn’t tell you how I spent that year, and it infuriates me how much time was wasted. In that open expanse of time, I could have traveled; I could have recorded an album; I could have turned my love for writing or photography into an impressive side project. But instead, I slept too late; I watched TV; I planned my wedding; I scoured job boards. My day-to-day life was too grim to confront in conversation, so I rarely made plans with friends or answered the phone. I argued with my fiancé over what, exactly, I did all day — could I be applying to more jobs? Were there any connections that I should be leveraging to find a lead or two? I couldn’t handle having to answer to someone else about the menial ways that I wasted my days, just wanting the entire period of time to be over. Were our roles reversed, I know that I would have asked the same questions and gotten equally frustrated when nothing seemed to progress.
It’s undeniable: Unemployment is miserable, and you should do everything in your power to bring it to an end as quickly as possible. However, you have to accept that you’re stuck here for an undetermined amount of time — so you might as well pass the days in a way that makes you happy. You can’t be applying to jobs every second, so compromise by finding a productive way to relax. Take advantage of the fact that you don’t have daily obligations filling a majority of your schedule — that may not be the case again until you retire. Create a blog, volunteer, take an online class, start a business — anything to pass the time in an enjoyable way, get you out of the house, and add new skills to your resume. When you do score an interview, you’ll be able to say that you’ve been doing something to better yourself, with the secondary benefit of making a gap on your resume less suspicious.
You should also listen to me when I say that you must develop a routine. It will keep you sane. Even though there’s nowhere that you need to be, don’t sleep until 2 in the afternoon. Don’t stay in your pajamas all day. You will literally begin to feel like a ghost. Set an alarm, get out of bed, get dressed, and go to a library or café with free Wi-Fi. Treat your job search like a job in itself, completing all necessary tasks as efficiently as you can between certain hours each day. This limits the stress of the job search to a set time and place. You don’t want to associate your home with the misery of doggedly applying to jobs that you never hear back from. You also want to keep your job search from taking over your free time. You need a break, even if it feels like you don’t deserve it, because every second that you’re not actively searching for jobs feels like wasted time.
If the opportunity arises, get to know the people that you see every day, whether it’s a barista or someone working on a laptop next to you. Make plans with friends, and talk honestly about what you’re going through — you’ve got the time, and they likely have some useful leads. You may not want to talk to other people because your reality is too depressing, but trust me on this one — you need human contact, as small as these interactions may seem. You need to remember who you are in society. You are not a ghost in pajamas with nowhere to go all day while everyone else is at work. You may be an unemployed recent grad right now, but that does not define you. You are who you’ve always been — smart, capable, friendly, and filled with potential.
After the longest year of my life, what finally got me out of the “unemployed recent grad” bucket and into the work force? It was a call from a recruiter who had seen my resume on a job board, and who got me into the temporary position that jumpstarted my career.
Here’s where I divulge my secret to finding a job, no matter who you are: Do not spend a majority of your time applying to jobs online.
It might sound counterintuitive, but bear with me. HR programs have taken the human element out of looking through resumes, since online job postings made it possible for hundreds of applicants to apply directly to a single open role. When you submit your resume, the software quickly scans it for very specific keywords — and if it doesn’t find them (or simply can’t read the font or format that you’ve chosen), a human being will never see your resume. There are theories on how to tailor your resume to be more easily read by these programs; but trust me, there’s a better way.
Ready? Here’s the solution: Apply. Through. Recruiters.
Do this in two ways: First, post your resume to Monster and Indeed, and update your LinkedIn profile with keywords that are relevant to the type of job that you’re looking for. Next, answer the calls and messages that you get from recruiters. If you don’t like the initial job that they’re calling about, don’t hang up! Tell them what you are looking for, from your ideal title and salary to the location and type of company. Second, if you have a company in mind that you’d love to work for, or have found a job posting that sounds promising, search LinkedIn for the company’s internal recruiters or HR personnel and contact them directly. Send them a message explaining your relevant qualifications and strong interest in the open role.
The key is to bypass the step of sending your resume into the ether and hoping that someone eventually looks at it; rather, you’re sending it straight to a human being who will actually review your qualifications and consider you for the role. You’ve displayed your strong interest in the position, which will always work in your favor. Meanwhile, it’s in the recruiter’s best interest to find a match for the role; so if you’re qualified, they’ll do whatever they can to help you to get the job. Always have a handful of recruiters that you contact as soon as you’re looking for work so that they can start rustling up new opportunities to run past you. If you’re interested in any of the jobs that they send (many of which haven’t made it to the job boards yet), they already have a working relationship with the company, so they can submit your resume directly to them and start talking you up. In addition, they have good intel on what it’s actually like to work there based on past clients they’ve placed. Your chances of getting an interview are so much higher, it’ll seem like a miracle. (Here’s the best article I’ve found explaining the entire process of working with a recruiter.)
Next, if you’ve been out of work for a few months, it’s imperative that you start temping or freelancing for the time being. I say this for several reasons: One, it is ALWAYS easier to find a job when you have a job, no matter what it is. Two, you’ll develop transferrable skills that you can keep on your resume for years to come. Three, it’ll keep you sane and bring in some money while you continue your job search. Four, it’s entirely possible that your temp job will turn into a permanent job offer. Many companies start their future employees off as temps when they’re having trouble filling an open role and need to get someone in right away, but they want to test them out first. As an unemployed recent grad, you should absolutely take advantage of these opportunities. It could change the entire trajectory of your career — it did for me.
My first job began in June 2014, after a full year of unemployment and a year-and-a-half-long job search. I answered the phone one day and was honest with the recruiter about my complete lack of interest in the job that he was calling about (answering customer calls at a health insurance company — yikes). However, after this, I stayed on the phone and told him what I would be interested in. He would run new roles past me almost every day, submitting my resume for a handful before we found a match. It was a writing job in the marketing department of a tech publisher. He submitted my resume, the hiring manager expressed interest, I took a writing test, and I started work a week later.
I temped on the copywriting team for three months before being hired on a permanent basis, and was then promoted to team lead just seven months later. This not only jumpstarted my career in exactly the way that I had hoped my first job would; it also completely restored my self-worth. Less than three years later, I’m now the senior writer and editor at my third company. (Read more about how I came to be a writer in this post.)
What would my advice be to an unemployed recent grad? If you can’t find a job, or if your first job isn’t what you expected, don’t blame yourself. You’re not alone. We were all told that going to college was the necessary precursor to a successful career, but there was no plan to accommodate millions of new graduates entering the workforce every year. It’s not your fault — but I am certain that our generation will be the one to fix it.
Moreover, we need to take the shame out of unemployment. When good, smart people can’t find jobs, there may be steps that you can take to increase your chances of getting hired; but it’s socioeconomic forces beyond your control that are truly to blame. When unemployment is seen as a personal problem rather than a societal one, it drives us to wallow in isolation rather than making connections with other people — which is so often the key to both career success and happiness.
So if you’re an unemployed recent grad, try not to beat yourself up. Every day, strive to let it fuel your determination to succeed rather than eroding your self-worth. In addition to polishing your resume, searching job boards, and getting in touch with recruiters, spend time doing the things that you love. Don’t let this process obscure your identity, renegotiate your self-worth, or turn your life upside-down. Remember that rejection is rarely personal, even when it comes in unrelenting waves. Someday, you’ll look back on this as a difficult but ultimately finite portion of your journey. Though it may feel as though the world has dropped out from beneath your feet, you are the person that you’ve always been. Don’t wait for a job to define your value.
Originally published at www.featherflint.com.