Twelve tips for fresh grads– includes a job offer!

stay cool
stay cool (Photo credit: yewenyi)

So, unless you majored in computer science or engineering (congrats if you did), you may have just entered one of the worst job markets in history. Awesome!


I’ve been seeing a lot of hand-wringing, despairing blog posts lately from frustrated fresh grads wondering if or when they’ll ever find a job, let alone a job that matters to them, let alone relevant to anything they studied. Plus all the other grads, two or three years out, who still can’t find a job that makes them feel that all the costs of college were worth it.

Here’s a great article with a lot of common sense suggestions, once you do land a job, no matter how menial. It’s from the U.S. edition of Glamour, a women’s magazine, but the savvy therein is unisex...

And here’s a funny, smart blog post by a young British female journalist about the need to “fake it until you make it.”

Here are my 12 tips to help you cope:

Don’t panic

By all accounts, your generation has been cooed at/over since birth, almost without interruption, with a chorus of “Good job!” The second you’re not accomplishing something or winning an award or polishing your resume, (and getting lots of attention for it all), you feel ill at ease, possibly useless. Praise is so sweet…and yet, often, so meaningless.

Take an hour every day unplugged from all forms of technology

Savor it. Your best ideas will come to you alone, in silence and probably while in the natural world. Do not tether yourself to Facebook or Tumblr clutching for some sort of emotional blankie.

Read challenging, smart material. Every day

It’s easy to think “Thank God. I’m done!” No more papers, tests, exams, finals. Just because you’ve snagged your diploma doesn’t mean it’s time to turn your brain off. Veg for a while, but make a point of reaching for some smart, tough work. If you’re an art history major, are you up on the (latest) banking scandal ? Do you know what Libor is? Read the business section of the Wall Street Journal and/or New York Times, the Financial Times if you’re really ambitious. If you’re an economics or political science major, take the time to read history, arts and literature. Throughout your life, and not just to get or keep a job, you need to keep broadening your horizons and stay sharp!

People tend to hire and promote people with insatiable curiosity and the ability to quickly analyze and sift through complex data.

Stay healthy

Find an activity or hobby you love so much you can’t wait to do it every day

Make it something physical, tactile, sensual, practical. If at all possible, make it outdoors, social and an activity that produces something visible, useful and/or beautiful. It’s deeply satisfying and will keep your confidence up.

Spend time around people much older and/or much younger than you are

Visit your grandparents or a nearby nursing home. Do it face to face. Read to someone whose eyesight is failing. Anyone over 40 has already survived three recessions since they graduated — so they get it. And they’re OK. Anyone who lived through the Depression really gets it; perspective is useful. Hang out with your younger siblings or cousins, if you have any. Play is good. Get far away from your peers on a regular basis — they’re probably either equally whiny and miserable or happily employed which will make you even more miserable.

A dream deferred is not a dream necessarily permanently denied

The economy is somewhat on the mend. I see it in my own freelance business, which was in the tank 18 months ago. So you can’t, right now, have the job/income/life you want and think you have earned and are so certain you deserve. Take a number! Stay cool and focus on things that can make you happy in the meantime. Keep taking baby steps toward your goal, even if it means working without pay for a while. If nothing is making you happy, get a grip. Or get help.

Whenever someone gives you a chance to work for/with them, be amazing

It’s “only” retail or dog-walking or baby-sitting or waitressing or whatever…Rock it! I’ve spent the past month working with a fresh grad from the Midwest who is smart, brave, organized and follows up and through on everything I ask her to do as my assistant. (She’s getting busier with her internship — if you want to help me out, paid, email me. I’d prefer someone in Canada or the U.S. who understands how American business works. You must be ethical, a very quick learner and 200% reliable.) 

Find a community and show up regularly

It might be a faith-based community or a softball team or your local yarn-bombers. You need to be around fun, funny, happy people face to face who’ll keep your spirits up and remind you that work is not the only thing in the world. One of the toughest parts of graduating is leaving the home you created for yourself at school — friends, frats/sororities, clubs, dorms, campus groups, maybe even a few favorite professors. The comforting routines are gone. An unstructured life is fairly terrifying, especially if you’re not terribly self-disciplined.

No whining!

Many of the people you hope will hire, mentor, network with, refer or promote you are people who have likely already weathered a whole lot more than you have yet. They may have survived serious illness, the loss of loved ones, being fired from one or several jobs with all the financial and emotional stress that entails. Professionals do not vent at work and certainly never to their bosses. We don’t want to hear how tough things are. We know.

Travel, as far, often and cheaply as possible

Even if it’s only within a 10 or 20 mile radius of your home, you’ll learn something new if you’re open to it. Take a notebook and camera and be observant. If you can possibly find a way to flee the borders of the United States, preferably alone and cheaply, do so. Get a passport, and use it! You’ll quickly learn a great deal about how other people think and behave, and why. We all live and work in a global economy. You need to get that on a fundamental level to thrive in the 21st century.

Bonus tips:

Make a good-looking business card for yourself

“But I don’t have a job!” Yes, you do — job-hunter. Your card, which is simple, clean and elegant, will have your full name, your home and cell numbers (if you have both), your email address and your website(s) that show your work. Every time you leave home, carry your cards with you so you can use them whenever you meet a potential job lead. This alone will make you stand out from the sweaty, desperate pack.

Informational interviewing

I’m amazed more grads don’t know what this is, but it’s the best way to find out if you even really want to work in a particular kind of job or industry. I decided, in my mid-30s, to leave journalism and become an interior designer, but before I even enrolled in school, (which cost plenty), I went out and interviewed three women who had worked in the field for many years. I learned a great deal, and a few things that surprised me.

People are generally happy to help if: 1) you do your homework first so you have intelligent questions to ask them; 2) you take no more than 20 minutes; 3) you send a hand-written thank you note on good quality paper through the mail the next day; 4) you do not ask them for a job! The point is simply to learn, but very often, if you leave a fantastic impression, you’ve opened a door for future contact. Things to ask might include: Why did you choose this field? What do you enjoy most/least? What’s a typical day/week/month? What are the three most essential skills to succeed in your field/industry? What’s the worst deal-breaker you typically see when you meet a job applicant? What has surprised you the most about working in this field? If you were to start again tomorrow, would you still choose it?

Here’s a good recent piece on the power of optimism from the Times’ health writer Jane Brody, with more good advice for tough times.

Fresh grads — and recent ones — how’s it going for you?

34 thoughts on “Twelve tips for fresh grads– includes a job offer!

  1. sunnykay

    As a writer and a 2012 grad who previously walked across a stage and into the 2009 job market before this, I salute your post. And want to take you up on that job offer.

    Majority of the time spent searching is spent increasing my expertise and pitching my preparation and skills. The other portion centers on telling people that I am searching, pulling sneakers on to run so that I can put all this in perspective, and trying to understand the material I whizzed through over 6 years of higher education. It is a fascinating journey.

    I could add, for others who are job hunting, two tips that have helped.
    1) Contact everyone you have ever been mentored by, taught by, or employed by. This includes direct supervisors, social media friends, and every relative and friend you have on your phone/e-addressbook. If you are as good as you say, chances are, they have things to say about you that would make them a great reference, or be able to write about you on LinkedIn or another live-reference site.

    2) Stop feeling sorry for yourself. If you graduated, you are extremely privileged and you have tremendous skills. Finishing school has made your parent/guardian’s sacrifices worth it, your hard work shows it, and validated your claim to having chops worth subjecting to several major exams. Count your blessings. Make lists of things that you have, and you can start to see the pattern. Ask others to help you fill in those blanks.

    Back to searching….

    1. Great advice…Only 3 decades past graduation can I really see the value of (yes) an English degree. Do I discuss Chaucer or Conrad with my editors? Hmmm. Never. But the experience of being treated, from Day One, like an adult with a high-functioning brain, and having to meet a very high standard of expectation, was a simulacrum of the working world. I was also freelancing for national publications as a sophomore, so I knew what I wanted to do and chased it very hard indeed. That also gave me confidence when I graduated that some of my peers still lacked.

      One of the “secrets” of getting work is through what are called “weak ties” — i.e. people who are not your BFFS but know and like you. I’ve gotten some of my best gigs this way, like an upcoming writers’ festival in Georgia where I’ll be speaking. As you say, referrals are crucial. If someone I respect likes you, you’ve got an automatic “in” for an interview at least.

      So…send along your resume, stat! My email address is on the about or welcome page. I need help immediately.

  2. Julia

    Caitlin, this is really, really good advice. I have said many of the same things to my job/career/identity-seeking offspring. The handwritten thank you letter on good stationery is disappearing, so, I hope you will accept this substitute.

    1. Thanks, Julia! I don’t have kids, but these all seem pretty common sense to me. I suspect some parents are so worried/fed up they may not be able to pull back and just say “Chill!” I also have heard too many horror stories of kids with very poor FTF social skills as a result of the IM/texting life.

  3. Amy Knapp

    Though I graduated six years ago, I still sometimes feel like a recent grad. Your suggestion about “Informational Interviewing” is really on the money. Interviewing lawyers might have saved the sorry three years of law school it took me to figure out that hell would have to turn to dry ice before I ever become a lawyer. Sometimes we get an idea in our heads and blaze on through against all the odds. Live and learn, right?

    Thanks for an upbeat take on what could have been a very dreary subject.

    1. Thanks for coming to Broadside!

      I was so terrified of changing fields (which I ultimately never did) that it took me three tries to even attend an informational session at NYSID, my design school. What made an enormous difference was having the man who presented that evening (super smart) become a mentor to me for a while as I decided whether or not to attend. When I pelted him with questions after his presentation, he told me I’d make a great designer (?!) because I was so verbally confident — as designers must sell their ideas. That had (!?) never occurred to me. Much as I absolutely loved design training, I wasn’t sure I wanted to start all over again at the bottom and my ex-husband bailed as well, so making $10/hr wasn’t an option any more. But I have never been so happy in a classroom and that alone was a discovery for me. It was wonderful experience, so I’m glad I did it.

      I also realized (very humbling) how differently we learn. I’m great at hands-on drawing/painting, with art history, with color. I almost flunked drafting and realized my spatial sense is not as strong as I’d like. I completely loved using a totally different set of skills than verbal/writing.

      I’m sorry law school was so gross and miserable for you! And I totally get the unwillingness to bail; at least you now have a solid skill set in that field….? I seriously considered doing law (would only have wanted to be a prosecutor, i.e. crappy $$$) and thought, nah. I had heard too many stories of unhappy lawyers and my friends who ARE lawyers are too different from me. I like the freedom of what I do and I get to be adversarial/advocate within journalism, which was the bit that appealed to me. I find the law fascinating, intellectually, but really did not want some grind-it-out lifestyle.

      1. Amy Knapp

        I’m having trouble piecing your story together. Are you still doing design or is it exclusively journalism now? If so, I’m interested in how/when you made that second transition.

        Lawyers are an unhappy bunch, aren’t they? Almost every lawyer I met before law school told me to do something else. Since I was 22 at the time, naturally that just made me want to do it more. If only lawyers knew about reverse psychology.

        It’s strange that so many artistically inclined people are drawn to study law. What’s the go with that? Do you think it’s because being an artist is scary and so we gravitate toward stability? Or do you think we simply crave to use our right brain more regularly?

        Lastly, isn’t it uncanny how the greatest adventures in life seem to happen when our partners bail on us? I should get my heart broken more often. It’s good for business.

      2. I only earn my living as a writer, although I have a post coming up that talks about my revenue streams and one of those does finally use some of my design training. So I never did make the transition.

        I am sure some lawyers enjoy the field a great deal or no one would do it for a living. It seems counter-intuitive to do something everyone warns you away from, but to each his own. I have certainly noticed that many Americans believe any failure/disappointment is deeply personal and it will NEVER happen to them; Canadians are more cautious and risk-averse. So if I had been thus warned, I doubt I would have chosen that path. No one warned me away from design school, for which I am glad. I loved it.

        The insane amount of debt most students have to assume now is another reason I have a serious aversion to acquiring any further formal education, unless it was a free ride. Not to mention my age.

        The goal for me with law was not stability — you can get canned any time, anywhere — but the intellectual challenge of certain kinds of law. I wasn’t eager to work in corporate or tax law, or real estate, for example, all of which are likely quite lucrative.

        One heartbreak was quite sufficient for me.

      3. Amy Knapp

        Yes, I see where you are coming from. That’s a very sensible position. I’m more from the Oscar Wilde school of thought when it comes to advice (ex. “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it . It is never of any use to oneself.”) To each her own, I suppose.

  4. Pingback: Post Grad= Post Stress? Not A Chance. « FeminisTech

  5. Don

    Real good stuff. A lot of what you’ve said has been part of my own life and I have valued those things immensely. In the end you always get through and survive. There are many, many of those survivors around us and their stories speak in to the very essence of our own lives. You do always get through and survive.

    1. Good to hear this from a fellow survivor! I think it’s way too easy to freak OUT and focus on all the things that aren’t working instead of putting your head down and just getting on with it. Drama wastes a lot of valuable energy better spent elsewhere.

  6. What a terrific post, Caitlin. Refreshing, actionable and positive tips. I shared it with my nephew who recently graduated and is job hunting. It’s always useful to put things into perspective. Sometimes, when you think it’s the end of the world, you just have to open up a newspaper to realize you have it pretty darned good, all things considered.

  7. Vicky, thanks so much!

    It’s so easy to feel miserable when you have not yet acquired much of a work history and are eager to do so. I look back on the seven years I lived alone, between husbands, and how very tight money was for me during many of them. I made it. I managed to keep my home and paid $500 every month for health insurance — and had very little $$$ left over for amusement. But I survived. That gives me tremendous confidence.

    Kids today need to hear it and feel it for themselves. I wish people were much less eager to share their “I’m wealthy and fabulous!” tales and share strategies for tough(er) times instead. The mass media are also very complicit in this.

  8. Thank you for this. I think it’s particularly helpful for us to remember the unplugging a bit every day so that we don’t forget that life happens outside of screen sometimes. It’s easy to get caught up in the social media freight train which is rollin’ ever onwards, faster every day.

    1. And don’t forget, ever, that what people project/say on FB and Twitter may bear only a very slight resemblance to the truth. It’s very easy now to feel lousy and intimidated by how FAB others’ lives are, when in fact we often do not know the granular reality.

      1. Oh, exactly. It’s so interesting seeing studies of depression in teens linked to facebook, etc. – it’s easy to forget that you can’t compare your life (full of ups, downs and in betweens) to someone else’s highlight reel.

      2. One of the most powerful statements I ever heard (in the mid 80s when I was in my late 20s) at a medical conference….we all compare our external facades when we have no idea what the internal picture really is. How could it NOT be intimidating? You said it very well!

  9. samanthavance

    Just started following the blog! Super excited for your book – considering I’ve worked my fair share of retail and understand being undervalued and overworked. I’m a senior in college, terrified of graduation, so thank you. Currently I freelance for Time Out New York, intern with Country Living, write my own blog and guest write for afreshcoat blog as well. Hope it all pays one day! Until then, I’ll just keep trying to leave good impressions! Thanks again.

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