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Advice / Job Search / Networking

Everything You Need to Know to Apply for Your First Job Out of College


Congratulations college seniors—you’re mere weeks away from being done with school forever (or for now, at least). It’s time to celebrate, time to rejoice in the luxury of no more homework, and time to start the job hunt.

While some people hear “job hunt” and panic, you shouldn’t! As daunting as the process can seem, it is a process, and that means anyone can do it successfully. With that said, the first time can be a little overwhelming, which is where I come in—I’ve put together this guide of everything you need to send in your first application.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Figure Out What You Want to Do

First up, the big question that has no right answer: What do you want to do with your life? Wait—before you fill in the blank, know this: You don’t need to figure out your life right now, just your first job (nothing’s permanent!).

If you have no idea where to even start, consider your favorite classes or discussions in college, activities and clubs you’re involved in, really anything you’ve enjoyed in the past few years. What issues get you riled up? What topics bore you to tears? Your initial responses to these should get you close to an industry, if not an actual title. You can refine it even more by asking yourself these questions from Muse writer Lily Zhang: What can I do to help other people? What does my ideal day look like? What do I find intolerable?

Still not sure? Take a look at the company profiles on The Muse and see what sounds interesting to you.

Step 2: Curate Your Online Presence

Now that you know what industry you’d like to go into, it’s time to start crafting your online presence to fit that. Because in almost every single field, you will be Googled by a hiring manager—and you don’t want them to see anything, say, your mother wouldn’t be proud of.

For starters, you’ll want to get your LinkedIn ready by writing an awesome summary highlighting your achievements, skills, and interests. Once that’s all set, you should plan on staying active and engaged on the platform—that means sharing interesting articles, connecting to people, and finding groups you feel comfortable participating in. You might also want to consider editing or privatizing other social media accounts such as Facebook or Instagram that you prefer to use more casually (again, think about your mom).

In addition, you should also consider launching your own personal website, whether it’s a blog or a portfolio. This is a fun and creative way to showcase your work, your hobbies on the side, or your personality—and a lot of times companies will ask you for these supplements in your application.

Step 3: Find Open Positions

So, where do you look to even find postings? My first go-to is The Muse (Duh!). Here, you’ll be able to search by industry, city, level (it’s safe to say you’ll be looking in the entry-level category), or individual companies.

In general, when scrolling through job openings, you’ll want to be looking for the same things you listed earlier in what interested you. For example, if you really want a company with a social mission, take a peek inside the office and listen to what employees say. But be aware of what the posting is looking for in you—if it says a candidate must be proficient in Python and you’ve never heard of that, maybe it’s not the right role for you (or, a sign you should take an online course before applying!).

And, if you’re going into a more niche field, try using specific job search websites that cater to that.

Step 4: Network

Know exactly what company you want to work at, but not seeing any openings? That’s a great reason to start networking. Not only will it help you get your name (and resume) out there, but it’s an opportunity to meet someone who knows a lot about the company and can give you some good advice on how to break into the field—and also maybe some job leads. Even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to an offer at that specific organization, you’ve still made an invaluable connection for down the road.

To do this, you should look into job fairs in your area, connect with professionals over LinkedIn, or reach out to old and new connections you may have and see if they’d be willing to go on a coffee date.

It’s even possible to write an email to someone you haven’t talked to in a while or a distant connection (such as a friend of a friend of a friend) and ask if they can spare 15 or 20 minutes over the phone just to answer a few of your questions. I know it feels a bit awkward, but if asked politely and enthusiastically, there’s a pretty good chance someone would be thrilled to help you out.

Step 5: Create Your Resume

OK, so you found a job you want to apply to—great! Now is the time to put together your application. Before you create your master resume, you’ll want to collect all the important information in one place: your previous positions, your skills, relevant experiences (Read: Winning school pie eating contest does not count), your achievements, and any accomplishments.

Once you’ve compiled all this, it’s time to lay it out professionally. Now, the way you’ll want to organize your resume depends on where you’re applying, as well as what kind of and how much experience you have. But the standard format is experience, skills, and then qualifications. (Note: No objective statement!) Want to make it look really nice? Use any of these free templates. Oh, and for help figuring out what to put on there when you have little to no experience, check this out.

Now, you might’ve noticed “master resume” above. That’s because you’re going to tailor this document for each position you apply to—but having everything in one place will make that as easy as possible. Long story short: Tailoring means making sure your resume looks perfect for the position you want, and it’s usually as easy as making a few tweaks. (Need more info on how to go about this? Click here.)

Edit Your Resume

Before submitting your tailored resume, you’re going to want to do the following to make sure it’s in tip-top shape:

Step 6: Write Your Cover Letter

Your cover letter is your chance to elaborate on the experience listed in your resume while also proving you understand the company culture. So, depending on where you’re applying, you might want to talk about different things. (Hint: Use the job description to know which skills to focus on and where to start the conversation.)

And yes, I know this is easier said than done, so I’d suggest checking out this
cover letter template and this one to make your life easier. (Or, if you want to make your life easiest, consider investing in a coach who will help you through this whole resume and cover letter process.)

Edit Your Cover Letter

The biggest mistakes entry-level candidates make are that their cover letters are too long and too full of nothing. While it’s important to be professional, it’s also important to let your voice and experience shine through. So, when editing, be sure to look out for filler lines that make you sound like a corporate robot, such as “I am uniquely qualified” or “It would be an honor to work for [company].” Instead, explain how you’re qualified and why you’d be honored to be a part of the team. And of course, proofread! (Seriously, that could be all it takes for someone to throw it in the trash.)

Now click submit. There you go, you’ve applied for your first job!

Or, more likely, you read this article and wondered how you could possibly do this over and over again just to land one position. Yes, it is time consuming—but with practice it gets easier and more natural.

And I know, if you’re still in classes, there’s no doubt you won’t have full days to focus on this task. However, allotting yourself designated slots throughout the week is a great way to get going—and ensure you’re completing apps in a timely manner. According to Muse writer Leslie Moser, you’ll want to spend around 10 to 20 hours per week perusing open positions, scheduling appointments with your campus career services (if available), attending informational interviews, updating resumes, and writing cover letters.

The last thing I’ll say is that even if you don’t land the job you want on the first few tries, it doesn’t mean your efforts are worthless. Be patient and try to learn from each experience—and when you finally receive that dream position (which you will, obviously), let me know on Twitter!