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Mixing Old School With New

In today's technical job market, graduates need to mix traditional and modern job-search skills

By Anne Baye Ericksen

Between classes, labs, internships, campus activities and part-time jobs, your schedule is booked solid; there is very little time for anything else. That's why the Internet, emails and Instant Messaging are such an important part of everyday life. Thanks to the lightning speed of cyberspace, you can run a virtual study group, chat with friends, keep your parents updated on school happenings, and even discuss questions or concerns with a professor with just a few keystrokes. It's amazing how much can be done in a matter of minutes.

When it comes to your professional job search, however, the convenience of instant communication may not be your most effective tool. Of course, there are job boards and online applications that can kick-start the process, but career counselors caution students against relying too heavily on technology. "If you limit the job search to strictly electronic means, then you run the risk of becoming a number and not getting the attention you deserve," advises Cheryl Allmen-Vinnedge, director of the Career Center at San JosŽ State University in California.

At its core, an effective job search comes down to making a positive and lasting impression on potential employers. You have to convince them that you're the best choice for the job. The key? Attention to the specifics: A well-written cover letter, gracious interviewing skills and a personal touch. "Job candidates have to have these job search skills," says Sue Michaelson, assistant dean and director of cooperative education for the College of Engineering at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

But that doesn't mean candidates should completely discard the technological benefits of today's business world. In fact, the most successful jobseekers combine the old with the new. "Those who are ambitious understand the value of using a multi-system approach," adds Allmen-Vinnedge.

Here, Allmen-Vinnedge and Michaelson are joined by Stan Weeks, a college relations representative for Boeing, the aerospace company based in Chicago, and Dan Miller, vice president of content for, the online job-search firm, headquartered in Maynard, Mass., to expound on the best way graduates can tap into all the resources at their disposal to get positive results in their job-search endeavors.

From an employer's perspective, what are the benefits of using the Internet to seek out job candidates?

Michaelson: For starters, it's easier for companies to receive resumes electronically.

Miller: Technology is in place to provide a better match for both the jobseeker and employer. Companies look for qualified candidates through keyword and filtering programs to get a better return of results. They do a search on specific data points, such as a bachelor's or master's degree, and use those points to screen out candidates as well as to acquire applicants.

How can students best use the technology?

Michaelson: The technology has increased the job search opportunities students have tenfold because the Internet is the window to the world. They have the opportunity to put their resumes out there for so many companies.

Miller: Looking for a job is a lot of work and students are busy. Job boards often offer a service where students set up a set of criteria, such as you have x skill, want to live in x area, and have x experience, so when the jobs that match those factors are posted, they appear in the student's inbox. They can check it on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. It's a way to keep track of the new jobs being posted on sites.

What are the down sides to an electronic job search?

Allmen-Vinnedge: Students can feel like they sent their resumes to some kind of cyberspace black hole. The candidate may not be certain the resume was received and/or being seriously reviewed. Although employers recognize the effectiveness of the electronic tools, they also acknowledge the lack of interaction with applicants. That's why some companies have been adding more customer service to the process, such as professional communications that are sent back to the applicants notifying them of the receipt of their resumes.

With so many companies preferring the online application, how can job candidates make their resumes stand out from the pack?

Miller: Students should search the company's site and job boards to see how the job descriptions are written. Find out what words are used and what skill sets are sought. As an applicant, you have to understand what is important to the employer. The savvier jobseeker understands what the buzzwords are and puts them on his or her resume.

Weeks: Engineer your resume for that company. Tailor it to the job you're applying for, which will set you apart from the pack of generic resumes. Express your main interest in the job and why you're applying for it.

Miller: Also, quantify what you've done. I think there's a big difference between accomplishments and responsibilities-accomplishments hold more weight. If you put together a project or research paper that made an impact, then highlight the specifics.

Michaelson: List actual experience, like running a design team, and don't be modest. Not only does it show the fact that you have the ability to work on a team, but [it shows] what you did as a leader. Or did you work on a $500,000 project during an internship? Put that in. Companies want results-oriented people, so show that through your resume.

Even though employers have cut back on the number of campus visits they make, how can students take advantage of the times representatives are on site?

Weeks: When you go to an on-campus event, make sure company representatives are aware you wish to apply for a job. Too many times people only ask about the business and do not promote themselves. It's a chance to set yourself apart because that's the only time companies will be on campus, and they're there because they are interested in you.

Allmen-Vinnedge: Job fairs, open houses, and professional association meetings all give applicants the ability to distinguish themselves from other applicants. These are opportunities to display their communication and leadership skills, which cannot be adequately assessed electronically.

As students get deeper into the process, how significant do the traditional job-search functions become? Company research? Cover letters?

Miller: There's a wealth of information online. Look at a company's press releases. Has it made any acquisitions?

Allmen-Vinnedge: The more you understand about the company the more likely you're going to see how you would fit in and how you'll be able to add value to the organization.

Weeks: The cover letter is a chance for you to show the company a personal touch. That is somewhat gone in the job-search process, but it's your opportunity to show that you make the effort.

The interview is perhaps the most crucial point in the process. It's when applicants display not only their qualities, but also when they can really express why they're the best choice. With that said, how can students use the experience to their advantage?

Miller: When you go on an interview, walk into the office like you've already spent time with the company. Be prepared to explain how your skill set matches what the company needs.

Allmen-Vinnedge: Determine who your interviewer is and what he or she is interested in hearing about you. Your future manager wants to know how easy you will be to manage and if you're a cultural fit for the department. Colleagues want to know about your ability to function as a team member.

Michaelson: A number of companies have begun to use behavioral interviews. These are different in that they integrate scenarios that force candidates to formulate more complete, thoughtful answers. They want to hear more of a cause-and-effect process being explained.

Weeks: Be prepared to ask the interviewer questions. Get the interviewer to talk about him or herself and the company. It gives you a competitive advantage because it shows you want to know why someone wants to work there. The second interview is the time to ask technical questions. What will I be doing on a daily basis? What will my first day look like? Where do you see me in five years?

Allmen-Vinnedge: And dress appropriately. I advise students to dress in a suit. You can always take the jacket off or dress more casually when you're on the job if that's appropriate, but you need to look professional for the interview. Pay attention to your vocabulary and demeanor, turn off cell phones, and no backpacks!

What type of follow-up expectations do employers have? Are thank-you notes necessary?

Michaelson: Some companies will interview candidates for three months and you might be in the first group, so it's easy to get lost. I suggest students write a follow-up letter or email to the interviewer, reiterating how they could be integrated into the company and how they're hoping to hear from the hiring manager soon. Most students use the email system, but they shouldn't forget the format of what a letter should look like. We allow ourselves to get sloppy just because of the nature of the technology.

Allmen-Vinnedge: I would follow up with a professional thank-you letter to each person or group you met with. Many applicants are serious about preparing for the job interview, but they often miss the post-interview opportunity to further explain who they are. It's a chance to showcase your thoroughness in getting a project done.

Miller: A handwritten letter is very effective because it will be delivered to the person. As an employer, I'm always looking to hire someone who makes a point to be noticed.

Weeks: You want your name to be the last name they see.

What are some common mistakes soon-to-be graduates make in a job search?

Weeks: It's hard to sell yourself and I think students tend to undersell themselves, especially when they have an expertise in something.

Allmen-Vinnedge: Making the process too automatic and using one resume and one cover letter without customizing it to the company.

Miller: Also, it's surprising how many resumes are poorly written and contain misspellings. It sounds so obvious, but if an employer has two or three choices, the one with the typos hits the wastebasket.

Michaelson: You can't rely on a spell check to find incorrect usage of words like "they're" and "their". Mistakes like that shouldn't happen because it means you're not checking your work.

Allmen-Vinnedge: Typos or misspellings are an indicator of your organizational skills and ability to pay attention to details. Employers will not tolerate mistakes. You're making a first impression and your resume, cover letter, and thank-you letters are representative of who you are.

What final advice can you offer students in how to make the most of both the electronic and traditional job-search approaches?

Miller: Blogs are the new phenomenon in job searching and can be used as a marketing tool, so make sure yours is professional. Employers will conduct background checks on the web, and if you're criticizing your teacher or boss because you had a bad day, that'll leave a negative [feeling] with hiring managers. Rather, use it as a place to showcase your best work. If you're a terrific programmer who really understands Cobalt, then showcase it in your web log so a potential employer can find it.

Weeks: Find out where you want to go with your career and what you want to do with it. Take advantage of the mock interviews and career information sessions on campus.

Allmen-Vinnedge: Articulate your accomplishments and communicate those with as many people as you can. Keep extending your network so others become aware of your skills and have copies of your resume to distribute on your behalf. A job search can be compared with planting a garden: You plant a lot of seeds and some will germinate and some will not. We encourage our students to promote that germination whenever they can by using a variety of means.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a free-lance writer based in Southern California.

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