Making the job search work for you

For Alexandra Levit, helping twentysomethings navigate the corporate world is a way of life. I first spoke with the author of 2004’s They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World after she heard about our Gen Y story and reached out to me. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to reflect a bit on her experience as a career consultant — she’s the founder and president of Inspiration @Work, lectures regularly on workplace issues, and also somehow manages to be a VP at Edelman.

A self-described “highly ambitious straight-‘A’ student determined to make it to the top,” Levit says she had a rude awakening upon realizing, after graduating from Northwestern in 1998, that the strategies she’d used to succeed all her life weren’t going to get the immediate results she craved in the “real” world. So after some suffering, she started writing about it. Now, through her books and her career advice blog, Water Cooler Wisdom, she shares some of her hard-earned corporate wisdom with those just starting out. Today, a sample just for us…


Whether you’re just graduating from school or a little further along in your career, searching for employment in the business world is more challenging than any assignment you’ll be given on the job. Not only do you have to decide exactly what to look for, but you also have to find a way in the door and make that doorstop hold until you have an offer in hand. Feeling overwhelmed? Here are some steps to simplify the process.

  • Learn about thyself. Take time to do a self-assessment of your values, how you like to work, and what you’d be compelled to do even if you never got paid. Then list your skills (or the stuff you do better than most of your friends) and create a personal mission statement. In one job that I thought had nothing for me, it wasn’t until I thought about how much I loved creative competitions like The Apprentice that I realized I didn’t necessarily have to go to a new company; I just had to look for a position at my marketing agency that allowed me to pitch new businesses. Having a rough map of the goals you need to achieve helps you get your career going in the right direction.
  • Gather information. Research careers and industries that make sense for your skills, personal mission, and geographic preferences. Hit the library and the Web, set up informational interviews, take relevant coursework, and arrange to go onsite at a company or companies in your chosen field. That last part is crucial: A friend of mine was convinced she wanted to be a teacher right up until she spent a few days in a local middle school. After a 24-hour headache, she thanked her lucky stars that she hadn’t wasted time and resources getting a master’s degree in education only to find out that the career wasn’t for her.
  • Scope the field. Be proactive and creative instead of relying on advertised job openings. Do your homework and network to learn about the well-respected firms in your industry. And make direct contact with employees at the firms you’d like to work for. When I moved out to Eastern Long Island, I was looking at a three-hour commute to and from my job in Manhattan, which clearly wasn’t ideal. But there weren’t any marketing firms in my new location, so instead I looked for Fortune 500 companies there that did their marketing communications in-house. There were only a few, but I made direct contact with the people whose names were listed on the company press releases and had two job offers before I even moved.
  • Prepare your materials. Develop an irresistible resume by tailoring a document for each field you’re pursuing, listing titles that accurately reflect your job descriptions, showcasing ownership of projects, and using a functional format if you don’t have a lot of experience. If any of your experience can be highlighted visually, create a professional portfolio to take along on interviews. One of my favorite stories involves a college student who wanted to get an extremely competitive internship, but had no real business experience to speak of. He told me that he worked at Baskin Robbins but didn’t want to put the fact that he “sold ice cream” on his resume. So we brainstormed and figured out that he’d done much more than that; he’d actually helped the owner design and distribute a coupon that increased store traffic by 20%. This little tidbit of experience was a resume gem because it demonstrated a major tangible contribution to his employer’s bottom-line, something any recruiter can appreciate.
  • Meet and greet. Before going on an interview, do enough research so that you know what to expect and can speak intelligently on the points related to your job function. Line up airtight references and research salary information in advance. When you’re in front of the employer, speak confidently, don’t divulge negative or personal information, and listen to see if the job is a good fit for you. A colleague of mine knew enough to turn down a “perfect” job because she’d taken the time to observe the culture of the organization and realized that the people currently in her potential position weren’t happy and growing. She knew that she would be a square peg in a round hole there, and instead of wedging herself in despite the signs, she moved onto the next opportunity and found something far better.
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