Prepare for more than one job
It wasn't long ago that earning a bachelor's degree virtually guaranteed solid job opportunities for graduates to launch careers in their chosen professions.
It's a different era now, and college graduates no longer can expect to transition quickly from campus to the working world. Half of college graduates in the class of 2012 were either jobless or underemployed, according to an analysis of government data for The Associated Press.
Career experts say it's more important than ever for graduates to prepare themselves in their college years for more than one way to enter the workforce. "Don't think in terms of a straight line to one job. Consider applying your education to different jobs," says Mitchell D. Weiss, an adjunct professor of finance at the University of Hartford and co-founder of the university's Center for Personal Financial Responsibility.
Taking the following steps will enable you to better position yourself to land the job you want in your field after graduation.
Seek out internships and work experience
Gaining work experience in their field is the most important thing that helps undergraduates open doors to career opportunities, says Farouk Dey, director of the Career and Professional Development Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
This can be accomplished through an internship, a part-time job on campus or during the summer months, a research project conducted with one of your college professors, or volunteer work. Often, students do more than one of these and cap off their college years working full time as an intern at a company in their field.
"An internship increases the likelihood of getting a full-time position with that organization or another organization that values that experience," Dey says.
Weiss says an internship also serves two other purposes: It provides college students with professional contacts they can use for references for jobs after college, and it helps students determine their career path and whether a particular job matches their skills.
Network with people in your chosen field
Laurence Shatkin, an author of books to help people make career decisions, says networking is very important because it's the way you connect with people who know about job openings.
"You've got to start trying to find employers in your field," Shatkin says.
He suggests that college students build a network of people to help guide them in their job searches. They would include contacts on campus and in the industry. Consult professors and academic advisers to recommend potential organizations they can contact about career opportunities, he says.
These people also can serve as mentors who they can talk to about each step of their career preparation and job search. In addition to professors and advisers, possible mentors could include a boss you've had on the job, or even a sibling or parent.
To determine where to apply, conduct online research with professional trade associations to find the major employers in your field. Then, contact those companies to introduce yourself and express your interest in learning more about possible careers in the industry.
Working an internship and reaching out to alumni from your college also are valuable for enhancing your network of professional contacts to find career options, Shatkin says.
Succeed in the classroom
In searching for your first job out of college, employers will expect you to have good grades, especially in the courses in your major. How important your grades are and how high your GPA needs to be varies, depending on your field and the needs of the companies in your industry.
"It's a way to measure success of students and their potential for success in a company," Dey says.
While grades matter, Shatkin says there are cases when employers are more concerned that you have solid work experience and have obtained your degree.
Think broadly about job options
University of Hartford's Weiss says it's crucial for college students to keep an open mind about their career paths and to let their desires, their skills and their work experience lead to first jobs rather than targeting a specific position.
By thinking broadly and remaining flexible, students will discover their college classroom study and work experience has prepared them for jobs they haven't even considered, he says.
Weiss gives an example of a student who was an English major and focused on becoming a teacher after graduation. However, his versatility and flexibility enabled him to land a better-paying job as a writer for a Wall Street investment firm.
The key take-away from career experts: "Keep your mind open and be prepared to take advantage when different opportunities come along," Shatkin says. "Don't fence yourself in."
Take the job search seriously
"Approach the job search like it's a job," Weiss says.
That means you need to prepare to market yourself by drafting a resume and cover letter, and learning how to use an interview to articulate what you've accomplished during your college years that makes you valuable in a workplace.
The cover letter is important because it allows you "to show some of your personality," Weiss says. He recommends that students mail their cover letters and resumes to targeted companies. Then they know they have not been lost in an email spam folder or deleted without being reviewed.
He says mailing hard copies is "a classier way of doing it and shows you are going the extra mile."
Dey says students should create a profile on LinkedIn, the business-oriented social media site, and even create their own website because a job search is about viewing yourself as a brand and "managing your brand identity."