For many college seniors, late April means preparing to leave their campus nest and take their first leap into the "real" world of work. With graduation day quickly approaching, students who haven't yet secured post-graduation employment may be panicking about their future.
But all hope is not lost. In fact, said job search engine Simply Hired, the prospects for the class of 2015 are looking better than in years past. Although just 5 percent of nationwide job openings are targeted specifically to college grads, the number of permanent, full-time positions among those opportunities has increased more than 20 percent since this time last year. Based on past data, Simply Hired also predicted that job postings for new grads will increase in July and October.
If you kick your job search into high gear now, you'll be well on your way to landing your first gig. Hiring experts and business leaders offered their best advice for soon-to-be graduates. [How to Land Your Dream Job]
Know where you want to go
It's OK to go into college not knowing what you want out of your career. But by graduation day, you should at least have some idea of where you want to wind up.
Monica Smith, founder and CEO of investment research firm MarketSmith and data-gathering platform I.Predictus, encouraged new grads to create personal roadmaps for the next one, five and 10 years. It may change as you go, but it will at least help you get moving on your journey.
"Define what's important to you," Smith said. "Pitch your plan to anyone who will listen, and before you know it, you'll acquire the interviewing skills you need to put your plan into action."
"Having a strong personal brand involves knowing where you're going in life," added Alexa Merschel, campus-recruiting leader for PwC US. "Recruiters want to hire young people who have put serious thought into their futures."
Use social media properly
Whether you're looking for open positions on LinkedIn or including links to your Twitter and blog on your résumé, it's more or less expected that social media is going to be involved in your job search in some way. Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer of applicant-tracking system iCIMS, advised building up a strong digital presence to make yourself findable online.
"Social networking sites are great ways to show off your professional skills and expand your network," Vitale told Business News Daily. "They also offer candidates opportunities to connect with and interact with companies to increase their chances of being noticed."
Merschel reminded students that hiring managers are on social media, too, and will most likely search for candidates' profiles. Therefore, those questionable tweets and party photos might not be the smartest way to present yourself, in case an employer finds you online.
"Students should not forget that some of those people [on social media] are potential employers and future colleagues," said Merschel, whose company offers a resource for job seekers called CareerAdvisor. "The best personal brands include a professional and appropriate online presence."
On the flip side, if you know the name of the hiring manager and/or key people at the company you're interviewing with, you can and should use social media as a research tool to prepare yourself, said Nathan Moody, design director of smart-space design firm Stimulant. However, during the interview, ask questions based on the conversation you've just had with the interviewer — not what you've dug up on their social accounts.
"There's a fine line between research and stalking, reasonable inquiry and [invading] privacy, being curious and being creepy," Moody said.
Keep up with industry news
No matter what industry you want to work in, there's likely a trade publication or website that covers the latest happenings in the field. Make it clear to hiring managers that you're not only up to date on industry news, but also have an opinion on it: Employers are looking to add well-informed individuals to their organizations.
"To really stand out, new graduates should stay on top of industry trends and share their perspectives through social media or blogs," Vitale said.
"I'm impressed by candidates that share relevant observations or a unique point of view about the industry," added Courtney Buechert, CEO of advertising agency Eleven Inc. "It shows ingenuity and self-confidence."
In addition to being savvy about broader industry issues, you'll also want to prove to hiring managers that you've done your research on their company. Learning everything you can about a potential employer is important for any job seeker, but new grads can really give themselves an edge by being educated about a company and its specific needs.
"Understand their business and familiarize yourself with their products and services," said Catherine Davis, president of strategic media agency Vizeum US. "It will help you understand their perspective. Make your experience relevant [to the job]. Summer jobs, relevant assignments and digital skill sets can all be fertile ground for discussion."
Show what you've learned
As a brand new college graduate, you're not going to have a lot of professional experience under your belt. But just because you've only had one or two brief internships doesn't mean you're not a valuable employee. Entry-level workers tend to think employers just want to hear about their industry-related qualifications, but Erin Keeley, director of brand development at creative agency mono, said she's more interested in hearing about what a candidate learned from his or her experiences, professional or otherwise.
"Demonstrate self-awareness," Keeley said. "Don't try to package yourself as the perfect candidate that has everything figured out. Help me see what traits you possess and how you would apply those traits to have a positive impact. Also, be honest about what you don't know and what it is you hope to learn. Be a person, not a product."
Cynthia Davies, managing director at design collective Safari Sundays, agreed, noting that this type of "big picture" experiential focus during an interview is especially important for new grads, who generally don't have a fully-formed skill set for the job at hand.
"When I'm hiring, I'm impressed by candidates that highlight life experiences over skills," Davies said. "[Demonstrate] what have you learned about life and how can you apply what you've taken away from your background to your job — what makes you a well-rounded human."
Tell a great story
If two candidates have the same exact qualifications, you can almost bet on a hiring manager choosing the one who told his or her story better. Smith said that storytellers will "make it" in the workforce and in the world, and it's in your best interest to know how to be one.
"Learn to tell a great story of how you grew up, an event that shaped your life or even a vacation that took you to a new place," Smith said. "People want to hear new perspectives. They want to get a sense of your ability to articulate, and they want to know that you are interesting."
Originally published on April 23, 2014. Updated April 23, 2015.