Advice for Recent Graduates from HowStuffWorks.com Founder Marshall Brain

Marshall Brain is the founder of HowStuffWorks.com, an award-winning site that provides resources on thousands of topics.  Mr. Brain was kind enough to answer some questions I had about the challenges recent college graduates are facing. For more information, visit the career channel at HowStuffWorks.

1. How do recent graduates get started in a career when they have no relevant experience?

If your experience is minimal or non-existent, you face one of life’s greatest employment challenges.  You need to go into your interviews with a positive attitude and demonstrate your flexibility, your social skills and your ability to get the job done even if you have to learn new skills and meet demanding deadlines.

It’s a tough economy right now, so the job market is hypercompetitive; experience is a key differentiator between candidates.  It’s never too late to start building up relevant experience through intern positions, co-oping, volunteering, etc.  If you have no experience, be willing to take an entry-level job in order to build experience, and then work your way up. Or be willing to work for free in a post-graduation internship.

2. How can job candidates best prepare for an interview?

There are some great books out there, and many web sites, that have tons of advice on general interviewing skills. There are books on common interview questions and how to answer them correctly. In your specific field it is likely that there are sample “stumper” questions available on web sites, as well as advice on how to deal with them. If you have “problem areas” in your resume, research how to talk your way around them and accentuate the positive. Then practice. Assume the first several interviews you do will be a little rough around the edges, so do those with companies you don’t really care about. Get used to answering the questions and smooth out your responses. Ask your friends to interview you. If it’s a possibility, go to the career center and ask for a practice interview. Practice. Then when the “big interview” falls in your lap, it will be easy(er).

3. What are the most important soft skills and technical skills for graduates to have?

Your degree should have covered the technical skills, which you should have been able to perfect with internships in your chosen field. Therefore, technical skills should be solid at this point.

“Soft skills” include things like leadership ability, communication (spoken and written), teamwork, relationship-building, work ethic, problem solving, etc. You should have been building these skills over the last four years by taking on leadership roles (which would look good on a resume), working on team-based projects and extracurricular activities (which would look good on a resume), solving real-world problems in competitions (which would look good on a resume), etc. Assuming you have done none of those things, then your next-best option is to read about these soft skills. Get books on things like leadership, communication, negotiation, team building, business ethics, etc. and become a sponge.

4. What industries should graduates focus on while job searching?

Ideally a graduate should focus on industries in his or her area of expertise. But jobs are so scarce at the moment that graduates may want to cast a wider net. Or you may want to consider working for no money if you have no experience (I.E. a post-graduation internship). There are some startups getting venture funding right now. You might look for a venture-backed company like that since it would be hiring. Some industries (e.g. Green energy) are getting a boost from federal stimulus funding. Do some research and see which companies in your area are getting funding and may be hiring. Some areas are affected less in a recession. For example, people still get sick when the economy drops. Look for recession-proof industries.

5. How can new employees make a good impression during their first jobs or internships?

Some general traits that make a good impression with employers: working harder than everyone else, meeting deadlines, exceeding expectations, making friends, helping others, being grateful, figuring out what needs doing and getting it done before being asked, understanding what is important to the bottom line and focusing on that, putting first things first, making customers ecstatic, etc.

6. Many students are going to graduate school to ride out the recession. Is this a good idea?

Graduate school is something to consider regardless of the economy.  The focus should be on making the most of your time and opportunities to fill holes in your resume.  Graduate school is just one proven way to strengthen your professional profile.  Build your soft skills.  Get intern positions.  If you come out of graduate school with a stellar resume and a marketable advanced degree, you are putting yourself in a position to succeed.

7. What options do recent graduates have if they’re having trouble making payments on student loan debt?

Every lender is different, and there are many different types of student loans. So if you are having trouble making payments, you need to communicate with your lender(s) and find out what options may be available. In some cases you can arrange for deferment or forbearance. You may also be able to delay payments with graduate school, military service, AmeriCorps service, etc. Loan consolidation may also help a little. Research all options.

But you might also want to consider sucking it up and getting started with payments. Get two jobs, move in with your parents (or get a couple of roommates to drastically lower rent), ride the bus instead of getting a car, etc. Yes, it’s painful. But the sooner you start paying, the sooner you get done.

8. Any other tips for recent graduates?

You have chosen one of the toughest economies in several decades to graduate. Expect things to be harder than normal in the job search, and do what you can to avoid discouragement. Do not forget that getting rejected is a normal part of job hunting, even in a good economy.

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