June 18, 2012

Another Reason College Grads Can’t Find Work

According to a recent Associated Press survey conducted by Northeastern University, approximately 54% of new college graduates are either jobless or underemployed, usually finding themselves saddled with mounds of debt.

The weak economy certainly is the primary factor behind this grim fact. That said, there’s another reason why so many of them are out of work and unable to pay off their loans: the overwhelming majority of them have absolutely no idea how to properly apply for a job.

As someone who has read thousands of cover letters and resumes since I started my financial PR firm in 2002, I can categorically say that 99% of “kids today” do a terrible job of presenting and marketing themselves to prospective employers.  Their cover letters are generally boring and rambling, and their resumes are often sophomoric and unprofessional.

Here’s my list of the five most common, but less obvious, mistakes that new entrants to the job market regularly make in their cover letters and resumes when applying for a job:

1. “I”, “My” and “Me.” – It’s fine to talk about one’s self somewhat, but you need to tell me what you can do for me.  Why do you want to join my company? What is it about your skill set and previous experiences that make you a good fit for us?  Recently, I received what was generally a good cover letter, except the applicant started off every paragraph with either “I” or “My.”

Many employers already see today’s youth as very self-indulgent and me-oriented.  Break the mold.

2. Citing the Wrong Reasons for Wanting to Join the Company – Employers, myself included, care about what a prospective employee can do for them and not vice versa. Therefore, this is wrong: “I want to join Dukas Public Relations (DPR) because it will be a great place for me to start my career and learn about the PR industry.” I am not your career counselor or friend (not yet, at least)!

This is much better: “I want to join DPR because I love financial media and would find it very rewarding to regularly place clients on TV and in the newspaper.”

3. Long, meandering cover letters that focus on the wrong things. If you’re a recent college graduate, chances are that you haven’t had too much relevant experience, which is okay.  But don’t write 500 words about how your experience as a waitress or a customer service rep taught you the importance of timeliness, maintaining a positive attitude, or how to deal with people effectively.  That’s all banal.

Get to the point quickly and keep it simple and relevant – and don’t try to fake it if you don’t have the right experience; for example: “Although I don’t have hands-on financial PR experience, I understand the power of the media and its role in determining consumer and investor behavior.”  That’s a winner.

Just about every cover letter, however, begins, “I read your job posting on Jobs.com and am very interested in the position.  I am a recent graduate of Rutgers University, where I majored in communications and minored in art history.”  That’s nice, but boring and really not that important. The applicant has just wasted valuable space in the cover letter telling me nothing that sets him or her apart from the hundreds of other applicants.

If you graduated from Harvard or Yale, you should definitely tell me that in the first line, but otherwise, I am much less concerned about where you graduated from and what you majored in than I am in why you want to work for me and what you can do for our firm.

4. Putting irrelevant experiences on resumes.  Camp counselor, lifeguard, director of pledge week, waiter….These are all great jobs, but nothing that will make you stand out. Some applicants actually have relevant work experience or internships and should focus on those experiences at the expense of all others. But if your resume is filled with the typical summer jobs, there is no need to list 7-8 bullet points under each, trying to explain all of the things you did there.  Chances are that employers don’t really care too much about what you did on an internship or summer job, they just want to know that you had one.

5. Go to the company’s website. Tell the employer something—anything—that shows that you did some research and understand what the company does, how it is positioned, what sets it apart, and who its clients are.

For instance, if you’re applying for a position at DPR, tell me that you’re impressed with the work that we are doing for Raymond James and that you’d love to be a part of the team that regularly secures ongoing print and broadcast opportunities for the firm’s executives.

I don’t envy today’s college graduates.  Competition for good jobs is stiff and the economy likely will be choppy for the foreseeable future.  However, if job seekers can do a better job of promoting themselves, they stand a far better chance of landing a coveted position, paying down their debt, and realizing their long-term career aspirations.

Richard Dukas