College graduation season is around the corner, but you’ve got bigger things to worry about than ordering your cap and gown. The reality is you might not have a job lined up by the time you collect your diploma.
Sure, the job market is steadily improving. (And wages are up—finally!) However, finding a great first job is always challenging. Case in point: Roughly half of recent college graduates consider themselves either underemployed or in a job that doesn’t require a college degree, according to Accenture Strategy’s 2015 U.S. College Graduate Employment Study.
Monster spoke with career experts to find out why many recent college grads find themselves in a rut—and how you can make sure you aren’t one of them.
Submitting a generic resume won’t get you called in for an interview, says Courtney Templin, president of JB Training Solutions, a Chicago-based career development firm.
Granted, customizing your resume for every job that you apply for can be tedious and time-consuming (especially when you’re trying to enjoy your last few months of real-world freedom). Therefore, instead of applying to dozens of online job postings, find five or 10 that are great opportunities and take the time to tailor your resume, says Templin.
It’s tough to craft a compelling cover letter, especially during your first job search. A common misstep, though, says Templin: “People make the mistake of regurgitating what’s on their resume.” Instead, write about experiences that illustrate your strengths so you present yourself as a solution to the company’s problem.
“Talk about the value you bring to the organization,” says millennial career coach Kim Carbia, who recommends condensing your cover letter to one page.
To get your resume into a hiring manager’s hands, it’ll likely need to pass through an application tracking system, says Wendy Enelow, executive resume writer and co-author of Modernize Your Resume: Get Noticed . . . Get Hired. That means you’ll need to incorporate the right keywords, says Enelow; find them by looking at the language used in the job posting.
Formatting also plays a factor. While your resume may contain the necessary keywords, if you have a complex design (e.g., you use a fancy font choice) it may prevent the document from translating to the hiring manager’s computer or smartphone. “Don’t get overly creative,” says Carbia.
Employee referrals are your best path to scoring an interview, the Top Sources of Hire 2015 report by talent management software provider SilkRoad found. Thus, you’ll need to effectively leverage your network, but think broadly.
“When college students hear the word ‘network’ they often don’t think about their larger social network, which includes relatives, friends, even their parents’ friends,” says Templin. “These people are already invested in you and want to help you succeed.”
Take a targeted approach by creating a list of companies where you’d like to work, and then share it with your sphere. “Speak to every single person in your network,” says Carbia. “You never know where your next job is going to come from.”
Your resume and experiences only go so far to help you get the job. You have got to crush the in-person audition to get the offer.
You likely haven’t had much experience yet with this kind of business conversation, in which you need to play up your strengths, use anecdotal evidence to highlight your skills, and not come off as cocky in the process. So it’s extremely important to do practice mock interviews.
Ask a college professor to help, recommends Joan Kuhl, founder and president of New York-based research and career consulting agency Why Millennials Matter. Ideally, your sounding board is still active in the field and tapped into what employers are looking for in entry-level hires.
The job interview is an opportunity to show you understand the organization’s brand, so brush up on company news and weave those topics into conversation. “Show you’ve done your homework,” says Carbia.
You’ve got to accept the fact that your first job probably won’t be your dream job. “Millennials have been told by their parents, teachers, and mentors that they should do what they love, so they expect to find their dream job right out of college,” says Templin. But the reality is that it takes time—and typically some kind of dues paying—to get to your career nirvana. Don’t settle, but also don’t rush to reject an opportunity that just isn’t 100% perfect. You may be able to gain more of the experiences you crave once you’re in the door and impressing people.
More appropriately, think of your first job as a stepping-stone to your long-term career goals. And also, make sure your salary expectations are realistic; the Accenture study found that close to 50% of last year’s graduating seniors expected to make $40,000 or more a year in their first job, but only a quarter of 2014 grads earned that much.
This article originally appeared on Monster and is reprinted with permission.