if you’re a recent grad, you’re probably making these mistakes in your job search

It can be intimidating to be a new grad just entering the post-college job market for the first time. While most grads mastered the world of classes quite well after 16+ years of them, the norms and conventions of the work world – and of job-searching, in particular – are often foreign.

Here are eight of the most common ways new grads trip themselves up when looking for a job.

1. Not having a realistic idea of what you’re qualified for. Too many college students come out of school without understanding what jobs they have a realistic shot at doing. As a result, they often shoot too high and then get frustrated when they don’t get interviews. Make sure to talk to people in the field you’d like to enter to understand how best to frame your candidacy and what jobs to target first.

2. Including loads of details about your course work on your résumé. Recent grads spend the first half of their résumé on education, notes on coursework and honors. But what you really want to play up is work experience, not details about your courses. A hiring manager is likely to spend only 20 seconds on the initial scan of your résumé and what she needs to see in that time is work experience directly relevant to what she’s hiring for, not a list of college courses you took.

3. Having a lengthy, multi-page résumé. When you’re right out of school, you rarely have enough work experience to justify a résumé longer than one page – and it can make you come across as self-important or unable to edit. Stick to a single page if your experience is limited.

4. Not reaching out to your network. You might feel silly reaching out to your parents’ friend about a job, like they keep pushing you to, but using your network in a job search is both normal and often extraordinarily helpful. People in your network can connect you with jobs, refer you to hiring managers and give you valuable information about your field. If you ignore them because you’re shy or not convinced it will absolutely work, you’ll forfeit a tool that can be one of the most helpful in a job search.

5. Searching for your dream job. You’re unlikely to be qualified for your dream job straight out of school, and holding out for one will make you lose out on other opportunities. More importantly, you really can’t know whether something is a dream job or not until you’re working there. While you might think that you might love doing that work for that company, it might turn out that the boss is a nightmare, or your co-workers are horrible, or the company makes you bring in a doctor’s note every time you have a cold, or your work load is so unreasonably high that you end up having panic attacks every morning. It’s smarter to look for a job you can do well and with which you’ll be reasonably happy.

6. Not helping employers understand how your experience relates to their needs. New grads often come out of school with a strong package of skills but not much understanding of how to frame those qualifications in terms that will resonate with employers. The language and framework that worked in academia may not work with employers, so this piece of the transition from campus to work can be a hard one.

7. Being overly formal. Some new grads expect the work world to be more formal than it often is, and this culture disconnect can show in everything from overly stiff cover letters, to unnecessarily formal emails to co-workers, to feeling awkward calling their much older boss by a first name. They can make a better impression by realizing that employers and co-workers – even if many decades older – are regular people just like they are and generally appreciate being treated that way. On the other hand…

8. Not being formal enough. While new grads shouldn’t be excessively formal, they shouldn’t go to the other extreme either. Most offices expect a certain degree of decorum: no slang or text-speak when talking with your boss or a client, no bare feet in meetings, and no treating the receptionist like you just met her in a bar, among other things.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Bryce*

    Some others to consider (that I’ve made) are:

    9. Focusing only on a few “hot” positions/industries/fields. For one thing, “hot” positions/industries/fields are really crowded and really competitive. Plus, what’s hot today could be ice cold tomorrow.

    10. Not starting early. The best time to start your job search was in the fall of your senior year. The second best time is right now.

    11. Not keeping up with current events. Changes in politics, business, technology, etc. can influence where the jobs are and how you should go about preparing.

    12. Hiding out in grad school. Others have discussed this mistake before, but ask yourself if you really need it and if you can afford it before you take the plunge.

    1. Jessa*

      RE number 12 – check your field also. Because hiding out in grad school to get a Masters degree when your field won’t even touch you without a PhD or some other degree? Maybe better to get the experience first. Or to at least understand what you actually need to do the job you want.

      In some fields you’ll get a masters and find out that if you’d worked those years it’d be better and your company has an education thing that’ll let you get your masters at night.

      1. A Disillusioned Employee*

        “Hiding out in grad school” might be a viable strategy for the following reasons:

        1. Job market might imporve while you are doing it.

        2. You stay current in your filed while you are in the grad school, as opposed to taking a job outside of it.

        3. Grad school may come with some form of assistantship (teaching or research) or a fellowship. This is better than not having any experience in your filed.

        4. Grad school may be a viable career change strategy. When the bottom dropped out of the telecommunication industry, I went back to grad school, earned a Ph.D., and re-entered the work force in a different field.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    I’ll add to #8: Do not chew gum in meetings. If your breath stinks, have a mint. Chewing gum in and of itself isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it inevitably leads to talking while chewing gum. THAT, although also not the worst thing in the world, is probably on my top 100 list of worst things in the world.

  3. Evan the College Student (now graduated!)*

    I can vouch for #4. I got every one of my internships through networking: through one of my high school teachers, through my parents’ friends, and through a college professor. (The last of those internships also turned into the permanent job I’ll be starting soon.) Yes, I got two callbacks from resumes I sent out without any connections – but those were only two out of the two dozen or so, and I didn’t see whether they’d have resulted in offers at the end.

    Now that I think about it, that could be an example of Bryce’s #10, too. It took that company three or four months to ask me to come into first-round interviews for an internship (by which time I’d accepted an offer elsewhere); grads searching for a full-time job should be prepared for waits at least that long.

  4. Dan*


    I want to take issue with your advice about focusing on school work. As a STEM graduate, and someone who reviews resumes from time to time, I could care less about your work experience at Ben & Jerrys.

    If you’ve done projects as part of your coursework (especially if they are self-directed) I really want to hear about those, I find them quite interesting. Internships can be hit or miss.

    1. Beth*

      I agree with this! When I was straight out of college (engineering) I had a “projects” section in the top half of my résumé for substantial school projects, and a “experience” section in the bottom half for my jobs (which were not typically related to my major). I think even unrelated work experience is important, but in the limited amount of hiring I’ve done, I’ve focused much much more on the candidates’ projects. And of course if you have internship experience, that’s even better. Alison, I think this point would be beneficial to include in future discussion of this topic – at least like Dan said, for STEM job-seekers.

    2. FormerManager*

      This might be an industry thing…for many years I hired for entry-level market research positions and almost always concentrated on part-time work over coursework.

      (If I was hiring someone to design bridges, all things considered, I would’ve focused on coursework as well…)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree, it’s an industry-specific thing. There are certainly some industries that do care more about schoolwork, but they’re the minority.

    3. Allison*

      This is true, but listing project experience is different than summarizing the curriculum for the courses you’ve taken, which is what I think Alison is referring to.

  5. College Career Counselor*

    Nicely done! One minor quibble and an observation…

    I think it’s possible to list relevant coursework on your resume, as long as you don’t overdo it. In other words, if you took a course on financial markets and you’re going for a job as an entry level analyst, that should be on there. Don’t tell them about the psychology 101 or world history class if they’re not relevant. And if you’re in doubt about which of your courses are truly appropriate to list, ask someone in the industry–or at least remember that “less is more”.

    Formal vs. Informal. I would say that in my observation of college students the vast majority of them who demonstrate inappropriate behavior for the workplace err on the side of way too informal. Some understand the culture of the place they’re going to be working, but for those who don’t, I can’t remember the last time I encouraged a student to loosen up a little.

    1. Jessa*

      But that might, depending on the field be better served as part of the cover letter.

    2. Steve G*

      I still include “advanced coursework in Statistics” 11 yrs later. That is because I have held analytical positions that require advanced excel. Since many people claim to be advanced in Excel I need to prove that its not BS, so one of the places I back that claim up is by stating I’ve also done alot of coursework in college in Stats……so they get that by “advanced excel,” I’m not talking about a pivot table.

      1. Manda*

        I studied math and stats and I’m pissed off that when I was in school I had no idea how important it would be to learn Excel (and Office in general). I had to use it a little bit in school, but that wasn’t even in my stats classes. I had to use SAS in a couple of courses, but even that wasn’t for much. In school, most of the time you have to do things by hand, which is important in terms of understanding the material, but not learning how to use the programs that do this stuff doesn’t prepare you for the real world. I’m frustrated right now because the kinds of jobs that my degree is good for usually want an advanced Excel user which I am not. I’m trying to get better with it but there’s only so much I can do on my own. This brings me to issue #1 about being realistic about what I’m qualified for. I need to find a job where I have to use Excel for simpler stuff, and then spend more time figuring out the harder stuff on my own time. (For the record, I took a handful of third year stats courses. I’m not sure what you’re considering “advanced.”)

  6. Lucy*

    I understand the need to have a hook or an eye-catching headline to grab readers’ attention. But reinforcing a negative assumption … how is that helpful to anyone?

    “If you’re a recent grad, you’re probably making these mistakes in your job search” = condescending, deflating, and a gross generalization.

    It’s like saying “If you’re a woman, you’re probably being emotional” or “If you’re unemployed, you’re probably doing these things wrong”.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t see it as the same thing as being a woman, no. Being a recent grad tends to reflect a particular level of inexperience and uncertainty about how to navigate this stuff.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Yes! Not all generalizations are gross generalizations — some are based in fact.

    2. Allison*

      Yes, it’s so horrible that she used a catchy and relevant headline to attract her target audience. It’s exactly the same thing as being sexist. Yup.

  7. LK8380*

    I would like to see a post about recent grads who are older and do have professional work experience, but not in the field they have recently received a degree in. So many of these types of do-this-don’t-do-that articles for new grads are geared towards the early 20’s age group and all of those accompanying learning curves, and there are many non-traditional grads these days who are older and have work experience…what are some pointers for us as we attempt to transition in this soft market? How old is too old to be entry-level, etc.?

  8. Steve G*

    #6 was my passed grandpa’s favorite. When I was looking for a job, he always gave me the same speech “find out what there problem is and present yourself as the solution.” Of course he worked in sales most of his career, so he had more flexibility when it came to framing reality to a potential customer/employer.

    Now that I am older I understand that he also could have worded it “you don’t have enough experience to just go to an interview and be good, and get that awesome job. You need to look for some pain-in-the-a** problems at their organization and make it known you can and will be able to work on those, without saying their organization has problems, of course.” That is my 2013 interpretation of his speech..
    Thanks Gpa….

  9. Manda*

    RE #4: Reach out to my network? Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!! I don’t really have a network. I’m not all that close with any friends or relatives. I’m shy and quiet and generally not very sociable. People like me just don’t have as many opportunities as a lot of others because of this networking crap. Of course I’m going to feel silly asking a parent’s friend about any job opportunities. I can’t think of anyone who works for a company or in a field that interests me. I also hate asking people for any sort of favors. I feel like I’m mooching and being selfish.

      1. Manda*

        Well, the people I used to work with were from retail which I’m trying to get away from so I doubt that would help me much. I never kept in touch with anybody outside of work anyway. Unfortunately I was too shy to get to know anyone at school. I’m pretty much limited to what’s posted online.

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