February 9, 2021
Kevin Collins is the Senior Assistant Director of the Career and Professional Development Center and a career consultant in the School of Computer Science (B.S. and Ph.D. levels) at Carnegie Mellon University.
While most of us are grateful for the old year to end, for many students, the arrival of 2021 heralds another round of internship and full-time job applications and interviews. With this in mind, I recently spoke with a number of university recruiters to get their ideas on the most effective steps students should take to prepare for the upcoming recruiting season. They provided some great tips, many of which are summarized below.
Know and Believe in Your “Value-Add”
Recruiters agree that self-awareness is absolutely essential to success—it’s imperative—that a student know what they can bring to an organization. The start of the semester would be a great time for a student to take a critical look at their background. As they think about their experiences, they need to determine which they found both enjoyable and challenging. What skills seemed the most “natural” or easiest to employ? The skills that are identified in this process should be the foundation of a student’s communications with employers.
Related to self-awareness is confidence (“believing in yourself,” as one recruiter succinctly put it). A stand-out resume featuring an impressive list of accomplishments won’t be effective if the student has self-doubts hindering an interview performance.
It’s perfectly normal for a student to be a bit nervous when promoting their strengths to employers; after all, it’s not something that most of us do on a regular basis. Practice can help to overcome this innate reluctance. Students can enlist a friend to listen to the career fair “elevator pitch,” or the response to “tell me about yourself.” Conversely, a student can just say those responses aloud to themselves. The purpose of these exercises is not to memorize answers, but to help the student get used to talking about strengths without feeling too self-conscious, and to help them to better integrate these strengths into interview answers.
The same idea applies to job or internship applications. While it’s important that a student meet the core requirements for a position, they also don’t want to pass up potential opportunities solely because the position description sounds a bit intimidating, or that they do not feel that their skills and background are strong enough. Recruiters advise objectivity when assessing a position—if it sounds interesting, a student should ask themself if there are any concrete reasons why they should not apply.
Refine a Brand
After completing a skills inventory, the next step is to ensure that employers are getting the message. “Updating” was a common thread running through much of the recruiters’ advice. The resume, “elevator pitch,” LinkedIn, and online profiles… all of these employer communication tools should get a thorough look-at at the start of the semester.
Keep in mind that both accuracy and consistency are vital. Don’t allow students to send confusing and mixed messages about skill sets across different platforms. One way to check for consistency is to have the student ask several people to review the student’s methods for connecting with employers, and then ask them to briefly summarize the student’s major strengths. If their friends are using a lot of similar or identical words, chances are good that the student's qualifications are being appropriately showcased.
Hone Presentation Skills
Interviews offer one of the best opportunities to promote strengths. While employers use a variety of methods to assess candidates, behavior-based interviewing is one of the most commonly used. Behavior-based interviews use a candidate’s experiences as evidence of their skills—staff in the career services office can provide students with more information (and practice through mock interviewing) on this type of interview. Despite this method’s popularity, recruiters often find that many highly qualified students are inadequately prepared for behavior-based interviews and perform poorly as a result.
Preparation and practice are the keys to mastering behavior-based interviews. After a student identifies their top skills, they should reflect on any experiences in using them—what stories or examples are the best illustrators of how they used their skills? Examples can be drawn from classes, internships, projects, summer jobs, and so forth. The main factor in selecting examples should be their ability to highlight a particular strength.
Equally important is the student’s narrative. Successful behavior-based interviews place a great emphasis on the structure of responses—it’s not enough to just provide a good example of a strength. The response must also be structured in a way so that it contains four essential elements—situation, task, action, and result (STAR). For many of us, this storytelling structure does not come naturally. Again, practice is a must for interview improvement. A quick internet search should yield a list of common behavior-based interview questions. Ask the student to rehearse responses to these questions aloud, either alone or with a friend or family member, to get comfortable with narrating stories that incorporate all four STAR elements. However, recruiters also caution that it’s important that narrations sound as natural as possible. Memorized or overly structured answers will lose their effectiveness, no matter how interesting the example. A career adviser can assist in crafting compelling, organic responses.
As we can expect a continuance of the use of virtual interviewing over the next semester, now is also a good time to focus on how a student comes across online to employers. Recruiters suggest that simple steps such as adjusting the room lighting and minimizing distractions in the background can make a big difference. It also helps to coach the student to speak with an unrushed and clear voice. Prior to virtual interviews, students should set up an online chat/mock interview with someone to make sure that their online presence is professional and effective.
Connect With Employers
Recruiters also suggest regularly logging into company websites and online job posting boards. This recruiting season has, indeed, been so unlike any other; as a consequence, many companies that were initially reluctant to post jobs and internships might be more inclined to do so as the new year begins. Employers that have not listed jobs or internships in the fall might do so in the spring. Also, encourage students to follow up, if possible, with recruiters who they meet (or met) at career fairs or other events to reiterate their interest in hiring companies.
On a related topic, recruiters strongly suggest students attend employer-sponsored events when possible. In addition to giving students an opportunity to learn more about a particular company, these events are also viewed by recruiters as a way to identify potential candidates for current or future job or internship openings. This is particularly true of virtual events, where pre-registration is often required and follow-up contacts with student attendees can easily be made. Obviously, it’s neither advisable nor possible to attend each and every employer event, and choices should be based on interests and course load.
Enhance the Student’s Knowledge Base
Finally, recruiters advise that students’ preparations for the upcoming spring recruiting season should include “career education,” meaning an effort to acquire more in-depth information about companies as well as about various roles within those companies. This information can help candidates refine and sharpen their employer communications and assist them in making career decisions.
There are many possible sources of company information: Reaching out to alumni, via LinkedIn or other alumni databases, for example, who currently work at an organization of interest is one often mentioned by recruiters. In addition to specific responsibilities associated with their roles, alumni can also provide invaluable insights about their company’s culture and values. They may also be able to provide general tips about the company’s interview process and recruiting timeline. Classmates who did internships during previous summers are another great source of company information and also can provide an insider’s perspective on the critical skills needed to succeed.
Many people use the start of a new year as a time to both assess and resolve to improve. Incorporating some of the recruiters’ advice listed above can help your students recharge their job and internship searches and enhance their chances for success.
A student-directed version of this blog is available to college members.