02/06/2014 04:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

Graduating & Beginning

You think you've aced it, completing the long list of requirements for your college's major to graduate this spring -- an accomplishment deserving big celebration. But before you pick up your cap and gown, you have another requirement -- to start figuring out what you're going to do next. Commencement means "beginning," and before you reach the ceremony, you need a toe in the water in order to begin. If you act now, with some months ahead, you can begin the launching process from college to career.

Unless you already have a plan in place to head to grad school, an internship, or the Peace Corps, start the process by getting your "portfolio" together -- your resume, letters of recommendation, samples of your work, as well as leads to important people who might help you find a job. You can find one-page resume samples from your career center or online. Know that you have to tailor your objective for each job, so the same resume might not work for every position you apply for. You need to articulate your activities, part-time jobs, and class work in a way that will be seen as valuable to an employer. There can't be any mistakes. Ask a counselor or other good writer to proof it for you. Warning: while the resume itself might not get you the job, you won't get the job without it. So make it as perfect as you can.

You will need references. There is no better time to ask your professors to write letters of recommendation than while you are in their classes. Don't wait until the end of the semester when everyone else floods them with requests just before they leave campus. Consider drafting a sample for them, making their task easier by citing that you did exemplary work, fulfilled your assignments well and in a timely manner, and that you can be counted on. Aim for three letters from professors, a few from club sponsors, and one or two from anyone you worked for. It all counts to show that you are smart, reliable, trustworthy -- qualities that employers are searching for but can't tell from your resume.

You'll need another letter too, your own, in the form of a cover letter that accompanies your resume. It can be short but it has to make some meaning of your resume without repeating the same information. Write why you are applying for the job and why your education and experience make you a good candidate. Again, look for sample letters from your career counselor or the web, but don't copy them verbatim.

Then comes the task of finding job openings -- the most daunting of them all. To start, ask for them from leads. While they're worth a shot, don't count on internet search engines as your best bet for an interview. Most jobs come from people you know who know people, so begin asking family, friends, professors and advisers, as well as your career counselor for potential leads.

If you know what you'd like to be doing, or at least the field you'd like to start in, find alumni from your own college to interview. Ask if they can spare a few minutes of advice: be appreciative and ask relevant questions about their past, along with a few examples of your interests or progress so far. Most alumni will talk to you briefly, give you some pointers and, if you're lucky, a lead to follow. Then it's up to you to actually do that: follow up on the lead and report back what happened to that alum. It sounds simple, but taking this kind of responsibility is really hard. It requires that you do it even when you are afraid -- afraid of not being good enough, afraid of taking up an important person's time, afraid of not knowing what will happen.

And why shouldn't you be afraid? College has planned it all out for you -- courses, majors, exams -- and promoted you as long as you earned that passing grade. Now, you have to be the initiator and act for yourself. You have to ask for something even though you probably don't know much about it. Taking that risk to link yourself with another person without knowing exactly where it will lead is an actual career skill. You will be stepping toward the great unknown and to begin, you have to begin now.

Make your luck happen... and let me know what you discover.