The Real Way to Get Your First Job

06/08/2010 08:21 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

College commencement came and went. So did all those inspiring speeches: "The future is yours!" etc. etc. The trouble is, it doesn't seem that way to most graduates terrified about going from full-time schooling to the tougher job of full-time working - or worse yet, not working at all.

College, for the most part, teaches us "system dependency"-- to follow directions, to do research, to be theoretical, but it doesn't teach us how to act for ourselves. Now is the time start developing self-motivation because that is what the next part of life requires.

If you graduated from college without any internships or special guidance or inroads to specific careers, you probably feel directionless and scared not knowing what you're going to be when you "grow up."

But still, you have to start somewhere. Don't worry about whether your first job is "it" for life. Take my word for it, it won't be. According to the Department of Labor, we will be changing careers five times or more in our lifetimes. That means our initial choice does not lock us into anything, nor does it define us. It is just a step.

Don't be afraid of being demeaned by the low level of the job you can get. Armed with a college diploma and debt, it is easy to see why you might feel entitled to a first-class ticket to the most stimulating jobs. It can be mightily depressing when those glamorous jobs seen on TV and in movies simply aren't available. More likely than not, you will have to deal with personnel officers understandably unimpressed as hordes of graduates parade through with unrealistic goals, and a tight economy to boot. Here's how to make your job hunt work.

To find your first job, you need to make and use your connections. Go to your school's career center and get some leads or at least names of companies. Also ask some of your professors, especially those most connected to the business community, for referrals. Search through the online alumni directory to find names and numbers of those who have graduated before you who are now in fields that interest you. Identify people - your family's friends, or neighbors - whose jobs you'd love to have.

Introduce yourself and ask them to spare a 10-minute interview, so that they might tell you about their field, how they started, what surprises they found along the way. Also ask them what they'd do differently if they could, and what advice they'd give you just starting out. If your interview style gets them talking, they will be more inclined to hire you themselves, or refer you to someone who can.

Bring along some papers that you wrote for class or had publish¬ed in the newspaper. Don't be embarrassed to "show and tell" when you have good projects from school that exhibit how you think, write, or approach complicated issues.

Your homework for your own career starts now. Make five calls a day (count only those who answer) and set up 3 interviews each week. Over the summer, you have 12 weeks, or 70 calls, and 36 interviews. If you're persistent, you're bound to make something happen. If this sounds daunting, ask yourself: do you really want to find a job? Can you do what it takes to initiate something that will lead to something else that will lead in turn to a job?

A word about interviewing for that first full-time job: You are not expected to know a great deal about the position or the field, so don't pretend or try to exaggerate what you know. You must, however, demonstrate your enthusiasm for learning their business and contributing to it. Rehearse yourself so that you can tell them about some successes in your past -- from class projects, part-time jobs or extracurricular activities. Research their company and tell what impresses you.

Learn to have a real conversation. Don't just answer their questions as if it were an oral test. If they have a tennis trophy on their desk and you play, talk about the game. If they are brusque, speed up your own rate; if they are more relaxed, you can be too. Follow up everything about your background with interest in theirs. If they like you, they will be more apt to hire and help you.

Ask about your chances in their company. Ask what concerns they have about hiring you? If they say they want you to have knowledge of a subject which you don't, ask if you can take a summer or night course to learn it. Or if they want more experience, ask if you can work on a probationary term to let you learn as you go and demonstrate your value within a short period, say three-months. And really, whatever your calling, all jobs are probationary at first.

Be willing to work by taking a night shift or moving to a less desirable city where they have a branch office or plant.

Don't be put off by titles or positions lower than you had hoped. Start. Get in. Work as "go-fer," clerk, driver, deliverer. Your job is really to observe and learn the business, and then to find the opening to launch your career. If you are proactive, you can move up after you have moved in.

If there really is a career you long for, but is closed off to you, don't give up on it. Volunteer your time as an intern and work nights to afford making that opportunity happen. If you're dying to work in film, but can't get a position on a set, try getting a job in the media department of a corporation. If you're yearning to be a clothing designer, and don't see and opening, get a job at Macy's or another department store, and work up to buyer to understand the business first.

Only in the process of doing, no matter what your degree, can you make your interests, abilities and markets converge-- in a tight market or a good one.

Make your luck happen!

Dr. Adele, Author of Launch Your Career in College