How to Make It In America

03/12/2015 06:02 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

It all started on commencement day. That special moment you have been anticipating and fearing. That special day during which your mother embarrasses you because she can't stop crying or because she says stupid things like "my daughter used to secretly read Nietzsche under the bed when she was only 10 instead of playing with her Barbies. What a gifted child!"

No mother, I did not read Nietzsche when I was 10.

Anyway, that day, I was sitting down on a bench outside, facing the majestic Butler Library of Columbia University where so many great leaders had previously commenced. It was a beautiful day. Actually it was cloudy. I was wearing a ridiculous blue hat, red lipstick and black aviator glasses. I felt cool. I heard different speakers talk about how I was going to change the world in just a few months and donate money to my dear Alma Mater. Then, I looked in the sky with my eyes full of hope, threw my hat in the air and that was basically it. I could already imagine myself walking next to Ban Ki Moon during General Assembly opening week: I would compliment him on his new tie, calling him "Kiki" (only for the intimates), and he would wink back at me as he took the stage for his opening speech.

Studying at an Ivy League university made me pretentious. After all, for many months, I sat in a small classroom and discussed how to save Syria or how to empower women in South Soudan. I was reminded everyday that I was special. I thought I could save the world. I thought people would fight tooth and nail to hire me.

Post-commencement life was a rude awakening. What I learned at school, e.g. my "analytical skills", were barely useful when it came to entering the real world, struggling in the concrete jungle to find a job. As I later found, what really mattered were not so much my long-honed analytical abilities, but rather my practical skills. According to psychologist Robert Sternberg's Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, practical intelligence is "knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say to it for maximum effect". Malcolm Gladwell has said that practical knowledge "is not knowledge for its own sake. It's knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want." From job-hunting to personal relationships, practical skills remain absolutely crucial. Sadly, you can't learn these skills by reading academic papers at university, which is why I was so unprepared for the life that followed.

Eventually I found my feet, started working on my practical skills and basically realized that opportunities were not going magically appear. I needed to create them for myself. Here are some things I learned along the way that I think are vital parts of any practical skillset when job-hunting:

1. Cold emailing works
Think about it. A stranger contacts you in order to hear you talk about yourself. We all love that, don't we? Besides, it is interesting for them to know better what the talent pool looks like at the moment or to learn about an interesting skill that may be evolving in the field. Whatever their motives are, you will be perceived as a proactive person because you are curious and want to create opportunities for yourself. These experts will be able to tell you better than anybody else what your honest chances of joining the business are, the current trends of the industry, the different possibilities of advancement etc. These meetings are like a Russian matryoshka doll: Every contact should introduce you to another one and therefore to a potential job or maybe a mentor. Be prepared: Take a look at the person's network before the meeting and ask to be introduced to specific people. God bless LinkedIn.

2. Networking is not awkward
I will never forget my first networking event in New York City. I felt like the kid in primary school who always wore ugly jumpers and had no friends. Then it dawned on me that most people at networking events care about who everyone else is and what they do -- otherwise why would they be there? So I rolled up my sleeves, smiled, interrupted people's conversations and introduced myself. It's all about confidence. To find events in your city, I recommend There is an event for every taste and interest. If Hoopnotica NYC Hula Hooping Group has their own events, I am sure you can find yours too.

3. Working for free is rewarding
Consider seriously either volunteering opportunities or internships while you are job hunting. Not only you will get out of your house and develop your skills but also it might open new opportunities for you. You can't become a General of the armies without having been a soldier.

At the end of the day, a university diploma is a necessary condition for success but not a sufficient one. Your ability to create opportunities for yourself will make all the difference.