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How to Kickstart Your Career This Summer

If you have recently graduated from college, here are tips for landing that first big break while keeping long-term goals in mind.

College graduation: It’s an end (mostly) to pulling all-nighters, taking pop quizzes, and struggling to read dozens of chapters a night. But now the pressure is on to find yourself on the perfect career path—and you no longer have a professor’s assignment sheet to tell you how to earn an A.

The good news is that job postings tend to be plentiful around midyear. According to SmartRecruiters data, companies often advertise openings right around the time students graduate. Due to the peak in qualified candidates after graduation, every hiring manager wants to take advantage of a broader talent pool. Combined with record-low unemployment rates, the numbers are on your side.

But this midyear hiring frenzy also means that other people just like you will be competing for the jobs you want. Don’t worry about them; instead focus on developing yourself, specifically your personal brand and the traits that separate you from the pack. Rather than thinking about the competitors who interview before and after you, focus on honing your individual achievements and the unique value you can provide to an organization. Those are the ultimate career-hunting skills.

Even if you’ve never cast your résumé into the pond before, you can snag solid bites. From there, it’s all about keeping your overall goals in mind. Consider these five career-building strategies:

1. Sell your weaknesses as strengths.

You’re young. You’re a bit inexperienced. You’re Generation Z. So what? Let hiring managers know you’re willing to work hard to become a productive member of their company. Spinning your youth and eagerness as competitive advantages can make you stand out. And best of all, this strategy is based in authenticity—the cornerstone of effective personal branding. Instead of imitating others or trying to pose as someone you’re not, acknowledge that you’re at the beginning of your career and are enthusiastic about being a junior-level apprentice.

Your recent experience as a student, and hopefully also as an intern and maybe front-line wage earner in the service industry, has given you the chance to amp up your organizational skills, juggle multiple projects, and “learn how to learn” cutting-edge technology. As David Disiere, founder and CEO of QEO Insurance Group, a commercial transportation insurance agency, explains, “Less experience can be a strength. Younger job applicants are likely to be more adaptable and more eager to undergo extensive training when hired for a new role.” Don’t worry, then, about coming off as a little green.

2. Keep an open mind.

You’ve been offered a job at a company you like but don’t love. Push away the worries that you’ll be stuck there forever. Employment doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment. Look at taking this role as saying “yes” to paying down loans and getting a little expertise under your belt, not as saying “I do” for the rest of your life. As you progress in your career, this job will give you more leverage, more experience, and more network contacts—all of which keep you on track to land a job that was on your “A list.”

Alexandra Levit, author of How’d You Score That Gig, reminds young job seekers that they’re uniquely positioned to play the field. She notes, “The process of self-discovery is much easier when you’re unencumbered by family responsibilities and substantial financial burdens, and when you haven’t yet reached a level in a career where it’s tougher to turn back.” Right now, focus on what a job can teach you, and who you can prove your unique value to, not on how far removed it feels from your dream position.

3. Took a step back? Take two more forward.

So your mounting bills led you to take that less-than-perfect gig. It’s OK: You can always keep an eye on the job boards. Continuing on the path to your dream job means looking for the next best thing, and that applies for every job that’s off-base. At this stage of the game, the important thing is not to get stuck in a “safe” role when you want more out of your career.

Continue flexing your résumé-sending muscles. Ask for informational interviews. Attend networking events. Build your LinkedIn connections and street cred with a side gig, a part-time internship, or a volunteer role with a nonprofit you feel passionate about. Everything you do should reinforce your personal brand, inching you closer to where you want to be. Remember: the path to working at places like Google, Facebook, and Patagonia may involve switchbacks instead of direct lines.

4. Accept that you might have to start at the very bottom.

You have a dream job in mind. The problem is, you aren’t getting interviews when you apply for specific openings. In this situation, you may have to start on the very first rung to climb your preferred corporate ladder, such as temporarily working a low-paying or unpaid internship with the dream company.

Can this work? You bet—as long as you provide crucial value to the company and are strategic in making your personal brand known to the right decision makers. Rachel Carroll, for instance, started as an intern at StudySoup. Within four years, she worked her way up to become the organization’s senior head of user experience. “It isn’t always easy pursuing an internship, [as] the demands are high, and many internships are unpaid or provide only a small stipend,” she admits. “[But] the payoff is invaluable.”

5. Bridge your résumé gaps.

You might find every interview ending the same way. You come so close to an offer, but you know you’re lacking a skill or two the interviewer wants. As a result, you’re always the second runner-up, never the one who actually lands the job.

If you find yourself facing this frustrating situation, use the experience to carefully, “clinically” evaluate your education or expertise gaps. When you know what they are, fill them in. It might not be as difficult as you presume, either. For instance, perhaps a local volunteer organization has a need for someone to do what you want to learn. Sounds like a perfect way to partner up, build your background, and help a nonprofit.

Could your big break be waiting at your next interview? Yes, if you focus on the big picture and continually adapt. Your career begins the moment you make yourself the CEO of the brand called YOU.

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