When Ken Phorik neared graduation from the University of Illinois in the spring of 2013, he admits he didn’t have a job lined up. In fact, Phorik says he’d planned to take the summer off all along, then dive headfirst into the job search that fall.
“Big mistake,” says the 25-year-old Chicagoan. “I really don’t know what I was thinking. It wasn’t like I had a trip to Europe lined up or some cool last-minute internship. I just figured I’d take the summer off and enjoy hanging out with my friends.”
Phorik’s situation was hardly unique. In fact, each summer, you can find recent college graduates sitting on the beach or teeing off at the local public golf course instead of actively looking for a job.
“We still have a ‘summer’ mentality when we’re in our early 20s, and that mentality suggests that we don’t have to do anything during June, July and August because we’re on summer break,” says career adviser Thomas Glynn, who specializes in placing programmers at tech firms in the Los Angeles area. “It’s a mindset people hold onto for years.”
That mindset, suggests Glynn, can put you months behind your peers when it comes to searching for a job.
“When you graduate, you’re competing with thousands of people who now want the same job. Best case scenario for a college senior: You have a job lined up when you graduate,” says Glynn. “But for some, that’s just not possible. Either the right job doesn’t come along, or your school has an ineffective placement office. In some cases, though, it’s the students themselves who don’t pursue the jobs while they’re in school. They figure they’ll have one last summer and then get to work. Guess what? It doesn’t work that way.”
College graduates should realize that from now on, they’re no longer protected by their “still in school” status. If they choose to live a life of leisure in the summer, they should do so knowing that some of their Class of 2016 counterparts will be running full speed ahead toward that first opportunity.
Susan Vaughn, a former HR specialist for the Coca-Cola Company, says she used to see the summer-break approach creep into job applications and resumes when she was hiring entry-level marketing and sales representatives for the Atlanta-based soft-drink company.
“You would assess recent graduates and you could make a clear distinction between those who were proactive in their job search and their resume building and those who were not,” Vaughn says. “Some applicants would send us resumes in September or October and their resumes would essentially stop after May when they left school.”
Vaughn says she wouldn’t immediately toss those resumes into the “no thanks” pile, but she did view them with a bit of skepticism.
“You’re judged on what you do with your time, plain and simple,” she says. “Look, you have grads who start working somewhere, doing something, right away. And you have grads who take classes, take workshops, go to seminars, do volunteer work, or try to start their own consulting business as soon as the graduate. They’re competing with the graduate who has taken the summer off. Who do you think the recruiter is going to call in for the interview?”
Glynn and Vaughn say if you’re one of this year’s crop of graduates, don’t be discouraged if you haven’t landed a job yet. Instead, you should remain focused on not only looking for a new job, but also on improving your stock among recruiters by trying to better yourself over the warm-weather months. They offer these strategies:
1. Stay in touch: Your college’s career placement office is a resource to tap into for rest of your professional life. Keep calling to find out about new opportunities. Ask for advice on your resume, your interview skills, your professional options and more.
2. Clean it up: Tidying up your social media footprint might take longer than you think. After all, you have to eliminate those Twitter flame wars with your ex, those embarrassing photos of you trying to conquer the “Budweiser 100” and the disparaging things you typed about your English professor. While you’re at it, it’s probably a good idea to get rid of some of those F-bombs you’ve peppered your social media accounts with since you learned how to type.
3. Do something: Find a part-time job, start a dog-walking service, volunteer at the local park district summer camp, or tutor a neighbor’s kid.
“Remember, you will be asked about what you did since graduation,” says Vaughn. “You have to have stories to tell. You have to have done something. And if you do something that directly relates to your field, like volunteering at a senior center to help residents create family-history websites if you’re a tech person, or finding a start-up that needs promotional material if you’re a marketing major, even better.”
4. Build something: Break out of your comfort zone and create something with your hands. Maybe it’s a small fence for your mom’s garden or storage system for your dad’s garage. Maybe you can teach yourself how to give a car a tune-up or how to make the perfect CrÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e. Again, these can make for some great stories during the interview process. You’re showing initiative, courage and just a little bit of restlessness, which may be what recruiters are looking for.
5. Keep learning: Take a class at the local improv theater to improve your public speaking or research one of the innovators, trends, successes or failures in your preferred field and write a publication-worthy paper on the topic. Whatever you choose, continue to expand your mind with research on topics that relate directly and indirectly to your industry.
Vaughn says that the bottom line is you didn’t go to college to get that one last summer break.
“You worked hard for that degree to use that knowledge as the key to your future. Don’t let it slip away because you spent six days a week playing Frisbee-golf,” she says.
“You have to move ahead,” says the aforementioned Illinois grad, who’s working as a sales rep for a travel website but plans to go back to school for an MBA. “It took me about a year to find the motivation to get moving. I’m never going to get that year back.”