College Grads: 18 Tips on Using Pre-employment Time Productively

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Seven Tips to Help Professionals Negotiate Like Ninjas

Strengthen your confidence and impact at work.

It's no secret that way too many college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed for far too long after they earn a degree. If you're in that boat, it's easy to convince yourself that you're up the creek without a paddle. You're not. There's a lot you can be doing right now to guide yourself in the right direction, says Vickie Milazzo, a registered nurse, attorney and successful entrepreneur whose advice I've found to be worth listening to.


I last spoke with Milazzo last summer, when our conversation focused on women in the workplace (see my post, "Women's Strengths and the Value They Bring to the Corporate Table"). Now Milazzo, author of the book, "Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman," has come up with a great list of tips for college grads that are equally applicable to either gender, and that will help you to develop skills you'll need regardless of where you end up when your career really kicks off:


  • Develop a nose for (your) business. Take this time to really study up on your industry. Read industry magazines and attend events if you can. Being able to talk intelligently about the state of your industry will be a huge selling point for you. The more you know, the more dots you can connect. Knowing where your industry is going will help you decide what other areas of knowledge are important for you to focus on.
  • Let your creative flag fly. Don't be afraid to be creative. This is not about reinventing the wheel. You don't have to stress yourself out trying to think of the next, great outside-the-box idea for your company or industry. Often, it's about taking ideas from other industries or companies and adapting them to fit your own. Also, understand that it's highly likely that your idea will be simply that: an idea. You probably won't have the resources or the authority to put it immediately into action. However, showing your leaders that you have the ability to think creatively about their business and the level of understanding to know what's important and what's not will be a great way to earn more responsibility.
  • Be your own problem-solver. Great employees don't passively wait for the boss to tell them what to do. They figure out solutions on their own. When we find our own solutions, we grow stronger. Excessive reliance on others for our success weakens us. Soon we shy away from challenges we once might have conquered with relish and ease. One key aspect of becoming a good problem solver is taking swift action. Don't get stuck in analysis paralysis. Learn to trust your initial feelings and thoughts about an issue.
  • Go big or go home. We tend to want to check the small, easy things off our list and avoid the tough stuff. Break the feel-good addiction. Remember, where you engage and focus is where you will get results. Going after larger accomplishments - an addiction to momentum - is a far more lasting high than the transitory feel-good of checking off trivial tasks. Once you're engaged in accomplishing the big things, you'll approach routine matters with laser-sharp focus, quickly deleting, delegating, and experiencing fewer distractions. More importantly, your creativity and productivity catch fire, and the momentum keeps you pumped. You'll glide through your day full of confidence and satisfaction from achieving significant milestones. You'll stay focused on bigger goals, and that will be a huge boost when you aren't being completely fulfilled in your day job.
  • Trade "not"-working for real networking. Connecting with your friends on Facebook and tweeting your latest thoughts on life out to your Twitter followers is not networking. Real, productive networking happens face-to-face. More importantly, it happens with people who are not your peers. In order for your networking to be successful, you must strive to connect with people who have more experience than you. It's normal to gravitate toward people who are the same as you - but in business, one of the main reasons why people don't get ahead is that they don't get out of their social groups. Make every effort to meet people who are a rung or two higher than you on the professional ladder. If you impress people who are more successful than you are, they'll have a lot more influence than someone whose position is equivalent with yours.
  • Build relationships (not just resumes). Why are relationships important? First and foremost, they're a great way to harvest energy. Spending time with those who inspire you, who make you laugh, who give you advice you can trust is essential. In the bigger picture for your career, relationships are important because that's where your opportunities will come from. In most industries, it really is about who you know. When you take the time to develop positive relationships with customers, vendors, the people you speak to frequently who work at other companies, etc., you'll find that they'll present you with opportunities organically, and vice versa. The other great thing about relationships is that when they're strong they'll be with you no matter where you're working.
  • Partner up. Learn how to sniff out other people who have skills and insights that can be leveraged in unexpected ways. Many people are treasure troves of untapped potential just waiting for the right person to recognize what they have to offer. And always be willing to do some mentoring yourself. Sure, you're new to the professional world, but many mature workers won't have the same level of understanding you have when it comes to social media and technology. When you partner with these folks to show them what you know, they'll partner with you right back. You'll both learn a lot from each other, and great relationships will form.
  • Go offline to work on communication. Many recent college graduates are of the social media generation. They're texters, tweeters, Facebookers. Often face-to-face communication and even written communication aren't their strengths. Work on developing your communication skills. You will not be respected at any company unless you can clearly communicate with people from all levels. Watch more experienced professionals to pick up on their techniques for quality communication. Re-read emails to make sure you're using correct grammar and aren't using shorthand. And listen. When you listen to the others, you can ask them more engaging questions and in turn, create better connections.
  • Negotiate like you mean it. Negotiating skills are tough to develop, and it's even tougher when you don't have the confidence or the leverage to go after what you want. Some young job applicants might also think that they're doing their potential employers a favor by not pushing for more or that they'll be more appealing if they don't ask for what they're worth. That's not true. When I'm hiring, I actually weed out candidates who underprice themselves because I assume they won't perform at the level I expect. In my eyes and in the eyes of many other CEOs, job candidates actually lose credibility when they underprice themselves. Learn to negotiate. Don't make the mistake of assuming that your bargaining power is weak just because you're less experienced. Yes, this power imbalance might make negotiating more challenging, but you have a lot to offer, too. Remember that ultimately, you're talking to another human being. Try not to become so overawed by rank or position that you forget that.
  • Ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask questions. A great way to get answers you can trust is to seek out a mentor. Having a mentor will help you learn a lot, a lot more quickly than you might have on your own and will provide a relationship that can be hugely beneficial as you gain experience. But don't be afraid to seek advice outside of a mentoring relationship either. Some of the best advice I received when I started my business was, "Vickie, you will encounter many challenges you will not know how to handle. But there's always someone out there who has already successfully handled that very challenge." Know what you don't know and when to seek answers. Appreciate that what works today won't necessarily work tomorrow, and understand that aggressive learning is a competitive advantage to achieving any desired goal.
  • Trust your gut. Work on tuning into your gut and trusting what it has to say. Practice listening for - and listening to - your inner voice. You'll find that it rarely steers you wrong. Learn to identify what your gut feelings truly are (as opposed to being influenced by your boss, mom, friends, etc.). Then learn to interpret, trust, and act on those feelings - keeping in mind that it's okay to be rerouted by circumstance.
  • Be constructive with constructive criticism. Learn to view constructive criticism as a gift. Remember, you've still got a lot to learn. Don't get defensive when someone gives you unwanted advice on how to do something. Develop a thick skin. Instead of reacting negatively to criticism, openly look for opportunities to put the advice into practice.
  • Don't burn bridges. When you enter the 9-to-5 working world, you'll quickly find that you have to work side-by-side with people you do not like, people you certainly wouldn't be spending much time with if they didn't happen to be using the cubicle next to yours. You must learn to get along with these people. Forgive them when they upset you. And forgive the personality ticks that get on your nerves. You never know when you'll need them on your side. You never know when your paths will cross again later in your career.
  • Develop an entrepreneurial spirit. Don't wait for opportunities to come to you or for the boss to ask. There is a lot of competition out there right now. You won't be given every opportunity. Quite often, you'll have to create your own opportunities and that will require that you take the initiative on certain tasks. Don't be afraid to share your ideas for how to improve the company with your boss. You never know, he might really like one and put you in charge of implementing it. Regardless, he'll certainly see that you care about the company and want to make sure you're a part of what's going on there. Rather than looking only at your advancement, look for ways in which your knowledge and expertise can grow and benefit the company. As a business owner, I appreciate employees who apply enterprise and ingenuity to their jobs. They generally enjoy their jobs more and receive more advancements and pay raises.
  • Go for the goal(s). Give yourself a goal and work toward it. When you achieve it, set another goal and work toward it. Repeat. Goal-setting will be essential in keeping you motivated, especially if your "survival" job isn't particularly stimulating. When you always have something important to work toward, whether it's related to your job or not, it will keep you focused on improving and moving forward.
  • Build your personal credibility. Meet your deadlines. Do what you say you're going to do. Become known as a person who can be counted on. Be the person your colleagues and bosses trust to get the job done. When you do everything you can to become someone people rely on, they won't hesitate to move you up in the company or to recommend you to people in their networks.
  • Fuel your fire. What are you passionate about? What fires you up? What drives you to succeed? Now is the time to really think about your answers to those questions. Now is the time to figure out how you can make those things you're passionate about part of your long-term career. Let your enthusiasm and excitement show. It will attract people and opportunities your way. People will want to work with you. When you find the passion that drives you, whether it's family, serving others in the medical field, using the law to help others, or reforming a broken aspect of your community, you'll have tapped into a fuel source that won't run dry in the middle of the race. That doesn't mean that the going will always be easy. But passion will make your life richer.
  • Remember, life is a marathon. Volunteer to work the extra shift when you can. Always give that little bit extra (in terms of time/energy/attention) that takes a project from good to great. Remember that no matter what job you have, you're there to work - not to goof off on Facebook, text with your friends, or anything else. Engage 100 percent, no matter what your current job is. Clock-watchers who go home exactly at quitting time are never around for promotions. Work as hard or harder than your boss. There is just no substitute for the willingness to work hard. And remember that fighting through this difficult start to your career is like getting into physical shape: You're going to be sore and you're going to want to quit, but that pain and discomfort are making you stronger and propelling you forward.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 31, 2012 11:54 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

Great, pragmatic tips.  Especially agree on networking. 

We should stop painting a rosey picture when the picture isn't like PR folks claim, and instead prepare students on how to be successful.  There are no general shortages, and many people up and down the ladder are having a tough time. But this is still a field I enjoy and would recommend to those who believe they would enjoy this type of work.  If you do it because of the money they promise, you'll be disappointed.

It's better to be honest with people than to manipulate them and lure them into something with promises that won't be filled (all because of some political objective).  I think you do a good job setting reasonable expectations here Don and explaining how to make things happen.  For most STEM grads companies won't be laying out the red carpet.  If they want a job they will need to work hard to find one.

Jun 1, 2012 7:30 PM George Alexander George Alexander  says:

Great pointers.... I don't know how colleges teach stuff right now but these are some of the soft skills they need to put a lot of emphasis on along with the hard skills.

One more point I can suggest pre-employment is to volunteer or try to get an internship. It's sometimes very hard to get that initial break if you're starting with zero years experience. However I know this works really good if you''re in programming. I can speak from my own experience on how I started and also from HR folks I know in other companies that have placed students after they've done summer internships at their companies. The companies that were looking to hire preferred grads who had already worked with them and familiarized with the expectations and environment.

Even if you can't get an internship, volunteering would be great - either through opensource contributions or running your own project, a personal site that links to your other personal projects or a programming blog or at local user groups and trying to meet people etc. At the end of the day, throwing yourself into the market sometimes helps you get that initial kick start.

I don't encourage anyone to join IT (or more specifically, software development)  for the money because those who join for the sake of money will be thoroughly disappointed when something goes wrong and will call it quits immediately. They usually get weeded out by the market when the market sulks. I didn't start progamming for the money but I loved it and had been doing it for fun since 11. The money part was a bonus and it's never disappointed.

In most of the companies I've worked in, I've noticed that everyone that runs projects finds a dedicated hard worker always desirable.

Aug 14, 2012 9:39 AM spencerid spencerid  says:
I hope that when I will earn my IT degree I will find a job soon. The thought that I will remain either unemployed or underemployed for a long period of time after I finish school scares me a lot. I am thinking to do volunteer work to add extra credit to my CV. Reply

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