By SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN, CollegeJournal


Seniors, instead of sleeping past noon and catching up on your soaps this winter break, think about getting a head start on your post-graduation job search. Bummed by this suggestion? You might as well get going now. With exams and term papers temporarily out of the way, the vacation is ideal for exploring professional avenues.

Don’t know where to start? Try these six activities and put yourself on the fast track to landing work in your chosen field after graduation:

Do an externship. An externship is an opportunity for students to shadow professionals in action at their workplace to see their daily activities firsthand. Most are for one week, involve a light workload and are unpaid. “From client visits to paperwork to staff meetings, externs are completely immersed in their sponsor’s career,” says Susan Conroy, assistant director of extern and mentor programs for the Office of Alumnae Services at the Radcliffe Institute, formerly the Radcliffe Association, in Cambridge, Mass.

What you learn might help you conduct a focused job search, says Sarah Otto, manager of career planning for the Career Services Center at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. “You get a lot of information from books and the Internet, but the best way to truly test your values and personal criteria for a job is by talking to someone in that occupation,” she says. “An externship also will help you to get a feel for the type of environment you’d prefer working in, such as a large corporation or small private firm.”

At the end of her junior year, 2003 Harvard University graduate Kate Richey did a weeklong externship in New York at Kate Spade, a designer handbag and accessories division of Dallas-based retailer The Neiman Marcus Group Inc. The economics major was paired with the firm’s vice president of strategic planning, a career route she was considering. During her visit, she sat in on meetings, learned how to prepare a product showroom and collected market-research data. At the week’s end, Richey decided that a job in strategic planning wasn’t for her. “I realized that I’d rather start out in consulting and maybe do that later in my career,” she says.

Many colleges and universities have externship programs that match students with alumni or professionals who volunteer their time. Check with your school’s career center or alumni organization. Or, if your school lacks such programs, call employers on your own and ask to speak with an employee doing the job you want, says Conroy. When you inquire about externship opportunities, explain that you’re a student and aren’t looking for a job, she says.


Conduct “informational interviews.” These interviews are informal meetings with professionals. They typically last 30 minutes to an hour and range from topics such as what skills they use most to what’s expected of them daily, says Otto. You also can ask them what they enjoy most about their jobs and how their jobs fit into their overall career goals. An added benefit is the chance to see the environment where they work.

As with externships, finding opportunities for informational interviews may be a matter of participating in a school program that can connect you with alumni or other professionals in the your chosen field and geographic area. If none are available, likewise call companies and ask to speak with someone doing the job you want, Otto says. People often will spare the time because they like talking about what they do, she says.

Catch up on industry news. Haven’t had enough time during school to pay attention to what’s happening in your field? Now’s your chance to learn which companies are the industry leaders, what products are hot and the names of major players at top firms. “Employers are looking for people who are smart, energetic and passionate about their field,” says Jeff Christian, author of “The Headhunter’s Edge” (Random House, 2002). “They want people who know who their competitors are and what they’re working on. They want candidates who really understand the market they’re in and exude that kind of confidence.”

To get started, check out magazines and newsletters published by associations or professional groups and business publications such as The Wall Street Journal, says Christian. (The Wall Street Journal and are published by Dow Jones & Co.) “Do your homework using online directories such as to find the latest news about a company. Visit company Web sites and read up on their press releases,” he says. You might even try to attend seminars on hot topics sponsored by industry groups, Christian adds. Check whether they discount attendance fees for students.

For instance, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., a nonprofit technical-professional association in Piscataway, N.J., sponsors several workshops, seminars and conferences at a reduced price for students. These events focus on what’s happening in industries such as computer engineering, biomedical technology, telecommunications, electric power, aerospace and consumer electronics.

Practice interviewing. This is akin to a dress rehearsal for a performance, says Skip Sturman, director of career services at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “You want to practice in advance concise responses to pertinent questions,” he says. “A job search is about getting inside the heads of employers to determine what skills are needed to get a job done well. You want to come into an interview prepared with examples from your background that demonstrate you have those abilities.” Pay attention to your nonverbal skills as well, he says. “Being able to comfortably give a firm handshake, make eye contact, dress in clothes that are appropriate and show enthusiasm counts a great deal. You may have all the right qualifications on paper, but unless you come across as passionate and focused, it’s hard to make a case for yourself as a strong candidate,” says Sturman.

For a list of commonly asked questions, check with your school’s career center or scan books on interviewing. Then develop and rehearse your answers, suggests Sturman. Also, prepare questions to ask the interviewer that demonstrate your interest in the job and company, he says.

Develop a mentor relationship. Establishing a connection with an expert in your field may give you a leg up in the job market, says Sarah Ross, director of alumni relations for the Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental-Sciences cCollege at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You can get one-one career advice from someone who really knows the industry you’re going into. You may decide to do mock interviews or work on improving your resume,” she says. “Your mentor may also be able to put you in contact with other professionals to increase your network of contacts.”

After completing an externship during the summer before her senior year at a Chicago hospital, 2003 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate Delaney Reinbolt developed a mentor relationship with the physician she shadowed. “He’s showed me a lot of career choices I could pursue that I didn’t know were out there,” she says. He’s also written letters of recommendation for her to include in job applications and critiqued her resume. “He suggested that I do more volunteer work that involved interacting with patients,” she says.

Check with your school’s career-services or alumni-relations department to see if either have programs that unite students with alumni or volunteer mentors. If not, call a professional on your own and propose the relationship, says Ross. You can arrange to work over the phone, via e-mail or in face-to-face meetings. When approaching a potential mentor, be prepared with a list of goals you’d like to achieve and how much time you’d want to spend on them, she says.

Target top jobs. With the plethora of job ads online, in newspapers and other sources, it’s easy to understand why you might feel overwhelmed when applying for jobs. But instead of trying to crank as many resumes out as possible, target a handful of your top picks and send the employers personalized letters, says Kristen Koppen, principal of Koppen & Associates LLC, an executive-search firm in St. Louis, Mo. “Take the time to research whom you’re applying to and know what a job requires in order to tailor a cover letter to those specifications,” she says. By writing personal letters, you also avoid mixing up company or executive names and other damaging mistakes that you might make conducting a mass-mail campaign, she says.

Begin by listing the jobs you want the most and determining how long it will take you to research and write cover letters, says Koppen. Concentrate on each job application, paying close attention to details. Spelling and grammatical errors can mar your candidacy, so always have someone else proof your letter and resume before sending them, she adds.


— Sarah E. Needleman is associate editor at


This article is reprinted with permission from Career Journal, the executive career site of theWall Street Journal. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.