How to land a good job after graduation

Networking, resume and interview tips from a pro

This week’s Maclean’s includes a special report on the future of jobs that shows how university graduates have an especially difficult time launching their careers in today’s shaky economy. But you have to start somewhere, and there are plenty of things you can do to boost your chances of getting hired. Just ask Stéfan Danis, a man with 25 years of recruiting experience who is now Chief Talent Officer & CEO of the firm Mandrake. In this interview, he offers advice for recent graduates.

I hear stories of graduates who have applied to hundreds of jobs online, and with little success. How can graduates get interviews?

Networking. What you should do is get a board of advisers who are a little bit more senior than you. You set up a little network around yourself so that they can open doors for you. Simply sending your resume in response to job postings is not going to get great outcomes just because of the sheer [volume of] competition. It’s very difficult to stand out from the crowd.

Tell me more about this ‘board of advisers’ idea.

Let’s assume you want to be a marketer for a consumer products company. Do a bit of research through your alumni network or personal contacts or using LinkedIn. Target 10 individuals who are maybe two or three years into their careers—so you’re not a threat. If you reach out to them, hat in hand, inviting them to give some counsel, offering to buy them a coffee so you can pick their brains and build relationships with them, when there’s a need for a junior person in the marketing role at their company or elsewhere, they’ll provide you with an extraordinary amount of information.

You can ask complete strangers on LinkedIn to go out for a coffee?

If a 21-year-old says, ‘I’m looking for a job, I want to buy you a coffee and ask you a few questions,’ most 25-year-olds will say, ‘I remember being in that position myself three or four years ago,’ and make themselves available. The worst case scenario is, ‘I can’t help you.’ It’s up to you to develop the right narrative. ‘We don’t know each other, but I’m in the early stages of a job search. The job you have today is one I’d love to have a few years from now. Can I buy you a coffee and take 15 minutes of your time?’ Start with people you know, or people who went to your school. When you meet, pepper them with questions. It might allow you to skip the job posting process entirely.

So you’ve got an interview. What do you need to do to stand out?

If you deconstruct an interview, the typical opening question is always, ‘tell me about yourself.’ That’s probably the only moment of the interview totally under your control. You know the question is coming. You’re given a certain amount of time, say five minutes. You should ace that question. You should know it by heart and be blue in the face from the number of times you’ve rehearsed it. The story has got to be relevant [and] authentic. It’s easier in life to be different than to be the best.

My theory about interviews is pretty simple. It’s very difficult to stand out from the crowd when everybody looks the same on paper. My belief is that you get the interview based on your education, but you get the job based on who you are. The good news is that most companies are essentially looking for the same core competencies: leadership, industriousness, stamina, collaborativeness, communication skills. Use your personal life, your experiences outside of school, your leadership roles in your community or your previous work experience to weave in stories about how you meet those universal competencies.

And if you have something you’re passionate about, it doesn’t matter what—could be raising African Violets or a sport—that goes a long way in standing out. Most people remember the energy you gave them. They don’t remember the content. They remember tone and language. If you’re speaking about something you’re passionate about, you’re going to be remembered.

You’re a desert runner. How would you use that in an interview?

I would say the desert [running] legitimizes me as someone who’s competitive, resilient, determined  and can overcome adversity. I’d have a story about how those assets would come with me in my next job.

The onus for students is to look at what they’ve done where they’re passionate and how they can demonstrate those competencies that all employers look for. Usually it’s around making a difference in your community. You were a member of the marketing club? How were you making the marketing club better? Did you grow membership, increase sponsorship or increase programming?

How do you approach the resume and cover letter?

If you’re 22 years of age and you can’t summarize what you’ve done on one page, you’re either too verbose or you don’t get your audience. Your resume should be one page. People don’t read resumes. They scan. So no bulky paragraphs. Highlight what makes you unique. Make sure to put references on your resume because it’s inevitable you’ll be asked. Then you have a reverse chronological order of the kind of jobs you’ve had, but be really quick. Carve out room for whatever you’re really passionate about, because if it’s skiing, and I the interviewer happen to be skier, and all else is equal, guess what? People hire who is like them. So give a menu of things to pick at. The interviewer wants someone who [he or she] would have something in common with if they’re on a three hour flight sitting next to each other. If it would be awkward, you’re not going to hire them.

I hear that on campus recruiting is kind of dead? What’s your take on that?

There isn’t as much as there used to be. When I graduated I had 14 interviews, but things have changed. If there is on campus recruiting then you have to seize the opportunity. You want as much interview experience as possible. You should be open to the fact that jobs might not be exactly what you think they are and go for it because you never know. It might not seem interesting on the surface, but do you really have enough information to be dismissive? Go to the interview. You will learn something about yourself and maybe you’ll be blessed and this is a job you actually want.

What questions should you ask the interviewer?

You’ve got two types of questions. You want to try to convert the interview into an interactive dialogue as opposed to a barrage of questions and answers. You’re going to have a better interview if it’s a conversation. So the first type of question should follow an answer you’ve given and maybe mirror it back on the interviewer. So if I’m being asked, ‘tell me about yourself,’ I could answer that question and then say, ‘what kind of people do you hire?’ But then also have two or three in your back pocket for the finish, and at least one question that’s not stock that reflects back on the interview and just confirms you were present: ‘You shared you were looking for a service mentality. Would you share with me what you see as the key to doing well in the service industry?”

Is it be okay to ask about pay?

It’s completely okay, and the challenge is that you may be forced to answer it for yourself. Most people struggle with that. If you ask, one of three things will happen. One, they’ll say, ‘we’re thinking of paying $30,000 to $40,000 plus a car allowance.’ Two, they’ll say, ‘it’s premature and it will be a competitive package.’ Or three, they’ll ask, ‘what do you need?’

And how do you answer that?

The universal answer is, “I just want to be paid fairly for the role.” That’s pretty evasive, but you’re basically saying ‘I’m willing to accept what that role pays.’ Another is to talk, not about what you want, but about what you need. If you have a minimum price, let’s call it $35,000, say “I need something that gets me to $35,000, but of course I want to be paid based on merit so if I produce big results I would hope the organization would pay me commensurately.”

Any other common mistakes graduates are making?

Lacking resilience. To get an interview,  you have to sometimes call them five times. Most people only call once or twice and then they quit.