Setting the stage for success

Soon, nearly 1.8 million undergrads will walk across one stage to pick up their degrees, then step out on a bigger stage to begin their job search or - for those lucky enough to have a job offer in hand - their careers.

Soon, nearly 1.8 million undergrads will walk across one stage to pick up their degrees, then step out on a bigger stage to begin their job search or - for those lucky enough to have a job offer in hand – their careers.

But even before they leave the ivy halls, these soon-to-be-working professionals have a job to do. While the economy and job market show signs of improvement, every job posting draws dozens – if not hundreds – of resumes, so the time to prepare is before leaving college. Here are five actions that college students should take now, along with five actions to take after landing that coveted foot in the door with a first job.

Build your network. 
Having 500 Facebook friends makes for great bragging rights, but look at who will become your professional peer group and find ways to stay in touch after graduation. Every career is built on a network of relationships, so you'll want to build and nurture those relationships that will play a role throughout the life of your career.

Clean up your digital footprint. 
After reviewing a resume, the first thing most potential employers do when interested in a candidate is plug your name into Google and wait for your unofficial credentials to pop up. So clean up – lose the cute email address, winnow down the party pics, and remove controversial blog postings.

Get a landline phone.
Inevitably, some pre-interviews and screenings will be by phone, and the last thing you want is for a potential employer to be frustrated by a poor connection or dropped calls. Get your own phone line and record a professional greeting, or at least make sure you have access to a clear connection.

Read a newspaper. 
In other words, know what's going in the world. Employers want to see that you have a curiosity and knowledge that exists outside your course of study, contributing to your overall sum of knowledge. That's one way you add value.

Brush up your social skills. 
You'll be placed in a variety of interview situations, and you'll frequently need to practice the art of small talk. Know how to fill a gap in the conversation, and demonstrate an ability to contribute meaningfully to a dialogue.

After accepting a job offer or internship and starting on your professional path, keep these tips in mind:

Get in sync with your manager.
Start your first job with the goal of making yourself valuable not only to the organization, but to your manager specifically. Align your work style with that of your manager. Does he or she arrive early or work late? It may not be the way you're wired, but strive to become someone your manager can rely on. 

Ask for work.
In any agency or company, responsibility is given to those who show they're eager to take on a tough assignment. Ask questions up front, listen to advice, meet deadlines, and communicate status periodically along the way.

Develop an eye for detail.
The spell-check function is a back-up, not the final word. Turn in work that's flawless – no spelling or grammatical errors - and in a format that's easy to follow. Small errors throughout a document call into question the quality of the thinking, so aim for perfection as table stakes.

Slow down and think. 
Regardless of how fast-paced the environment, quality trumps quantity. The most valuable asset of any company is its knowledge, and individuals who demonstrate an ability to solve problems and approach situations analytically are the ones who move ahead quickly.

Learn
In the back and forth that occurs when work is reviewed, it's tempting to hit “accept all changes” in a document and move on to the next task. But don't. Look at the changes, analyze them to figure out why something was changed, and incorporate that learning the next time.

Building a career involves more than simply landing a job. You also need to land on a path that promotes good work habits, builds key relationships, and nurtures continuous learning throughout your career. It's well worth the effort.

Larry Meltzer is principal of MM2 Public Relations.

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