Why You Should (Not) Panic About Graduation

By Sarabeth Flowers, ISA Program Manager, France and Belgium

I remember the uneasiness of my last semester in college. It was about a month out from graduation, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. The imminence of having to leave college was compounded by the myriad friends, neighbors, professors, family members, janitorial staff—you name it—who daily asked me about my plans for post-grad life.

I had no idea what I was going to do next.

Graduating college in the 2010’s can feel like you have been climbing a hill for 20-something years and then out of nowhere life suddenly pushes you off a giant cliff.

Since Pre-K, we’ve been directed, largely by others, into the “next step.” From soccer in 4th grade to the pledging that sorority or fraternity in college, we’ve been institutionally steered and sometimes even pushed into each opportunity in life.

But here we are, and perhaps you’re looking around wondering from whence your succor will come.

During senior year at UT Austin, I was finishing my English Honors thesis, working on campus, and participating in my student organization, when I started to notice that I had developed a really bad habit. During any quiet moments in my day, during any space between classes or on the weekends, I would go on Indeed or Idealist and uncontrollably APPLY TO ALL THE JOBS.

I was a cover letter fanatic. I got good at pumping them out on a daily basis.

True to the traveling nomad that I am, I was all over the map: I applied to jobs on multiple continents, in random cities all over the US, in any and all career fields that would accept an esoteric English/French major with extensive international experience.

For me, I was relying on my international experience to set me apart as a job applicant. The good news – I was in the minority: fewer than 10% of college students study abroad during their undergraduate years (Open Doors Report 2013). So in other words, your resume will reflect an experience that 90% of candidates do not have.

The bad news: the words “study abroad” or “international experience” are not magic. They need to be leveraged just like any other work experience in order to have a resume and cover letter that is worthy of a double-take. Just because you’re the cool guy or girl who studied abroad, doesn’t mean you come across as hirable.

After reflecting on my own frenetic job search, I have realized that I should have done several things differently. Taking these steps would have been productive and they also would have lowered my heart rate and stress level during one of the most tenuous times in my life. Maybe they can help you.

  1. It’s never too late to visit the Career Services office on your campus. I wish I had done this much earlier, but they will not look down on you if you schedule an appointment this month or even after graduation. The people in the Career Services office can be your best job search friends. They’re so nice and usually have gratis candy. They may make subtle faces when they look at your unreadable, ill-formatted resume, but they will help you make it *SHINE*.
  2. Network with real, live people. It’s all about that vis-à-vis coffee appointment. Look around you: ask professors where some of their most successful students have gone to work. Reach out to get lunch with former employers or the manager from your internship last year. Email people that you know or friends-of-friends who have cool jobs and ask them if they can meet up. At coffee, ask good questions and see if their company is hiring. Reach out to your former Site Specialist or the ISA Alumni Department to get some insight. There whole fields and professions out there that you might not even realize exist. I had no idea international education was such an amazing, or even extant, field until I took a professional out to dinner at Whole Foods one night and quizzed her. If you already know what field you’re going into, talk to people who have various positions in a company that might interest you.
  3. Schedule fixed amounts of time to scour online job boards. Pace yourself. Consider subscribing to sites like The Muse or Indeed and use the resources that your university provides through the career services office. You can constructively get out significant amounts of nervous energy by perfecting your LinkedIn page. To get out of your head, it helps to limit the time you spend on a computer and talk to real people.
  4. Don’t be afraid of the void. It’s okay if you have no idea what you’re going to be doing with your life. Did you read that? It’s okay. You’re graduating from college and that is what happens when you graduate, especially for those of us lucky enough to choose a non-technical field. After all that self-discovery in college, you are entry-level again. It’s a humbling process.
  5. Take time to reflect and write down goals. Take 20 minutes, 1 page of white paper and do this exercise:
  • Past: Reflect on the work that has made you the most fulfilled in your life. List the moments when you felt most alive on the job—what tasks were you doing during those moments?  What skills have you developed that you are most proud of? Check out your resume and write down 10 transferable skills that you’ve acquired during your education and early job experiences.
  • Present: What do you want now? Write out a couple statements of purpose. Keep it simple. Perhaps you just say, “I want a full-time job in Charlotte, North Carolina in a corporate environment.” Just lay out an objective or at least negative objectives: “I do not want to freelance.” Include other expectations for how you want your skillset to be utilized such as, “I want work with data and analytics,” or “I need to write.” Even having these things on paper will help you crystallize what your expectations actually are.
  • Future: Here’s permission to dream big for a second. Where do you want to be in a year? Five years? Twenty? Whether you have an idea or not, that’s totally okay. Write what you do know: perhaps something like, “I have no idea where I’ll be in a year, but that’s the exciting part. I know I want to be volunteering 1 time a week at a local animal shelter and I want to be employed full-time in a job that utilizes my Chinese language skills in some capacity,” or “I want to be living in Chile next year.” Simple is preferable.
  1. Prep a canned response to the dreaded question. When the next person asks you what you’re doing after graduation (which will undoubtedly happen about 5 seconds after you look up from reading this), just respond with a blithe, “I’m not sure. We shall see! I’m taking all the steps that I can now to find something where I can contribute everything I’ve got.”
  2. Lastly, my shameless plug: Check out the Career Resources Guide on your ISA Student Portal or email alumni@studiesabroad.com. We happily send all our alum a copy. It’s got a clean design and is incredibly helpful for polishing your interviewing skills and your cover letter/resume. The Guide also gives you some rad resources for finding international opportunities after graduation, such as teaching abroad, internships, or service-learning.

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