careers

The 10 tips you need to know to land that first job

July 28, 2014 at 7:28 AM ET

The transition from college to a career is a challenging period in any young person's life — so it helps to be prepared for it. From making a good impression in an interview to negotiating salary, here are the top 10 tips college grads need to know to succeed, from Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In For Graduates" and Lean In experts Mindy Levy, Kim Keating and Rachel Thomas.

1. Adopt the mantra, 'Proceed and be bold'

Whether it's applying to jobs or taking on assignments at work, take this phrase up as your new career mantra. Being bold is especially important for women because they often fear putting themselves out there — most men will apply for jobs if they think they meet just 60 percent of the job requirements, while women will apply only if they think they meet all of them. Now who’s got a better chance of getting that job? 

Adopt the same principle for opportunities at work. Let your manager know you’re interested in stretch assignments and keep your eyes open for projects that will allow you to make your mark. Shift from thinking, “I’m not ready to do that,” to thinking “I want to do that —and I’ll learn by doing it.”

2. Shift from a 'What do I get?' to a 'What can I offer?' mindset

Most job seekers fall into the trap of focusing on what an organization will do for them, when in actuality putting the company’s needs front and center is what really gets you noticed.

At every step in your job search, look for other opportunities to make a good impression. Weave a surprising fact or figure or recent news article into your cover letter to make it clear you've done your research. 

And once you land that interview, go above and beyond what’s expected. For example, audit a company’s social media and offer ideas for making it better, or poll your friends for a millennial perspective on their brand. And don’t assume good answers are enough; think ahead and prepare thoughtful questions too. 

Video: Four recent graduates looking for a job will receive some help from experts via the Lean In organization, as part of our special series “First Jobs TODAY.”

3. Negotiate  wisely!

The wage gap starts early — in fact, a recent study found that women in their first year out of college were paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. You won’t get what you don’t ask for, so make it a rule to negotiate. 

But it's important to know how stereotypes might affect this. We expect men to be assertive and look out for themselves. In contrast, we expect women to be communal and collaborative, so when they advocate for themselves, we — both men and women — often react unfavorably.

One strategy to combat this is to use communal language. Women get better results when they emphasize a concern for organizational relationships. For example, you might say, “If I join the team, I will do my best to contribute to its success. It’s important that my salary reflects the education and skills that will enable me to do this.” 

Another way to demonstrate a connection to others is to ground the negotiation in gender-pay issues: “Given that women are generally paid less than men, we would both be disappointed if I didn't negotiate for myself.”

4. Break long-term goals into short-term steps

Figure out what your long-term goal is — and don’t be afraid to think big! Maybe you want to be a famous artist, head a school for high-risk kids or travel the world for work. Goals can feel daunting, so start by breaking them down into small steps you can take in the next year. For example, volunteering at a local school is a great first step for a future teacher.

Make sure that whatever you do, you continue to learn and grow. Look for ways to improve and reflect on what slows you down, or what you’re scared to try. If you do this, you’ll uncover valuable opportunities to build new strengths.

Keep your goal in mind, but stay flexible and open to new and unexpected paths. Women are less likely to take risks than men, but playing it safe holds you back. Seek out diverse experiences, especially if they’ll add new skills to your toolkit. The more of them you have, the more likely you are to eventually reach your goal!

5. Own your spot at the table 

It can be hard to feel confident when you’re just starting your career — and research shows it’s even harder for women. Women tend to underestimate their performance, while men tend to overestimate theirs. And while men attribute their success to innate skills, women often point to external factors like luck and help from others.

It’s difficult to change the way you feel, but you can change the way you think and act. When you walk into a meeting feeling insecure, remind yourself that you've earned your position. Then take a seat at the table, raise your hand and act on that knowledge. 

And when faced with a challenge, remember that the man sitting next to you likely thinks he can tackle it — so why shouldn't you? When you push past your insecurities and go for it, you gain more confidence, which only leads to more opportunities.

6. Listen to your inner voice

As you shift from college to the workplace, your inner voice can serve as a powerful guide. It’s okay to worry and wonder as you make the transition into the real world, but don’t let the opinions and voices of others drown out your own. Once you start tuning into what you think, feel and care about, you can begin to forge your own path.

Your inner voice can help you figure out the answers to the important questions: Do I want to apply for this job? Do I really want to live in this city? Practice listening to it — for example, the next time you have a conflict with a friend, find the courage to speak openly about how you feel. Each time you listen to yourself, you build the confidence that will help you lead the life you truly want.

7. Don’t ask, “Will you be my mentor?"

Too many young women start with the question, “Will you be my mentor?” But studies show that mentors select protégés based on their performance and potential, so shift your thinking from “If I get a mentor, I’ll excel” to “If I excel, I’ll get a mentor.” 

Despite young women’s best efforts, it’s harder for them to find mentors — men end up gravitating toward other men, and since there are more men in senior roles, women miss out. Fortunately, peers can be just as effective at offering guidance, and you can tap into the power of peers by starting or joining a Lean In Circle

Circles are small peer groups that meet regularly to harness the experience and creativity of all their members. And they help to build women's confidence to put themselves out there: We hear almost daily from members who've asked for a raise or taken on a new challenge with the support of their Circle.

8. Understand and challenge gender bias

Women walk a tightrope between being seen as competent and being well-liked. If a woman is competent, she doesn't seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she doesn't seem as competent. 

We don’t mean to do it, but we all fall into gender bias traps that disadvantage women. The good news is that awareness and small adjustments can make a big difference. And when women advocate for other women — for example, by reinforcing another woman’s good ideas or highlighting her accomplishments — everyone benefits.

If you hear a woman called “aggressive” or “not well-liked,” you can find out exactly what she did and ask, “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?”

9. Make your partner a real partner

The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is. If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life, you’re going to go farther. 

Research shows that couples who split childcare and housework evenly have lower divorce rates and that children with involved fathers do better socially, academically, emotionally and even professionally. So when it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partnership in their relationship. 

10. Don’t leave before you leave

Without realizing it, many women start making career decisions based on family responsibilities they do not yet have. They turn down projects, don’t apply for promotions, or choose more flexible paths — all to make room for children they don’t yet have, in many cases with partners they haven't yet met.

Don’t fall into this trap. Keep all options open until the moment you need to make a choice. If you go for it, odds are you’ll end up in a more fulfilling position with more flexibility anyway. And if anyone, including that voice in your head, insists you must choose between work and family, remember that men routinely assume they can have both — and you should too.

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