Six Steps to Reaching the Entry-Level Job Offer

A week off blogging is never a week wasted in New York City.

I haven’t written for ten days now not because I’ve been lazy, but because I’ve been completely immersed in the gathering of data for the benefit of all unemployed, recent grads out there.

On my self-appointed quest for job hunting answers, last week, I began an investigation of all the stages involved in the entry-level job hunt. And now that I have reached my conclusions, I am ready to report the results.

PART ONE: RECOGNIZING AND AVOIDING THE DISTRACTIONS

It all started right when I lost Andy.

After my baby kitten and best friend since I arrived here was gone, I suddenly had all the empty space and unfilled hours to myself. That’s when if hit me, that aside from an endless source of affection, he had also been my biggest distraction—yes, worse than Facebook and the unexplored male gender pool of New York City—keeping me from focusing all my attention to my main goal of getting a job.

Of course, I knew it all along deep down, but I had made excuses before, jumping at every chance of snuggling with my Andy, entertaining him with pieces of string, and crafting makeshift toys for him instead of ignoring him to do my work. But once he was gone, I realized that time had flown by, the months slipping faster than Andy on his kitty acrobatics.

And there I was, jobless, alone, at the threshold of a bitter winter.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t worked at all all that time. Sure, I had been checking Craigslist, Bookjobs, and Mediabistro daily for months, applying to different positions, crossing my fingers for phone calls. But I had been at it for two and a half months and had only been on two interviews and taken one edit test. New York City is indeed competitive, but after two degrees, excellent grades, and impressive internship experience, there was no reason why I wasn’t getting the calls.
I was doing something wrong and I knew it. So I took a break from life, and decided to focus on really honing into the résumé, perfecting the cover letter, and discovering the real secrets of flawless interviewing.

PART TWO: CRAFTING THE RESUME

The résumé was the easiest part: Any English major can find the best combination of words to describe ideas.

My objective? To obtain a position that “fosters my passion for words and integrates my excellent writing, communication, and organization skills.” Beautiful wording. Succinct, catchy, and filled with key words, just like the rest of my résumé. With its easy-to-read layout (thanks to my graphic design background), the document glowed with the pride I felt at my accomplishments.

PART THREE: PERFECTING THE COVER LETTER

The cover letter was more of a challenge.

After months of thinking that I had really mastered it, I realized I wasn’t even close. Had I been, I would have gotten calls from employers I knew I deserved to be in contact with. Instead, two boring academic book publishers had called me by then, and—probably by true luck of the draw—Esquire magazine, which, not surprising, had also rejected me soon after.

As I read over old cover letters, I began to wonder whether I sounded like every other applicant out there. Sure I had incredible experience and skills, but so did a million others. And sure my “skills match your needs” was a convincing claim, but not after the hundredth time an employer reads it.

And worst of all, the attention to detail I bragged about in the letter was perfectly reflected in the obvious missing comma or the accidental double “and.”

I was embarrassed to face the truth at first: While I knew I was good, I hadn’t been showing it in the letter. I hadn’t separated myself from the rest of the pack. My cover letters were just as bad, if not worse, as other newly graduated English majors who had loved the thinking the major had inspired in college but had never been forced to really learn organization and true attention to detail in classes.

We all could craft a beautiful sentence, but could we make it creative? That was the challenge.

I don’t know about the rest of the English majors out there, but for me the answer had to be “yes”. My résumé screamed creativity. I had four years of art school and plenty of creative writing classes. That awkward semester of the eight-person, three-hour-long graduate creative writing class should not have gone to waste.

Being in that class had been difficult, because while everyone was working on dissertations and books, I had been the lowly undergrad fighting to write a real story instead of article after article that naturally came out. In the end, unlike Hollywood movies, I had failed. I never managed to pull out a complete story. Nevertheless, the experience had taught me to think creatively. And now, there was no excuse as to why I couldn’t bring that into the cover letter.

So I sat down alone, in front of my computer and really thought hard about what would make me seem different, more creative to the employer.

First off, the little bit about skills matching needs that always ended my first paragraph had to go. I replaced the cliché phrase with a sentence about my commitment to publishing and my desire to grow in the field alongside its leaders.

From this, the transition into a second paragraph the discussed why I believe the company is a leader was easy. It meant having to apply more slowly to jobs, actually research each company, get personal in each cover letter, and choose points that weren’t just surface facts but really testaments of the company’s success that stemmed from its past. The process was far from pleasant, but I had a feeling that not every English major out there was taking this route.

Third, the personal accomplishments paragraph had to be short and simple, filled with key words from the job description of the position I was applying for. A little research revealed to me that the human resources departments have a clever way about going through thousands of résumés quickly: They skim through the letters and highlight the words that match what they are looking for. If I could embed these words into the sentences with concrete evidence from past, then my application would certainly float to the top of the pile.

And last, I had to pay more attention to grammar and punctuation. Tedious, I know, but I never sent out a letter without proofreading it three times anymore, at 200% view on Word. And never without saving the file, closing it again, and reopening it to make sure the format was right and no sentences had been cut off.

And once it was sent, suddenly the stress of whether it was perfect was gone. I knew it was.

PART FOUR: WAITING FOR THE CALL

Of course, by now it’s December, not exactly the peak of the hiring period for entry-level editorial assistants.

The job postings that had been popping up like a breakout of diseases all over the Internet in October, had suddenly been tamed. On some days there were two openings; on others, none. This meant that more people would be competing for fewer positions. At the same time, I comforted myself with the thought that at least with fewer jobs to apply to, I had more time to get personal with each letter.

After a few hours of applying to everything possible—which was not much—every day on the first week of December, the second week came. I started twiddling my thumbs and hoping that something would work out. Every time the phone rang, I ran to it with eyes wide open, my heart ready to accept interviews. But every time I saw my sister’s name flash on my cell phone screen, or answered to find my roommate wondering if I had checked the mail yesterday, I sighed and turned to the email inbox instead. Same luck there: penis enlargement emails wouldn’t help me get work any more than Facebook alerts about recent activity on my profile.

Yet the whole time, I was pleased with my work. I knew I had done well, and I just had a feeling that sooner or later, something would come up. I was eager and ready to accept work filing, or assisting the editor of some obscure encyclopedia program—not quite the glamorous magazine gig I had expected, but at least it pays more than twiddling thumbs at home, I figured.

And then, the phone call came. Last Tuesday, the world’s #1 romance series book publisher called me, wondering if we could set up an interview for Thursday, for an editorial assistant position in their romance department.

I was more than happy to oblige. After the call, I went back through my files to find the application I had sent them. The letter was one of my most beautiful ones; I smiled, knowing exactly why they had chosen me as a candidate.

Before I could even start preparing myself for this exciting interview, I got another call. This time, from a national woman’s magazine. They were looking for an editorial assistant to write and edit columns and support the editor-in-chief. We scheduled the interview for Friday, a day after the book publisher one.

I was beaming. Suddenly, after redoing my strategy, I was in the perfect place: I had a possibility for a top gig in books, or a dream position in magazines. Either one would help me achieve what I had sincerely asked for in the cover letter: grow in each field alongside its leaders. It turns out, that’s all the leaders really wanted, someone who was confident and dedicated enough to tell them their exact desires.

PART FIVE: PREPARING FOR THE INTERVIEW

Yet, there was a challenge. In my letter to the book publisher, I had insisted on my “keen understanding and affection for women’s fiction.” Rereading it after the call, I laughed nervously, almost miserably, knowing that I had no such qualifications. In fact, I had never even read the master of all romances, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

But it’s true what they say: in New York City, it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know.

Lucky for me, my Muslim man is an expert in chick lit. Strange, I know, for a straight guy to enjoy women’s fiction, but his inquisitive mind had led him to explore what women want, feel, and think through the books they read. Which worked for me.

I sent him a message telling him about the interview call and my current predicament and finishing with a request: “You have three days to make me an expert in your field.” He wrote back immediately, with a hearty congratulations and an attached list of important books and authors that I would need to know like the back of my hand.

For the next three days, all I did was research. I read synopses, made authors personal, and even read one of the company’s 200-page romance novels.

But it wasn’t just my expertise in the subject I had to take care of; I had to think about acing the interview as well. I will admit I was nervous at the thought of appearing in front of these interviewers, telling them honestly what had been so much easier to convey in written form.

So I knew I had to prepare and minimize the stress. Perhaps, I thought, it would be beneficial to start off by looking up advice on the Internet. Maybe writing down some answers and memorizing them. A friend even offered to coach me with a practice interview.

But my instincts told me none of these ways were the right ways to go about the task. The Internet is filled with advice, newbies confiding how scary the top magazine interview is. They tell you to psychoanalyze the interviewer, see through their words to figure out what they’re really asking. They tell you to prepare days in advance. And they seal it all with, “Most of all, be yourself,” followed by a score of exclamation marks.

But how can you be yourself when you are so preoccupied in figuring out the other person, all the while finding yourself immersed in a super-terrifying situation?

Many recent grads also admitted on the Internet that they found jobs only after about forty interviews and fifteen edit tests—with no exaggeration, they claimed. In that case, at my pitiful sum of two interviews and one edit test, I should have probably given up.

I didn’t trust the Internet, and so I thought about memorizing answers, instead. That, too, though, seemed like it would keep me from truly being myself. Perhaps making a loose mental outline of what my answers would contain would be better, I thought, and did exactly that.

And then, there was my friend who insisted on helping me with a practice interview. Backed by millions on the Internet who also confirmed that that was one of the best ways to go about it, this willingly helpful friend really had the best in mind for me. Yet it was easy to see that having him interview me and pick apart my answers would also be a terrible avenue to take, possibly the worst of all.

PART SIX: ACING THE INTERVIEW

The way I saw it, and still do after my recent interview experiences, interviews are supposed to be natural.

Truth is, there is no right and wrong answers. A friend telling you that your answer wasn’t good is only speaking from his own point of view and probably limited experience. What is natural for you and doesn’t sound good to a friend who might be looking to make you into an exemplar—in his eyes—interviewee might have been the winning answer to the employer. Because interviews are really supposed to be natural conversations between two people, not question-answer games where time and points as factors.

When it comes to interviews, there shouldn’t be much preparation. The only thing to remember is to be yourself—turns out, half the newbies on the Internet had been right. Yet they had been wrong with the way of going about it. By planning every detail of an answer, obsessing about what the interviewer wants to hear, and fearing the possible employer like the plague, recent grads transform themselves from regular, articulate beings to nervous wrecks—not their true selves at all.

No wonder it takes them forty interviews to get a job. Any fool would give up after forty failed interviews, and show up at an interview with an I-really-couldn’t-give-a-sh*t-less-if-you-reject-me-too attitude. Only then, could they really not give a flip enough and just truly be themselves and not some monster they had transformed into to please the employer.

Now you’ll probably wonder why I’m talking like this. Did I get an offer?

Heck, no; it’s only been a day. But I had two of the best interviews of my life.

At the book publisher’s, the conversation with my interviewer flowed more naturally than a river in springtime. We covered my background naturally, then books and all of my knowledge. I pretended to know all about women’s fiction, often referring to my mental book lists and holding my breath hoping he wouldn’t probe into how these novels ended. But he didn’t probe because I was confident enough to talk about them in a way that showed the guy I had a true interest.

When he asked regular entry-level questions like, “Why did you choose your school?” instead of giving him a nervous laugh and a made up story about the honors of the school, I told him the truth. “I hated math and my only other choice was the technical school nearby. I’m very glad I went to my school, because the liberal arts environment really allowed my creativity to blossom.” As I said it simply, with an assertive smile, I saw my chances of joining the company blossoming, too.

On my second interview, I followed the same tactic. The next day, I showed up at the women’s magazine with a confident Ya-snooze-Ya-Lose-Me attitude. I’ve never done more flawless, non-stressful interviewing than I did that day. Because I wasn’t worried, I could think clearly; I was articulate, assertive, and enthusiastic to the right amount. Through some clever detective work with the receptionist, with whom I struck up a conversation as I waited in the lobby when I first arrived, I found out the interviewer had received 120 résumés, from which she had picked only five candidates to interview. One of those was me.

I felt triumphant, even more so when just three hours after my interview, I got a call from the magazine, an invitation to return on Tuesday to meet the editor-in-chief and have a second interview.

So, no, I don’t have an offer yet, but I do have good chances for one and useful advice to recent grads looking for a job: Do your research, do your proofreading, and once you make it to the interview, do not do a thing. Don’t worry, don’t fret, just go along with the ride.

If you’re sitting in front of an interviewer, you’ve already impressed them with your credentials. That’s why you’re there. Interviewers are busy, especially those in publishing; if they weren’t convinced you were good enough, you wouldn’t be in front of them, but still sitting at home, twiddling your thumbs, hoping and wondering, while your résumé had already made it “on file” in the nearest trash can of the publisher.

But the reality is you’re there, having won 75% of the battle. The only reason they’ve called you in is to make sure you’re a normal person, not some psycho who can’t talk or some punk who can’t dress for the company. Or, some scared, undeveloped person who won’t be confident to communicate well with a client on the phone on the job, or will be too nervous to meet the frequent deadlines of the magazine.

Tell them that you can do it, and they’ll believe you. Tie in previous experience where you have done it, and they’ll be convinced. Show them with a confident handshake, a direct and constant gaze, and a natural demeanor and articulate conversation that you are the person for the job, and they’ll be more than happy to assist you.

As much as you don’t like interviews, they don’t enjoy the hassle of interviewing, either.

So do them and yourself a favor, and show them that you’re ready to relieve them of these duties and fill the position.

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About tali2

I am a recent grad of the wonderful English major. Though I don't regret studying English one bit, I realize why my teachers, parents, friends, and imaginary mentors warned me against it: Because it leads you nowhere. But it did give me great writing skills which I hope to continue honing in this blog as I chronicle the tribulations of the terrible job hunt in the terrible job market of NYC. And I hope that my blog reminds fellow unemployed recent grads that you are not alone, inspires some hope within us, while presenting a snapshot of our lives to others who do not share the same self-imposed troubles.
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