Advice for Grads on Job Searching During the Pandemic

By Stephenie Girard

If you’re graduating from college (or grad school) this month, things probably look a lot different than what you’ve always imagined. The way you’re celebrating has certainly changed, for one thing. And then there’s what happens after that. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the job market is suddenly the worst it’s been since the Great Depression.

Maybe you haven’t found a job yet, and now there’s even more competition out there. Maybe you had a job offer, but it was frozen or rescinded. Or maybe you’re fortunate and have a job lined up, but perhaps not with the salary or security you’d hoped for.

A photo of a woman sitting in a chair with papers on her lap and a pencil in her hand.

These are very real challenges, and it’s going to take some hard work and dedication to overcome them. But I’ve worked with students who were about to graduate before, when I was a career coach at Harvard Business School, and so I’m betting that you know a thing or two about hard work. Here’s my best advice to help you search for a job while the economy tries to recover.

Spend time on your personal narrative

Your personal narrative is the story you can tell about yourself that connects the dots between where you are now and where you want to go. It’s your unique magic. And it takes some intentionality to get it just right.

Your personal narrative may not really be a script that you can speak out loud from beginning to end. It’s really just made up of the things you want people to know about yourself, the things that you feel best showcase what makes you sparkle, and how you might frame those things in conversation. You might use it as prep for a job interview, as fodder for networking (more about that a little later), or even as a self-examination tool to help guide you as you explore possibilities in your job search.

What does that look like and what should it include? For one thing, what you’re passionate about and why. Why did you choose the career path you’re seeking? What lights your eyes up about the job descriptions you’re attracted to? For another, the experiences you’ve had that would show potential employers you’re right for the job. Some examples: a time you overcame an organizational challenge that would show your dependability, or a problem-solving challenge that would show your ability to get things done, or a resource challenge that showcases your teamwork.

Another thing to consider putting in your narrative: You just finished school in one of the most turbulent moments of history. You likely had to make drastic changes to your habits, priorities, and mindset. You can tell that story. You can highlight what it taught you about how you work, what you value, and what you can do. You can showcase why that prepared you to be a seriously awesome member of a company’s team, especially if they’re working remotely right now. Spend some time thinking this through and getting comfortable with it; I feel sure that it will pay off.

You might have heard of an “elevator pitch” or “elevator story” — that’s the traditional name for the super-short (maybe three-sentence) thing you’d say to the hiring manager of your dreams if you were somehow magically alone in an elevator together and only had 30 seconds to wow them. You might have also heard this term to describe what you’d say to a recruiter at a career fair. The point of an elevator story is to condense your personal narrative into something really focused and compelling that anyone can understand. You’ll use it when you meet people IRL, but maybe also in cover letters, emails, LinkedIn intros, etc.

Don’t stop networking

Just because we’re social distancing doesn’t mean that we can’t network with one another. In fact, I encourage you to take networking very seriously right now.

Find organizations and people you’d like to work for or with. Reach out to them and ask for a virtual coffee chat. Even if they aren’t hiring right now, you’ll be a step ahead of other candidates when a role opens in the coming months. You should be reaching out to several people a day as part of a networking initiative.

Your college or university’s alumni network is also a good place to start, because you’ll already have something in common to help spark a connection. In fact, you can click “Alumni” on your school’s LinkedIn page to find alums in different geographies, industries, and more.

Staying in touch with your friends counts, too — for women, a core inner circle of other women who look out for each other is often the key to career success. (Plus, they can tell their friends, and “a friend of a friend” might be that next opportunity.)

Also: Tell everyone that you’re looking for a job, and post about it on LinkedIn from time to time. You truly never know where your next job will come from! It’s in your best interest to spread the word far and wide.

Don’t limit yourself

You may have a picture in your mind about the kind of job you want. And if you’re like any of the students I’ve advised in the past, you might feel like your first job is critically important in helping you build the career you envision.

First of all, it may be difficult to believe right now, but this is not true. You have time to find your way, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the moment. The fact is that most people (including me) have twists and turns in their career paths — none of which they could have foreseen, but all of which led them to where they are today. This will be true for you, too. It’s OK to take a job that’s not quite what you imagined, especially in this environment. I promise that you will get something valuable out of it, even if you only stay there for a little while.

So look for jobs more widely than you otherwise would have. Also, while it’s true that some companies are on a hiring freeze, other companies are seeking very specific, new talent to help them shift gears. I encourage you to look out for those — and even reach out with recommendations on how you specifically could help.

Now is the time to be creative and bold. Take a big step out of your comfort zone.

Find new ways to grow

Once you start interviewing, you’re going to want to be able to tell a strong story of how you continued to grow after graduation. What can you do to broaden your skill set, dig into the things that interest you, and make a difference? Consider volunteer work, part-time work, temp work, freelancing — all of these can enhance your personal narrative, and any of them could lead you to your next job.

Use your school’s career resources

Take full advantage of the resources at your school’s career and professional development office. The folks who work there are dedicated to helping you find a job, and they’ve built well-established relationships and networks that can help connect you to potential employers. Don’t just search the job boards — make an appointment to speak with a career counselor; have them review your resume and cover letter; seek their advice when you run into challenges. They are there to help.

Details matter

You want to demonstrate polished professionalism whenever you can. Especially when competition for jobs is so tough, it’s worth the extra time it takes to avoid grammar mistakes and typos, use (and get names right) every time, speak and write clearly and with compelling language, choose a professional photo for LinkedIn — make sure everything is zipped up, top to bottom.

Be ready to negotiate future job offers

Eventually, you will receive a job offer. And when that time comes, it’s absolutely in your best interest to negotiate the terms of that offer, including your salary. This is one of the most powerful ways to take charge of your own financial future, because negotiating will not only help you get the compensation you deserve, but also increase the salary that all your future raises will probably be based on. And that’s a big deal, especially since you may need to do some catching up thanks to this pandemic.

That being said, remember that potential employers probably have less wiggle room in their budgets right now. Plus, with a lot of people looking for jobs, you may have less leverage in a negotiation. But if you’re at the point of an offer, then they want to hire you, and you want to get hired. If it doesn’t seem like they’ll be able to negotiate much now, you can start a discussion on when that might change. Perhaps they can propose a plan to increase your salary once the pandemic’s effects are less painful or steadily over time. At the very least, you can negotiate for a “renegotiation” down the line. You can also negotiate for things you want beyond salary — for example, a short day on Wednesdays to grocery-shop off peak hours, or a better title, or extra paid time off.

Work hard and stay hopeful

Finally, maintain your hope and optimistic outlook — this is important, because it can help you stay resilient on a daily basis. Stay productive and busy during these uncertain times. Learn new skills. Dream big even when things are challenging. Your patience, resilience, and hard work will pay off.


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Stephenie Girard

Stephenie Girard is the lead career coach at Ellevest. She helps Ellevest members negotiate their pay, navigate changes, and take charge of their careers.