Written by Tiffany Eurich
There’s one big question I hear from college seniors at this time of year (besides, “How did it go by so fast?”); it’s, “How do I get my first job when everyone wants prior experience?” The great news is “experience” can take many different shapes. If you haven’t already started planning your strategy to land that first job, your last year of school is the time to do it. These seven steps will help you jumpstart your future career—and you can start today.
1. Leverage coursework and extracurricular projects
Your homework or club involvement is an asset when you don’t have traditional work experience. All those news release assignments for class make great examples of your writing skills. You can take the lead on a team project, and use it to demonstrate your leadership skills and ability to collaborate. Handle your sorority’s social media accounts? That’s relevant to PR work too.
Brooke Zimny, assistant to the president for communications and marketing at Ouachita Baptist University, mentors students preparing for a career in public relations. She says it’s important not to take your classes for granted.
“College is a unique time in your life,” she says. “These people and resources will likely never be as available to you again.” The kinds of projects you do every day help showcase your skills and are a much more powerful endorsement than a print resume alone.
2. Build your portfolio before the year gets hectic
A digital portfolio is one of the best ways for an employer to see what they can expect when working with you. The key is not to wait until you start applying to jobs to pull it together. Before your schedule gets crazy, create a system that works for you. As you generate more content throughout the year, you can seamlessly integrate it. For my students, I recommend a simple, chic website that houses the portfolio, resume, endorsements, a brief personal brand statement, and basic contact info. Include the link on your resume or business cards, and you’ll be able to direct employers to the content you want them to see. Trust me, it’s way better than relying on a Google search to turn up your relevant experience. My students often say this is the single most useful project they do in college.
3. Strengthen your network
A strong network will help you get where you want to go, and faster. Maybe you can think of someone who’s a natural networker, and you wish you’d been born with that skill set. Here’s the hard truth: networking is a skill that you choose to (or choose not to) learn. And it’s a fundamental skill in the PR industry. I wasn’t always great at networking, but I’ve made it a goal for my professional growth, and you should too. Start with your existing network: internship bosses and coworkers, your department’s professional guests, your university’s alumni, and local chapters of a professional organization. Don’t forget your classmates: they’re the future professionals you’re going to be rubbing elbows with down the road.
4. Select your final courses wisely
Make your last round of courses work hard for you. Too many students reach for an easy schedule and miss golden opportunities to gain a professional edge. If you haven’t already taken a PR course, this is a no-brainer. If you can get an internship, you’ll get valuable connections while earning course credits. You can also get creative with your electives. Look at advertising courses, feature writing, marketing, or expand your education into psychology, fashion merchandising, or graphic design.
5. Audit your social media presence
You already know social posts can hurt your image, but you may be surprised at the reasons. Researchers use the term “ambient awareness” to describe the subtle ways we pick up a person’s personality via social media. When you complain about professors or homework or friends, employers assume you’ll gripe about your boss, your job, and your coworkers, and nobody wants to work with a complainer. Instead, use social media to showcase the positive vibe you bring to the workplace. Post about industry-related news, and celebrate the successes of others—and yourself—when relevant.
Abigail Fowler, marketing and creative director for QG Floral in NYC, and PR agency owner, says a strong social media presence is essential for landing a job in publicity.
“Most companies are focused on that goal so much that, even if it’s not your direct job, they want to know how your skills will inadvertently advance their social media game,” she says.
6. Look for outside training
If you can, get outside the classroom to sharpen up your skills. A flexible, remote internship is one way to get involved in PR this year. Many agencies—my own included—offer these positions throughout the year, and they can be less competitive than a summer program. Like a student I worked with, you could enroll in a short-term fashion design program to get an inside look at the business you want to promote. And a tightly focused online course like PR Couture’s PRISM is a powerful launchpad for your career.
“There’s really no substitute for getting your hands dirty and learning to navigate real-world situations,” says Zimny.
Not only does outside training get you priceless industry insights, it shows employers you’re self-motivated and will take the initiative to improve your professional growth.
7. Have an answer to the question you know is coming
Raise your hand if you’re already tired of hearing, “So what are you going to do after graduation?” We’ve all been there. Instead of shrugging or mumbling something inaudible, start working on your elevator pitch. Develop a confident response that simply states what kind of work you’d like to be doing and for what kind of organization. Think of it as a personal brand statement. It’s ok if this evolves. The more you practice that statement, the more focused and strategic your efforts will become.
When you’re in the final stretch toward that diploma, trying to balance school, job hunting, and a social life can be overwhelming. Whether you use one, two, or all of these strategies, you can make these final school months do overtime for your budding PR career.
After 20+ years in the industry (think TV personality & public relations expert) and a decade of that as an award-winning university professor (think Ph.D., advisor, author, & researcher), Tiffany Eurich now teaches creative entrepreneurs how to design and execute data-driven, research-proven media strategies to bring in customers with ease and confidence.
In a (Texas pecan) nutshell, she helps entrepreneurs become authorities in their industry, starting with capturing media attention, mastering the interview, and creating conversion-driven media products.
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