Learning Lessons Post-Graduation

My major in college was Communications, with a focus in Public Relations. In the first two years, a lot of what I learned within my field was what some might refer to as “the basics.” Most of the information included swivelvocab words I aced on a test but would forget two weeks after the final exam. Don’t get me wrong, these classes were important in that they were an overview of the subject to which I was about to devote 4 years of school, not to mention the rest of my foreseeable career.

Later on, classes became more “practical.” Lessons referred to actual case studies. Our minds were tested on more than just words, but rather the application of techniques. In my senior year I took an extremely beneficial class that included all hands-on PR work. We even ran our own campaign for the local branch of the East Coast Greenway (and so I continue my “mandatory boasting”).

Obviously all my classes were important (in their own special way…), but I always found that the teachers who best knew how to teach Public Relations had actually worked in Public Relations. There is a difference between studying and doing, and when a favorite professor of mine failed to get a promotion simply because she didn’t have a Masters degree, I felt outraged! There was no doubt that her 20+ years of experience had proven more helpful to her students then any textbook teacher.

Well, I seem to be going off on a tangent from my original point of post.

I’ve been in the “real world” for about 2 years now, which means I’m just new enough to remember school, and just old enough to realize that there were some key points that our Communications lessons failed to mention. And so I have compiled a nice little list of things I wish I had learned in school, though perhaps some of these are merely lessons we each have to learn from actual experiences.

1. More Microsoft Suite, please.

I will admit that I’m grateful for having been trained to work on both Mac (my preference) and PC while in school, but despite what I had considered a thorough training in each field, I find that there was much still to learn. In particular– Microsoft Office. Let’s face it, unless you’re working for some fancy-pants (exaggeration) company, you’re probably dealing with Office ’98 on a PC from an equally distant past. Now here’s the thing– I thought I knew Excel pretty well. Nope. Barely scratched the surface. And don’t get me started on Publisher, a program I have since learned to worship as a god of efficiency. Oh, and Mail Merge. Mail Merging documents is a glorious time saver and I shudder to think of my life without it (I recently had to print out 800+ personalized letters…imagine typing each name and address…one at a time…I feel sick…).

2. Customer Service a.k.a. basic manners and tact

I don’t care what job you have, 95% of us will have to deal with customers/clients. Honestly, the majority of ‘customer service’ is basic etiquette. Watch what you say and the tone you say it in. Also, it extremely important that you learn to read people– position your statement or argument by what they value or feel. Simple social interaction is very important, especially in situations when you find yourself addressing someone who keeps you employed and helps pay your salary. The customer may not always be right, but you sure as hell should pretend they are.

The other half of social interaction, especially in the not-for-profit field, is the schmoozing. You may be making a measly salary, but you’ll often find yourself around the kind of people who spend the equivalent of your monthly income on one night of drinks. Here is where you must become a human chameleon; once again– read the audience. Fit in, but don’t put on airs. Be yourself, but maybe not the same self you present when hanging out with friends. Oh, and it’s probably a safe bet to say you should steer away from commenting on your own pile of student loans…they may be rich but they’re actually not looking to adopt a 25-year-old drowning in debt (drats!).

3. Writing. Editing. Simple, right? Wrong.

Years of writing classes, essays, and research papers– All for what? Well, I promise you one thing, practice makes perfect with writing and all that ‘practice’ will sure as hell come in handy in the career world. You will find yourself writing, no matter what your job:  composing an email to your boss, a proposal for a new program, a post for the website. You will write, and you will be judged. Perhaps one of the most disheartening moments of my (albeit brief) career thus far was finding out that one of my bosses, whose tactics and work ethic I admire, was an incredibly terrible writer. My respect for her didn’t decrease, though I will admit a slight wavering. Anyway, one of my personal favorite things to do for work is write. Because of that, I’ve been given more and more responsibility in different spheres of the organization. People take notice when you can write well. It will get you places and it will get you things– possibly just more work for the same salary, but you can’t beat the respect that goes along with it. So take advantage of all the writing you will do in school– not necessarily that paper about John Milton’s Paradise Lost; teacher’s should stress the different forms of writing, and how to make your point clear and concise (I always fail at the concise part).

4. Office Environment 101

Perhaps this is where the mandatory internships and learning from experience come in, but I don’t think I got a full dose of the Office Environment until my current job. So what is the “Office Environment”? Basically it’s another version of entering a new school: Where do you eat lunch? Who can you complain about work to? How should you dress? What sort of supplies do you need? Of course, the Office has a whole new set of learning blocks, for instance: How do I use a fax/copier/printer? Who handles my paycheck?  What’s the difference between vacation days and personal days? What are these mysterious “benefits” I suddenly have as a full time employee? How do I navigate the computer system? Most of these things are answered easily enough (hint: befriend the HR department), but its just the idea of playing by a whole new set of rules that can be difficult. So what should school have taught us about ‘Office Environment’? Basically that we just when we thought we were out of middle school, we get sucked back in. Minus the detentions, but plus the overtime without extra pay. Oh, and expect drama. Always with the drama.

5. How to work on a zero dollar budget

Okay, this is more of a personal one. Or perhaps other not-for-profit workers at small organizations can relate. I have literally been told to plan events on a $0 budget, to “use what we have,” and to somehow make money off of it. Pinterest is a saving grace, as is a vivid imagination. And then, of course, there is my own wallet which, when all else fails, sometimes comes into play. Thankfully, nowadays I’m usually given a small budget or reimbursed for my contributions, but never underestimate the importance of being able to work with barely a dime.

 

Remember, this list applies specifically to my own experience. I’m not attempting to rewrite any Senior Year curriculum, nor panic any soon-to-be-grads. In fact, I would be very interested in hearing what other people have encountered as educational blind spots– What is something that has proved so crucial in your career, that you didn’t learn in college but wish you had? Then again, maybe some of these things can only be learned from actual experience. What do you think?

Recommendation Letter Recruitment

Nowadays, most job applications are submitted online. In many cases, they allow for you to attach ‘any extra materials’ that you think might be of importance. I’ve translated this to mean: include recommendation letters or perish into nonexistence due to  conformity. Recommendation  letters, though more of a staple, are certainly a necessary step in helping applicants stand out in a crowd.

In preparation for the submission of my job applications, I’ve been in correspondence with a couple of professors in hopes of their writing me recommendation letters. The last time I went through this process was in high school, when I mustered up the nerve to ask my teachers for college recommendation letters. I ended up getting a pretty by-the-book, fill-in-the-blank, generic recommendation from one of my favorite teachers (talk about a disappointment), and what I can only imagine was a glowing recommendation from my (overly?) complimentary guidance counselor (I never got to see that one, which is a shame because I’m always good for an ego boost).

But that was then, and this is now– a whole new ballpark. I’m asking these individuals to assist me in finding my way in the real world. I’ve received pretty positive responses so far, at least from one professor, who, despite not being within my major, I did a lot of work with, including an independent study (within my minor). It’s been wonderful getting back in touch with her, but I almost feel guilty asking her to write this letter. It occurred to me: think of all the letters she must have to write? What a pain!

Well, my other professor has found a way around such tedious tasks, and has actually told me to write my own recommendation letter. She’ll read it, approve or disapprove, hopefully edit it a bit, and then sign it. Now, I’m not one of those people who is their own biggest fan (see above mentioned comment about ego boost), so writing that letter was probably more of a trial than it would have been for her to have composed it. When constructing your own endorsement, you feel that you owe it to yourself to be a bit modest. But, at the same time, not overly modest (it is, after all, suppose to recommend you for the job…hence the name). It’s also hard for a person to see their own strengths, and equally difficult to identify one’s own weaknesses. I haven’t heard back from the professor yet, but I hope she takes some liberty and revises my muddled thoughts. It is, after all, difficult task to write a perfectly balanced review of oneself.

I like to think of these recommendation letters as an addition to my own cover letter. They highlight my strengths, passions, and past projects in a way that a resume just cannot. But this time, instead of singing my own praises via cover letters, a much more impartial audience is asked to solo.

The Trouble with Cover Letters…

…is that they’re hard to write.

As I go through the tedious process of applying for job after job, never hearing back from any of them, and then worrying that something is wrong with my email inbox, I’ve found that one of the most difficult parts is the cover letter.

How do I make myself appealing to a company?

How do I simultaneously express my uniqueness without sacrificing professionalism?

How do I properly convey my enthusiasm?

And, above all else, how do I hide my desperation?

Okay, the last one I’ve managed pretty well, but nevertheless the whole process is daunting.

With each new job possibility comes a new cover letter, or at least a new draft of the original. Right now, looking at my Documents folder, you would find at least 11 files with the words “cover letter” somewhere in the title. Many are just variations of each other, others are failed attempts at me being witty, none are, as of yet, successful.

When you google search “cover letter,” an abundance of websites pop up to assist in helping you write the perfect cover letter. The so-called experts and all of their knowledge is a bit overwhelming, causing me to take each suggestion with a grain of salt. I have, however, discovered that there are a few constants in masses:

1. Absolutly, Positivly, Unconditoinaly NO mispellings or grammatic erors.

(see what I did there?)

2. Take this opportunity to go into greater depth and detail involving your specific skills in relation to the job you are applying for.

3. Individualize it.

4. Highlight how you would be an asset to the company.

5. Each Cover Letter should be Company specific.

(this one might require researching the company, which is always a good idea if you’re applying to work there!)

Am I missing anything? Or is there, quite simply, no perfect recipe. No guarantees. No promises.

Each resume I send seems like a shot in the dark, I guess I’m just hoping one of them will get noticed.

Professionalism in a Personal Sphere

The internet is a wonderful thing. With just a google search, we can find just about anyone’s facebook, twitter, myspace, or blog. We can reconnect with old classmates, teachers, friends, or co-workers. The information is at our finger tips and readily available. And yet, while these easily accessible social networking sites can do wonders for our personal lives, we must keep in mind that they are PUBLIC information.

I was prompted to write this by one particular tweet from a former co-worker of mine. It was simple and it was in response to a friend. It stated: “I was so high at the time.” Reading it, I couldn’t believe that she would write that. Then I thought back to facebook updates I had seen from classmates in the past. One particular girl I knew was sure to mention “smoking a blunt” in just about every update. I couldn’t believe that anyone could be so careless, especially as young adults soon to be entering into the work environment.

In one of my college Public Relations class, my professor gave us an assignment: Go on your facebook tonight and clean it up. Take down any pictures, comments, or information that you wouldn’t want your grandparents to see.

The simple fact is that more and more employers are using internet searches to screen future employees. One study found that nearly 45% of employers used social networking sites to research applicants! This number only continues to grow as the internet-saavy generation prepares for entering the career sphere.

So what should you do? How should you “clean-up” your sites? Well, take a look of these results from the above-mentioned survey describing why a candidate was “not hired”:

Candidate posted provocative or inappropriate photographs or information – 53 percent

Candidate posted content about them drinking or using drugs – 44 percent

Candidate bad-mouthed their previous employer, co-workers or clients – 35 percent

Candidate showed poor communication skills – 29 percent

Candidate made discriminatory comments – 26 percent

Candidate lied about qualifications – 24 percent

certainly some might argue that their security on facebook or twitter will stop employers from finding inappropriate information, but be aware that this is not always the case. We all have heard the saga of facebook’s inefficient security measures, and we also never know who might be a friend of a friend.

Another major argument is that these sites are PERSONAL, and should be viewed as completely separate from their PROFESSIONAL lives. Unfortunately, to display true professionalism, you must adopt maturity in all aspects of your life. Your employers may not be the only ones googling you on the internet–clients are likely to be similarly interested in finding out exactly who they have hired.

And yet, there is actually a positive side to the increased use of internet screening. If you are one of those candidates who uses the internet wisely, or displays an apt understanding for specific sites while displaying a clear professionalism, then you certainly will have a leg up over the competition. So use the internet and social networking to your advantage. Depending on your field, it could be a crucial deciding point in whether or not you are hired. From the same survey mentioned above, employers listed the reasons why, after an internet screening, they “did hire” employees:

Profile provided a good feel for the candidate’s personality and fit – 50 percent

Profile supported candidate’s professional qualifications – 39 percent

Candidate was creative – 38 percent

Candidate showed solid communication skills – 35 percent

Candidate was well-rounded – 33 percent

Other people posted good references about the candidate – 19 percent

Candidate received awards and accolades – 15 percent

So be smart about what you put on the internet. It’s a public forum, and despite any sort of security, you never know who might be looking. That “silly” picture of you and your friends that night you had “a little too much to drink,” may not seem so “silly” to a future employer.

For more information, check out the survey and its results here.