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Welcome to the work world -- 5 tips for graduating college seniors (and their parents)

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 (AP)

College seniors around the country have already started graduating and searching for meaningful employment. This brings great hope to parents who have become accustomed to being empty nesters. However, with a tight labor market, finding employment continues to be a challenge. 

Each year, the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania conducts a nationwide study of human resource professionals and managers to understand what distinguishes the professional employee from the unprofessional one. Based on the research, here are some tips we can offer graduates as they venture off on the next phase of their lives. 

Tip 1: Change your thinking about social media

The recent occurrence in Maryland with an applicant being requested to provide the password to his Facebook account so the potential employer could review its contents should be an eye opener to all using social media. While this action has stirred much debate, it is just one example of a company checking out a job candidate’s social sites. We know of employers whose first action screening applicants is a visit to their Facebook page. 

As graduation approaches, it is the time to realize that a change in behavior relative to social media might be in order. What was considered normal in college may be seen as unacceptable in the workplace. 

Evaluate your usage of electronic devices. A high percentage of HR professionals and managers report that problems with IT etiquette and abuses have increased. The most prevalent problems are text messaging at inappropriate times, the inappropriate use of the Internet, excessive cellphone usage for personal calls, and excessive use of Twitter and Facebook. Texting during a business meeting is not the same as texting during that seemingly long college lecture. 

Not controlling the use of technology can transform a promising interview into a disaster. We have heard far too many stories about applicants’ cellphones ringing during a job interview. The stories get even better when the applicant actually answers the call. 

Tip 2: Understand that appearance matters

While college may be a time for free expression, this does not necessarily carry over into the workplace. About three-fourths of the companies surveyed have dress codes. Dress codes most often refer to attire, facial piercings, and visible tattoos. 

These same aspects of appearance also have a significant impact on a person being hired or promoted. Plus, the majority of our respondents indicate that attire and appearance affect the perception of someone’s competence. 

If it is not too late, avoid tattoos that you cannot hide. 

When you go for that interview, wear clothing that is appropriate for the occasion. Remember dressing for an interview is not the same as dressing to attract members of the opposite sex. The most common deadly mistake that occurs during an interview is inappropriate attire. 

Tip 3: Remember you are a recent graduate

Our research asks respondents to rate how important specific qualities are to someone being a professional. Respondents then rate the extent to which each quality is found in first year employees. For all qualities, but one, the importance of a quality being present in an employee exceeds the extent to which it is actually present. The one exception is the concern about opportunities for advancement. Apparently, a job applicant wondering about how soon they will become the company president is not that unusual. 

As an applicant in today’s job market, be concerned about landing that first job. While you may want to know about advancement, this is not the time to ask about it. Too often, questions like this are interpreted as the applicant having a sense of entitlement. 

Graduating from college marks the start of your career life. This accomplishment only entitles you to apply for jobs that require a college degree to be considered. 

Tip 4: Find positive ways to differentiate yourself from the competition

One impact of the tight job market is employers have a larger pool of persons applying for the positions that exist. This means the new college graduate is competing with seasoned veterans for job openings. Ask yourself how can you break through the clutter of applicants and make a positive lasting first impression. 

For starters, do research on the company before your initial personal contact. Visit its website. Know its products. Be prepared to ask informed questions about the organization. About a fourth of our human resources respondents report that job applicants are not prepared for their interviews. 

The next step is to act interested. Granted, the first job you land may not be your ideal position. However, you never know where it will lead. Lack of interest is mentioned far too often as another deadly mistake during an interview. 

Third, work on your communication skills. These are an important quality associated with professionalism. Poor verbal skills and grammar are near the top of the list of things to avoid while being interviewed. 

Tip 5: Professionalism makes a difference

Understand what it means to be a professional in the workplace. Nearly all of the human resources professionals report that an applicant’s professionalism affects the likelihood of their getting hired. An assessment of one’s professionalism begins with the initial interview. 

There are definite qualities associated with being professional. The most prevalent of these are interpersonal skills, appearance, written and verbal communication competence, time management, confidence, and having a work ethic. The applicant who possesses these qualities will have an advantage over those who do not. 

Only half of all companies have any programs designed to orient new employees to what is considered professional. Often, the employee is expected to know how to act professionally from the beginning of employment. Do yourself a favor and review the extent to which you possess these qualities. 

Graduates, while following these five tips may not guarantee you will be hired immediately, they will distance you from the crowd of fellow college seniors you will soon meet in the search for employment. 

Whatever job you want, thinking and acting professionally will give you an edge over those who do not. Good luck as you commence onward with your careers.

David Polk is a professor of behavioral science at York College of Pennsylvania. He is an advisory board member and conducts research for the Center for Professional Excellence on the topic of professionalism in entry-level employees.