5 Common Mistakes Recent Grads Make When Looking For Work

by Orren Prunckun

We all make mistakes; it’s human. Through trial and error, we learn what to do and what not to do. In some cases, this slow method is okay, but when it comes to searching for work, the mistakes we make prove very painful.

There are a lot of outdated approaches being promoted, so it’s not your fault you struggle to find great work. I trained as a lawyer but never worked as one, yet I have been able to do work others dream about.

Over the past few years, I have successfully coached university students to get jobs once they graduate. If you follow the contrarian approach, which I advocate here, you’ll be able to do the same.

Mistake #1: Not knowing what their unique value proposition is

Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses and personal preferences. Do this by looking introspectively to find the common ground between all of the following:

1. What do you like doing, are willing to do or are interested in doing?

2. What are you excellent at?

3. Does an employer need that skill?

4. Is an employer willing to pay for that skill?

5. Is an employer able to pay for that skill?

Mistake #2: Not knowing what job, industry or employer you want to work for

Haphazardly applying for any job never works; if everyone is your target, then no one is. And a job rarely falls into your lap by asking friends if they know of any graduate job vacancies.

Based on the five questions in the previous section, decide what is your ideal job and find out what organizations currently have or need that position.

List the names of 30+ organizations that fit your criteria, then work out who the hiring decision maker is. This is not the human resources manager because they tend to stop you from talking to the person you need. Create a list of the contact details of the decision makers in those organizations.

Mistake #3: Not knowing how to meet the key influencers and decision makers

Graduates tend to apply for advertised jobs by emailing their résumés. But the majority of jobs are in the “unadvertised” job market, that is, networking — both informal and formal. Jobs are given to people whom employers know, like and trust. How do you network to meet job decision makers? Your priority order should be as follows:

- In person (it makes the interaction real)

- Snail mail (look up their postal address by searching their website on, then post them something beyond a letter)

- Email/LinkedIn/Twitter/Facebook/etc. (you can guess their email address by looking at the format of email addresses in the public domain, but it’s a crowded channel so try the others)

- Phone (you need to be really good at cold calling, as calls interrupt busy people)

Your initial contact shouldn’t be directly asking for a job; networking is never about what you can get, but rather how someone can help. As a graduate, you may feel like you don’t have much to offer, but you do. Here are some ideas to network with key decision makers from my experience:

- Interview your contact and turn those interviews into written articles for related industry magazines (question and answer format is easily converted to an article narrative). Everyone benefits: Publishers always need quality content to publish, and the interviewee is positioned as an expert, which helps build his or her personal brand. You get noticed for taking the initiative.

- Organize an industry event. Panel discussions are a good start; they inform attendees without you needing to be the expert.

- Start a personal project on your own “dime.” I brought Startup Weekend to Adelaide, Australia with a colleague and it allowed me to meet the influencers in the local industry and has provided me with more opportunities than I can count.

- Organizing an awards night for your industry works really well. If one already exists, choose a smaller niche in the same industry. Invite the people you want to meet to nominate and vote and you by default become the connector in the industry.

- Establish an industry association. If one already exists, again, choose a smaller niche in the same industry. Invite the people you want to meet to be members for free. Provide value by offering events (for example, panel discussion or awards night), online forum and email newsletter.

Mistake #4: Not gaining marketable skills outside class

You have a college or university degree, but so does everyone else. Statements like “Proficient in Microsoft Word” don’t cut it either. You need to get skills, knowledge, experience and accomplishments and a portfolio to demonstrate them. Here are some ideas to get the skills you require:

- Take short practical courses or read technical books (not Google) that cover material outside your formal studies.

- Volunteer on projects (see suggestions in mistake #3) in your field.

- Intern for organizations (see mistake #5) whether or not they are in your ideal industry.

Mistake #5: Not doing internships and volunteering the smart way

Internships and volunteering are often associated with menial work like making coffee, photocopying and filing, but it needn’t be like this. Propose to organizations how you can help them either meet their needs or solve their problems based on your observations.

Brainstorm how you could do this and get results that align with your unique value proposition (mistake #1). Compared to traditional internships, this is high value for you (potential reference, interview, referral, portfolio or job) and low risk for the employer (low commitment, low training and low investment).

You are demonstrating interest and that you can work on tasks independently without payment and get results. This is based on the principle of reciprocity discussed by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book, "Influence." He suggests that people are more inclined to return free support received. From my experience, it works.

Over to you

Now is the time for you to take action, and here is what you need to do right now to get started. The first step is to recognize if you are making any of the five common mistakes. There are only five, so be honest.

Then, based on what you discover, have the courage to stop what you are currently doing and follow the above strategies. It may feel uncomfortable in the short term, but as you begin to use these insights to guide your search for work, you will be on your way to the dream work you want.