Choosing Your First Full-Time Job – Five Tips from a Recent College Grad

Because I’m a recent college graduate, the experience of researching and interviewing for my first job is fresh in my mind. This time last year, I was researching different companies, marking my calendar with the university’s career fair, preparing for the interview process, and turning down my first job offer ever. It was an exciting, but stressful, time of life.

Now that I’m a few months into my full-time job, I’ve been able to reflect on the things I wish I’d known going into the process. In no particular order, here are the top five pieces of advice I’d give to other soon-to-be graduates who are navigating the job search process.

1. Figure Out What Motivates You

When I was offered my first full-time job after graduation, I was ecstatic. It was a good feeling to know that my degree was employable and I had managed to navigate the interview process successfully. The offer came with a solid salary and good benefits in a city where I would be super-excited to live.

But as I evaluated the offer, I realized the things that really motivate me wouldn’t be met by that opportunity. I want to work with passionate people who challenge me to learn and grow professionally, and I want to believe in the purpose of the company.

What I saw around me at that company were many people who worked for their paycheck, not for their passion. There was no well-defined purpose that made me want to join. When I realized the mismatch between my personal motivators and my reasons for possibly accepting the job, I decided to turn it down.

Before you begin the job process, I would strongly encourage you to spend some time considering what motivates you and what you find important in a company. It will help you weed out companies that don’t align with your interests.

2. Understand that Knowledge Isn’t Power

We all want to believe that we’ll have everything figured out and all of the knowledge we need for an entry-level position when we graduate. I’ve learned that’s just not the case, but it’s also not the end of the world.

Companies that are interested in hiring new graduates understand that you’ll need to learn new things in order to do the job. They’ve seen your resume. You’re not fooling them. If they offer you an interview, focus on conveying your readiness to learn instead of communicating what you already know (more advice on that later).

Even if you don’t think you’re qualified, apply for the job. The worst that can happen is that you never hear back. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not so bad.

3. Remember that Honesty Is the Best Policy

When I interviewed for my first-ever internship, I was a college freshman who had recently switched from a music degree, was pursuing a business administration degree, and was applying for a software quality assurance position at a tech company. Might sound like a head scratcher, but in the spirit of honesty, I’ll admit that I applied because it paid more than twice what I would have made as a nanny for the summer.

I added skills to make my resume look as tech-y as possible: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Google Docs, etc. (go ahead, cue the laughs). I added an operating systems section and listed Windows, Mac, and Linux.

During my interview, the interviewers asked me about my experience with Linux. I responded, with a bit of a grin, “I know that it exists, and I’ve booted into Ubuntu a couple of times. Honestly, that’s about it.” I seem to remember my interviewers being mildly entertained and generally unfazed, and I was offered the internship the following day. Sometime after the fact, my mentor told me that they’d been impressed with my candor and my willingness to learn. That’s why they’d picked me over their other candidate.

I’ve kept this experience in mind during all of my more recent job interviews and have found that it makes the interview process easier. If I’m willing to just admit what I don’t know, I build trust with my interviewers, and I don’t feel pressured to talk myself up. It’s a win-win situation for both interviewer and interviewee.

The other reason that honesty is really valuable in an interview is because it sets expectations. When I started that internship, my mentor knew exactly how much I knew (and just how much I didn’t know), so he was ready to dive in on teaching me even the simplest of things. When I was working and had a question, I wasn’t scared to ask it. Being honest set expectations realistically right at the start, which allowed me to be comfortable being myself.

4. Look for a Willingness to Teach

Here’s one of the biggest things I wish somebody had told me going into the job search process. Find a company with employees who are excited to share their knowledge and learn alongside you.

In my opinion, mentorship is essential to continuing to learn and grow. You’ll also find that you’re more willing to contribute your knowledge if you’re in an environment where learning and knowledge transfer are considered valuable. (For more perspectives on this, I’d highly recommended reading about the Teach and Learn value mantra here at Atomic. It has taught me so much about why this tip is valuable when searching for a job.)

In one of my internships, many team members were booked for meetings eight hours a day. It was hard to ask them questions without feeling like an inconvenience. Most of my time was spent working through projects on my own, so when I got stuck, I couldn’t get a new perspective from somebody on my team.

When you’re hunting for your first post-grad job, put a high value on the willingness and availability of your co-workers to share their knowledge and to work with you. When your interviewer asks if you have any questions, ask them about the day-to-day environment of the job. Ask if you can see a typical week on their calendar. Pay attention to whether people will have time for you. If my experience is any indicator, it’s an essential part of not only expanding your knowledge, but feeling like you have the ability to add value to your team.

5. Ask What Tools Are Provided

All right, this tip might sound petty, but hear me out. I have two major pieces of advice: First, find out what tools a company will give you to accomplish your work. Do the tools make sense? Are they useful? Second, find out whether the company has the flexibility to change the tools if something better becomes available. Let me tell you why this became important to me.

In one of my summer internships, I used a clunky Windows 7 laptop with many required security tools installed–so many, in fact, that it took 15-20 seconds for the keyboard to start working after opening up the laptop.

Employees weren’t allowed to install new software unless it was in an approved company store for software downloads. The downloads from that store didn’t work when I tried to use them. The company standard for messaging was Skype. You could only send messages to people who were online, and your chat history would not be kept. If they sent you something you needed the next day, you had to message them ask for it again. Team communication happened over email, so if you got an email sent to the whole team, you could often expect a new email notification every five minutes for the next two hours.

All of these things were annoying, but when I considered working at the company full-time, I told myself it was petty to let those things factor into my decision. Then I realized that working 40 hours a week has enough challenges without clunky laptops and software getting in the way of daily work.

The tools available to you should help improve your job, not make it worse. Let them play a part in your decision-making process.

No matter whether you’re already in the interview process or just beginning the adventure, these are the five pieces of advice I would go back and give myself. I hope you find them useful as well. For those who have already navigated the process, what things do you wish you’d known before searching for your first job? Leave a comment below—I’d love to learn from your experiences, as well.