What is the primary reason people go to college? To get a good job. Hopefully, a more holistic process of learning, discovery, and friendship takes place during a student’s years on campus, but it’s difficult to justify the investment of college for a non-career reason. 

Given this goal, it’s surprising that students aren’t better prepared for landing their dream careers. College career centers offer excellent in-person support, online resources, and employer connections, but many students either don’t take advantage or can’t find what they’re looking for. 

If you want to be a doctor, accountant, engineer, lawyer or take any more traditional path after you graduate, you need to play by the rules of that game. Get good grades, go to graduate school, network with people at your desired companies, and go to on-campus recruiting events.

But what if you don’t know what you want? Or what if you want to work at the intersection of a few different fields and don’t know where to start? What if your dream job asks for 10 years of experience? What if you don’t want to work in a job typical for your major?

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These situations require a more unconventional approach than what you’ll find in most career blogs or by asking older generations. Landing a dream job is a challenging feat, but there are steps students can take to get that final-round interview. 

First, create a consistent personal story and share it online. This could be as simple as spicing up your LinkedIn profile with more thorough descriptions of your prior experience. If you’re willing to invest more time, create a personal portfolio website showcasing your prior work, art, writing or experiences.

Think about how you would share your career journey in 1 or 2 minutes during an interview or at a networking event. How do your past experiences relate to your current trajectory, and what are you looking for in the next stage of your career journey? What specific skills and broader character traits would you bring into a job or internship? Writing, design, coding, sales, data analysis, marketing, and research skills are a handful of concrete skills valued by employers.

At the beginning of every interview or career conversation, you will likely be asked to share about yourself. Thoughtfully crafting your approach to answering this often-overlooked question is essential.

The second step to getting your dream job is to conduct informational interviews. If you’re just starting out in college, reach out to on-campus organizations or upperclassmen you admire. If you’re a senior, open LinkedIn, search for your university, click “alumni,” and you can sift through thousands of alumni in companies or industries that interest you. At the end of this summer, I spoke to over a dozen alumni myself to ask about their job-search process, and I was blown away by how helpful everyone was.

What do you talk about in an informational interview? If the person is a young professional, ask about their journey into their current role. If they are working in a job you’re curious about, you should ask about the most rewarding and the most challenging aspects of the role. Let your curiosity guide you. At the end of an informational interview, asking if there is anyone else the person thinks you should talk to is a great way to expand your network. Never directly ask for a job, but you can mention that you would be interested in roles at the company.

Conducting informational interviews is one of the easiest ways to test your assumptions about what a career actually entails while building your network. 

Third, you need to apply for jobs or internships that look interesting to you. Perseverance is a vital trait here. Most online applications are like a black hole: you’ll never hear back. And when you do, polite rejection is the norm. Remember that the company is not rejecting you personally, they are simply rejecting a snap judgment of your resume.

Rejection can sting, but stay in the game and look for opportunities to search for jobs through recommendations and personal connections. If you can find a recruiter or employee at a company willing to talk to you, your chances of landing the job will exponentially increase.

For large companies, you’ll likely have to play by their rules and fit into their recruiting cycle and procedures. But for smaller companies, you can and should be creative in your application by going above and beyond expectations.

Think about what type of work you would love to do for a company. Then, brainstorm what problems you think the company is facing that you could help address. Armed with these two answers, create a small project showing your ideas for improving the company.

 If you love designing apps, sketch a new feature. If you love writing, write an article like the ones the company posts. For almost any position, you can pick an aspect of the company’s business and share your ideas for improvement. This project can be as simple as a document you type up and send with your resume, but it can go a long way in showcasing your passion and job-specific skills.

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In interviews for my Voices of Santa Clara podcast, I often ask older guests who are quite successful what their career plans were in college. I typically hear two answers. Some people had no idea what they wanted. Others knew exactly what they wanted, only to discover years later that they were wrong. 

I find comfort in hearing how so many ambitious people have such ambiguous and winding career paths. It can be overwhelming to confront the wide-open chasm of the job market and tiring to turn in dozens of applications. But the right combination of luck, relationships, creativity, and grit can land you a role that acts as a stepping stone to your future career.