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Ask the Headhunter: How to get your first job before you even graduate college

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: I am in a technology program at a local community college and trying to score my first job in the field. Since I am a newbie, my salary expectations are realistically low. However, most entry-level jobs I apply for require an Associate of Science and two to five years of experience. How do I stand out when I don’t satisfy the basic requirements? Thanks!

Nick Corcodilos: I have a soft spot for college students and new grads, because schools promise you a degree and “a future,” but fail to teach how to get a job.

You don’t need a degree to get your first job. You need someone who wants to help you, because they see you’re worth recommending to their boss. The challenge is that you have to show them why you’re worth it. Without going to this length, nothing good will happen for you.

You’re wise to ask how to stand out. All I’m pointing out is that there’s a crucial difference between standing out in job applications and standing out to a real, live human being who can help you.

If you can’t satisfy the requirements that HR publishes in a job posting, you need to go around them. You can stand out from your competition by making contacts who will introduce you to a manager and to people who will recommend you. Your competition isn’t doing that; they’re applying for jobs on forms. Presto — you stand out.

This isn’t so hard.

READ MORE: Why you should tell employers, ‘I don’t fill out job applications’

Pick three companies you want to work for. You must choose, or simply responding to ads becomes a total crapshoot. You must focus on these few companies. No kidding — turn it into a sort of Pokemon hunt. (I don’t play, but it’s a decent analogy.) Find the coordinates: Where do people connected to these companies hang out online and in the real world? Where do they gather to talk shop? Go there. Watch them, learn about them, talk to them. Don’t ask for a job.

Start by legitimately making friends. Ask them about their work and their company. Inquire about the technical challenges they face and how they overcome them. Learn. Be patient. As you foster decent back-and-forth dialogues, you will earn the right to ask, “Hey, how does someone like me, with no degree yet, but who has lots of motivation and is willing to work their butt off, get some kind of tech job at your company? Can you give me some advice?”

(Again, do not ask for a job. That turns people off. It’s what makes “networking” icky. But people love to give advice. They even love to help, as long as you don’t make it their problem.)

Then be quiet. Listen. Think about what they told you before saying anything else. Forget about your ideas about how to get in the door. How can you do what they suggested?

If it’s nothing for now, let it go, but stay in touch. Cultivate more friends like this. Don’t be mercenary, don’t do it just for a job. Do it because you actually like them and are interested in what they do. (I can’t stand people who “network” selfishly.) But meeting new people by pushing yourself to start dialogues about “the work” is a healthy thing whether you’re looking for a job or not.

The more people you get to know like this, the closer you’ll get to someone introducing you to a manager or recommending you for a job or internship. About 60 percent of jobs are found and filled this way — not via job boards.

READ MORE: Why can’t new grads get jobs? Automated interviews

Standing out takes time and effort, but that’s what credibility costs to develop. Make it totally legit — if something feels slimy or awkward, don’t do it. Be honest. Learn to express interest in others’ work — they love to talk about it. That will lead them to give you advice and help you.

This is what gets you in the door and into circles of people who do the work you want to do. Companies pay me loads of money to bring them people I meet this way — and I have a ball because it’s honest, fun, and it’s good business.

Check these Ask the Headhunter articles for more suggestions: “New Grads: How to get in the door without experience” and “Ask The Headhunter In A Nutshell: The short course.”

That’s how to get your first job. Stand out. Be worth recommending.

I compliment you for pursuing a job before you graduate — there is no reason why you shouldn’t. Don’t let “requirements” in job postings stop you — that’s just HR setting up obstacles. Go around the obstacles. Go around HR. Become the job candidate HR claims it really wants — someone referred by a company employee.

Let me know what develops. Just remember: You have to develop it.

No matter what LinkedIn or some job board’s advertising tells you, employers aren’t going to come to you with a job because you filled out a form. It just doesn’t work that way, no matter how much people want it to. There’s a massive employment industry out there that will brainwash and program you to hit the apply button, to wait for the algorithms to process you, to follow the rules, to not stand out and to keep applying while they cash in on your frustration and desperation. It’s frankly unnerving how many people rationalize and justify a system that they know doesn’t work for them.

And please forget about conventional “networking” — it’s unfortunately become a very mercenary, distasteful practice that makes people feel they need to wash their hands when they’re done.

Become a new friend who’s worth helping.

Dear Readers: How did you get your first job out of school? How would you advise this eager student?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2016 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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