Get a great job after graduation

Employers are superpicky in this economy, but here are four ways to increase your chances of getting an appealing offer.

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By Anne Fisher, contributor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- With unemployment heading toward double digits, budgets so tight they squeak, and the economic outlook about as clear as mud, three words describe hiring managers these days: picky, picky, picky. Just 54% of employers plan to bring on at least a few new grads this spring, down from 76% two years ago, according to's newest entry-level hiring survey, and the competition for management-track jobs is more ferocious than it's been in almost a decade. (See "Four Strategies for the Class of 2009," Ask Annie, April 15, 2009.)

That doesn't mean you can't get hired. It does mean, though, that now, more than ever, it's important to work hard at preparing for interviews. Yes, just what you wanted after all those years of hitting the books: more homework! Here are four ways to increase your chances of getting a great job:

1. Show employers you've got the basics covered. Recruiters at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which is hiring about 8,000 management trainees this year, consider the usual mix of stellar academic performance, extracurricular activities, and community involvement. But the candidates who really stand out are those "who are seeking to build a career, who want to advance rapidly and are willing to work hard to do it," says Marie Artim, assistant vice president for recruiting at the company.

No wonder: Most Enterprise management trainees will deal directly with customers - as did chairman and CEO Andy Taylor and chief operating officer Pam Nicholson, who both started out at the rental counter.

To prove your skills, be sure to get specific in interviews, advises Dan Black, director of campus recruiting for the Americas at Ernst & Young, which is hiring 5,000 interns and new grads this spring.

"The candidates who stand out in the interview process are the ones who can talk about actual examples of teamwork and leadership, rather than giving hypothetical scenarios," he says.

2. Study each prospective employer's web site carefully, and read between the lines. Of course, the amount of information available to candidates online varies widely, but some sites contain vital clues as to whether you can get a foot in the door at the company - and, just as important, whether you'll fit in and succeed there if you do.

Consider, for instance, Ernst & Young's site, which lists a number of requirements, like "strong GPA [with a degree in] accounting, finance, economics, computer science, information systems..." and "must be willing to travel." If your GPA is so-so, your degree is in history, and you'd rather not spend your life on airplanes (or, worse, in airports), the accounting and consulting giant just might not be the right fit. Keep looking!

3. Think hard about why you want to work at this particular company, rather than somewhere else. At Blinds to Go, a privately held manufacturer of window treatments that plans to open 70 new shops in the next five years, "we invest a lot in developing our people, so we really want new hires who understand our culture and plan to stay for a while," says Nkere Udofia, vice chairman of operations. "You can tell in an interview whether a candidate has put serious thought into the decision to work here - or is just desperate for a job, any job."

"I just hired a marketing major from Howard with a 3.8 GPA who had interned with J.P. Morgan Chase and was a real campus leader," says Udofia, whose firm is currently hiring 400 design consultants and management trainees. But what really impressed him? "She interviewed at several companies and asked really probing questions at each one about the career path, who would be mentoring her, and so on," he says. "She made a very thorough, thoughtful comparison among the choices she was offered."

Accepting a position that's a poor fit just to have any job will work against you later, he adds: "You don't want to be like some of the people we see who have been out of school for 3 years and worked at 4 different companies already." Heck, no. How many times can you stand to go through this job hunt thing?

4. Be bold! In addition to the basics mentioned above, Enterprise also looks for candidates who are "outgoing, tenacious, and willing to stand out," Artim says.

For example: "Recently, one of our recruiters in San Diego was driving and noticed a professionally dressed young man on the side of the road, holding a box of resumes and a sign that read, 'Will work for $40,000.' She pulled over and gave him a business card. While it ultimately wasn't a match, the bold step certainly got our recruiter's attention." In this job market, that's no small feat.

Readers, what do you say? How did you get your first "real" job after college? Is your company hiring new grads? What impresses you most in candidates and why? If you're a new or soon-to-be grad, what's your job hunt strategy, and how well is it working so far? Are you seeing job opportunities? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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