How Do You Compete?

Same College, Same Major, Same Grades – What Sets You Apart?

It was the spring of my senior year in college and I was jammed into a small office in the Career Services Center with fifteen of my business school peers. Graduation was around the corner, and this was the last rush to secure a job before we left. We were waiting for the coveted interview with the recruiter from Procter and Gamble, now known as P&G for a Consumer Products Marketing role. As a marketing major, I felt obligated to apply since it had the word “marketing” in the title. I really had no idea what the job was, nor did I want to move to Cincinnati, but I figured if everyone else in my class was interviewing for it, I guess I should too. We all had the exact resumes on the school-provided template and we were wearing similar grey or navy suits. At the time, I thought that should be enough preparation. I would rely on the 4 P’s of marketing from my class work and share how my academics would make me a good candidate. How did it go? Read on…

The first question asked was, “So why do you want to work in Consumer Products?” I stuttered and gave some general answer about how I use their products. I mean who doesn’t –  they make soap! I fabricated another general answer about how they are a market leader. And it went on like this. I had been lazy and had not done my research, nor clearly demonstrated what skills I could bring to them.  

When I had the opportunity to differentiate myself, I said the one thing that everyone else says. “I’m a hard worker and I’m responsible.” Nothing in that statement sets anyone apart. 

The same challenge faces our graduates today. When you go to the same school, with similar grades and degrees, how do you set yourself apart from the rest? The most common answer I get to this is ‘personality’, and I do agree this helps distinguish candidates, but far more important is VALUE. It may seem difficult because even if you had an internship along the way, you may have just been filing papers or entering numbers into a database. It’s hard to feel like you are so unique and have much to offer…. but you do. It’s all about articulating the VALUE you can bring to a company.

Here’s a little secret about how you stand out from the crowd and how to compete :

It’s not just your skills, your grades or past experiences. It’s how you solve problems for the company you are applying for. Companies really only worry about 2 things…making money or saving money. The goal is to explain your skills, how you have demonstrated them and link them to help the company accomplish their revenue goals.

Ultimately, there are 3 ways to express your VALUE and stand out.

  1. Describe your skills and talents.  Think about what skills you are best at and how that’s important to the job.
  2. Demonstrate how you can increase or improve an important metric to the company.  Validate how you can help the company by focusing on what’s important to them such as time, increased output or customer service.
  3. Demonstrate how you can make money or save money for the company If you show that you understand what drives their business to make money, you are more appealing to an employer.

Graduates say to me over and over that they worry they do not have the credentials to apply to a job, and worry about competing against other graduates from better schools with better grades.  Employers worry about themselves and how they achieve their goals.  The more you can make their life easier and help them be successful, the more they will want you…regardless of your grades or degree.

As expected, I did not get the job with Procter and Gamble. One of my friends was better prepared and articulated her value to the company. She has built a successful career there. I continued interviewing and shortly after landed a sales role with a tech company in New Jersey. I was rarely asked where I went to college or my grades.  In fact, some of my most successful colleagues did not have prestigious degrees or exceptional grades. They knew how to close business and make money for the company.  It was that simple… and a lesson to remember. 

Learn more about how to compete and stand out from the rest to get your job out of college at Next Great Step.



3 Things A Graduate Can Do RIGHT NOW


Congratulations to all the new graduates! It’s time to celebrate. But now the diploma is in hand and all anyone seems to ask is,

“So, what are you going to do now?
Do you have a job yet?” 

And if you are a parent, it feels likes all of your friends’ kids have jobs. You also hear those dreaded questions directed at your graduate or even yourself and you cringe as well. Your sons and daughters are still managing that transition back into living in your home and they are not so interested in your advice. This blog is for the graduates and if you are a parent reading this please share… that way you don’t have to explicitly tell them yourself!

3 Quick Things A Graduate Can Do RIGHT NOW to Find a Job:

  1. Take a deep breath and slow down. Embrace the accomplishment. You have graduated. Enjoy the moment. Yes, there are loans to pay. Yes, the balance in the house is off kilter with the “re-entry” back to your old bedroom and parent rules. The realization that Thursday night is no longer a fun night out on campus can be depressing. You can take a little time to adjust.  And give your parents a break too… it’s an adjustment for everyone. This is a good time to really think about your next step and how you want to proceed. Not sure? Keep reading.
  2. Think about your CORE skills. You have accomplished a lot in four (or more) years. Now is a good time to be self-aware and consider what skills you have to offer an employer. Make a list of all of the great things you have going for you. Then narrow down the list to those things that you are most competent, most talented, and really enjoy doing…these are your core skills. I would also ask your friends, family and your parents on what skills they think you are best at. Knowing your core skills is important for two reasons…it makes it easier on what types of job to focus on and what to tell others about yourself. Did I mention that you should be speaking to a lot of people these days? Read on.
  3. Don’t miss an opportunity to be social…and be prepared. This is the season of graduation parties, social outings and family occasions. You will probably be asked by many people on what you plan to do now that you have graduated. Instead of avoiding the question and being annoyed, embrace it as an opportunity to practice telling people the skills that you have to offer. It is also a great time to ask questions of the people you are meeting. Ask friends of your parents what they actually do in their job, and how did they get there? Ask if there is anyone they could refer you to? You may prefer to hang out with their son or daughter at the party, but taking the initiative to mingle with the adults in the room will demonstrate your maturity that you are ready for the real world. As well, the more prepared you are for the casual conversations, the more likely you will make a good connection.

Is this all? No. But it’s a start. Research, targeted networking and preparing for interviews are among the other things to start thinking about. Take it one step at a time.

It can be very stressful when you feel like “all” of your peers graduate with a job. In fact,  many individuals are still trying to figure it out too. I’ll bet your parents didn’t have all the answers when they graduated either. However, they have learned a few things over the years and you should let them help you where they can. You are all in it together. To learn more about how Next Great Step helps graduates compete and get that first job out of college, click here.

Why Are Our Graduates So Fragile?

College graduation is upon us and both parents and students have mixed emotions about this day. As a parent, you are likely beaming but possibly even teary-eyed as another chapter is coming to an end. As a student, you are likely relieved it is over, exhausted from the journey, but excited for the real world to come – to reap the reward of successfully transitioning to your dream job after years of academic pursuit.

Then comes reality – trying to translate what was learned in college into getting a meaningful job. 

The endless resume re-writes, applying for jobs, networking and hoping someone has a contact to give you a chance. And the realization that looking for a job is not so easy. Are today’s graduates really ready for this? Why are some of our graduates struggling to put it all together?

Before we answer that question, a quick story.

I was at a family event a few weeks ago and met a mutual friend who is the head of a high school guidance department in the Boston area. She shared a unique experience where she was invited to sit in on a Harvard admissions session and learn about the process of how they evaluate students. Oh, how I would love to be a fly on the wall in there! Of course each student is more exceptional than the next. They categorize applicants by academics, achievements, lineage, and then “teacups” – the term for those students who had dealt with some type of significant tragedy, medical issue or extreme personal challenge. This last group is considered very fragile and could easily crack from a stressful environment or situation – more thought would be allocated to those decisions.

The more I speak with students and recent graduates, I am seeing more and more “teacups.” However, these teacups are not like the ones from Harvard. There is no family tragedy or major personal struggle. In fact, many of these students come from stable homes with supportive parents, strong grades in college, and well balanced activities and social life.

But something is happening in students that makes them feel afraid, insecure and not willing to persist when things get tough in finding a job.

Sometimes it is just one rejection from a job. Sometimes the employer never calls back after multiple tries. Sometimes it’s the perception that “everyone else” is getting a job except for me. Often, it is just being completely overwhelmed stepping into an environment that has no syllabus, study guide, structure, time table or set rules. For years our students are clearly told what is expected of them and now employer expectations are not so clear.

What should we do to help them? Push them harder? Let them figure it out on their own? Help them? There is no clear answer. However, the word GRIT comes to mind. There is an outstanding TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth that says


She defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future…and working really hard to make that future a reality.” Duckworth shares that “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” But when answering the question on how to build grit and keep students motivated, she refers to research done by Stanford professor, Carol Dweck. Dweck’s studies show that one may develop grit by having a “growth mindset” – the willingness to fail, and the belief that failure is NOT a permanent condition. It is a willingness to start over again with lessons learned.

My lesson from this is that it is OK to fail.  The job search can be long and difficult and failure may feel like a common occurrence.  Failure can be good because you learn a lot about yourself and what you want to pursue. It is the ability to learn, persevere and take the lessons with you that help you move forward. Our students and graduates can learn to be ‘grittier’ as grit can can change over time, with experience, and with hard work. Their skills and talents can also grow utilizing good strategies and help from others. To learn more about how Next Great Step helps students gain confidence and perseverance (which some may call grit) in finding the first job out of college click here to learn more.


I’ll Just Wing It

I recently met with a friend‘s son, Zach, who is a graduating senior from a top business school. Everything seemed to be in place for Zach in terms of his resume, good networking contacts and possible job opportunities. In fact, Zach was recently invited to tour the office headquarters of a large IT firm and meet some of the executives. Zach was excited to see what it was all about and felt really good about the opportunity. I asked Zach if he prepared for this meeting and he said,

“I’ve had plenty of interviews already. I’m great on my feet. I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’ll just wing it.”

When it comes to meeting with people in a casual setting or even a formal interview, the instinct is to let the other person lead and “see how things go”. It seems like a lot of effort to research and prepare ahead of time for an interaction. It’s so much easier to just rely on your “great skills and talent” to convince the employer why you are right for the job. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

When new or current graduates go out for their first professional opportunities, it is very likely that they will make mistakes or experience missteps. This is all very common as there is a learning curve as they encounter new experiences. However, preparedness vs. ‘winging it’ has a greater chance in helping job seekers navigate these moments and turn them into positive steps towards reaching their goals.

Before you go to an interview or even meet for a casual cup of coffee, make sure you think about the following:

  1. When you finish the meeting, what would you like that person (hiring manager) to do for you? The logical answer is for them to offer you the job, but that’s not always realistic when meeting for the first time. It may be a referral to a colleague or request to meet again. Maybe convince the hiring manager to introduce you to other employees to get a sense of the culture. When you ask the person to take an action on your behalf, it allows you to gain control over your next steps in the hiring process.
  1. What do you want the hiring manager to believe about you? In order for someone to take an action on your behalf, you first need to convince them that you have real skills that can offer a benefit to them. A very common answer to this is “I’m a hard worker” or “I’m responsible”. Every candidate says these things. Reply with real skills you have learned with examples of how they can benefit this company. For example, “I have experience directly selling to prospective clients when I worked in retail. I would put together clothing collections and sold an average of $300 per sale.”
  1. What questions can I ask this person? Having great questions prepared is just as important as sharing your skills. You can guide your conversation by asking insightful questions. It shows you have done your research on the company and that you are thinking about the challenges that face the hiring manager. Prepare yourself with knowledge about the company but avoid questions that can easily be answered by reading the company website. A few good ones are:
  • How do you measure your success?
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • If you could change one thing what would it be?
  • What are the most important criteria in assessing a candidate?

These questions help you plan ahead for a meeting, but when you have the meeting, you execute in reverse. First, you ask your questions and understand what’s important to them. Then, convince them of skills you can offer and validate that they believe you. Once they show validation that they believe you have the right skills, then ask them to take action.

As for Zach, although he met with the employer and felt it went “really well”, it was not enough. He was not offered the job. When he called back and asked why he didn’t get it, they said that he wasn’t qualified enough. After digging deeper, it turns out he did have the skill set required but did not address it well in the interview. He was too focused on himself and not enough on how to help the business solve their problems. An outgoing and positive personality is a great trait, but preparing with substance and understanding what is important to the employer will set you apart. Now he knows for next time. To get it right the first time, contact Next Great Step.

Please Don’t Make Me Call Them on the Phone!

By the time I was 15 years old, I had taken many years of dance lessons.  I heard about an opportunity at the local Y that was looking for dance instructors for 3 and 4 year olds.  Even though I had no official certification, I thought this would be a good experience for me and it was something that I really enjoyed doing.  There was one problem…I had to call the Director of the program on the PHONE!!!

Yes, I actually had to speak to someone on the phone that I never met and I was terrified. 

Of course this was 1985 and I had been using that rotary dial with a long stringy cord for years to talk to my friends about everything.  But this was different.  I had to be mature and sound grown up and responsible.  What if I said something dumb or stumbled over my words?  That would be the end in my dramatic teenage mind.  I begged my mother to make the call for me and she absolutely refused.  I was hoping that maybe the Director of the program would just know how amazing I was and somehow find me.  Even better, she would just call me and say “You’ve got the job!”  Because I wanted the job more than my fear of making the phone call, I finally did it.  Of course, the conversation was much easier than anticipated because the director just told me to come in and show her a sample class.  I did and I got the job. It turns out there were no other applicants as well.

Although this is a simplified example,  the same fear still paralyzes many of our college students and recent grads today.  There is a general feeling that “I’m not good enough” or “Why would anyone want to talk to me?  I have nothing to offer”.  Of course the technology available today makes it way too easy to avoid a phone call or live meeting.  It’s much easier to SnapChat, Instagram or text your messages.

Technology has also created this false sense of confidence with the number of “friends” or “followers” one has, but when speaking to someone face to face that same person is struggling with what to say or expects the other person to run the conversation.

Next Great Step works with many students and graduates facing those fears.  Our techniques are focused on building confidence and having a clear plan that is thought through ahead of time when speaking with someone—whether for a casual cup of coffee, informational interview or the third round of interviews.  We make picking up the phone easy.

Ironically, my first real job was working for AT&T (also known as “The Phone Company”) and I was required to call people every day that I never met and convince them to buy something.  To learn more about how Next Great Step helps our students gain confidence to achieve career success click here.

Helping your Student/Graduate Navigate the Job Market

Welcome to Next Great Step

We are excited to bring you monthly updates on how to help college students and recent graduates achieve career success.

Students come to us seeking help on how to get the internship or first job.  Parents seek our help for their student as they want them to achieve personal and financial success…or more honestly, move out of the house.

What can a parent do to help their college student or recent graduate navigate the job market?

Here are 3 key things a parent can do to help their student navigate the job market:

  1. Help your student articulate what skills they have to offer. Beyond being responsible and a hard worker, what skills do they have that are unique?  For example, does your child write a blog, have they done a part time job where they learned a certain skill, or even in sports, do they demonstrate leadership? The more they understand what they have going for them, the easier it will be to communicate that to a potential employer.
  1. Parents can help their teens navigate the job market by making connections to friends and colleagues. Students also need to seek out people in targeted roles and industries so they understand the priorities and challenges they face. I really liked the l LinkedIn Alumni Tool to help students see which alumni graduated from their college, the jobs they hold and the cities they live in.  Alumni tend to be receptive to speaking with fellow students. This can be done with a 20- minute informational interview or networking conversation. The goal is to understand the position better and the challenges the person may face.
  1. Help your student prepare for networking and interview opportunities. A student needs to prepare for these interactions and not assume that they will have a job just because of the connection.  This can be uncomfortable for some students as they are not used to speaking about themselves to a prospective employer.  They should be prepared with strong questions to understand the person’s background or role, be ready to share their own skills and see if there is an opportunity to speak further or be connected to someone else. Here are some great questions to aske from the Forbes Top 10 Questions to Ask

Students have spent 12, 16 or more years going to school where they have ascertained certain skills and knowledge in their specialty but most have not spent even a tenth of that time preparing to get their first job, let alone to lay the groundwork for future ones. And, that’s where parents come in. Parents can help their teen(s) with skills like showing confidence, having a firm handshake and making eye contact with interviewers.

Next Great Step can help your student. For the past 20 years we have advised managers of Fortune 500 companies how to develop and implement strategies to achieve success. Now we are teaching students how to communicate their ability to solve the business problems that a company faces.

Our students learn proven, time-tested techniques to achieve their personal goals and get that first job or internship.

We Bridge the Gap from College to the Real World

Click here to learn more.