You don’t need to know what you are going to do for the rest of your life when you graduate.

You do need to know which skillsets you’ve mastered to date, how they could add value to a business and how to talk about yourself in a concise manner that demonstrates your worth. You’ve worked hard, spent tireless nights studying your chosen academic focus, completed internships and apprenticeships galore and now have some shiny new tools in your belt; Get to know them and be proud of your earned expertise. 

Be specific and avoid fluff when communicating your strengths to a potential employer; Show specific proof of performance — past experience and success metrics. Consider which types of roles align with your skillsets, interests and areas you want to grow further.

If you don’t know what you’re working with, try to reverse engineer it:

Start with job titles that seem of interest and see if you align with the descriptions. 

Look at LinkedIn profiles of successful people who are on a path you might want to take. Ask yourself: Where did they start? How did they grow? 

Request some informational interviews with people who are doing what you think you want to do, just know that you’ll hear from maybe one out of ten that you ask. Reach out with confidence, poise and clear action items and when/if you do get someone to meet you for a 20-minute coffee, come prepared as if it’s a real interview. Ask about how they found their path, what drives their success and applaud them for their efforts; People love to talk about their journey when given the chance. Putting your best foot forward is the best approach in any scenario, so always arrive to these types of engagements — informal or not, as if you were trying to impress a potential employer; You never know who or what may influence your future.

What to consider when weighing a future employer:

A bright team with accomplished mentors who are good teachers provides far more holistic value than a ‘cool’ brand you are a regular consumer of or a ‘fun’ company that gives out free snacks and plays foosball with you. 

Vet your first employer as you would when considering where to get your education – do you want stylish school merch or great teachers? When evaluating companies to join, keep the people as the top evaluation factor.

Here’s a few reasons why people matter the most:

You’ll need a cohesive team with a manager who you want to learn from, whose communication style is one you can connect to and follow. You’ll want your immediate colleagues to be respected in the company and invest in your growth.

You can assess these factors by asking questions in your interview like: How is your team perceived internally? What are the three most notable accomplishments you and/or your team achieved last year? What is your favorite and least favorite thing about managing a team? How would you measure my success after 90 days if I were to join this company? What about after one year?

You may be weighing a brand’s clout too heavily…

Here’s the thing with brands: A true brand can stand the test of time. A brand is a company’s persona and great brands are true to their company’s core identity, mission and values, but sometimes a brand is a façade of ideals the company can’t deliver on or implies high potential value where there is none. Spirit Airlines is a great example of accurate company branding. The airline is notoriously unpleasant yet very cheap and their branding promises nothing more. Spirit has positioned itself as an airline that gets you places and saves you money and that’s it. They own this, it’s their identity. They aren’t glitzy Virgin Airlines and that’s okay because there’s a market for cheap flights with zero fluff and Spirit owns it with pride.

Employer Branding, an employer’s reputation as a place to work, is the other type of branding that either adds value to or poses a detriment to a company’s ability to attract and retain talent. Great employer brands are authentic and allow companies to scale while maintaining a healthy culture — like Zappos, for example — while others tote a catchy slogan instead of an actual employee experience; I’m sure you’ve heard of some famously phony employer brands and their internal deviation from the ‘who we are’ description on their career page. The growing capabilities of The Internet and resulting universal visibility has made it crucial for companies to develop accurate, transparent Employer Branding if they want to attract top talent. Companies who care about the authenticity of their employer brand usually care about their people, but true employer brands aren’t limited by an exclusive guideline of what the company stands for and what kind of people work there.

Real employer brands are co-created by the people who work at the company, since they are the ones who generate and maintain the internal environment. Look at the people under-the-hood before deciding that a company is ‘fun’ because they have Thirsty Thursday events. Do your best to research the brand and employer brand of your favored company to ensure there are no smoke and mirrors.

So, you landed your first job! But, now it’s time to move on. You won’t take the brand with you. You will take the lessons you learned. Don’t choose an employer based on branding if it sacrifices your growth potential, since that growth is what will propel your career, not the brand.

Okay, you’ve vetted your potential employer and now it’s time to interview. Yes! You are so special, but so are the other 10 candidates being interviewed. You are also a risk to the company until you attach proof to potential.

The secret? Stay differentiated.

Always assume you are up against 100 people who could out-perform you in a role. Stay hungry; Go after the role like you need it even if you don’t, you never know how interviews could influence your career down the line. What are your unique strengths you’d be willing to bet on over anyone else’s? Be honest with yourself, acknowledge areas you may be weaker in than your peers and address those, demonstrate self-awareness. Show the potential employer how you plan to tackle and grow your ‘weaker’ areas while simultaneously highlighting your areas of strength. 

Before you show up, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. This cannot be emphasized enough. Check out the LinkedIn profiles of everyone you will interview with. Set a Google Alert on the company, read their newsroom to get a sense of their latest happenings; Come prepared with some questions in your back pocket. Arrive with enough copies of your polished, proof-read resume for all interviewers. Plan to send a personalized follow-up message after your interview and get creative: consider a method of communication that would showcase your compatibility with the opportunity and company. If it’s a marketing role, for example, you could send a creative direct mailer or video follow-up.

In an interview, your job is to prove your value. Be authentically you and command the engagement, attention and potential investment of the decision makers in the room.

If you are anything but authentically you, concise, professional and personal, you will remain a candidate, not an individual who could make a great team member. What value-add can YOU provide? What are YOUR strengths? What is unique about YOU? Stay true to who you are. It’s better to be YOU than trying to be who you think your interviewer wants you to be. You can play a part in an interview, but that won’t hold up long-term.

Success: the interview went well! When evaluating an offer, think about the big picture –not just the salary.

Does the employer provide benefits? A 401K or Retirement Plan? What do they offer for vacation and paid time-off? If it’s a base with a commission or bonus piece, what are the Key Performance Indicators that determine the result? Are these milestones reasonably achievable? Does the salary match market value? If it’s low or high, why? Always perform research to ensure you’ll be properly compensated for your hard work.