I’m going to try my hand at something personal today…
My story job hunting as a graduate during COVID-19
I have a feeling, though, that my experiences are not-so-personal. That they’re universal, especially for graduates right now — and also for most people at some point in their career.
Struggling to find work is demoralising. But it’s also taught me a lot. Let’s look at my journey so far.
I graduated, worked for a year outside my field, travelled Southeast Asia, and then returned to the UK in March 2020. I thought to myself: OK, come on, it’s time to really start your career.
Here’s the catch: I got back just as COVID-19 locked down most of the world. A complete contrast from backpacking!
Rejection is difficult at any point. But while you’re inside all day, unable to see friends and extended family? When you know there’s a global downturn and the job market may not recover for a long time? It feels hopeless.
Nevertheless, I started the process. I began with what I would call ‘power-applying’: I applied for pretty much anything I could get my hands on that mentioned writing, editing, and publishing — anything where I could work with words or books.
Safe to say I wasn’t successful. At all. Nothing.
I took some time out to reflect — I’m doing something wrong, what is it?
To remedy the problem, I sent my CV to family and friends. I ruthlessly judged my CV against online criteria, browsing through countless Reddit threads, online articles and resources.
I condensed my CV, took out any instances of the first person, and made it more biting and appealing by using fewer words, more action verbs.
It’s so easy to get defeated, to wonder if you’re worth employing — this is the ugly truth of it. It’s compounded by reading ‘see how you stack up against 400 other applicants!’ notifications on LinkedIn. One job I applied to rejected me, saying:
Please do not take this as a reflection on your skills for the positon, on this occasion we recieved over 600 applicants in the last few weeks (…)
600!? It seems that entry-level positions are rarer, more competitive than ever. Despite being ‘entry-level’, they often still require X years experience.
But I kept repeating to myself that this is all part of the process, a journey through an extraordinary time.
I think it’s common to be reluctant to sell yourself on a CV, especially in British culture. Even so, I made my CV more confident, more self-assured.
That still wasn’t enough, though.
I realised: employers don’t care what you say you can do, they care what you’ve shown you can do.
How did I turn things around?
I didn’t even have a portfolio at first! I’ve always had an affinity for writing and editing, but how would employers know that without me showing them?
So, the COVID-19 project started: building a website. Alright, you’ve got me — I didn’t learn coding from scratch so I could build my website from the ground up. Booo! But I did learn some basics, bought my own domain & hosting services, and got to grips with WordPress.
I gathered some of my favourite articles I’d written, and linked them in one place. I also started posting my travel entries and other work on my site (just like this one). And this one. Turns out, I love this process; it never feels like work.
I’ve started getting rejection emails now with actual feedback. This may sound crazy, but that’s something hopeful. At first, I was getting zero responses from any applications!
I’d spent so long thinking that things would work themselves out. Thinking that with a first-class degree and can-do spirit, I’d be ok. Right? Wrong. It’s a tough market out there, especially now.
If I could go back, I would tell myself this earlier while I was at Uni.
Hey, idiot, join the university newspaper!
Do an internship!
Stop eating so much pre-packaged tortellini!
Experience is king, especially for those of us in non-vocational fields. But there’s never a point to stressing over things you can no longer change.
I came to learn my CV probably wasn’t passing through software companies use to parse applications. I wasn’t using the keywords and phrases they needed. So I focused on the kind of jobs I truly wanted, synthesized their job specifications, and worked out exactly how I met them.
Back to the CV again… chopping, cutting, adding, editing.
For the most part, it was simply about rephrasing experience and skills I already had.
When I couldn’t honestly say I met their specifications, though — instead of giving up on those jobs — I decided to learn and self-teach.
I noticed that SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is massive in the fields I want to work in. So I took Moz’s SEO fundamentals course. I learnt to use tools such as Google Keyword Researcher, Search Console, SEMrush, and so on. I learnt a little more each day, and still do. This came hand-in-hand with learning WordPress; I could experiment with plugins such as Yoast or SEOPress first-hand.
And it turns out, I love SEO too! People into SEO would likely tell you that tweaking on-page aspects are surprisingly fun: linking, crafting meta descriptions, finding good-traffic low-difficulty keywords, analysing search page results, and researching niches where you could rank for content.
I’m not quite ready for a managerial position… but I have applied myself and picked up an impressive amount of knowledge during a time where I could’ve been treading water.
What did I learn?
It’s not me that’s changed significantly. I’m still the same graduate who got off that plane to a world rapidly changing before his eyes, ready to kickstart his career.
But what has changed is my ability to market myself. I’m no longer the ‘recent graduate’, I’m a graduate whose site showcases their work, who’s enthusiastically improving themselves and developing vital skills. And along the way, I’m learning so much. And you know what? It feels good.
Everyone is just learning as they go along, marketing themselves the best that they can.
Perhaps you don’t want to take advice from or read about someone who still hasn’t found a job. That’s fair enough. But I would recommend my approach wholeheartedly.
I’m not yet where I want to be, but I have regular freelance employment and I’m certain that an in-house position will come along soon where I can prove myself. I’m optimistic.
If nothing else, I feel a sense of achievement. I know that I’m in a much better position than when I first graduated or when I stepped off that plane 4 months ago.
I think this a process that we all have to go through, pandemic or not — to start asking the big questions: who are you, and what do you want? (Yes, I did just quote that from Uncle Iroh in The Last Airbender…)
Coronavirus is just making it more difficult to get it all started.
Just like my job search, the tragedy of COVID-19 isn’t over yet. I’m nowhere near one of the worst affected by this. But hopefully, a vaccine will be here soon and we can say we’ve approached sudden change as best we can, growing along the way. I’ll summarise my message and end by adapting the famous Chinese proverb:
The best time to start was years ago; the second best time is now.
Update: 12th August, 2020. I have a job offer! Two offers, even. I’ll write another post all about it, when the time is right.