The dilemma is pretty clear. You want to get a job or get into graduate/professional school, but the competition is fierce. There are always going to be many others (sometimes hundreds of others) who want the same thing as you. How do you make sure that you stand out from everyone else, so that in the end you are the one selected?
The answer often comes down to marketing. Now you may wonder how marketing has anything to do with you since marketing involves a product and is confined to the business world. However, you need to be clear that marketing has a broad definition and in the case of searching out a job or trying to get into graduate school I (Jonathan) am talking about how you market yourself. Therefore, marketing in this context refers to communicating to an employer or admissions committee why they would want to select you. In this way, you must honestly present those aspects of your record that are seen as most valuable to those making a selection decision. Now you can sit there and say that you are not interested in promoting yourself like a product, but the bottom line is that not taking this approach will make it really hard to stand out from the crowd. The way I would put it is that if you want the job or want to get into a graduate/professional school you need to work hard at it because no one is just going to hand an offer to you.
How exactly should you market yourself? To begin, you need to think only about your positives. Of course, everyone has imperfections, but you are not going to highlight the qualities you lack or your inability to do certain things. Instead you need to always be thinking about how you are going to sell yourself with regard to the positive attributes you have and the things you can do well. Again, what are those things that will make you stand out. Being able to talk about your positives requires you to have positives in the first place, Therefore you need to have the kind of record that will make you (and especially your resume) stand out. This includes things like a high grade point average in school and (often) some type of research experience. For certain jobs and graduate/professionals schools it might also include experience completing an internship or having a certain kind of work experience. It is hard to say exactly what you need, but suffice it to say that building a strong record that you can promote requires a lot of work on your part prior to sending in an application. For information about the steps you can take toward building a strong record check out various careers on careersinpsych.com. Remember, in the end you want someone reading your record to say, “I really think this person is great” not “This person is like everyone else.”
Let me add one caveat about your record. Regrettably, everyone does not have a stellar record. Therefore, for some of you it will be important to really do some thinking about how best to promote yourself. Let me give an example that I have seen many times as a faculty advisor. It may have been the case that in college you had a rough first year. Maybe you thought you were going to be Pre-Med, but after getting a D in Chemistry and a C in Biology you realized you had to change direction. So you became a Psychology major, and although you did not repeat the Chemistry and Biology courses you ended up doing really well in Psychology courses. The problem for you is two fold. Not only will the D and C appear on your transcript (which employers and graduate/professional schools want to see), your GPA will be negatively affected. As far as marketing yourself, there are two things you can do. First, you can explain what you learned from these negative experiences, and make clear that your record shows that these negatives did not happen again nor will they occur in the future. Second, make sure in your cover letter, resume and personal statement to list your GPA in your major of Psychology and/or your GPA the last two years of college. Both of these will be much higher than your overall GPA that includes the two low grades. In this way you have turned a potential negative into a positive and you look all the better for it. Both of these strategies will not wipe away your performance in the Chemistry and Biology courses, but they will put you in a more positive and realistic light.
Now let me spend a little time on the idea of standing out. As you present yourself in your cover, letter, personal statement and/or resume can you think of a way to make yourself salient to others? I don’t mean using a cool font or colored paper. I am talking about highlighting certain aspects of your record that show you are unique or that nobody or very few people have done the same things as you. This could be maintaining a 4.0 GPA, volunteering at a Rape Crisis Center, completing a senior Honors thesis, President of Student Government or Psi Chi, presenting a paper at a conference, learning HTML, being on the Mock Trial team, teaching at a church school, and on and on. There are so many things that you can use to show you are motivated and hard working, and that allow you to rise above the rest of applicants. Let me add that, in general, employers and selections committees do not want to be told that you were too busy to get involved with any activities. If you are a student, it is typically the case that even if you have high grades, the lack of any time spent with some activity will lead a selection committee to move on to the next applicant.
Next, it is important to not just rest on your record. There are other things you can do to get a leg up on the competition. These things keep you out in front of the completion. For example, if you are applying to graduate school it is almost always to your benefit to contact a faculty member you wanted to work with. That way, the faculty member is primed with your name and is made aware of just how motivated you are to be in graduate school. When you contact them, don’t just say hello. You should ask relevant questions, even in an email. This can include questions about the research being conducted by the faculty member. It really would do you well to check a paper or two the faculty member has published and ask about those studies. The key is letting the faculty member (or employer in the case of a job) know not only how interested you are in the position, but that you were willing to take the time to really think about and gather information about the position.
In closing, there two other things that you should do with regard to marketing yourself. In all of your materials and in your communication with others, make sure you stress the value of the job or graduate/professional school. This value should typically be presented in terms of how it will allow you to move forward will your career goals—be clear what are those goals. Next, make sure that you are honest in how you present yourself. In my opinion if you lie it will only catch you in the end, and of course it will ruin your credibility. Good luck as you move forward with your career, and I hope these tips will help you!
Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding, Dr. Lippert and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.
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