Career Advice From an HR-Recruiter-Turned-Counselor
Finding an internship or job can be overwhelming, especially for recent graduates or students. We sat down with Dominique Oster, a former HR specialist-turned-counseling student to get the inside scoop about how to land your first job and what employers are really looking for during the application process.
How should counseling or social work students start preparing for their first job?
First, they should keep their resume up-to-date. It’s much easier to do it as you go rather than trying to remember everything from school a few years later. Also, keep all your classes and their syllabi and list of accomplishments, projects, and assignments. Not only does this make writing a resume easier but it will help set you apart from other similarly inexperienced candidates.
In that same line, letters of recommendation are important. Get one from every boss to keep on file. If you don’t have work experience, ask at least one professor and one non-academic person to write one for you. The non-academic letter should come from someone you’ve worked with in some professional capacity, like research. Avoid family members and friends.
Students will also need to be able to express their interest in a population they’d like to work with and a theoretical orientation, e.g. DBT or person-centered therapy.
While looking for sites, be honest about what you need. Counseling and social work students are at every life stage. Some are recent undergrads, some are finding their second career. Being upfront about your work-life balance needs, like childcare, will help you find a site that supports you professionally and helps mitigate the risk of burnout.
Keep in mind some sites, but not all, will do background checks. Usually, you don’t need to do anything for these but they may add in a few days into the process.
And finally, always alert your network that you’ll be applying. You never know who’s hiring or might soon be hiring if you don’t ask. Send emails to past professors, employers, and peers to let them know that you’re interested in introductions if they’d be willing to make them.
When should students start preparing for their first job?
I always say it’s never too late to prepare. It’s easier if you do it while you go, like writing and updating your resume, but don’t feel discouraged if you haven’t written yours yet. Especially if it’s your first-time job searching in a new industry.
But, when you do start applying for jobs, do your research. Never show up to an interview without being prepared. That means looking at the company’s website, doing research about who the hiring manager is and who you’d be working with. Write down questions you have and don’t be afraid to ask them doing the interview. Employers like questions. I always say to bring a notebook and a pen to each interview too. It helps you remember and shows them you’re serious about them.
As for when to start looking and prepping, do it constantly. Sure, sometimes the job hunt takes a while but I’ve been hired before when there was a surprise opening and the whole process took three days. If you’re ready, put yourself out there and don’t be afraid to move quickly.
What do HR and recruiters like to see on resumes, cover letters?
First, use the exact wording from the job postings, especially when it comes to relevant skills and your experience. Understand that you need to show them that you read the job description and have what they’re looking for. Mirroring their wording gets you past this first check.
Definitely don’t mass apply to a bunch of jobs at once. Take the time to tailor each one. Start with a master resume and then go from there.
And on your resume, put the most relevant jobs on top. Don’t worry about chronological order.
It’s okay if you don’t have previous job experiences but then put down volunteer experiences and other relevant items.
How do you nail an interview?
Prepare for a conversation, not an interrogation. Interviewers, especially in behavioral health fields, like to see that you can do some give-and-take and that it feels natural. Ask responsive questions.
And bring your own questions too like:
- What are your expectations?
- What is supervision like?
- What is the supervision orientation?
- What makes a candidate stand out to you?
- Ask about their favorite day on the job.
It’s all about talking to them and getting them to feel comfortable. The hard truth in our field is that you have to be able to put people at ease if you’re going to be successful.
And after the interview, still send a thank you card, drop it off at the front desk on your way out to make it easy. It’s certainly not a requirement and may not tip the scales but you never know when it might help if there’s a tie. Even an email after 24 hours can be a nice follow-up.
But most importantly, be yourself. You need to know what kind of environment is right for YOU. There are enough positions to go around and you’ll find out quick if the job isn’t a fit for you. Better that happen in the interview than on your first day.
For second-career people, like myself, chances are you’ll be interviewing with someone younger. Don’t worry about that.
How do you “beef up” your resume? And when is it a good idea?
Be honest, first of all. But if you don’t have the exact experience they’re looking for, tailor what you’ve done to showcase how you’ve learned the skills they need.
For example, if you were a receptionist and are applying for a social worker internship, you can point to skills like “putting people at ease,” “communication skills, especially over the phone,” “and organizational skills.” Draw the line for the recruiters to highlight what you’re capable of. Many things require similar skills, you just need to connect the dots.
What other advice do you have?
Know that it may take a lot longer than you think it will but just because it takes a while doesn’t mean they don’t like you or you didn’t get it. Sometimes it may take a few months.
One way to find out where you are in their queue is to follow-up one week after the interview via email. Do not stop by their office. After one week, they should at least let you know if you didn’t get the job. Know that for government jobs, the process takes longer so the job could still be open after one week and you might still be in the running.
Also, just because they say “no” once, doesn’t mean they won’t say yes the next time you apply. It’s always a blend of timing and the right fit for that job.
And finally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to reach out to your network when job hunting. Ask for referrals. Network with people based on their field of expertise and don’t be afraid to see if they know anyone hiring.
Thank you, Dominique! What great advice.