In this Q & A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a timely and urgent conversation with Jeff Chapski, author of Career-ology: The Art and Science of a Successful Career and founder of Career Ready Coaching. Chapski advises high school and college students and recent graduates as they consider job and career choices after graduation. His expertise is especially needed now as Covid-19 continues to complicate the job market and how students find and apply for opportunities across the country.
Allison Gilbert: You say teens looking for either a job or internship have to keep the same advice in mind: Work smarter at finding the right position, not harder. What do you mean?
Jeff Chapski: A lot of first-time job applicants are applying to lots and lots of jobs. And while that’s part of the strategy (obviously, it increases your odds the more applications you submit), in order to do well in the job search process, you’ve got to really be prepared for the interview. I find there’s a big focus on the search and application, but young professionals are walking in cold to interviews. They’re unprepared. They haven’t practiced.
AG: How do you advise teens and young adults to prepare for interviews?
JC: Learning about the company and people they’re interviewing with, and then actually practicing, doing a mock interview. Practicing helps build confidence and makes people more comfortable. But preparation is key. At some time during the interview process, an employer is trying to discover how committed to a position a candidate is. Does the applicant say they want this job, or do they really want this job? In answering an interview question, I advise starting a response by saying, ‘In my research about this industry….’ or ‘In my research about this company….’ All of a sudden, the light goes off for the employer. They think, this candidate did more than just hit the submit button on their application. Another great way to start a sentence is, ‘I recently spoke with people who work in this industry…’ or ‘I spoke with people who work at this company, and they told me X, Y, Z. Is that true?’ Asking these questions in an interview sets a candidate apart.
AG: Let’s back up for a moment and talk about getting those interviews. What advice can you share about writing the most effective cover letters?
JC: Cover letters should demonstrate you’ve already gone above and beyond. A cover letter could include something like, ‘I’ve spoken to several people in this industry, and the reason I’m interested in your company is because…’ It’s this type of simple, very simple, preface to your sentences that really begin to set you apart. I also advise students to get in close before writing the letter. Find someone who works at the company, ideally, in the department you’re interested in, or reach out to someone who works for a competitor. Tie this information into your cover letter and bring it, again, to your interview process.
AG: Which strengths are most important when we’re talking about being internship, job or career-ready? For example, is it being resilient, determined, organized?
JC: Being authentic. To me, the most important interview question, whether asked specifically or not, is ‘Why do you want this job?’ Any interviewer is going to have the option of half a dozen or a dozen candidates who (on paper) are very similar. You can demonstrate you want the job by talking with people and understanding their ‘whys’ – Why did other people choose this role, or this job, or this organization? Knowing these ‘whys’ helps students demonstrate their understanding and authenticity.
AG: You focus, too, on the importance of relationship skills. Can you help us understand how navigating relationships in the workplace is similar to navigating relationships in high school and college?
JC: To succeed in your career, you have to understand yourself and the way you interact with other people. Self-awareness is key. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and knowing who you are in the workplace is critical.
AG: You say the word “success” has many definitions. How would you suggest teens think about success in a career?
JC: Career success is individual. Whether you want to be an entrepreneur, an artist, a musician, an actor, a doctor, a lawyer, you’re in the military, you’re a teacher – success should be envisioned the way you want it, the way you define it. And this can change over time and will change.
AG: Is it too late to get a job or internship this spring break? If a teen is just beginning to look for work or an internship, what would you suggest is the best first step right now?
JC: It’s absolutely not too late. Micro-internships are new and a great direction to explore. Unlike traditional internships, these are for shorter periods of time, and many are done remotely, especially because of the pandemic. There’s a great company based in Chicago called Parker-Dewey that specializes in remote micro-internships. These opportunities are also, in effect, short-term, part-time jobs. Often, they’re project-based, so you can explore them throughout the year and get a nice sampling of experiences across companies and industries.
AG: Is using Parker-Dewey free?
JC: Yes, it’s free for all applicants. You can also use all the major job boards. Those are free, too.
AG: With in-person networking still mostly impossible, how do you advise students to meet people who can advance their job and internship prospects?
JC: For those who are trying to get comfortable with networking, try connecting over the phone and not Zoom. Keep conversations short; ask for 20-30 mins of time. And don’t go into the conversation with finding a job the top priority. If you are a high school or college student, when you talk with a professional, they know exactly where you are and what would be helpful to you. You don’t need to lead with that. Instead, what you lead with is a curious mind that wants to learn more about a particular company, industry, and the person you’re speaking with.
AG: What kinds of questions should students ask during a networking call?
JC: You must prepare for a networking conversation as much as you would prepare for a job interview. Look at the online profile of the person you’re going to speak to. Have six or so well-thought-out questions. Here’s an example of a bad question: ‘Where did you start working after college?’ If I hear that question, I know that person didn’t spend any time preparing to talk with me because that information is readily available on my LinkedIn profile. A better question is, ‘Why did you choose to go to work for your first employer?’ The answer to that question is not available online.
AG: You focus a great deal of time in Career-ology on the importance of finding a mentor. What would you look for in developing the most satisfying mentor relationships?
JC: First, the relationship doesn’t always need to be named or formalized. A mentor is just somebody you can freely talk with about career choices and your career path. Importantly, a mentor doesn’t always have to be someone who is 20 plus or more years out of school. That’s a very common mindset. I think someone who is just a few years ahead of you can provide tremendous feedback because they just navigated the issues that you’re currently facing.
AG: How often should students reach out to their mentor?
JC: It’s important to stay in touch, and it’s essential to check in not only when you’re looking for a job. Make sure they know what’s going on with your development — the successes you’ve had and challenges you’ve faced. I think a good amount of contact is three or four times a year – two of those can provide a routine update, and perhaps the other one or two can be focused on asking for their insight or advice.