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Overcoming Mental Blockers and Imposter Syndrome When Looking For Your First Job

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It’s graduation season! Congratulations Class of 2017! If you are like I was, you may be thinking…now what? If you aren’t one of those lucky college students who graduated with the peace of mind of a job all lined up after school, you aren’t alone. I graduated 5 years ago totally lost and unemployed, and all of my closest college friends were the responsible go-getter types who either had offers from summer internships from the previous summer or took advantage of the On Campus Recruiting season during the Fall semester. I graduated May 13, 2012, and funnily enough, I am actually flying back to New York and Philadelphia this week for my 5 year reunion! This story did have a happy ending!

The following back story is going to be pretty long. Click here if you want to skip the story and get to the tips for getting over imposter syndrome now.

Let’s rewind to May 13, 2012. I had just graduated, and I was forced to move out of my building only a couple days later. I had very little in my bank account, but I had been able to secure a cheap sublet not far from campus where I could settle in and start my job search. I had also, at the last minute, hustled enough to find a 20 hr/week paid internship in New York, which I had to commute 2.5 hours each way to 3 days a week (Spoiler Alert: I did not get a job offer from here either).

At the time, I felt completely alone and isolated. I hadn’t performed well enough academically to make me qualified for any job. I had no desirable skills! I had no story that made sense! These were all things my parents and peers kept telling me needed to be in line to be a desirable candidate. I had switched from Computer Science to Cognitive Science mid-college because I was worried about my GPA, but it was not obvious what career path that major could translate to. It seemed all I was qualified to do was a bunch of [thankfully] paid internships that never turned into full time offers.

I had done an internship doing “digital marketing” and “content management” at a very early stage startup the previous summer and felt it hadn’t really given me any real skills I could walk away with. It was the type of role where I gained exposure to a lot, but didn’t gain much in terms of actionable skills. This concern was reinforced by the fact that they hadn’t given me a full time offer to return (the reason they gave was they had no money). My post graduation summer internship panned out the same way, where I was doing “content management” for an early stage startup and didn’t feel I walked away with any marketable skills (or a job). I had started a fashion blog in college that hadn’t become a big/monetizing success like I secretly hoped.

I thought “Why would anyone hire me over all the people out there who did better in school than me?” “Why would anyone hire me over someone who actually worked hard during school?” “Why would anyone hire me to do something that didn’t fit with the story of my major?” I felt ashamed I had let the fall OCR season pass me up. I felt ashamed I wasn’t good enough to receive a full time offer. I felt ashamed to let anyone know just how inadequate I really was. And because of this, I was terrified of rejection, as though a company rejecting me was the equivalent of someone pointing and laughing at the idea I even thought I had a chance.

But looking for a job doesn’t have to be like this. It can be much more strategic and formulaic. And it starts with freeing your brain from all the wrong thoughts telling you you’re an imposter.

1. “I picked the wrong major and it doesn’t fit the jobs I want to apply for.”

Your major doesn’t matter.

Though some majors lend themselves better to certain jobs right out of college, your major affects your job prospects less than you think. The main reason a major may sound like it “fits” with a job title is because of our perception, but most majors don’t prepare you anymore than others, at least not in any academic way (an exception is engineering).  Your liberal arts friends and peers didn’t learn any “secret sauce” it takes to get the job they got.

The skills you need to fit into a job is learned on the job.

My first job out of college ended up being in Retail doing inventory allocation for Macy’s. What this entailed was inputting orders from Excel into this proprietary software and tracking on time/late shipments (basically comparing today’s date vs the column next to it saying when it was supposed to be delivered) and updating my team about it. I can 100% guarantee that neither the rudimentary math nor the Excel skills required were things I learned in school. My major didn’t provide any indicator that I could even do any of those things. And to get the job I didn’t have to prove I knew how to do these things.

2. “Why would an employer pick me over someone who did better in school?”

Employers don’t know what you don’t tell them.

Yes, they can see your GPA, and yes, some employers care about this. But they have very little insight beyond your GPA and whatever experience you decide to play up on your resume or cover letter. If this is something that’s really concerning, you can increase the quantity of jobs you apply to–you’ll have a higher hit rate with companies that may not care about it.

You’re in control of your resume.

Now that I’m 5 years out of school, I’ve been exposed to friends who need to conduct interviews or screen resumes, what sounds impressive about you is what’s impressive. The easiest place they’ll learn about you is through a resume you write.

Hiring isn’t easy.

I’ve also been exposed to HR. You would be surprised how difficult it is to fill a position. Sometimes a company just can’t wait for the perfect person, especially for an entry level job. When I joined Macy’s, they had a program of 30 people going through a new grad program every few months–that’s a ridiculous number of people to hire if they had to fill them with 100% perfect candidates.

Entry level positions have the broadest definition of the “perfect candidate” because many companies are looking for someone who can learn some basic skills and develop more complex skills as they get promoted through the company. Someone who looks perfect on paper may not be in person. Or the perfect candidate chose to take an offer from another company. The point is, you just never know, so give yourself the chance.

3. “I haven’t picked up any of the right skills employers are looking for.”

There wasn’t a manual with required job skills everyone else got that you didn’t.

Forget the idea that your internships or classes were supposed to teach you exactly what you were supposed to know for a job. Like the example above, most of the exact skills you need are picked up on the job. The only internship experience that may directly translate to your job is if you worked at the exact same company before. A lot of my friends who were able to display more desirable skills during an interview got them through practicing out of an interview prep book.

You’re in control of your resume.

Back to this one again. Forget the idea there are any right skills. Your job is to figure out 1. what’s valuable in your experience and 2. convince someone else it’s valuable. When I finished those internships, I felt I hadn’t picked up anything valuable and that mentality trickled onto my resume. In retrospect, there were many accomplishments I could have played up. For example:

Sourced major art talent to add inventory on Tenlegs through digital outreach campaign, email outreach and contests.

vs.

Led and developed digital outreach campaigns, email outreach programs, and community engagement contests to source major art talent increasing user acquisition by X%.

The first version is what was on my resume in 2012, and the second version is what could have been on my resume in 2012 if I wasn’t so busy being insecure about my skills. I was literally 1 of 2 people who was working on emailing users to try out the website. And because we only had ~5 users when I joined the company, my user acquisition % looks phenomenal on paper! The second statement immediately displays the value I added to the company while also giving the impression that I’m an innovative, self-driven executor and leader. The first statement shows what I did, but doesn’t say nearly as much if you try to read between the lines.

4. “I’m not a hard worker and employers will know!”

Adopt a growth mindset.

If you’ve never heard of Fixed vs. Growth mindset, you’ve got to read about it. With a Fixed mindset, you’re stuck believing if you didn’t work hard in school, you’ll never be a hard worker. This is false.

Not everyone has the same definition of hard work.

My friends in college were crazy hard working go-getters. They had clubs and activities every day until 9 or 10 PM and still found time to get straight As. How does that translate to work life? Does that mean working until 9 or 10 PM every day? Are all A+ employees ones who work crazy hours? No! That would be ridiculous! There are plenty of people who are considered high performing employees who finish their work and go home for the day.

5. “I’m a fraud, and people are going to find out.”

You’re in control of your resume.

I don’t think I need to re-explain this one!

Practice makes perfect.

I didn’t allow myself to ask for help because I didn’t feel my resume or skills were in order “yet”. If it were up to me, they probably never would have been ready. I don’t know what I was waiting for! I was terrified of getting friends’ feedback on my resume. I was terrified of doing mock interviews with friends who already had jobs. I was afraid they would find out just how bad I was. Be kind to yourself, and let yourself be vulnerable to feedback! Forgive yourself for the negative things that brought you to where you are (for me, that was 1. Slacking in school 2. Slacking in my job search before college was over), and move forward.

Your resume won’t improve if you don’t get feedback–feedback helped me fix my resume when I was looking for my first job. Feedback helped me fix my resume for my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th jobs! And it helped elevate my resume writing skills in general.

Your interview skills won’t improve without practice. You’ll never learn what types of questions are asked in an interview. You’ll never know what types of answers are actually valued. You’ll never learn to confidently give your story without that hint of desperate-for-a-job tone. These all come with practice! So let yourself be bad now, and you won’t be later.

6. “Being rejected confirms everything I already think.”

Rejection = experience and practice.

Rejection is inevitable. But with every interview, you learn how to do better. Treat your failed interviews as learning experiences. Before I transitioned to software engineering, I probably submitted 100+ applications. I probably did 20+ phone screens highlighting my successes and most desirable skills. Yes, of course I got rejected tons of times! But with every rejection, I learned how to tell my story better for the next time. I learned how to follow up better after interviews. I learned what I needed to tweak on my resume. Again, everything comes back to practice.

Rejection isn’t personal.

Hiring is a complicated process for both job seekers and employers. As much as skills matter, there are tons of other factors that lead to rejection. For example, timing is super important. A company could have posted the job you were rejected from weeks ago and are already very far in their interviews with other people who applied earlier. A company who posted a job listing could arbitrarily decide they want to freeze hiring and allot less money to the department you applied to (seriously I’ve seen this happen).

HR is made of people who make mistakes. After I started working for Macy’s, I actually received a rejection email from them telling me I wasn’t a good fit for the exact same position I was currently working in! The only difference between the job I got and the job I didn’t was that I had applied to the other one a few months before.

Good luck to all new grads out there who are looking for their first job! Hopefully this post was helpful 🙂 You have much more control over your future than you think!

Jing is currently a software engineer based in Oakland, CA. She left her job in New York, moved to San Francisco unemployed, and more than doubled her salary in 4 months.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Mental Blockers and Imposter Syndrome When Looking For Your First Job

  1. Such a great post!! There are so many things we tell ourselves to convince ourselves why we have failed. But, as you have pointed out, we are often much harder in ourselves than anyone else could ever be. Your example that employers only know what you tell them…spot on!! Put your best foot forward and don’t sabotage yourself. It’s a tough world out there and so many people are willing to beat you up. Don’t let yourself be one of them! Be you and let that be enough. 🙂

    On a side note, great start to your new blog. Keep it up!!

    1. Yes exactly! I wish I had learned that sooner–you are really your best advocate! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

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