Today, I spoke to Heather Huhman, who is the founder & president of Come Recommended, a contributor to this blog, and author of #ENTRYLEVELtweet: Taking Your Career from Classroom to Cubicle. In this interview, Heather talks about the obstacle that most entry-level candidates face, what companies are looking for in candidates, some personal branding and networking tips, and mistakes entry-level professionals are making.

What are the biggest problems entry-level candidates have when job searching?

With the job market right now, the biggest problem for entry-level candidates will be competition. They need to make themselves stand out and show how they fit in with the company for which they want to work. With that being said, candidates need to have a clear goal of what job they are looking for, the organization they want to work for and how they are going to land the job. They should make a plan to set aside time to research jobs and attend networking events. Customize materials for each application, and follow up after an interview. Persistence, in this job market, is very important.

What are hiring organizations looking for in candidates?

Among the skills, attributes and qualities employers prize most are communication skills, a strong work ethic, ability to work in a team and initiative. Employers also emphasize having leadership experience. If asked to compare two otherwise equally qualified candidates, employers would choose one who held a leadership position over the candidate who simply was “involved in extracurricular activities.” Relevant work experience matters, too—candidates who have been involved in internships or class group projects.

Hiring managers look for certain qualities during the interview process to see if the candidate will be a good fit with the company, too—including:

  • Likeability. Do you get along with the hiring manager? Does the hiring manager feel you will get along with his or her team? This is a big factor. I know when I see myself in candidates, I find myself leaning toward them more than individuals who remind me nothing of me. (That sounds self-centered, but hiring managers want a cohesive team!)
  • Strategic thinking. Are you thinking ahead about the future of the organization? Do you have a suggestion already in mind you’d like to brainstorm with the hiring manager? In this economy—or any, for that matter—organizations want (and need) results. If you can show you’re a results person—or at a minimum thinking about results—you will prove a strong candidate.
  • Clear communication. Is your tone and word choice professional? Do you get your message across effectively the first time? Chances are, you’re going to have to communicate with others in some fashion in order to do your job. Throwing in any type of slang word, giggling or other methods of unprofessional communication will make the hiring manager forget what you’re actually trying to say.
  • Enthusiasm. Be happy you are there! And not just because this is the first interview you’ve had in weeks (or months), but because you are genuinely looking forward to the possibility of working at the organization.
  • Good eye contact and “engaged behavior.” Don’t stare and not blink throughout the whole interview, but make sure you have decent eye contact. Also, lean forward slightly when the hiring manager is speaking—this is what I call “engaged behavior.” Both tactics show the hiring manager you are listening and interested in what he or she has to say.

What are some ways to build a personal brand?

  1. Determine your differentiation. Write down every skill, characteristics and interest you have – this becomes your “unique you.”
  2. Create an online portfolio. Find out if your personal domain name is available. If it is, purchase it! I recommend building and designing your online portfolio using a free content management system, such as WordPress. On the homepage, include a welcome message to visitors – this can be a similar, more generic version of your cover letter. Then, include separate pages for your resume, portfolio, contact information and a link to your professional blog.
  3. Create a professional blog. Select a topic or niche and write interesting content about it. Decide on a posting frequency, and stick with it.
  4. Develop your core message or elevator pitch. In general, this should include: your name, current status, what you seek (internship or entry-level), your unique selling points, qualifications and passions.
  5. Evaluate your online presence. If you Google your name, what comes up? What can you edit? What should be public information, and what should not? Decide on what you want someone searching your name to see.
  6. Network face-to-face. Find ways to bring up your online portfolio in conversations.

How should entry-level job seekers be networking?

  1. Attend networking events. Be prepared—bring a business card with you, but leave everything else at home. Instead, prepare your personal 60-second story—who are you and what are you seeking? If you can’t grab someone’s attention within a matter of seconds at a networking event, their mind has already wandered to the next person in the room. Remember, too, you are trying to build two-way, mutually beneficial relationships with the people in the room. So, don’t make the conversations you have all about you.
  2. Use Twitter to connect with employers. Twitter isn’t completely saturated with job seekers just yet, and if utilized correctly, it can serve as another resource to generate a nice return for you. Few other tools give you near direct access to hiring agents. Countless jobs—and those who fill those jobs—are on Twitter.
  3. Find a mentor. Everyone at every stage in their career should have a mentor, preferably more than one, but mentors can be particularly helpful when searching for an internship or a first job out of college.
  4. Join professional associations. Getting involved in relevant professional associations on campus can both educate you about your career decision and offer a wealth of networking opportunities. Most professional organizations offer significantly reduced rates for students, but the potential benefits of joining should certainly outweigh the cost. Please note that in order for professional associations to function as a networking tool, it is not enough to simply join. Regularly attend meetings, become an officer and volunteer during special events. Such actions should routinely connect you with veterans in your industry.
  5. Make direct contact. Research organizations at which you would like to work, and directly reach out to a C-level executive (i.e., CEO, president, etc.) indicating your interest and what would make you a good hire. This is best done via e-mail because you likely will not easily reach a leader of an organization over the phone (nor do they typically welcome such outreach). Be casual, but professional, suggesting you would like to start a dialogue about what you could bring to the table and offer times you are available for an informational interview.

What are the biggest personal branding mistakes entry-level job seekers make?

  1. Not controlling content. Many sites—such as Facebook or Twitter—have ‘private’ settings for personal information. If your future employer won’t think it’s appropriate, take the content down or make your profile private.
  2. Not knowing what makes you unique. Show employers how you will fit with their company and why you will be an asset.
  3. Not taking advantage of technology. Along with LinkedIn, Twitter and other sites for networking, you should also create an online portfolio. Sites such as VisualCV or allow you to compile your work and show them to others.

Heather R. Huhman
, founder & president of Come Recommended, is passionate about helping students and recent college graduates pursue their dream careers. Heather knows and understands the needs of today’s employers and internship and entry-level job seekers. Her expertise in this area led to her selection as’s entry-level careers columnist in mid-2008. The daily, national column educates high school students through recent college graduates about how to find, land and succeed at internships and entry-level jobs. Additionally, Heather is a career expert for the CAREEREALISM Twitter Advice Project, the job search expert for Campus Calm, a contributor to One Day, One Job, One Day, One Internship, Intern Advocate and Personal Branding Blog and author of #ENTRYLEVELtweet: Taking Your Career from Classroom to Cubicle (2010) and the e-books Relocating for an Entry-Level Job: Why You Probably Have to & How to Do It (2010) and Gen Y Meets the Workforce: Launching Your Career During Economic Uncertainty (2008).