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Combating College-Grad Stress Syndrome

For college seniors, the next two semesters should be the best part of college -- a well-deserved chance for some R&R before going out into the real world. But it's that foray into the real world that has prospective graduates viewing the next nine months as a countdown to doomsday, as many of them could graduate without a job.

Unemployment has been on the rise since 2001, and experts can't agree when the picture will brighten. This spring, U.S. companies said they wouldn't be hiring any more grads than they did in 2002, according to data from the National Association of Colleges & Employers.

The shrinking job market has affected parents, too, who may be hard pressed to support their unemployed college grads. "Before, students had a safety net called mom and dad," says Patricia Rose, director of Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania. "Now, that net isn't as broad and deep."

BEYOND PEP TALKS. More than ever, soon-to-be graduates are relying on their universities to help them find jobs. While many schools are sticking to tried-and-true job-search techniques like résumé workshops and on-campus recruiting, others are supplementing these methods.

Like most schools, Claremont McKenna College has long counted on alumni and trustees to help new grads, but lately it has also been exploring an underused network of parents with students still in school. "Parents of other current students have an affinity for the college and might find interest in [those] who are graduating from the college," says Jefferson Huang, dean of students at Claremont McKenna.

Another way schools are helping students is by offering counseling that goes beyond the standard pep talk. Jerry Houser of Caltech's Career Development Center says students who are anxious about the job search might procrastinate, which can then make their anxiety worse. He tells them to start looking early and stick with it, likening his role to being more like a parent than a counselor. "You'd think students would get more active because of the fear and the uncertainty," he says. "They actually hide or get less active."

Here are several specific tips to help get students started.

Talk to companies, whether or not they're hiring:

Says Claremont McKenna's Huang: "Even if they're not recruiting today, we want to keep the relationship there so when they do pick up -- which they will -- they'll come back to us shortly. We're cultivating relationships." It's just as important for individuals to nurture relationships. It will give you a leg up when there are job openings.

Professional associations -- like the National Society of Accountants or the National Social Science Assn. -- provide newcomers with a wealth of resources to explore uncharted territory. These groups also offer discounted memberships to students and hold special events dedicated to industry newbies. "It gives students an automatic network," says Micael Kemp at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

And students looking to develop a relationship beyond the superficial will find help in a number of organizations that offer mentoring programs pairing neophytes with seasoned pros. "Mentors can help guide [students] into entry-level positions," Kemp points out.

Add mom and dad to your networking list:

Yes, you thought you would be savoring your imminent independence, not looking to your parents for more help. But even if they aren't in a position to float you though a prolonged bout of unemployment, they can help you in other ways. Fred Pollack, author of The College Senior's Survival Guide to Corporate America (Ten Speed Press, 2002), advises parents to assist their kids in building networks by asking around at work or having graduating seniors come into their workplace and observe, even if no jobs are available.

Your folks could also pitch in by taking over some of the administrative duties that come with the job search. "You only have a window of time [during the day] when you can call companies," Pollack says. "You can utilize time by talking to people while someone else is helping with e-mail or running to the post office [for you]."

Keep an open mind:

University of Pennsylvania's Rose encourages her students to "look a little more broadly in the field or find similar opportunities in other fields." Students looking into Wall Street-type jobs should consider investment management in addition to investment banking.

Be willing to work for free:

With entry-level positions scarce and companies working with reduced staff, many organizations need help. They just can't pay much for it. "Develop an internship proposal," says Shonool Malik, the assistant director at the MIT Careers Office. By studying up on the company's needs and industry trends, you'll be well-prepared to sell yourself, and they'll be pleasantly surprised by your initiative.

Be honest about what you're looking for:

If you talk to someone about doing an internship, don't confuse the issue by asking for a job. Same with an informational interview. Advises Caltech's Houser: "Ask them who they know. Tell them you're interested in their career." That interest often leads to secondary referrals and invites to get-togethers (see BW Online, 9/03/03, "How to Handle Informational Interviews").

Don't use grad school as a fallback:

An internship, a temp job, or even a position in retail will help pay off student loans while buying you time to plan your next move. Don't incur more debt for a degree you're not sure you want -- or need for your professional pursuits. "Use that period to start making decisions about what field attracts you and what you want to stay away from," says Kemp. "You're better off getting someone to pay you to work it out."

If you start at the bottom, there's no place else to go but up:

If you do get an offer, don't automatically reject it if it isn't quite as high-paying or glamorous as you would have hoped. After all, even famed Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Carly Fiorina started her career as a secretary at the company she now runs. By Susannah Chen in New York

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