5 Tips to Landing Your First “Real-World” Dream Job

Barbara Kennedy headshot

Barbara Kennedy

January 04, 2022

The class of 2021 has blazed many new trails over the past few years, perhaps most notably completing their senior year of studies during one of the most tumultuous times of this generation. They’re also embarking on the path that their academic careers have placed them on – finding their first “real” job after graduation.

Jobs may be plentiful, but nearly half of 2020 college graduates are still looking for work, which means even more entry-level candidates are available. Employers remain discerning. While college-prepared students have hard skills to create a spreadsheet, analyze data or find solutions to everyday business problems, high-performing companies prize softer skills, including communications, relationship-building, problem-solving and adaptability.

In my role as chief human resources officer at a top-ranked national bank based in the Valley, I meet many job seekers. And as their resumes brim with hard-skills experience, very rarely do they showcase their softer skills that could clinch the position of their first “real-world” dream job. I also frequently get asked what applicants could have done better to land that position. Here’s my response:

  • Polish your soft skills – especially social skills. Whether by phone, online or in person, start making plans to socialize with people outside your inner circle. Plan coffee with an acquaintance in your extended network – maybe a family friend or your roommate’s parent – who can not only offer job-hunting tips in your chosen field, but also can help you brush up on your conversation skills. Also, go out of your comfort zone and look up contacts at your dream employers, reach out – by phone – and get a coffee talk, or even a virtual meeting, on the calendar where you can ask smart questions to show your interest in their work and build rapport. In the meantime, practice making eye contact and two-way conversations that allow you to both actively listen and demonstrate empathy, two key elements for success in most every job.
  • Make sure your resumé tells a great story. When you look at your resumé, make sure it reflects not just jobs and volunteer opportunities that showcase the business results you helped drive, but also the many social skills you offer. How did you adapt to new jobs, new assignments or new personalities during these jobs? What did you do for others? How did you add to the team? The business world changes all the time and employers want to know you’re nimble and up to the challenge.
  • Follow up. Don’t just list “good interpersonal skills” as a line item on your resumé – demonstrate them with strong, customized follow up. It’s easy to send your standard materials to an online job listing and then just wait for someone to contact you. Do more! Hiring managers and recruiters appreciate when a job applicant goes the extra mile to try to contact them directly. Leave a voice message, send a hand-written note or find another way to show your genuine enthusiasm for the position.
  • Turn off your social media for 30 minutes each day. If you approach your job search as a job in itself, you’ll quickly realize how all-consuming it can be, especially when you jump down the online rabbit hole. Remember the importance of balance. While being immersed in your job search is important, it’s even more important to make sure you spend time offline. Give yourself a break, and if you can’t take your mind off the job at hand, try making personal job contacts through other forms of communication.
  • Take heart – and maybe take a temporary position – to build skills for what you really want to do. Make every opportunity count. While recent internships and other opportunities may have created fewer real-world experiences that most graduates might wish for in launching their careers, remember to look at the big picture. A friend’s daughter spent one summer in college as a hostess at a busy, downtown breakfast place. This seemingly unrelated gig set the stage for a great first job in politics. Her new boss told her the main reason she got the job was because of her proven “customer service” experience. Turns out, managing hungry people waiting in long lines was just the thing for an entry-level post in constituent relations.

The lesson for new graduates is that whatever your dream career entails, there are many ways to build the essential soft skills for which HR people like me always seek. You’ve worked hard to master the skills that will allow you to succeed in the work you’ve studied to do, but don’t forget to seize opportunities to showcase those softer skills that will make you the total package among a field of newly minted college grads.



Barbara Kennedy is chief human resources officer of Western Alliance Bank, parent company of Alliance Bank or Arizona. Western Alliance Bank is a $50 billion national business bank named #1 best-performing public U.S. bank for 2019 and 2020 by S&P Global Market Intelligence, and has approximately 3,000 employees across the country.