How to build a career straight out of college

College careers services can help the transition from third level to the jobs market


Stepping out of the relative comfort of third level and into a jobs market that is heaving with competitors may seem like a lonely, foreboding path but it need not be.

Most third-level institutions offer extensive careers services to help smooth this path, and the advice is to engage with them, and engage early.

“If I have a room of graduates or soon-to-be graduates, the first thing I am thinking and saying is: what is your starting point?” says University of Limerick careers adviser Brendan Lally.

“Are you completely lost? Or perhaps you are grappling with some ideas or the decision to do a postgrad? Or finally, perhaps you are very clear on a target employer? Maybe you completed an internship and wish to return to that company or another in that sector?”

Getting to the bottom of those questions is key and Lally says the timing and the frequency of your engagement with careers services during your college life is “often a good barometer” of your future job search success.

“Every third-level career service in the country will tell you about the cohort of final-year students that knock on their door sometime in final year – often with weeks left in the university – stating that they had no time to focus on their career readiness,” he says.

“No career fairs, no employer events, no CV sessions, mock interviews, or any of the digital tools available online – nothing. So no, you cannot expect miracles in a single meeting with your careers service.”

Get in touch

Maynooth University careers adviser Natasha Marron advises students to get in touch, no matter how late they may be. “Even if you haven’t contacted the careers service before, get in touch,” she says. “We’ll start from where you’re at and help you move forward from there.

“That could be in terms of starting to generate some ideas or working out how to get some useful experience, either to explore whether a job is what you expect it to be or to strengthen your application.

“We work with students and graduates to discuss their interests and try to generate some ideas. You may take some careers interest tests and come to us to discuss the results and make a plan to move forward from wherever you’re starting from.”

Many universities will also offer placement programmes in conjunction with prospective employers. Lally says students in Limerick are required to undertake a six-to-eight-month placement as part of their programme of study.

“This is a core element of the UL student experience, the largest of its kind in Europe and exposes students to the world of work before graduation,” he says.

Lally also advises students and graduates to research what is out there by reading the various publications regarding past graduates from your college. Next, register for as many company campus talks that you can. Many will now be online and easy to access.

“When you have identified your target companies, you will need to be ready to do some serious self-marketing so it is important to know your personal brand,” he says. “Come up with four or five unique selling points about yourself.

“Don’t just wait for adverts to appear online. You must network, network, network. The pandemic restricted face-to-face meet-and-greets by companies but these went online and so too did the selection process.”


Many third-level institutes also offer new, innovative tools to help the job-hunting process. UL offers artificial intelligence (AI) tools, online video interviews, as well as “virtual assessment centres” where employers give feedback virtually.

University College Cork has also adopted AI systems to give “an extra arm of support” to students and recent graduates, says head of career services Eleanor Donoghue.

“We have a programmes called Big Interview which provides a full training course and powerful AI practice tools for graduates to work towards creating the best possible interview answers as well as a good interview presence,” she says.

“When preparing for a job interview, it’s not enough to just read information, you need to put that advice into practice. That’s why Big Interview isn’t just a training course, but a whole interview preparation system.

“You’ll get hands-on practice with mock interviews tailored to your specific industry, job, and experience level.”

Donoghue says it is also important for students and graduates to be aware that the pandemic has presented “many challenges” for those searching for a job.

“The effects of Covid have meant many students are rethinking and re-evaluating their plans and we fully expect more support to be needed, and for longer,” she says. “Some industries are suffering more than others. However, there are still areas where hiring has increased.

“Sectors such as food, retail supply chain, logistics, procurement, healthcare, technology, insurance and insolvency have seen an increase in job vacancies to be filled.

“Professional services functions, including accounting, technology, and sales and marketing remain stable. Banking, pharma and medical devices are all hiring, and there is active recruiting in the public jobs sector.

“Graduates need to use time wisely preparing carefully for job opportunities that are currently available. It may not be plan A, but be positive and recognise that you have already built up core work skills that you can transfer to many roles.”

Donoghue adds that the university’s Careers Connect service on its website allows recent or soon-to-be graduates to build their own profiles and sign up for job alerts bespoke to their interests.

“Both national and international employers’ use the system to advertise entry-level roles, so it makes it very easy and accessible to connect our recent graduates with employers locally, nationally and internationally,” she says.

SME sector

Dublin City University careers consultant Sharon Burke says most graduates end up working in the small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) sector as it the largest job market in the country, and advises students to keep an eye out for opportunities here.

“SMEs tend to have a ‘just in time’ hiring policy where vacancies occur at different times because of a new project, expansion, or cover for parental leave,” she says.

“While some SMEs advertise on university jobs board and other online boards, others may also tap into their network for possible candidates. So, as a graduate or student, it’s very important to expand your connections.

“University LinkedIn pages are a great way to do this. Start by connecting with 10-20 alumni first, and build a rapport with them.

“It’s a great opportunity to get beyond a job title and understand the highs and lows of a particular job of interest, learn about company culture, hear about any upcoming job opportunities, and get some tips for an interview.

“When sending a connection request on LinkedIn, make sure you personalise it by including details such as why you would like to connect with the individual and always ensure professionalism in your approach.

“You can of course use LinkedIn’s jobs board to search for jobs and follow companies of interest to you. Likewise, joining groups on LinkedIn can contribute to developing your network and potentially tap into opportunities that are not advertised.

“Twitter offers less structure as a job search tool, but potentially more opportunities to connect with people. You can stumble on an opportunity that you might not otherwise find.”

Another important thing to remember is many companies looking to fill graduate programmes or hire entry-level graduates do so in the autumn, and often a full year in advance.

“The autumn is the main time of year that large firms in Ireland and the UK start their hiring process for graduate programmes, for commencement the following autumn,” explains Burke.

“While summer is traditionally a quieter time in graduate recruitment, our jobs board has become busier this month with companies of all sizes offering graduate roles.”

Burke says students should not panic. “It’s normal to feel some stress or anxiety about a job search,” she says. “You can help yourself by taking some practical steps to take more control of the situation.

“It is important to manage your expectations as to the job you will get and the likely timeline it will take. So, while it’s great to have a dream job in mind, you may not necessarily get it straight away.

“Getting a foot in the door of a company, doing something other than your dream job, is a valuable opportunity to demonstrate your skills and value to the company, especially if you show enthusiasm and initiative.

“When applying for jobs, it is important to try and remain resilient during the process. It can be disheartening if you have made it to the interview stage and do not receive a job offer afterwards.

“In this instance, it is always worth asking for feedback from the company and this can help you prepare for future interviews.

“Likewise, reflect on the interview experience from your own perspective and make notes on the questions you were asked and how you answered them, which will again help you to prepare for another interview.

“It is also worth noting that if you are unsuccessful, maybe the role or the company was not the right fit for you.”

Finally, most third-level institutions will run various careers fairs which provide more opportunities to meet with prospective face-to-face, or indeed screen-to-screen. NUI Galway, for example, runs a number of such events, according to career development manager Aisling Conroy.

“We have a graduate jobs fair on October 5th, which will be virtual again this year,” she says. “We invite employers to come along from every type of discipline, and many of those would have graduate programmes while some will simply hire entry-level graduates.

“It’s an opportunity for students to engage directly with employers to explore the opportunities and careers that are available.

“It happens very early, and it is key for students to engage early in the year. Graduate programmes can start closing as early as October. Some students don’t realise that things happen that quickly.

“We also have employers in to do workshops with students, which gives them another opportunity to ask questions and get tips on the application process, which really helps students to understand how they should present themselves to the employer.”