As the school year winds to a close, few college seniors can afford the luxury of spinning Frisbees in the breeze or drifting nostalgically toward graduation. Instead, they are trading their jeans for interview suits and honing their resumes and interview skills to get that first important step into the working world.
Anna Jasper, a recruitment coordinator for Boston University, says that in the past year there has been ''a huge jump'' in the number of students using the university's career-services program. ''The students are very serious,'' she says. ''Their whole attitude has changed.''
Graduates who land jobs this year can expect a slightly higher starting pay than their counterparts received a year ago. According to an annual study of recruiting trends by Michigan State University Placement Services, starting salaries this year will be up 2.8 percent from last year, the smallest increase in the last decade.
Despite the tight employment market, new jobs are being created. Engineering and computer-science graduates are the most sought after by employers, with business and economics majors next in line.
''When we talk about the job market, we talk about the areas where there is the most demand, but that does not mean there are not opportunities for other individuals,'' says Jim Briggs, director of the career planning and placement service at the University of California, Berkeley. ''The challenge for liberal-arts graduates is to define what they want to do and focus on a career direction.'' Because employers will generally not be coming to them, he adds, humanities students need to take more initiative in their job search.
Some schools encourage students to take courses outside their major to give them an edge in the job market. Liberal-arts students who take business, computer, or some technical courses can come out ahead, while business and science majors with good writing and verbal skills are favored by employers over their less articulate peers.
Regardless of their majors, students need to think through their career goals , to know their skills, abilities, personal qualities, and how to tailor them to an employer's needs. Writing a resume is often an important step in this process.
Once past the paper-screening stage with a potential employer, students should regard the job interview as a ''fantastic opportunity,'' says Jim Briggs. ''They should treat that opportunity in a way that will allow them to do their absolute best in that situation.'' He says students should be prepared for the possibility of a panel interview instead of a one-to-one situation, or a performance interview in which the job candidate may be given a problem-solving task.
Good preparation for a job interview is vital for a confident and convincing presentation. College career counselors and job recruiters offer the following ideas for successful interviewing:
* Research the company thoroughly before going into a job interview. Most large companies supply brochures and other informational materials, such as annual reports. Job candidates should read them in advance, and be prepared to explore the information further during the interview.
Sharon Harper, college relations coordinator for Land O'Lakes Inc., based in Minneapolis, says a prior knowledge of the company sets a professional tone for the interview. If job candidates have done their homework, ''then we are not spending time on the basics,'' she says. ''We can communicate on another level.''
* Be ready with good questions for the interviewer. A major complaint from corporate recruiters is that students do not ask enough questions, says Boston University's Anna Jasper.
Jeffry Gibson, who is in charge of campus recruiting for the Digital Equipment Corporation, sees progress in this area: ''I get the sense that each year students are becoming more interested in job content.'' He says they ask about day-to-day responsibilities, what kinds of projects they will be involved in, and what career paths are open in the company.
* Dress and demeanor. A neat, professional appearance is basic to a good interview, and is particularly important in applying for jobs that involve meeting the public.
According to Harry Schaeffer, manager of college relations for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, students could improve their interview techniques and general composure during interviews. Students at colleges that provide practice interview sessions tend to be the most relaxed during campus-recruitment interviews, he says.
Mary Louise Haugh, associate director of career services at Carnegie Mellon University, advises students to be themselves, to avoid distracting hand movements, and to arrive a little early for the interview. What corporate recruiters look for
Jobseekers should keep in mind that they only have about 30 minutes to give the interviewer the best possible look at what they are interested in and what they can do, says Mr. Gibson, the campus recruitment manager at Digital.
''Anything that wastes time or doesn't speak to that principle is inappropriate,'' he adds.
Jack Morgan, manager of junior-executive recruitment for Davison's retail stores in Georgia and South Carolina, looks for a well-written resume, a mature train of thought, common sense, and a sincere interest in the company.
Education and work experience. Beyond an applicant's degree and grade-point average, employers check for some kind of work experience, such as part-time or summer jobs, internships, and whether an applicant helped finance his own tuition. Prior work experience, preferably in the same field, indicates the applicant will adjust quickly to the work environment. Employers may also look at extracurricular activities, leadership positions, independent studies, outside interests, and travel experience.
Career goals. ''If students can tell an interviewer what contribution they can make to the company and can clearly state their goals, that is very desirable,'' says Mr. Schaeffer of Firestone. He finds that students with part-time or summer work experience in the field usually have a more crystallized career objective than those who have not.
Jeffry Gibson looks for signs of a long-term commitment. One resume he read defeated a candidate at the outset. It stated a short-term goal in one industry and a long-range goal in an entirely different industry, clearly indicating a short-term commitment.
Good communication skills can be crucial, particularly for sales positions, says Sharon Harper. While she realizes it's often difficult for undergraduates without work experience to articulate their goals, she looks for job seekers who ''come on confident they can do the job,'' and who maintain good eye contact.
''Ideally the students won't use a job interview as a mock interview,'' she says. ''With the job market the way it is, they seem to be past that.''