On her laptop screensaver, Kristen Grieco sees a miniature version of herself - wearing a white mortarboard for preschool graduation. A friend sent the photo as a reminder that soon they'll be donning caps and gowns to mark the end of college. And the beginning of ... what, exactly?
The only thing Ms. Grieco knows for sure is that she's got a ticket for a one-month visit to Europe this summer. Like hundreds of thousands of college seniors in the throes of The Search, she's hoping to have a job lined up before commencement.
Yes, she's been to job fairs, networking nights, and career-center workshops on her Boston College campus. But the aspiring public-relations professional is also savoring her last few months of school. With tan skin and seashell-pink nails still fresh after spring break, she's not fazed by news about the economy's struggle to recover.
"Most of us feel like, statistics are statistics, but you're one person, so if you work hard enough, you'll find a job," she says. "It's probably not going to be as easy as it was for people who graduated from college when we were finishing high school ... but no one is panicking yet."
Grieco's blend of optimism and persistence has replaced the "Why bother?" attitude of last year's seniors, say recruiters and career counselors.
Students have good reason to be hopeful: Hiring of new graduates is expected to increase nearly 13 percent over last year, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Many companies have boosted campus recruiting and job advertising. And about a third of the companies surveyed plan to offer some signing bonuses.
Yet this year's crop of 1.3 million graduates will be lining up for interviews alongside several million recent grads who still find themselves counted among the unemployed.
"For the last three years the supply has greatly exceeded the demand," says Brian Krueger, who is president of CollegeGrad.com. "Even though it's an increase [in hiring], we're not back to the heady days of the '90s.... It's still very competitive."
Government and defense were considered hot industries a few years ago, Mr. Krueger says, but this year there's a resurgence in corporate entry-level jobs in engineering, management, finance, and information technology. Education and healthcare are wide open.
While bigger companies tend to dominate the recruiting season on campus, students shouldn't overlook smaller companies, often the quickest to add jobs as the economy bounces back.
Starting salaries in some fields are inching up, too. Average offers to computer science majors are expected to be just over $48,000, up nearly 9 percent from last year, according to NACE. Business majors can expect starting salaries in the $35,000 range. And liberal arts graduates will probably see just a slight increase, to about $30,000.
One part of the job scene that hasn't changed: what employers are looking for.
Good preparation starts before senior year with internships or summer jobs. When students attend job fairs and interviews, they should already have realistic expectations and relevant skills for entry-level jobs in their field.
"Far too many take summer jobs based upon how fun they are and how much money they can make," says Steven Rothberg, president of College Recruiter.com in Minneapolis.
Employers are impressed with good grades, he says, but experience ranks higher. "To get the plum jobs, you need both."
If students find a workplace that's a good match before senior year, their prospects are especially strong: NACE reports that companies go on to hire 38 percent of their interns and about half of their co-op student workers.
Even students with obscure liberal arts majors can be contenders in the practical job search.
Susan Harrison is finishing up a double major in classics and Italian at Brown University in Providence, R.I. But she's set her sights on the finance industry, sending out more than 50 résumés and landing a dozen interviews so far.
An internship with a telecommunications company her freshman year prompted her to take economics and management courses.
Subsequent work with a nonprofit group, an insurance agency, and a Wall Street firm has helped her zero in on what she wants.
"The salary and benefits I'm not as concerned about," she says in a phone interview. It's "more about what I'm going to learn from the job and ... where I'll be positioned after [a few years].... The big thing also is lifestyle: I expect to work at least 10 to 12 hours a day, but I'm hoping it won't be too much more than that."
Weighing lifestyle benefits isn't as easy for seniors with less work experience, but companies facing labor shortages are sure to tout such benefits.
Nursing recruiters at job fairs "advertise that you only have to work three 12-hour days and you get four days off," says Linda Wyatt, director of the career center at Kansas City Kansas Community College, which grants two-year associate's degrees. "Some have programs where [employees] can get a BS in nursing while working at the healthcare facility."
In most fields, it's still an employers' market. Companies surveyed by NACE say they are most interested in good communication skills - something they find rare among entry-level candidates.
Other qualities they value (in order of importance) are honesty, interpersonal skills, initiative, a strong work ethic, and teamwork skills.
The biggest turnoff, recruiters say, is candidates who show up for an interview without having done their homework about the company.
The Internet makes research so easy that there's really no excuse, they add.
When this year's seniors were still in high school, college grads could hold out for jobs that offered great pay and great experience.
"This year, they are confident they will find a job that offers great pay or great experience, not both," Mr. Rothberg says.
A realistic approach has set in and seniors are more willing to work outside their top-choice field to build up their résumés, says Colleen Watson, owner of a Minneapolis recruiting firm called Career Professionals.
Students used to think "the world would help them find themselves," Ms. Watson says. "Now they realize that the world doesn't owe them anything ... and they're going to have to give the employer everything they've got."
Not everyone is eager to jump into the world of work with both feet as soon as they have a diploma.
"Most of my friends actually aren't really looking for jobs," Ms. Harrison says. "They're kind of doing it, but some of them want to go to grad school, some want to go to Europe for a year and then conduct a job search."
Harrison herself is excited "to not be a student anymore."
Persistence led to job offers as early as November for some of her friends, and she kept plugging until a good offer came through for her in March. Starting July 12, she'll be working in an asset-management firm in San Francisco, with a starting salary of $55,000.
At Boston College, Grieco's hunt for a PR job in Boston or New York is in full swing. But she's been taking the whole career thing one step at a time - starting back in sophomore year when she went on a retreat with the campus's Intersections Project.
Director Burt Howell says it's designed to help students look beyond status and salary.
"We're more interested in [having you explore] who are you as a person, where are you feeling called, what are your talents and gifts, how can you use them in service of others?" he says.
This year, Grieco and a cluster of other seniors are publishing blogs - online journals - reflecting on life and career choices.
In one entry she tells of receiving a Valentine's Day package from her parents. Tucked in with the candy and pink tissue paper was "How to Say It at Work," a manual for being assertive on the job.
"The book is sitting on my desk," she writes. "I really do plan to read it ... one day when I have a work to go to."
The next week the blog chronicles how "the usual despair about my future ... and the prospect of not HAVING a future" gave way to a burst of inspiration.
Grieco met some professional writers at a networking night and felt such a resonance that she started writing freelance stories for a local paper right away.
"It was reassuring," she says, "to talk to people who were only a couple years out [of college], and they all had jobs and were doing fine for themselves."