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5 College Seniors Share Their Job-Hunting Stories

Rebecca Koenig

Savannah Wormley has big goals. As she prepares for the last class of her final college course -- "Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic" -- the senior at Indiana University is thinking less about ancient history than about her future plans, which include law school, a career in government and, she hopes, a few terms as the governor of Indiana.

There's just one detail she hasn't figured out yet: her first post-graduation job.

She's not alone. Many seniors are grappling with the uncertainty of pending unemployment, made even more unnerving by friends and family members who can't help but repeat the dreaded question: "What are you doing after graduation?"

To learn about their search strategies, states of mind and successes and mistakes, U.S. News Careers interviewed college seniors still looking for jobs in the weeks before commencement. Meet a few of them below, and check back for future stories about their progress.

Strong Labor Market

The class of 2018 will soon cross the commencement stage, which doubles as the threshold into the working world for the majority of college seniors who pursue full-time employment after graduation. But plenty of them won't have jobs lined up by the time they don their caps and gowns. Among the class of 2016, for example, more than 12 percent of graduates with bachelor's degrees were still seeking employment six months after earning their degrees, according to research by the National Association of College and Employers.

That's not for lack of effort. Many of these young job seekers have followed all the expert advice. They've sought guidance from their college career centers, dutifully revising their resumes and practicing interview strategies. They've completed internships and fellowships, assessing their personal interest in various career possibilities. They've overcome the awkwardness of emailing strangers to network with professionals who might help them find work.

And yet, they often stand at the border of the "real world" with all the proper papers but nowhere to go.

The good news? 2018 is predicted to offer new graduates one of the strongest labor markets since the great recession, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. Its survey of thousands of employers found a 15 percent increase in demand for hiring workers with bachelor's degrees this year.

"Today's graduates were in high school when they were hearing the fears that college kids [couldn't] find jobs, so that's stuck in their minds. In fact, it's the best it's ever been," says Mary Hanney, senior career consultant at Career Vision, a job research and counseling nonprofit in Illinois. "Even though it's late in the school year, that doesn't mean there isn't still time to find good jobs."

Harder Than Expected

For Jessica Pang, the job search has "been a roller coaster." But not the fun kind, she clarifies: "It's been awful."

The marketing major at Washington University in St. Louis has had a dozen interviews throughout the school year, making the final candidate pool several times. Companies have even flown her to their offices in other cities so hiring managers could meet with her in person. For months, though, a job offer remained elusive.

"This is a lot harder than I thought it would be," Pang says. "I got into senior year super confident, like I was going to land a job within the first semester. Thinking, if it's March, I should be really worried about it."

And now it's May.

She has made networking a priority, seeking leads from family friends, previous managers and alumni of her university who work at companies that interest her, even though "it's always hard to reach out to people you don't really know," she says. She also relies on her university's job fairs and job search websites.

The longer-than-anticipated hunt has had its benefits, Pang says, such as helping her learn about what kind of jobs she truly finds appealing. Now, as she reads through advertisements, she asks herself, "Does it get me excited or interested to learn more? Can I see myself doing this?"

As graduation approaches, "my stress level has gone down at lot more. I just realized, this is the reality," Pang says. "Later in life if I don't get a job right away, I think this experience will help me, knowing that jobs don't line up perfectly all the time."

Two weeks before her graduation day, Pang got her hard-sought offer: a job as a campaign analyst at Panera Bread in St. Louis.

Plenty of Preparation

Ample social causes need champions, but there are few jobs that pay those champions well for their advocacy. That's what Kendrick Cunningham, senior at Saint Augustine's University in North Carolina, is learning as he looks for work in community organizing or with corporate social responsibility programs.

"They're kind of hard to find," he says. "With a lot of social justice work, at least in the corporate arena, they don't tend to let the people who are entry level do that."

Cunningham has been strategic about his career preparation throughout college, accumulating experiences he believes will propel him toward his goal of one day becoming secretary-general of the United Nations.

"I've done too much, actually," he jokes.

He chose his major, political science, because he realized "in order to really make an impact on policy in America, I [had] to have a greater understanding than I did on the political institutions in our nation."

He worked in the office of admissions to learn how applications are processed and in the office of student affairs to understand how resources are distributed among students. He interned with the North Carolina General Assembly. And he was elected to a university position that affords him voting privileges in the school's policy and budget decisions.

So far, his credentials have attracted some attention: He's in the running for two community-organizing jobs.

In case those don't work out, he says, "I'm trying to connect with my fraternity brothers to see if they know any nonprofit organizations that are looking for executive directors or project managers."

[See: 25 Best Jobs That Pay $100K.]

Skilled, but Stumped

There's no shortage of advice for how to start a corporate career. But budding biologists, forensic scientists and chemists may struggle to make use of traditional job search techniques, says Solmaz Azimi, a biochemistry major at Pace University in New York City.

"At my university, career services is very prominent and active, however it's a little limited for the hard sciences," she says. "We can't utilize LinkedIn as well as business majors can. We can't utilize social media that well, either."

Azimi, who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and attended high school there, doesn't just have biochemistry chops. Having completed translation and research internships with the Red Cross in Afghanistan and Switzerland, and an internship teaching math and science to formerly incarcerated people with The Fortune Society in New York City, she also has cross-cultural and teaching skills she'd like to put to good use.

And she knows from those experiences that even organizations whose primary functions aren't scientific "do quantitative and qualitative work that has logic a lot of scientists use," she says. "My skills can be utilized in places like that."

"I'm ideally looking for something that is inspiring," she says. "Something that will motivate me to pursue graduate school. Something I can take back and use for my home country and the other countries I've been to."

After hearing little back from the research laboratories and biotech companies where she sent applications, Azimi described herself as "very confused."

"I don't know the outlets I would use to find different opportunities," she mused.

But she's started to use at the recommendation of her professors and has also looked at the job opportunities posted online by large health institutions like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Sure enough, she just heard back from a few companies that invited her to interview.

[See: 10 Jobs That Offer Millennials Good Work-Life Balance.]

Picking New Priorities

There's no thrill quite like getting that first offer -- unless it's for a job you don't really want. Megan Donahue started her senior year at Clemson University with an opportunity she ultimately turned down.

"I wasn't ready to make that big of a decision so early," says the finance major.

Later in the fall, after being rejected from the final round of interviews for a job that did excite her, "I started to question whether I should have stayed with my first option."

That kind of regret can weigh heavily on a job seeker, but Donahue forged ahead with her networking efforts, trying not to worry about the fact that many of her friends already had jobs secured. In the winter, she got another offer -- but turned that down, too.

"I realized it didn't check some of the major boxes I wanted it to and I had only applied because I was getting nervous," she says. "I decided to take a break, really start over almost and re-evaluate what the big boxes for me were and how to focus my search on what I wanted to pursue. I got more comfortable with the idea that it might take more time than I thought."

After some reflection, Donahue is now looking to work as a financial analyst at an organization with "a great company culture."

"Sometimes accounting and finance can get a little dry," she says, "but if you're in an environment where people are excited to be there and excited about the work that their company is doing, I think that makes all the difference."

[See: The 10 Worst Jobs for Millennials.]

Reasonable Expectations

For her part, Wormley is taking the ambiguity in stride. The aspiring governor will spend her first few months as a college graduate in Greece, working as a teaching assistant for a university summer program. After that, she says, she will "get really serious" about her job search.

Wormley's interest in public affairs stems partly from her experience working for a local political party during the summer before she started college.

"I relied on internship experience from there to figure out exactly what I wanted to do," she says.

That included working for the city of Bloomington, Indiana, interning at a public relations firm in the District of Columbia and then working for the nonprofit Indiana Bar Foundation.

Thanks to those gigs, plus resume guidance from her university's career development office, a mandatory career readiness course and advice from her dad, who works in human resources, Wormley feels ready for the job hunt.

She's not too stressed, she says. She knows this first job, whatever it may be, is simply an introduction to her career, not a conclusion.

"It's going to be a couple of years of lots of change," she says. "I don't have any expectation that my first job is going to be my dream job."

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