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A year ago, when I read articles about the Class of 2020 suffering from the pandemic, the story felt wrong. Many articles covered students who landed full-time offers before graduation and had them rescinded, but I didn’t know many students in this situation. I was graduating with an English degree from Dickinson College, a small school in central Pennsylvania. When I imagined my post-grad life, it was in a big New York office at a publishing house editing manuscripts. Ideally, I could build a “big girl” life while still living at home with my mother in Queens. I just didn’t know that my mother was going to be the only person I could be around when I left school.

As most people were adjusting to stay-at-home orders, I graduated on my couch with a cap from high school and watched a 15-minute celebration video Dickinson made for us. Our names rolled like the credits in a movie. And suddenly, college was over. We were promised an eventual ceremony, which is scheduled for September, a year and a half later.

Julia Mercado at an at-home graduation in Queens, N.Y., in May 2020. (Family photo)
Julia Mercado at an at-home graduation in Queens, N.Y., in May 2020. (Family photo)

The reality was that most of us were unprepared and wanted to get into industries where we had no familial ties, no generational wealth and no overall network, which also meant no job prospects.

We were left asking, “Now what?”

After coming across several hiring freezes, I turned my focus to building my network. To my surprise, it was easier than I thought. Many people, despite working from home, wanted to connect with others. That urge to connect benefited those of us who had no network.

If you are a 2021 grad and worried about your prospects, don’t be. Here are ways to make yourself known in this daunting job market.

Aim to make real connections

When my friend Audrey graduated during stay-at-home orders, she moved across the country to live with her family. Despite the time difference, we caught up occasionally — mostly to keep each other sane. We often checked in on our job searches, and when it came to networking, she reminded me of one simple piece of advice: You can’t assume everyone you speak to is in a position to give you a job.

For many 2020 graduates, that was the case. When I started my job search, I made a list from our alumni directory and narrowed it down to alums who were based in New York and had an English degree and an interesting job title. From there, I took down their contact information and started cold-emailing. I introduced myself as a new alum looking for work and asked to schedule a call to talk about their career path. Alums I spoke to were sympathetic to my situation and offered to look for opportunities despite hiring freezes and remote work. By speaking to people in several industries, I was able to figure out what I actually wanted to do. Apologies to my professors; it’s not publishing after all.

It may be a while until we all find jobs that use our degrees, but we can still maintain a network by seeing these connections as more than just names collected on LinkedIn. Instead, try seeing them as real people you want to keep in touch with — you never know when they might be in a position to help in the future.

Find a mentor and others who already want to help

When I spoke to an alum from my school, I asked whether there were any online resources she could point me to in terms of understanding her line of work as a staff writer. She pointed me to a site called Ed2010, a resource for editors to find advice and job opportunities. The site didn’t help me land a job, but it did provide a chance to expand my network.

Ed2010 has a mentorship program that pairs junior editors with young writers looking for assistance. I wasn’t going to apply, but when I figured it would be more of a benefit than a waste, I did. Eventually, I was paired with an editor. She doesn’t write about the same topics that I do, but she has been a big help guiding me through more than just résumé and cover letter assistance. She’s helped me grow my freelancing business, find even more mentors and gain confidence over this period of isolation.

Use your social channels

As a former mentee of Girls Write Now, a women’s writing and mentoring program for high school students, I was admitted to a Slack channel that included alums. When one of the mentors dropped a job opportunity in the channel and told us to say she referred us, it became a double opportunity. She was nice enough to let us job seekers use her as an avenue, but I wasn’t comfortable using her name, having never met her. So I asked to chat with her about her work and the opportunity she shared. I messaged her to thank her for the job listing and told her that I applied and that I would want to get to know her more. She was receptive to me, and now we catch up occasionally.

This often works on LinkedIn, as well. You can narrow your search on the site based on schooling, location, job title and more. At the start of my search, I made a list of alums I wanted to connect with. If I couldn’t reach someone in their email inbox, LinkedIn DMs became the next avenue. With luck, I received several responses. Using this technique, you can find people who made a career out of doing what you love and make real connections with them.

When I call potential contacts, I always ask them about themselves. I try to find out about their career path, what they like about their current job, what advice they wished someone told them — anything that will help me get to know them. Remember: It’s just another person on the other side of the screen. You might find your next opportunity in a Slack channel, Discord server or even your LinkedIn DMs. All it takes is a genuine message.

Remember to give back to your existing network

You may not realize it, but your friends are your network, too. Like Audrey, my friend Gaby and I bonded over the job search struggle — the only difference was that Gaby and I could go on socially distanced walks. We kept watching friends from our school land full-time positions, and we felt hopeless. By September, both of us took on customer service jobs to keep us afloat while we attempted to find something different. Despite working full-time jobs, we continued to search for other opportunities. By November, I was in the running for a social media internship at a law firm, but it never panned out.

By February, the law firm contacted me again, hoping I would instead take on its administrative assistant position. I didn’t think it was the right fit, because I couldn’t see my writing career take off from there. Gaby called me the same day, talking about how she really wanted to find other work. Soon after, I asked her to send me her résumé and told the folks at the law firm to consider her. She was a better fit for the job, having had more legal experience than I do. And she interviewed and got the position.

Take this as a reminder to not only build a new network but to give back to your existing network, as well.

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