5 Job Search Tips for Online Students

Devon Haynie

Four months ago, Thomas Armitage was recently married, working full time and earning an online master's degree at West Virginia University.

On top of that, the 25-year-old Utica, N.Y. resident was also trying to find a new job.

"It was very challenging," he says of the process, which landed him a new position this spring. "I was very structured and disciplined in terms of how I went about it."

The job search can be an overwhelming enterprise for online learners like Armitage, many of whom are balancing work, family commitments and academic demands. Unlike their brick-and-mortar counterparts, most online students aren't able to attend on-campus career fairs or have a face-to-face chat with career counselors or visiting alumni.

As a result, experts say, online students may need to take a slightly different approach to the job hunt to land their next position.

1. Plan ahead: Students should start exploring their career options at least six months before they want to enter the job market, says Toni Jones, associate director of the career services center at West Virginia University. Although carving out time for the job search might be extra difficult for online students balancing various commitments, she recommends students spend at least three to five hours a week looking for leads.

2. Contact career services: Online students may not be able to walk into the career services office and introduce themselves, but that doesn't mean they should disregard the service, experts say.

Some career services offices offer virtual career fairs in which students can log in and watch a presentation by an employer and submit typed questions; others have special job listings from employers wanting to hire from a specific school.

Career counselors are often available to review cover letters and resumes. Some even do mock interviews through Skype or Google Hangouts.

Jennifer Lasater, executive director of national career services at Kaplan University, says sometimes her students will have a Google Hangout session just so they can make sure they are wearing the right interview clothes.

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3. Network: Of all the jobs available at the moment, only about 20 percent are advertised, says Lynn Atanasoff, a career counselor at Pennsylvania State University--World Campus. As a result, students need to establish a network of connections so they can hear about positions that aren't published, she says.

"A lot of times online students are staying where they are," Atanasoff says. "They are kind of established to a degree. So for online adults trying to network you have to figure out, 'Who do I know?'"

Students hoping to stay close to home should let alumni, classmates, coworkers, friends and family know that they are looking for new opportunities, experts say.

If online students are in close proximity to their college's campus, they should attend job fairs to make face-to-face connections, experts say. If not, they should seek out job fairs in their communities. Students can also make local business contacts by joining professional organizations.

Since online students won't be meeting their classmates or professors face to face, it's also important that they connect through social media, experts say. It's possible that a LinkedIn connection could lead to a local job lead.

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4. Have a social media strategy: Increasingly, employers are using the social media site LinkedIn to post job announcements and research their candidates, says Kaplan's Lasater.

Students should know how to use the site and maintain a professional profile, she says, noting that employers expect online learners in particular to have a firm grasp of social media.

Before starting a serious job search, experts also suggest students evaluate what they have on their Facebook pages.

"Make sure that Facebook account is cleaned up, because employers are going to go on there and look," says Jones of West Virginia University. "Don't put anything on there you wouldn't want your grandmother to see."

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5. Be organized: Since a job search involves a lot of work on all fronts - sending emails, updating LinkedIn, writing cover letters - experts say it's important to have some system of setting goals and keeping track of progress, especially for online students juggling multiple commitments.

"I tell students it's really a numbers game," Jones, from West Virginia University, says of the job hunt. "To get the best possible job, you are going to have to send out hundreds of applications, not dozens."

To stay organized, students can use online job search management tools such as Jibberjobber and Yippeejobs. Or, they can do what Armitage did, and use a spreadsheet to keep track of resumes and LinkedIn connections.

"It takes the pressure off when you set weekly goals for yourself," he says. "If you don't have any process, you lay down at bed at night and you're like, 'Oh, I should have done this. I should have done that.'"

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