By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff write
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- These days, getting a college degree doesn't guarantee you a job. And with so many new grads vying for a limited number of openings in the worst job market in years, it's tough to stand out in a crowd.
Employers expect to hire 22% fewer new grads this year than they hired last year, according to a new study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That's the first time hiring projections have fallen since 2002, NACE said.
And students approaching graduation are well aware of the obstacles they face. When Roy Ma graduated from the University of Maryland in December, he was apprehensive about his job search.
"I was definitely worried about finding a job," Ma said.
Even though he attempted to get a jump start on his search by going to career fairs, on-campus interviews and information sessions as early as last spring, he had no success.
Desperate to make ends meet after graduation, the economics major picked up some odd jobs walking dogs and washing cars but spent his evenings applying to openings online that fit his criteria, including "even remotely possible job listings on all the major job sites."
"Eventually you notice that that's not working," he said, so Ma honed in on the positions that were particularly interesting to him and that he was qualified for.
Then, for each application, Ma rewrote a new cover letter and resume and crafted it to match the job requirements and preferences according to the posting and his own research on the company.
He also leveraged what he felt made him unique, which was a multicultural background and network, and focused his search on companies for which that would have value.
When Ma finally did land an interview at a Bethesda, Md. law firm, he practiced with his family and friends beforehand and prepared answers to hundreds of common interview questions, he says.
He was hired on the spot.
"He was prepared and his preparation paid off with an offer," said Ford Myers, president of Career Potential, LLC, a Pennsylvania-based career consulting firm. But, Ma could have saved a lot of time and energy by being more selective from the start, Myers said.
Dan King, principal of Career Planning and Management Inc. in Boston, says if Ma ultimately wanted to work in a law firm, he may have been able to speed up the process by compiling a list of local firms and going after them directly.
"You can research organizations to get information on who's inside," he suggested, and then try calling them to make some contacts or talk to someone you know about getting a referral.
Even though Ma was applying with the masses, he found success by narrowing his search and setting himself apart. "He learned from what he was doing, rather than blindly and continuously apply for jobs," said Gerry Crispin, co-owner of Careerxroads, a consulting firm based in New Jersey.
"Importantly, he continued to experiment with what he was doing and learned to become much more targeted."
Customizing his cover letter and paying attention to the specifics of each opening were a big part of that. Ma's customized cover letter helped tie his assets and strengths to the firm's specific needs and challenges, Myers said.
"People think they're going to have more success if they cast a really wide net and that is not true," Myers said. "The truth is they have to be more selective in this market then ever before."