When applying to jobs, students often showcase their education, experience and skills—but these are only a few of the factors that make a candidate stand out from the crowd. By highlighting one’s personal brand, or all of the aspects that make an individual unique, candidates can stand out from the pack and really get employers to notice them.
Personal branding gives candidates the power to define themselves and make an impression that might be even more memorable than a standout cover letter. When building a personal brand, students should spend time self-reflecting and considering how others view them, especially online. Experts suggest that a few of the ways that candidates can impress potential future employers are creating a LinkedIn account, cleaning up personal social media profiles and making business cards. Even physical appearance and style can be made to work in one’s favor by aligning it with your brand.
We asked college career experts how students can build the perfect personal brand—here’s what they had to say.
[Want more career advice? Check out our Job Search Guide for Gen Y.]
1. Reflect on who you are and what you have to offer.
A personal brand needs to be first and foremost personal. Brian Lawrence, a career development specialist at Saint Louis University, says that “when creating a professional brand, it is most important that your brand is an accurate depiction of who you are from a personality and professional standpoint. Your brand should not be a character you create but instead should be a representation of what employers can expect when you are hired.”
Entering the professional world can be scary, and students may feel the need to build a fairy-tale personal brand, but it is always important to stay true to yourself. Honesty benefits both the student and the employer.
Self-reflection is the first step in identifying a personal brand that conveys your interests and personality. Stephanie Kinkaid, assistant director of the career center at Monmouth College, believes that “self-reflection is the first step.” She adds: “There is no way a person can build a brand without first determining skills, abilities, perspectives, strengths and even weaknesses.” Brainstorming how you want to be perceived upfront will make the rest of the process much easier.
2. Build a personal website.
Once you’ve established what you want from your personal brand, the next step is to make it available to the world online. Rachel Esterline Perkins, associate director of public relations and social media at Central Michigan University, is “a fan of a personal website or online portfolio that showcases a student and their skills.” She says personal websites help her “get a feel for who the student is before bringing them in for an interview.” A website is the perfect tool for personal branding because it provides an employer with the professional information needed, while also giving insight into a candidate’s personal taste and style.
For the best results, Kinkaid advises students “to create a website with blog entries, pictures of professional endeavors, your resume and samples of your work.”
3. Clean up your social media accounts to establish a more professional online presence.
When building a personal brand, not all publicity is good publicity. Students can establish a professional online presence by being especially careful with what they share on social media websites.
Matt Caporale, executive director of the career development center at the University of New Haven, says, “inappropriate pictures or other online content can definitely harm a candidate’s chances, so it is important for students to gain control of their online presence and to have it reflect their professional identities.”
Establishing a professional online presence can be as simple as changing your privacy settings on Twitter and Facebook and making your public information more work-appropriate.
4. Create your professional message for a targeted audience.
In the same way that a personal brand should be customized for the candidate, its message and its audience should also be specific.
“The biggest mistake is not having a specific message,” says Caporale. “Without a specific message and a specific image, it’s not really a brand.”
Students need to distinguish themselves from the thousands of peers also looking for a job, and a high GPA or a prestigious internship simply won’t cut it. Your potential employer wants to know why you are the right fit for them and not for anyone else.
Caporale adds, “the idea behind building a personal brand is for the student to create an image in an employer’s mind about their suitability for the position, the company, and the industry. Students should present a brand to an intended audience.”
5. Understand the expectations of your industry.
Each professional industry has its rules, which your own personal brand should follow. Always be conscious of physical appearance, mainly in terms of style and grooming.
Lawrence says, “as you build your brand, broadcast a physical appearance that balances your personal style and the expectations associated with the industry or career you plan to pursue.”
Individuality is never discouraged, but in industries such as banking and insurance, you might want to avoid growing out your beard or showing off tattoos. Such a look might be more acceptable when working at a design firm. To better understand how your appearance affects your professional pursuits, Kinkaid recommends searching online “for images of leaders in your career field. What are they wearing? Aspire to have an appearance that is similar to others in your field.”
6. Use social media to market your new online brand.
Once you’ve created an effective brand for your desired audience, share your new self with your network. With so many outlets for marketing a personal brand, Eric Melniczek, career advisor at High Point University, says that “one of the best methods to highlight your skills, knowledge, abilities, experiences, accomplishments, and successes is LinkedIn. It is the standard bearer with regard to your online reputation and it is often the first Google search result that shows up when an employer searches for you.” A strong LinkedIn profile can project your brand very effectively, and since it is a professional networking site, you’re sure to hit your targeted audience.
7. Network in-person.
But according to Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA career center at Northeastern University, “LinkedIn doesn’t replace networking—it makes it easier to find the right people with whom to network. While it can be a great enabler in the job search process, it does not replace the power of building relationships.” It is extremely important to present yourself well in person, Sarikas says. “You do not want your personal brand to tell employers that you are passive.” The right professional brand will combine online and offline networking.
8. Allow your personal brand to grow with you.
As a student or recent graduate, your career interests and strengths will naturally grow over time. Your personal brand should not be static, but instead develop organically with you.
“By remaining aware of your changing skill sets, interests, experiences, and goals, you can adapt your brand to your new image,” Caporale says.
The best personal brand will be relevant and sustainable and adapt to current trends in your industry throughout your career.
“Your personal brand isn’t ‘set it and forget it,’” says Perkins. “Personal branding doesn’t end once you get a job. You are constantly building your brand, especially as a student or young professional.”
Brian Lawrence is a Career Development Specialist at Saint Louis University, where he works with undergraduate arts and science students, prospective students, and alumni. He holds a B.B.A. in Marketing from Howard University and a M.S. in Student Development/College Counseling from Azusa Pacific University.
Lynne Sarikas is the Director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. She manages and develops employer relationships, coaches and supports students, and engages employers. Lynne authors a blog on job search and careers.
Eric Melniczek serves as a Career Advisor at High Point University Career & Internship Services. He has published a resource for college seniors/recent college graduates entitled “Transition to the Real World.”
Stephanie Kinkaid serves as the Assistant Director of the Wackerle Career and Leadership Center at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. She has worked with thousands of college students to develop leadership and career skills.
Matt Caporale is the Executive Director of the Career Development Center at the University of New Haven. To prepare students for career success, Caporale focuses on teaching students how to identify, build, communicate, and manage their personal career brand by creating an outcomes-focused image for an intended audience.
Rachel Esterline Perkins works at Central Michigan University as the Associate Director of Public Relations and Social Media in the Communications department. She maintains the university’s brand on social media and often mentors students on building their personal brands.
Social media image courtesy of Shutterstock.