The Class of 2020 will be graduating online. They’re not happy about it (opinion)

They’re not happy about it.

As a professor, I’ve seen that moment when seniors remember they are graduating without a formal ceremony. There will be no saying goodbye to lab partners and roommates; no last walks through classrooms or the campus quad; no big parties and no final moments with friends.

It happened again the other day. Max Kramer, one of our seniors, had presented his honors thesis — online, of course. After his defense, we chatted about next steps.

Suddenly, his voice got shaky and his eyes looked everywhere but the camera. “I can’t imagine,” he said, before trailing off.

Cultures create rituals like graduation ceremonies to guide us through major life events. They unite the class by dressing them in caps and gowns, while recognizing students’ individual achievements by reading (or printing) their names. Graduates literally walk across the stage and, with a flip of a tassel, move from one phase of their life to another.

Except this year.

Neither traditional graduation events nor any of the books I’ve read provide guidance about transitioning during a pandemic. So let’s get down to basics and talk about what we know about going through transitions during tough times.

A core principle of developmental psychology is that small differences are magnified during times of rapid change and when there are many potential paths forward. In the normal course of things, outcomes for those who go with the flow and those who actively plan aren’t that different. In contrast, when everything is changing fast — like when you’re finishing school in the middle of a pandemic — small differences in how people respond are likely to have significant long-term consequences.

It’s like driving on a slippery road. Imagine you’re on the straightaway, anxious but more or less in control. Everything is fine until you get to a curve and need to change direction. Suddenly, a small touch to the wheel has a huge effect on the path your car will take. The wrong move, and your car is in a ditch.

How do you make it safely through this turn?

Generation resilience

In the last few weeks, I’ve read a lot about resilience. Personally, I never want to be called “resilient.” That’s what they call you when really bad things happen, and you manage to keep your head above water. However, bad things are happening, so if you’re graduating in the midst of a pandemic, fostering resilience is your best shot at making it through.

Here’s a five-step approach to getting there:

1. Take stock. Many graduates start their job search by listing their experiences and building a resume.

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Step back. A range of businesses and job search platforms recommend focusing on the skills you have instead of the courses you’ve taken, the major you’ve completed or even your work experience. These can be technical, such as writing, statistics, digital design or languages, or they can be soft skills like meeting deadlines, prioritizing tasks, attention to detail or cultural literacy.

Coursework and experience are only important insofar as they’ve given you transferable skills. Your first task is to take stock of what you know and turn those resume bullet points into an explicit list of skills a potential employer can use.

2. Communicate effectively. People respond to stories. According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, we may be up to 22 times more likely to remember a set of facts delivered as a narrative than the bare facts alone. Your resume, cover letter, online portfolio and social media presence should communicate a coherent sense of who you are as a person and tell a memorable story about what you can do.

When telling your story, focus on the audience. Make it easy for employers to see how you can help them accomplish their goals. To do this successfully, begin by thinking about the needs of the person doing the hiring. A central tenet of entrepreneurship is to start by finding what the customer wants and delivering it, rather than building something and then searching for a customer. There’s an employer out there who needs you. It’s your job to find them.

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One effective approach is to write profiles of specific potential employers. Focus on their core needs and pain points: the absolute essentials that will make or break an application. Then think about what else that specific employer wants and help them see how you can meet and exceed their expectations.

For example, one of my students wants to be a screenwriter. She profiled her dream job — writing for a television series — and profiled other jobs that would be realistic first steps toward that goal, such as working as a production assistant. Then she listed what she could do to meet employers’ core needs. Finally, she laid out attributes that added value — those qualities that distinguish a good from a great employee.

For example, as a psychology major, she had strong statistical skills. Anyone aiming for a job as a screenwriter can write. Most of them can’t write about numbers. By highlighting her quantitative skills in a way that showed how they applied in that setting, she created ‘Aha!’ moments that make it easier for a potential employer to see the benefit of hiring her over another candidate.

3. Build assets. You have skills — one set of assets. While searching job listings, make note of the skills employers are looking for and the words they use to describe them. Make sure you use those same words on your resume so you show up in search engines. If you don’t have them now, this hiatus is a good time to build them.

Volunteering can be especially valuable right now, too. Many charitable organizations are in need — from food banks to animal shelters. Volunteering showcases your grit and initiative. And it will make you feel good both mentally and physically.

Volunteering can also be great for your (fledgling) career. It provides opportunities to use and grow your skills. In addition, volunteering gets you out and doing something. Every single person you meet has a social network that might help you find a job.

Still in lockdown? Be creative. What are your online and social media skills? Contact tracing, tutoring, help lines and providing services to vulnerable people are needs that can be met by volunteers working remotely.

4. Be flexible. The skills you have can be applied in many different places. Because opportunities are so few, however, you may have to think creatively to find that match between an employers’ needs and your set of skills. I experienced that in my own career. Graduating during a recession, I applied the skills I’d developed as an interior architect — juggling details, managing complex data and keeping contractors to strict timetables — to a job as an editorial assistant to a scientific journal. Eventually, that led to a career in psychological research.

5. Recognize the limits of what you can do. It’s hard to remember that there are things you just can’t control. Don’t beat yourself up because your transition to the job market isn’t going smoothly. Focus your energy on doing your best in the situation you’re in.

I have a student who really exemplifies this approach. When the semester started, Zach Arfa had been getting ready to go on the job market. He has an impressive resume, complemented by an outstanding portfolio showcasing his skills. He applied for positions as an environmental activist and community organizer. Then the pandemic hit. At this point, all those employers have written back telling him that given the uncertainty of the times, they aren’t hiring right now.

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But I have faith he’s going to come through this, because he is resilient. He has taken advantage of every resource he could find. He not only enrolled in the workshop we offered on building a strong personal brand, he called the presenter and asked her to critique and refine his resume and online presence. He participated in an entrepreneurship incubator to fund a nonprofit he had helped build. By doing so, he consolidated his value to that organization, learned new skills and introduced himself to a network of powerful alumni.

He identified people he wanted to work with and asked them how he could prepare himself for positions with their organizations. Doing so gave him the opportunity to discuss his background and skills and show his initiative without making a direct request for a job.

Being resilient doesn’t mean that he’s having an easy time — he doesn’t have a job yet. It also doesn’t mean that he’ll necessarily be doing as well in a few years as he would have had he graduated with the Class of 2019, when the US had 3.6% unemployment. But his commitment to taking meaningful action improves the chances that he’ll make it through this. That kind of small edge can make a big difference over the long haul.

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It’s important to remember that resilience is not just a quality of the person — it’s also a quality of the environment. And colleges and universities can help foster resilience. In addition to listing jobs and hosting career fairs, both faculty and career service offices can assist students to write and polish their resumes and cover letters. Many career service offices can also work with graduates to practice real and virtual interview skills and polish their phone presence.

They may also help college seniors access alumni networks through services like Handshake. Recent graduates can provide perspective and practical advice, and older alums can provide networking opportunities as well.

If your institution doesn’t offer a service you want, ask. For example, ask for a session on LinkedIn, a workshop on creating a personal brand or a session on how to light and dress for Zoom success. Career services are often eager to help, since your success is what makes them look good.

Parents can foster resilience as well. This is a hard time for parents, with many experiencing pride in their graduate’s accomplishment, ambivalence about graduates moving back home and worry for their child’s ultimate success. The best things parents can do is be supportive, be positive and be patient.

If you are a parent, recognize that difficulties landing a job are going to be normative this year, not a problem unique to your children. Listen to their frustrations first, without trying to solve their problems. Offer concrete suggestions, introduce them to helpful people you know, proofread when asked — and be encouraging. Remember that not even the most zealous jobhunter can search for work twelve hours a day.

Praise steady regular effort and try not to ask them, for the fifth time today, whether they’ve heard back from that interview yet. I bet they’ll tell you when they do.