A Graduate's Guide to Maintaining Mental Health During the Job Search

If you've recently graduated, congratulations! Stepping out of education and into the professional world is an exciting time. Whether you're searching for internships, part-time jobs or a full-time entry-level position, preparing yourself for the job search is an important first step. The job search can often feel like a full-time job in and of itself, and you may experience feelings of rejection, nervousness ahead of your interviews and a lack of control that—especially combined with the COVID-19 pandemic—may lead to stress, anxiety or overwhelm.

“This sense of uncontrollability has been a massive problem this year and is a horrible source of stress,” says Sarah Pressman, a professor of Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine. “One of my biggest pieces of advice for everyone during the pandemic has been to try to let go of what you can’t control and focus on what you can.” In this article, we'll share 13 strategies for you to take control and reduce stress throughout your job search if you're a new graduate.

What causes job search anxiety for new graduates?

Job search anxiety can emerge at every level of your career, whether you are a student or a seasoned professional. For example, you might worry about the quality of your job application materials, how long it’s taking to hear back from a hiring manager or doubt your qualifications when you become aware of other candidates. You might also feel stress for other reasons, such as:

  • Regret or uncertainty about your college major

  • Moving away from your college friends and support network

  • Increased competition in the job market

  • The impact your first post-grad job will have on your career path

“It is always easy to try to have as much control as possible or seize control, for example, by repeatedly obsessing about one job, constantly refreshing on a job website for updates, refreshing emails waiting for a response,” Pressman says. “This type of perseveration is harmful to our health since it keeps our bodies in high stress and anxiety mode when there is no need for that type of arousal. This creates wear and tear on our bodies that can wear us down over time and put us into bad shape.”

This year, social and physical isolation has also taken a toll on mental health, for students in particular. “Social support is one of the number one ways humans can buffer the negative impacts of stress on the body, but this year, it’s hard to get the support and contact we need when everyone has to stay at a safe distance,” Pressman says. “There has been so much isolation, depression and loneliness, and these are all hard on our bodies and our mental health. Graduates have the double whammy where they are losing their class social network after a full year of already not having them in near proximity. This loneliness and lack of touch has major health consequences and makes stress seem much more insurmountable and threatening.”

How to manage job search stress as a college graduate

Even without a global pandemic, the job search process could provoke insecurities and heightened levels of stress for college students. These emotions may be compounded when faced with the ambiguities and uncertainties of the current job market: “Students must prioritize well-being and self-care during these uncertain times,” says Karol Johansen, associate director of career education at the University of California, Irvine.

While you can’t control every outcome during your job search, here are some tips experts offered to prioritize your mental health while searching for a job after graduation:

Focus on what you can control

“When you find yourself worrying about something you can't control—for example, after you have submitted an application—a good strategy is to find a source of distraction,” Pressman says. “Focus on what you can control: putting in the best possible materials, having a friend proofread what you wrote and sending a friendly email follow up.”

Here are a few resources you can use to get started:

Set milestones

“Student job seekers have a lot more control over their job search than they typically assert,” says Matt Berndt. Before joining Indeed, Berndt spent 25 years advising students and graduates through their job search. “When someone wants to train for a marathon or lose weight and get into better shape, you don't do that without holding yourself accountable to certain things over certain time periods. The same thing holds true for a job search. You can't just decide to pursue a job and expect it to happen. You've got to plan, you need to take action and you need to budget time for it, and you need to manage your expectations so you can recognize the little victories along the way to that bigger, larger goal that you have.”

Set aspirational goals and realistic expectations

Johansen and Berndt both recommend using SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based) to develop your aspirational career objectives. Johansen offers this example:

"Each month I will connect with three seasoned professionals and conduct an informational interview to learn about their employment trajectory and receive career advice.”

Part of setting a SMART goal for finding a job is to also ensure it’s realistic, or achievable. “On average, the job search for a new graduate can take between three to six months,” Johansen says. “It’s important to give yourself the grace and space to start the job search in the absence of a self-imposed exploding deadline for securing a position after graduation.”

Keep it light

“Try to build in some joy while you are engaged in job search exploration, for example, listening to your favorite music while scanning positions on Indeed.” Johansen says. “Make sure you don’t let the job search process consume all of your waking hours by building in time to socialize and partake in leisure activities.”

Avoid isolating, even in isolation

“Human beings are social creatures and are wired to connect. Make sure to stay connected with others who can lift your spirits and provide inspiration during the ups and downs of the job search process during COVID,” Johansen says. “These people will inspire you to move forward if there is a lull in your job search and cheer you on when you secure an interview with your dream organization. Seek help from a career development specialist who can provide professional support and guidance.”

Remember, we’re all in this virtual world together

“The notion of in-person networking induces anxiety for so many people,” Berndt says. He advises graduates to remember the advantages of interviewing in a virtual job market. “Interviewing is scary to most people, and college students in particular. However, I think this computer mediation gives a greater degree of control they didn't otherwise have.” Set up your desk before a virtual interview with notes about you and your experience, and questions you want to ask about the job and the company to help you be better prepared.

Use ‘Plan B’ to get to your ‘Plan A’

As you enter the job market for the first time, you might consider jobs you didn't originally plan for. “You can not be above your Plan B job,” Berndt says. “You may need to take on a Plan B job to ultimately get to your Plan A. If its purpose is to do nothing more than put bread on the table and gas in the tank, don't invest anything more in that job than that.”

Choose a first job that's not going to drain you emotionally or otherwise, so you’ll have time to pursue and understand what your next job will be, Johansen advises. “Consider exploring the gig economy—like food delivery or on-demand driving—and other flexible, temporary or freelance jobs, which can help you generate income while still leaving ample time to embark on a dedicated job search.”

Treat the job search like it’s a job

“I say to students, ‘How much time can you budget every week for your job search while you’re still in school?’” Berndt says. “If you’re still in school full time, that might be five hours or 10 hours, and it's a part-time job. If you're out of school or you're in transition, you got a 40-hour workweek looking for work.”

Apply the 80/20 rule to tap into the hidden job market

Once you’ve committed to a certain number of hours of job searching each week, determine how you’ll spend your time. “I always go back to this 80/20 rule that I'll apply to the job search: 80% of your efforts need to go into the hidden job market, or your proactive efforts, and only 20% of your time should be spent in your reactive efforts,” Berndt says. “That could mean you spend 20% of your time recrafting your resume and applying for jobs that already exist, and 80% of your time networking and becoming familiar with and researching the professional worlds you want to be a part of. Being proactive in this way will help you become a more tangible candidate and gain access to that hidden job market.”

Know when you’ll be most productive

Johansen advises students to organize their calendars in a way that will keep the momentum high. “If your optimal productivity is in the morning, set out a few early hours to dedicate to searching online for positions and reaching out to potential informational interview contacts. Reverse the strategy if you are a night owl.”

Take mental health days

If you’re treating the job search like it’s a job, it’s important to occasionally take a mental health day from it as well. “Manage your stress in healthy ways, like connecting with friends, sharing your emotions, doing something that raises your spirits, or even getting out that anxious energy with a walk or run outside,” Pressman says. Johansen suggests students try meditation, mindfulness and other therapeutic outlets and practices to reduce stress during the job search process.

Focus only on what’s next

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average individual is going to work approximately 12 different jobs in their lifetime, Berndt points out. “Then, factor this in: Some of those jobs you’re likely to have over the course of your career span don't even exist yet. So how can you want them? Stop trying to figure out the rest of your life and focus on figuring out what's next. If you can stop worrying about the next 30 years and worry about the next one to three, life becomes a whole lot more manageable.”