1. First and foremost, get as much work experience as you can before you graduate. Employers are looking for experience, not just knowledge, and so students who come out of school with work experience on their résumés are at a significant advantage to students who only have classes and extracurricular activities to highlight. Do whatever you can to maximize your work experience before you graduate – internships and part-time jobs are often what separates the new graduates who get hired pretty quickly from the ones who don't. And that doesn't mean doing a single internship during your four years of school – do two, three, four or as many as possible.
2. Get a practical understanding of what your major qualifies you for in the work world. Too many students pick a major without fully understanding what jobs it will and won't qualify them for once they graduate, and end up frustrated to learn that the major doesn't open the doors they thought it would, or that the career paths it opens up aren't ones they're interested in. Even if you're not job hunting yet, start looking at advertisements for the jobs you think you'll want someday, and see what qualifications it will take to be a competitive candidate.
3. Find good sources of up-to-date job search advice. Too often, students simply rely on their parents, professors and peers to advise them on how to find a job. Sometimes this works out just fine, but often parents and professors don't realize how job searching has changed in the last five years and inadvertently dispense outdated and counterproductive advice – and your peers, of course, are generally as inexperienced as you are. So make sure that you're taking advice from people in a position to really be helpful. (The best source? People who have done a fair amount of hiring of their own.)
4. Talk to people a few years ahead of you. Some of the best mentors can be people just a few years older than you, because they're close enough to remember the challenges you're dealing with but far enough ahead of you to have figured out how to navigate them successfully. Find these people and pick their brains: What do they wish they knew when they were getting ready to leave school? What surprised them when they entered the work world? What could they have done to better prepare?
5. Start reading industry news. Your field is a heck of a lot broader than just what you're learning about in school. Start reading news publications for your field – including industry blogs, which often have the most up-to-date information and discussions. You'll benefit by being able to talk far more knowledgeably about your field in interviews, and you'll get a much more nuanced perspective than classes can usually give you.
6. Clean up your social media presence. Do you know what prospective employers will find if they Google you and whether it will stand up to scrutiny? If you've been less than discreet in what you post online, resolve to clean up what's publicly accessible and to keep your professional persona in mind when you post in the future.
7. Create a map of your network. When you start job searching in earnest, one of the best things you can do is to reach out to your network – but to do that, you first need to know who they are. Sit down and map out who's really in your network – such as friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers from your internship and summer jobs, plus everyone they know too. As part of this project, set up a profile for yourself on LinkedIn, which will make it easier to see your full network.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.