The short answer is: the sooner you start applying, the better. Put your degree on your resume, with "(anticipated)" before your graduation date.
But before you rush off to update your resume, let's look a little more deeply into this question that's important to every college student. Being aware of the challenges that you—as an entry-level candidate—present to the people who hold your future in their hands gives you the ability to minimize them:
- First challenge: Entry-level hires are the hardest ones for a manager to make, because hiring decisions are largely based on credentials. A candidate's track record predicts whether or not he can do the job successfully, yet entry-level candidates usually have no track record to evaluate.
- Second challenge: Every department in every company is a team that exists to deal with complex and specific problems whose solutions contribute to profitability. This makes it imperative that team members are able to work together productively toward shared goals and requires professional behavior and understanding of workplace protocols. But entry-level candidates invariably have no frame of reference for behavior in the professional workplace.
The wrong decision decreases a manager's credibility. Every manager's primary responsibility is to get work done through others. If a manager makes poor hiring decisions, then she can never expect to manage productively. Too many bad hires lead to lost productivity and may indicate that the manager is not suitable for management status.
Internships, the New First Job
Internships give you a frame of reference for the professional world and experience that sets you apart from almost all the other candidates for your entry-level job. The internship experience shows commitment, maturity, and knowledge of workplace protocols such as professional dress and behavior. You can also demonstrate that you understand that a career starts on the bottom rung of the ladder and an entry-level job is a necessary foundation for future success.
You should pursue internships throughout your college experience (better late than never!), but the sooner you start, the longer track record you will create and the better able you will be to distance yourself from other contenders for the jobs you want.
While there is honor in all work, your occupation and the companies that employ you convey status. Everyone wants to be associated with a respected company, and internships are how you start differentiating yourself. The internships you land depend largely on your academic record, demonstrated ability to communicate in a respectful and professional manner, and the organizations or campus societies you volunteer for or join. The organizations represent the closest experience you have of being part of a team working together toward a common end—offering indications of your behavior and performance as a team member in a department. Many times, I've heard college recruiters say that by the time on-campus career days come around, they've already made their most important choices based on candidates' activity in certain campus organizations.
Any Experience Trumps No Experience
From the hiring manager's perspective, any work experience is better than none. Any job, however humble, gives you a track record and speaks to the behaviors, protocols and team member responsibilities we have discussed.
When you have been around the world of work long enough, you'll recognize that, apart from the specific technical skills of the job, all jobs are pretty much the same in that they exist to anticipate and prevent problems that impact productivity and to deal with those problems efficiently when they inevitably arise. You can use examples of how you've accomplished this to differentiate yourself at job interviews.
Think of any work you have done this way, whether it's for a prestigious Wall Street firm or fast-food restaurant, and you have something in common with the most successful professionals—a key understanding that almost none of your peers have, which gives you a distinct edge.
Your professional career is not in the future; it is here today. Go grab it before someone else does.