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Suddenly, all those students were no longer fellow graduates or classmates. They approached enemy status, and I had to beat them.

Welcome to the terrordome 

The first couple months of my last semester as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte were far from pleasant. A new internship and macroeconomics clouded my mind. Thanks to a passing midterm grade in macro, the final two months passed smoothly at least. I would graduate.

On graduation day, though, that dreadful and anxious mood that I felt at the beginning of the semester suddenly resurfaced. Student marshals had helped calm my nerves about my first-ever graduation ceremony, but there was something else. As I panned the room of hundreds of graduates cheering and hugging, I suddenly realized what agitated me: Now that I was done with school and still jobless, I was competing with most everyone here—thousands of students, here and throughout the state, possibly or probably vying for the same jobs.

The march from the waiting row down to the seats went well enough, I suppose. The fellow in front of me was bubbly, but his seemingly permanent semi-smile was a bit abrasive. During the commencement speeches, he countered every speaker with a sarcastic remark: "Ah, who cares about the new football team?" "OK, that was cheesy." "How many times are they going to make us stand up and sit down?"

Just after our final standing ovation, I turned toward him and said, "So, this is our competition, huh?" I couldn't help but transfer some of my pessimism. It worked. He gave a small nod and a listless "mmm hmm." He panned the room the same way I did as I stood in the rows. He felt the competition, too.

After the ceremony, whenever I ran into another graduating student, I could not help but sum them up: "Computer science minor? Damn, I should have done that." "Double major? Yeah, she's going to get a job." It had taken me just three years to major in English and earn a minor in technical and professional writing. But I wondered: Had it been enough?

Suddenly, all those students, even those with familiar faces, looked different. They were no longer fellow graduates or classmates. They approached enemy status, and I had to beat them. I had to find out what they are doing right or wrong and use it to my advantage. The students who seemed a bit immature, weren't actively looking for a job already, or hadn't completed an internship showed a weakness that gave me an edge. With all my analysis, my facial expression must have resembled that of an Olympic runner, lining up in the blocks to take off in a race. Perhaps that's why people kept asking, "How are you feeling?"

Nearly a month after graduation, I am back in Raleigh, living with my sister. I am 24, and I spend most of the day browsing employment databases and sending out résumés and cover letters. But I no longer write cover letters; I craft them, choosing words and designs that hopefully set me apart, perhaps making me the last competitor standing. We'll see.

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