how to get hired when you’re just starting your career

Job searches are tough enough when you have experience, but when you’re just starting out, it’s especially hard to know where to start. How can you position yourself to get hired when you’re brand new to the workforce?

1. If your resume is sparse, think creatively about what experience you can include. While work experience is best, you can also add volunteer work, extracurricular leadership positions, community involvement, blogging, and other activities that demonstrate your work ethic and skills.

2. Add to your experience even though you don’t have a job. Volunteer – which won’t just help out organizations in need, but will also expand your network, add something to your resume, and put you in contact with loads of new people who will now want to help you. Or find other ways to be productive: start a blog in your field, take on a leadership role in a professional organization, or otherwise use your time in ways that will flesh out your resume and show you’ve kept building your skills.

3. Learn how to job search; don’t just wing it. Don’t be one of the hordes of inexperienced job searchers who send out terrible application packages and make inadvertent missteps, like not preparing for common interview questions or forgetting to prep your references. There are plenty of resources for job seekers online, covering everything from writing a strong resume to how to ace an interview. Read as much as you can find.

4. Go beyond just cleaning up your online profile. By now, you’ve probably heard plenty about how important it is to make sure that employers Googling you won’t find photos of you engaged in drunken antics or any other professional turn-offs. But go beyond eliminating anything problematic, and proactively work to build a positive online presence. That could mean anything from a website portfolio of your work to a track record of smart and thoughtful comments on industry blogs. When an employer Googles you, let them be impressed by what they find.

5. Write an amazing cover letter. Don’t fall into the trap of using your cover letter merely to summarize your resume; that’s a waste of a whole page of your application. Instead, you’ll stand out if you write about why you want this particular job (not just ajob) and why you’ll excel at it. And don’t be stiff or dry; show some personality so that employers can get a feel for who you are.

6. Connect with alumni. Think you don’t know anyone in your field? There are almost certainly people in the field you’d like to go into among your school’s alumni. Get in touch with your alma mater and ask to be put into contact with alumni in your field.You might be surprised by how willing fellow alumni are to help you out – whether it’s talking with you informally about their career path and what you can expect what their industry or helping you connect with hiring managers in your field. (But make sure you do your research beforehand and come prepared with specific questions. Most people will be more willing to help you if it’s clear that you’ve done your homework.)

7. Get on LinkedIn. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have much of a professional profile to advertise there yet; fill out what you can, but more importantly, add connections from all areas of your life. That way, you’ll be able to see who in your network might know someone who works at a company where you’d like to apply or whose company might be hiring. Plus, LinkedIn has thousands of alumni, industry, and professional groups to participate in, which can help build your knowledge and give you access to experts in your industry.

8. Get over any fears of networking. If you feel pushy or awkward reaching out about your job search to past coworkers, your parents’ friends, and other people you know, it’s time to get over it! The people you reach out to won’t think you’re doing anything odd; networking is normal, and most people want to help if they can. So don’t let the fact that it’s new or nerve-wracking stop you from doing it.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    Ill add one.

    Don’t apply only for your “dream job.” Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs that aren’t quite where you ultimately want to be. Everyone applies for the dream job. Your chances of landing a job are going to much better if you’re willing to just get your foot in the door. And, when you get there you’re going to bring that much more.

    1. Betsy*

      Ooh! Can I add to your addition?

      Don’t apply to jobs thinking of it only as a foothold into a company if you aren’t willing to do the job you’re applying for. If you are going in thinking, “I’ll work in the mailroom for 2 months, and then they’ll recognize my brilliance and put me where I belong.” If you’re not willing to stick with the mailroom for at least a year or two, don’t apply.

      Working your way up is real, but you get there by working your way up, not by viewing a low-level job as a secret backdoor to lobby for jobs your resume can’t earn you.

      1. ChristineSW*

        Good point. I made that mistake with my second job. I lasted a good 4.5 years, but this organization ended up not having the career advancement opportunities I really wanted. Oh well…hindsight is 20/20.

  2. Anonymous*

    I’m a new college grad who’s wondering about the salary issue. Would accepting a minimum wage job and then jumping ship as soon as I find something better be a career misstep? How long should I be searching for jobs that seem more suitable before considering a job that would just pay the bills?

    1. thenoiseinspace*

      Take a part-time job NOW. If I could go back to last year when I was in your shoes, that’s the advice I’d give myself. Yes, it’s largely because finding a job will take MUCH longer than you think and you’ve got to pay the bills in the meantime, but more importantly:

      Jobs cost money.

      Granted, you also make money, but there’s almost always a large up-front cost, ESPECIALLY for your first real job. Interviewing out of state? You’ll need some pricey plane tickets, sometimes at the last minute. First time in an office? Great…now replace your entire wardrobe, ’cause the comfy, machine-washable clothes won’t cut it here. Working downtown? Get ready to cough up the dough for an expensive parking pass. And if it means moving out of the dorms or away from Mom and Dad, you’ll need to have a large chunk of cash for a down payment on an apartment.

      Ultimately, you’re about to start your professional life, and setting that up requires lots of immediately-available cash. This past summer, I missed out on some potentially great opportunities because I didn’t have the money to take advantage of them. Trust me, you will ALWAYS need money, and it never hurts to have more. You don’t need to put it on your resume, so don’t worry about it looking bad. Make as much as you can now so that if, say, you get an awesome but unpaid internship later, you can afford to do it.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        This, plus, even a part-time job can (depending on your field) help you learn valuable basic skills. For example, dealing with rude, difficult, and demanding customers in a retail environment can help you learn how to de-escalate conflict. Handling coworkers who drive you insane is a necessary skill in pretty much ANY workplace (there will always be at least one). Further, learning to spot which coworkers can be trusted and which to steer clear of is extremely valuable. The list goes on, but there’s something to be said for getting actual workplace experience if you can. And I think most hiring managers these days, with the job market being what it is, are going to understand the need to pay the bills.

        1. Kat*

          Also, sometimes part-time jobs will work around the schedule of a full-time job, giving you a bit of extra income. This was helpful for me as I was working at a high end clothing store and could use both the employee discount and the extra income to grow my wardrobe to fit my new full time job. Although I’m happy to make enough to work only one job now, I do miss that discount.

    2. some1*

      “Would accepting a minimum wage job and then jumping ship as soon as I find something better be a career misstep?”

      No, as long as you put in two-week notice at the PT gig.

  3. Katriona*

    I can’t emphasize #2 enough. Volunteering has (a) put me in touch with people who are hiring, and (b) given them the chance to see me in action. It’s how I got my first paying jobs that weren’t retail or food service.

  4. A.Y. Siu*

    I’d also give the advice my mom gave me when I was a young college grad, which is to apply for jobs even if you don’t strictly meet the qualifications.

    No, that doesn’t mean if you have absolutely 0 experience in anything, applying to be the editor-in-chief at a major publishing company.

    But I was very naive and literal in the beginning, and I thought “Oh, if the job description says you have to have 3 years experience, and I have only 2, then forget it.”

    That advice ended up being invaluable, and almost all the jobs I’ve had have come about from applying for positions I wasn’t by-the-book qualified for. I’ve also been on the hiring end of things before, and here’s what job applicants, particularly new ones, need to realize: it’s not like college. When folks are hiring, they don’t have a certain percentage of applicants they usually take, and they don’t have a minimum SAT score cutoff point. If there’s one position open, the company or school is going to hire one person–whomever is the best applicant.

    That’s it. If the best applicant is great and doesn’t fit all the criteria exactly, then that’s the person who will get hired. If 20 people all match and exceed the criteria (but not to the point of being overqualified), then being what you think is “the best” doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hired.

    1. ChristineSW*

      I’m nearly 20 years out of college and I STILL struggle with this!! I am constantly having to remind myself that it is absolutely okay if I’m a little off on 1 or 2 of the job requirements. Although, if they list any requirements that are a MUST and I don’t have them, I don’t bother applying.

      1. Jen in RO*

        I’d say you should apply anyway. My ex-company is recruiting for my position, but their musts are definitely not! They ask for experience in the particular field, but are not willing to pay for an experienced person… so what they actually want is someone with no experience but who can learn.

  5. A.Y. Siu*

    I know there are some hiring managers who will roll their eyes at this, but I would say even if there’s a requirement that is a “must,” and you’re pretty confident you’re a good candidate or a great match for the company, go ahead and apply anyway.

    One job I got because I applied for a teaching position I was highly underqualified for, but the school was still intrigued by me as a candidate and managed to hamstring me into some other not-yet-created position that suited their needs.

    Another job I got I was almost entirely not qualified for. In fact, I applied for it on a lark, and the college didn’t get back to me for over a month, so when my future boss called to interview me, I was whispering to myself “What job is this again? Did I apply for this?” It was a very, very steep learning curve, but I ended up learning a lot and mastering everything there.

    The worst that could happen if you apply to a job you’re not technically qualified for is the hiring manager will just look at your resume, roll her eyes, and then laugh, and move on to the next one.

  6. llamathatducks*

    Recent college grad here with a question!

    Should I as an entry-level hire try to negotiate on my pay? On the one hand, in my industry negotiation is generally expected; on the other hand, the job I’ve been offered is definitely entry-level, plus it’s temporary, and I’m not exceptionally qualified for it, so I feel like I don’t have much standing to negotiate.

    1. anonymous*

      At my last couple of entry level type jobs, I didn’t negotiate the pay and took minimum wage (10.25 where I am) and then found out after I started that all my coworkers were making 12-14/hr just because they asked for it. And we’re talking high school kids, they weren’t exceptionally qualified.

    2. Anonymous*

      As long as you’re polite about it and not unreasonable in your expectations (i.e. they offer $10/hr and you ask for $20), it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

    3. Sunflower*

      Yes Yes Yes you should! Sites like glassdoor have tons of salary information. Keep in mind though some companies, esp. larger ones with training programs, may have a set starting salary with no flexibility. However, there are lots of other things you can negotiate like vacation time, work schedule flexibility/working from home and perks like that. Employers do expect you to negotiate so even if the company has a set starting rate, it will definitely never hurt to ask. Good luck!

    4. llamathatducks*

      Thanks for the advice, you guys! I have a great update: I gently negotiated, without even giving a reason or implying that I’d turn down the offer at the proposed rate (in fact I would’ve accepted it anyway and was terrified of losing it), and they bumped it up to just over the halfway point between the initial offer and what I asked for :) this takes me from a Pretty Good entry-level pay rate to a Quite Good! entry-level pay rate. Yay!

      1. Tax Nerd*

        That’s awesome! (And a great life lesson – always negotiate, even if you do it in a gentle way.)

  7. hamster*

    I also want to share my story and advice. At the first interview/cv i had to send. I had obviously no experience but a two week intership ( school mandated) But as i was finishing sophomore year in college i put on my CV a section “skills” separated from “experience” . In the skills section i completed everything i knew my way around. web design , php -intermediate, java – beginner ; c advanced (so i thought. obviously a naive) etc. in the experience section i also put besides the internship , The freelance websites i build, the more interesting schoolprojects/apps i worked , basically every functional bit of code/circuit design i ever did . I took a part time job in a r&d department for a wage comparable or less than the food industry. But for two years, I LEARNED A LOT THERE. A lot. From the simple fact of going to work every single day and having no holidays ( i most my days to take exams) to code, to design stuff, to research systems, to write pitches ( asking for funds for parts / software to build whatever prototype we were designing). Because we were few , and the company was small i got to interact so much and build so many skills. Plus some awesome references. And when i graduated i had some experience to put on my cv.

    1. Meg*

      I have a similar story.

      I was one of the founders of one of the largest and longest running fansite for a particular fandom. This was something I started 12 years ago as a hobby. I didn’t go to school for web development afterwards, but continued learning on my own (PHP/MySQL, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript and some libraries, lots of open-source software like text editors and SSH and FTP clients and all that jazz).

      For a while, I didn’t really put my skills high enough on my resume and focused on my unrelated customer service experience for a work history. When I modified my resume to highlight the skills and particular websites I was a developer for (as a volunteer hobby), a recruiter noticed the fandom, checked out the site and was thoroughly impressed (and was a fan of the fandom as well).

      I got my first contract and sometimes I felt unqualified (Imposter Syndrome) but often there were things that I could do or pick up very quickly, or problems that I directly solved that made me feel comfortable doing it professionally.

      I’m now on my second contract with a different company (after updating my resume to include the new skills and experience), and although I’m still early in my career, I’m considered a valuable member of the development staff, and my official title is “Sr Web Developer” (I was baffled that they would consider me senior level!)

      So yes! DO NOT neglect volunteer or hobby experience on your resume if it’s relevant to your career field!

  8. hamster*

    Yes! Basically don’t neglect any thing you can actually do. A good employer won’t care where you learned that stuff, as long as you actually do the job. I had one hiring manager once telling me “just write me an e-mail with bullet points of – stuff you already know how to do- . I ‘ll ask for a cv if i’m interested. “

  9. Chris*

    Recent grad here. And when I say recent, I mean graduated 17 months ago recent. Some disorganized random thoughts:

    a) Find someone in your circle that does hiring and get them to check your resume. When I was in college, I had about 5-6 career counselors and professors look over my resume during my Jr and Sr year (when applying for research and internships), and the feedback was always “this looks good. I’ve got nothing to add.” Since graduation, I’ve regularly gotten my resume checked by people at the unemployment office, by networking people, and by professional engineers, and only one person has given meaningful improvement advice (stuff other than “use a sans-serif font or switch from a 10 to 12 pt font in the descriptions”), and she actively hires at Hexcel and teaches people how to deal with Boeing’s notorious filtering software. The point: you’ll probably get much better feedback from people that actively hire in your field than from anyone else sadly.

    b) Grown-up career fairs are your friends. Here’s the thing:

    -College career fairs have about 600-700 people show up, each with a resume in hand. The other part: college students are very high energy, and have been taught how to network career fairs via the Internet, classes, or workshops. And everyone there is willing to talk about in-field developments. And the lines for SpaceX and Tesla are slightly longer than the line for Splash Mountain.

    -Grown-up career fairs are a very different animal. There are a lot less people and that element of hyperness in college fairs is missing. At college fairs, you’ll hear in-line talk of Falcon 9’s and Elon Musk’s amazingness. At grown-up career fairs, the nouns “Falcon 9” and “Elon Musk” will be replaced with the noun “ex-wife”.

    The short answer: at college fairs numbers are not on your side, everyone has been trained to talk at these fairs, and energy is high. It is a lot harder to leave an impression on anyone if you aren’t already Jesus. At grown-up fairs, there’s a lot fewer numbers, and the atmosphere can get more dreary than a swampland graveyard. High-energy & optimism makes it easier to leave an impression and the less numeric competition plus the less likelihood that the other people there have been trained to commericialize at fairs can get you more interviews. Personally, in 5 years attending college career fairs, I’ve never gotten an interview. Meanwhile, I’ve netted 2 in fairs post-college.

    c) Friendships can get weird if a power imbalance strikes. Basically, you’ve been friends in college with some people for 3-4 years. They got a job offer either during college – 1 month after, and clearly move on (i.e.: Their Facebook feed becomes how their job is “boring”, or how they are posting pictures of the new car they just bought) while you’re still unemployed. When you hang out with them at bars/parties, you start seeing this as well: people talk about work. Eventually, you’ll have to deal with the “What is your job” question, in which stating “I’m unemployed” will kill the mood and make it much harder to socialize when you get tossed “Why have you been unemployed for so long” or “Have you applied for jobs at company X” questions all night long. It’s possible to deflect the question: if it’s a guy, figure out if he’s a sports guy or anime guy or gamer guy or beer guy and run with it. If it’s a girl, run some game (shift the frame, demonstrate high value through a story, whatever floats your boat). Turns out this is a great way to get the most out of socializing events.

    d) This website is great:

    e) When you graduate, jobs require experience and skills. For experience, see this:

    Sigh. If someone can tell me how to solve the quandary in this commercial, I’ll bake them a cookie. As for the skills part, software is much cheaper to learn. There’s a bunch of tutorials online for different languages, and if you need to learn something more complex like Data Structures, well, here. This was the 4th link Google spat out:

    Learning hardware is going to unavoidably cost money. Shop / welding / etc. is something you need an onsite instructor to teach you. And, well, if you’re not in crippling student loan debt, sure, go on. Kweh.

    f) Networking is good. If you went to a networking seminar in college, you were probably told to send networking emails, “develop a relationship with your networkee,” and “network for hidden job opportunities” or what-not. In real life, people are busy, and many many emails you send out will not get a response back. And if you do get a response back, it won’t be about a “hidden-job opportunity”, it’ll usually be some basic hiring information with a “times are tough, good luck” tag at the end. Unless you are asking about what it’s like to work in field X. Some people write really well crafted responses to these.

    g) The hardest part of this whole thing is being lost in the fog. You will have 10-20 people telling you that you’ve been doing everything right, and yet nothing falls through. And since, according to every online source and every person at your career center (city and college), you’ve been doing “everything right,” figuring out where to improve becomes an impossible nightmare. When this feeling hits, relax, and grab an IPA. And remember that you’re not alone:

    h) Linkedin groups are great. For instance, the 3D printing group is very active and is one of the better places to get information about 3D printing on the Net. Honestly, this is the best use I’ve gotten out of LinkedIn. That being said, you can find people at companies , or people that do work you’d like to work in, and try to make a connection (Pro-tip: If someone has a smiley face in their profile, they seem more receptive to giving out information if asked). I’ve had some people give me some good information from this way. Job offers, no. Interviews, no. Hidden job opportunities, no. Tips for becoming better at CFD, absolutely.

    i) One last thing. If you need to make a portfolio or blog, WordPress is usable if you just need stuff for that purpose. Or you can learn web development. Not a bad idea either.

    j) Disorganized info is disorganized. This is a lot to read. Here. Puppies.

    1. Recent Grad Marissa*

      Thanks for posting. This is basically my life right now. Especially the part about everyone telling you you’re “doing everything right,” yet still not getting any offers. The only other thing I would recommend, which has already been mentioned several times, is to volunteer whenever possible. I’ve recently become involved with the web development and social media efforts of a brand-new organization, which is helping me 1) use and develop my skills, 2) make connections, 3) gain experience in the sector I’d like to work in, 4) gain more advocates for myself, and 5) support a great cause. Plus, it could turn into a job offer once the organization gets off the ground.

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