how to get a job when you don’t have experience

Job searching without much work experience can be a frustrating experience; employers will tell you that need more experience, but how are you supposed to get it if no one will hire you Whether you’re a recent grad or a stay-at-home parent re-entering the workforce, here are eight tips that will you combat lack of experience in your job search.

1. Figure out why you’d be great at the job. When you decided to apply, you had some reason to believe you could do the job being advertised, right? So spend some time thinking about why. This doesn’t have to be about formal experience; it can be about personal traits you bring to the job, or other less formal qualifications. For instance, it’s perfectly appropriate to mention your love of creating order out of chaos when applying to an admin job, your encyclopedic knowledge of fashion when applying to work in merchandising, and so forth.

2. Don’t worry about being a perfect match. You don’t need to have every single qualification listed in the job advertisement; people get hired all the time without being a line-for-line match with the job posting. You should have most of the qualifications, of course; don’t apply for jobs that ask for 10 years of experience if you’ve only been working for one. But if the ad asks for 3-5 years of experience and you have two years, and you can write a really good cover letter and point to solid achievements in those two years, then go ahead and apply. And speaking of cover letters…

3. Write an outstanding cover letter. If you don’t have much experience, a cover letter is the thing that can convince a hiring manager to call you for an interview. But the letter needs to be a truly excellent one – and that means it can’t just rehash the contents of your resume or consist of a few paragraphs of generic filler. It needs to explain why you’d excel at the job and why you’re truly excited about the opportunity. For example, if you’re applying for a admin job and you’re so neurotically organized that you alphabetize your spices and color-code your closet, most hiring managers would love to know that about you. (And yes, this means it cannot be a form letter that you’re using for every job you apply for.)

4. Pay a ton of attention to soft skills. You don’t have the work experience that will let you sail through a hiring process, and that’s not something you can change overnight. But what’s much more within your control are the soft skills that you display to an employer – like friendliness, professionalism, responsiveness, and follow-through. Being stellar in these areas can serve as a counterweight to your lack of experience.

5. Think about what non-obvious experience you can highlight. You might not have years of work experience, but what else in your background can demonstrate that you have the skills the employer is looking for? For instance, maybe your fundraising work with your college alumni association demonstrates that you can quickly create rapport with people of all backgrounds and aren’t afraid to ask for money. Or maybe the tech blog you’ve run as a hobby demonstrates compelling writing and an ability to pick up new technology quickly. Experience doesn’t have to just come from traditional professional jobs; you probably have other things in your life that demonstrate useful skills.

6. In your interview, strike the right balance between confidence and humility. This is a tricky one. On one hand, if you’re not confident that you can do the work, your interviewer won’t be either. But on the other hand, you don’t want to want to come across as inappropriately cocky or naïve about your own experience level and what it will take to the job well. You need to find a balance somewhere in the middle – confident but with a realistic understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses.

7. Look for ways to get the experience you lack. Yes, it would be nice to step into a full-time job, but if no one’s offering you one, look for ways to get more experience for your resume. Part-time internships, volunteering, or even just doing projects on your own can mitigate some of that experience deficit and make you a stronger candidate.

8. Be realistic. While all of the tips above will help strengthen your candidacy when you don’t have a lot of experience, it’s also important to be realistic about what types of jobs you’ll be considered qualified for. In a tight job market like this one, when employers are flooded with highly qualified applicants, there’s less incentive for them to consider people who are less qualified. You’ll have the most success if you carefully target jobs you truly can prove you can succeed at – not just jobs where you think “I could do that,” but jobs where you can point to specific evidence that you’d excel.

Ultimately, the idea here is to put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes. What should make them excited about hiring you? That’s what needs to be reflected in your cover letter, your resume, and your interview. And if you can’t figure out why they should be excited about hiring you, you can’t expect them to figure it out — which should be a flag that you need to move on to a different opening, one where you can make a compelling case for yourself.

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

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Adam*

    The inevitable experience hurdle. Oh how I hate this one. What I’ve been learning lately is to be confident in the things you have done instead of worrying about what you haven’t done yet.

    If you are alive, you have experience. At some point in your life you have done something that could be of value to an employer out there. So learn to recognize those things and highlight them, because you do have them. Unless you’ve spent your entire life as a hermit shut up at home, in which case you have a different set of issues and may smell vaguely of mothballs.

    1. Adam*

      Proof I need to work on the confidence a bit: I end my comment with what I hope is an innocent joke but immediately start worrying that I may offend people who prefer to be at home. Apologies in advance to any person who was offended.

      Apologies to mothballs as well. You don’t really smell. I just spent most of yesterday cleaning and you have a tendency to get clingy.

  2. Anonymous Educator*

    When I was first starting out as a teacher (or whenever I switched careers—and I’ve done so a couple of times), #2 (job description not a perfect match) and #3 (write an outstanding cover letter) were my go-tos.

    I’d actually highly advocate for #2. Some of the best jobs I’ve had have been because of #2. When I first got out of grad school (and I went to grad school straight out of college), I was hesitant to apply for anything requiring more years of experience than I had. My mom, of all people (yes, I know a lot of people’s parents give bad or outdated jobseeking advice) told me to just apply for things, even if I’m not qualified.

    I fully agree with Alison that you shouldn’t wildly reach (in my context, don’t apply for a department chair position if you have 0 years of teaching experience), but hiring managers will generally write a job description as a wishlist. Yes, we would love our candidates to have 3-5 years’ experience, have a master’s degree, be local, have worked in a school just like ours, be bilingual, etc., etc. Truthfully, though, they will hire whomever they think is best.

    Of course, the more of those job description tidbits you do fill, the more likely they are to look at you. Generally, though, having a good cover letter will help you stand out above other people who have X years’ experience, especially since so many cover letters are badly proofread.

    1. Meredith*

      I totally agree with you, which is why I was shocked when I was rejected for two positions recently that weren’t a perfect fit for my experience. One position would have been managing 1-2 people. I do not have experience managing people, but 1-2 people seems like a great first step, yes? They were hesitant about my lack of experience. So they wanted to interview me in person for a position that did not involve managing people. I was still excited about this position, as it would be 100% based on what is essentially about 50% of my current job. But it came up in the interview that they were concerned that “only” 50% of my current job involved the work I’d be doing. Well, I’m certainly not leaving my current position to do the exact same job I already do… But I chalked that up to weird hiring practices. I’ll continue to reach for positions just above/slightly different from mine in an effort to get the kind of job I really love.

  3. IT person*

    I have around 8 years of experience in one of the biggest IT consulting firms in the country, however I still cant claim in-depth expertise or experience in a particular skill or area (say programming language or a specific technical area like SAP etc.)

    I joined as an entry level person, got promoted twice in the past eight years, get paid well enough and so on, but if I were to go out into the job market again, I wonder what I should highlight. Most of the jobs out there ask for specific skills and several years of experience in it.

    1. Leah*

      I worked briefly in IT head-hunting (no, I would not recommend them) so I might be able to help. I generally worked with software and web development, where they’re most interested in the fact that you know how to do the work even if its in a different language. If that is what you’ve been doing for the past 8 years then you’ll be able to pick up new languages more easily. Most places have proprietary things they don’t expect you to know but they don’t want to have to hold your hand through learning it either.

      Your biggest difficulty will be applying to companies that don’t specialize in IT but have to get resumes from HR who won’t know which languages are related. e.g. You have X years using Javascript and they advertise for X years using AJAX (a certain method of using JavaScript) and the HR person won’t know the relationship.

      Naturally, the more skills you have, the more options you’ll have. However, a company that hires you on the basis of your ability to pick up and implement new things is one that will continue to encourage you to grow once you’re hired. That’s why many of them allow you to use whatever resources you want when doing practical tests, sometimes in a fake language. If you know how to find the answers, it can be just as good as having everything memorized.

  4. Cruciatus*

    But add online application systems to the mix and it feels impossible to get anywhere! I mentioned this in the latest open thread and a few commenters told me that humans do often see those applications, but for me so far, if I have to say no to supplemental questions (because I won’t lie) I’m out of the running in seconds–though I met the basic qualifications. But through the supplemental questions I realized they wanted people with this exact experience already, and tons of it (but then say that in the basic qualifications!)!

    1. JM*

      I had posted this recently too – I have never got a response from an online application I submitted, but I always get calls when I post my resume on job sites like Dice, Indeed etc.

      1. Audiophile*

        I’m leery of posting my resume for a lot of reasons. One being, that when I did in the past I got snared by insurance sales people. I have no desire to sell insurance. Would it be too glaring an omission if I posted with current employer listed as confidential?

        1. Stephanie*

          Yeah, same. All I got were insurance sales calls when I posted my resume on the big sites. I also got a ton of job-related spam (like questionable-sounding mystery shopping).

          1. Audiophile*

            Ugh mystery shopping. I actually signed up for one of those back when they weren’t all scams. Went and performed my mystery shopping and don’t recall getting paid.

  5. Mimmy*

    This is excellent advice Alison! The experience hurdle has always been a challenge for me. I particularly like #5 (think about non-obvious skills you can highlight).

  6. Senor Poncho*

    Corollary to the “no experience” problem — what about when you have significant experience and responsibility, but it’s irrelevant to a particular job? Say, for a career changer?

    1. James M*

      I think that’s covered under #4. Soft skills are always relevant (aspiring hermits notwithstanding), and I’m guessing you can frame your oodles of “irrelevant” experience in terms showing your soft skills.

    2. Leah*

      I’m having a similar issue. I’ve left being a lawyer but have 4 years of lawyering under my belt plus a few years prior to that in social work-type jobs. I’m applying for things just slightly above entry-level because there are a lot of transferrable skills but not always the years of experience doing certain things that they’re looking for in the more senior jobs that I also apply to. So far, I’ve only been interviewed for the more junior jobs and the interviewer has always asked something along the lines of, “Isn’t this job a little below your experience level? Wouldn’t you get bored?”. Of course, I have a prepped answer about being able to hit the ground running and still have a lot to learn in advancing in my career. In at least one interview, I kinda felt like a fraud saying it because I probably would have gotten bored much sooner than a person capable of the job with less experience.

      1. Senor Poncho*

        I suspect that the legal field is one of the most common sources of career changers, incidentally.

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      Changing careers is tough. I think you have to do something to make the transition, however small.

      A while ago, I switched from teaching English to managing a database. The angle I had was a longshot (and I didn’t get a callback for over a month after I’d applied), which was that I’d done some admission work when I was an English teacher, and they needed a database manager specifically for the admission office.

      I switched later back to general admission (not a longshot, since I’d had more admission experience), but then I started doing volunteer tech support, so when the tech director at the school convinced the head we needed another tech person, he was able to lobby to get me into working in tech.

      And now I work in tech (very generalized—sys admin, light network admin, scripting, some programming, desktop support).

      If I had just quit my job as an English teacher and said “Hey, I want to be a tech director!” I assure you I wouldn’t have gotten any callbacks or interviews.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        I guess a little P.S. which you could probably tell from my previous post—I rarely ever tell a supervisor “That’s not in my job description,” and that approach has generally worked to my advantage. Instead of thinking of “not my job” stuff as extra work, I think of it as more opportunity to learn and grow… and maybe switch careers.

      2. Audiophile*

        +1 to this.
        As someone who’s trying to navigate a career change (moving from customer service type roles to communications, my degree background) I knew I needed to do to increase my skills and make myself a more viable candidate. So I sought out volunteer opportunities, that wouldn’t interfere with my full time job and wouldn’t require much, if any travel. I was able to secure a remote volunteer job, handling some social media for a nonprofit. It’s helped boost my resume in the way I wanted and hopefully, at the end of it I’ll have a good reference.

        1. Sharm*

          I agree with this in concept, but have found it much, much harder than everyone says in practice.

          1. Audiophile*

            It wasn’t easy. I attempted to volunteer four years ago, this one wasn’t remote. I interviewed, went through training and then was given an assignment….then crickets. I eventually gave up trying to contact my supervisor, because clearly they weren’t interested in my volunteering. Just seemed strange to have me go through all that, only to ignore me later on.

            Just keep looking, I’ve found very useful. They list a lot of remote opportunities, if you’re looking to volunteer without having to worry about travel.

  7. AnotherAlison*

    In the broader sense, I think the best way to make a transition is to stay in your company or industry and move to a new functional role. Like if you want to be in recruiting and you work in insurance claims, go for any HR role in the insurance business first and over time you could work your way into recruiting in another industry (if you wanted to be in another industry). If you don’t have the functional experience, at least your industry knowledge is worth something.

  8. JM in England*

    This has been and always will be the hardest hurdle to jump. Current job market notwithstanding, could employers think back for a moment to when they were new to the working world and someone gave them a chance. Every highly experienced employee has to start somewhere…………..

  9. Artemesia*

    I used to work with college seniors as they worked on their job search. Our focus was on how to take things they had done during college and demonstrate the experience involved. The course of study they were engaged in had a lot of complex work like project and also several community based actual work projects. e.g. they did simulated press releases, briefing memos, proposals, data analysis projects — but they also did projects for community groups like developing a marketing plan or a program evaluation or a grant proposal.

    Students were encouraged to thing of the skills they acquired and the activities they undertook on these projects and talk about that in interviews. We also helped them reflect on times they exercised leadership, problem solving and dealt with interpersonal conflict. (whether in class or community projects or in summer jobs or extracurriculars)

    While this will not meet the ‘must have two years experience as a tool and die maker’ test, it did allow them to talk about the value they had and could bring to the work. Our students had a much better record of success in placement than students in majors without this kind of preparation.

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