If you’re a recent college grad hunting for jobs, you’ve probably run into this paradox: “Every job requires 3-5 years experience, so how am I supposed to get the experience I need to find a job?”
It can be a frustrating experience, as even most “entry-level” jobs tend to list experience requirements. What are you supposed to do?
In this guide, we’ll help you out. We’ll take a look at how to get the experience you need for jobs, how to address your lack of experience in interviews, and why you probably have more experience than you think. This way, you can break through the experience barrier and get the job you want.
It’s easy to look at a job posting and think, “I have none of the required experience.”
And in many cases, that’s true, in the sense that you don’t have experience doing the literal job described. However, that doesn’t mean you lack experience.
Here are a few types of experience you might have gained as a student:
Class Projects and Student Research
All that work you did as a student isn’t just “classwork” — it’s also a source of experience that you could bring up in an interview.
For instance, if you completed an ambitious project such as a capstone or thesis, then you could use it as an example of your ability to plan and stick with something challenging. The project may not relate to the field you’re attempting to enter, but the experience you gained completing it is still transferable.
The same is true of any research projects you worked on while a student, especially if they were with a team. In this case, you can emphasize how working on the project taught you to be a team player, meet deadlines, and adhere to high professional standards.
As you’ll see throughout this article, it’s often less about what experience you have and more about how you discuss it in an interview.
Extracurriculars and Clubs
College, as we all know, is more than just going to class, doing homework, and taking exams. You also have myriad extracurricular activities and clubs to occupy your free time. And in many cases, the experiences you gain as part of these campus groups can be relevant to a job opportunity.
In particular, if you held a leadership position in a campus group, then that’s absolutely something you could discuss in a job interview. Most (prudent) employers want to hire people who will stick around at the company and eventually move into leadership roles. If you already have leadership experience you can discuss, that can be a great sign to an interviewer.
Alternatively, a club or extracurricular experience could be an example of how you can manage your time, stay organized, and perform under pressure. Or, you could use it as an example of your ability to communicate well and resolve conflicts. Depending on the job you’re interviewing for, there are all kinds of ways to spin your extracurricular experiences.
You don’t have to limit yourself to activities that are affiliated with your college or university. Projects you completed in your free time can also be great sources of experience for future jobs.
For instance, maybe you spent your summer researching your family history and then turned the results into a digital book. You could use this project to highlight your writing skills, persistence, and computer abilities. Plus, it’s going to be a lot more interesting than all the similar internship stories the interviewer has heard.
And that’s just one example of many. Don’t discount the value of an experience you had just because it didn’t happen in the classroom or as part of your “official” college experience.
Looking for an impressive way to present your side projects? Check out our guide to creating an online portfolio.
It’s easy to overlook your student jobs, writing them off as work you did to earn “pizza money.” But while your reasons for getting a part-time job in college might be strictly practical, such jobs can still be a source of relevant experience.
For instance, my first job in college was at the campus post office. I helped deliver mail to various departmental offices, and I also came in to sort the mail on Saturdays. In a pinch, I would even sub for the person running the information desk.
You might assume that this would be “useless” work experience unless I was applying for a job in a post office or mailroom. But you’d be mistaken.
In fact, that single campus job was the source of all kinds of experiences I could discuss in a job interview. Here are just a few examples:
- Working as part of a team
- Dealing with confidential, sensitive information
- Providing customer service
- Paying attention to details
Depending on the position, I would emphasize different aspects of this job. But the point remains the same: any work experience you have is likely relevant in some way. Discard the idea that campus or student jobs aren’t “real” jobs.
I hope you read through the previous section and discovered that you have way more job experience than you thought.
But maybe you’ve done a few interviews and found that you still lack the experience for the job you want. In that case, let’s look at some ways to get the job experience you need.
We’ll start simple and easy with informational interviews.
Informational interviews are different from traditional job interviews. Instead of determining whether you fit a specific position, informational interviews are a way to learn more about a field or job. They can be especially useful if you’re attempting to enter a new industry and want to learn more about the necessary qualifications.
So how do you set up an informational interview? Unlike regular job interviews, there isn’t an application to fill out or a hiring manager to talk with. Rather, you’ll need to take the initiative and set up informational interviews yourself.
Generally, this means contacting someone who does something that interests you and asking if you can set up a meeting to learn more.
This is easier than you might think. To start, people love to talk about themselves and what they do. Furthermore, most professionals are happy to help people interested in their field (especially if you’re a student or recent graduate).
So don’t be afraid to reach out! LinkedIn is a great place to start these conversations, but you can also find contact info on the websites of companies that interest you.
To learn more about how to set up informational interviews, as well as how to make the most of them, read this.
Informational interviews are great for learning more about what you should do to get job experience, but they won’t get you much experience. For that, you should consider an internship.
Even if you did do an internship or two while in college, perhaps you still lack the required experience. Let’s say you majored in a humanities field, did a couple of internships related to that, but now you want to work in a more technical role. In that case, you would likely benefit from doing an internship that lets you learn the necessary technical skills.
Certainly, it can be disheartening to realize that you need to do yet another internship if you already did one as a student. But the long-term benefits could still be worth accepting lower pay or weird hours in the short term.
This is especially true when you consider that internships can lead directly to full-time jobs. Companies will often recruit from among their interns, which makes sense. Interns already know how things at the company work, which means less training and onboarding. And the company already has a sense of the intern’s work performance, meaning less interviewing.
Even if it doesn’t lead to a full-time role at the company where you interned, internships also let you broaden your network. Again, this is especially useful if you’re trying to break into a field where you don’t have a lot of connections. And the right connections, as you hopefully know, open the doors to the best jobs.
For advice on how to get an internship, check out this guide.
Internships are a great way to gain experience and connections, but they aren’t always practical or even possible. In such cases, you can create your own experience through freelancing.
For some fields, freelancing is arguably a better (and faster) way to gain experience than interning. My current writing career, for instance, started with small freelance writing gigs. I could have gained some of the same experience interning at a marketing or content agency, but I wouldn’t have learned as much.
When you’re freelancing, you have a lot more risk, responsibility, and incentive to perform well than in an internship. Therefore, freelancing will teach you as much about business in general as it will about specific marketable skills.
In some cases, you could decide that you prefer freelancing to working a full-time job. But even if you decide to go with a more traditional corporate job, the experience you gain freelancing is great material for your resume and job interviews.
Freelance experience shows that you’re self-motivated, know how to meet deadlines, and can manage your time under pressure. All of which are things that smart employers will look for in a potential hire.
Not sure how to start freelancing? Learn how.
If you follow the advice in the previous section, then you should have plenty of experience to talk about in a job interview. However, you should also know this: years of experience is rarely the most important part of a job application.
After all, the length of time you’ve done something doesn’t say much about your actual ability — you could spend five years doing something poorly and it would still count as “experience”. What matters far more are the results you produce and your ability to explain what you’ve done to a potential employer.
That’s why I’ve included this final section, which covers how to excel in a job application and interview even if you’re less experienced than other candidates.
Here’s what you should do:
Tailor Your Resume to the Job
Although you probably have more job experience than you think, you shouldn’t put everything you’ve ever done on your resume.
Instead, you should tailor your resume to the specific position you’re applying for. Only include the most relevant experience you can, and omit everything else. Not only will this keep your resume from getting too long, but it will also give you a better chance of getting the job.
For example, if you’re applying for a job in which communication skills are paramount, try to include job experiences that highlight your communication skills. There’s a balance, of course, as most jobs require a variety of skills. But try to focus on the ones that are most important and relevant.
For more advice, check out our guide to writing a winning resume.
Make the Rest of Your Application Superb
If you lack experience, you can often make up for it elsewhere in your job application. I already mentioned the importance of a tailored resume, but this philosophy extends to other areas as well.
First, be sure that all your communications with the company are professional and free of errors. Emails you send while you’re applying may not be a part of the official application process, but they could still influence your chances. For more info on how to communicate like a pro, read this.
Next, make sure you’re punctual for all interviews (virtual, phone, and in-person). It sounds silly, but being on time can set you apart from other candidates before you even open your mouth. There are lots of ways to ensure you’re on time, but nothing beats a well-organized calendar.
Once you’ve arrived at the interview, now’s your time to shine. In addition to dressing for success, be friendly and courteous. If you can get the interviewer to like you, then that can sometimes make up for your lack of experience. Ultimately, people hire people they like.
Need to brush up on your social skills before your next interview? We’ve got you covered.
Be Prepared to Address Your Lack of Experience
While an overall strong application can sometimes be enough to compensate for your lack of experience, it could still come up in the interview. So be prepared to address it.
First, don’t lie and claim you have more experience than you do. It’s tempting, particularly if you really need to get a job, but it will hurt you in the long run. Better to be honest about your lack of experience and then spin it in a positive way.
So how do you spin it?
Generally, I suggest emphasizing that while you don’t have a lot of experience, you’re eager to learn and get up to speed quickly. Although this won’t work in all cases, many employers would prefer someone they can train to do things their way. And someone with little experience could be easier to train than a more experienced candidate who’s set in their ways.
This isn’t a guaranteed way to get around your lack of experience, but it’s worth a try.
Now that you’ve read this article, you should understand that:
- You have more job experience than you think
- Getting the experience you need is possible
- Years of experience are less important than your actual skills and interviewing ability
More than anything, don’t let experience requirements keep you from applying for a job. You never know what could happen!
For more job interview tips, read this next.
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