Whether you’re looking to change your professional field or are a newly-minted graduate trying to find your first career opportunity, job-hunting without relevant work experience can prove a challenging task. The “you need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience” dilemma can easily feel like an insurmountable obstacle. But savvy employment seekers must figure out how to tailor their resumes and boost their skills in order to overcome a lack of traditional work history.
Some career advisors and professional mentors may tsk-tsk over this suggestion, lamenting the overabundance of nepotism in today’s work world. But here’s the thing: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking folks you know and respect to give you a heads-up about a job opening that could be a fit for a hard-working, eager, and ambitious individual seeking to start her career.
The key here is to explain to your cousin-in-law or your dad’s golfing buddy or the chair of your mom’s book club that you’re looking for a role that will enable you to learn and to build your skills in your area of interest. If this person suggests starting you off as a Vice President earning six figures a year then yeah, that’s an example of the bad type of nepotism. But if the fact that she’s in your network gives you the chance to express your interest about an appropriate, entry-level position, then there’s no reason to hesitate.
Particularly if you’re a recent college graduate, applying for an internship in your field of choice provides a fantastic opportunity to make professional connections and to gain some hands-on knowledge of what jobs in this sector usually entail. Internships, as well as fellowships and temp jobs, also help build your career network. As the saying goes, "birds of a feather flock together" and in the world of work, that means surrounding yourself with professionals who do what you want to do and align with your mission.
Students often have easy access to internship opportunities via their school’s career center; make an appointment and chat with an advisor to find out what options exist relating to your experience and interests. If you’re no longer a student, databases like Internships.com and Indeed often include postings for internship opportunities at nonprofit and for-profit businesses and organizations.
If you find yourself unemployed right after graduation or contending with some unstructured time while you seek out your next professional position, putting those weeks or months to solid use on your resume isn’t an impossible task. One great way to gain experience and skills even if you’re not technically “employed”? Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer.
Volunteering for a nonprofit organization with a mission that speaks to you personally is a positive move for numerous reasons; you’ll be spending your time advocating for a worthy cause, you’ll meet others with similar interests and passions and if you’re hoping to work in the nonprofit sector, you may also earn some valuable career advantages.
By volunteering, you get the chance to meet and form relationships with employees who already work in your desired field. You also put yourself on the radar for open positions you'd be a great fit for when they become available. As Alison Green of Ask A Manager puts it, "you become a known quantity." Hiring managers become familiar with your work ethic, performance and skill set when you volunteer, so that prioritizes your candidacy over other applicants who don't have existing relationships to depend on. Volunteering opportunities also orient you to the office culture, key objectives, and company's policies which can ease the onboarding process for all parties involved.
Especially if you’re in the early phases of your career, it may seem unnecessary to edit your resume every single time you apply for a job. But because your resume is the key marketing document at your disposal during your job search, it’s worth taking some extra time to rearrange and rephrase your content in order to ensure that you’re presenting the best possible version of yourself to each hiring company.
So if you’re applying for a role as a marketing assistant and you have volunteer experience spearheading outreach for a big donor event, make sure that position occupies prime real estate on your resume! However, if you’re also applying for an administrative assistant job and your last internship required you to create expense spreadsheets in Excel and to manage your supervisor’s work inbox, these are the experiences you’ll want to highlight. Figure out what the job-of-interest requires, find the skills and achievements from your past that best suit the company’s needs, and write your resume accordingly.
In addition to your resume, your cover letter gives you the most direct opportunity to tell a company why you’d be a strong fit for their open position. In some ways, the cover letter accomplishes this goal even more effectively than the resume; resumes, by nature, should focus on concrete, measurable achievements and skills, while cover letters offer you (more) free rein to explain your background, your specific interest in the position, and why they should take time to interview you, even if you’re comparatively light on solid work experience.
“The question you want to answer for yourself before you start writing is this: Why should the hiring manager be excited to hire you? What do you know — that they might not, because it might not be clear from your still-limited resume — about why you’re likely to excel at this job?
If you were explaining to a friend why you think you’d be great at this job, what would you say? It’s probably not just about what’s on your resume, but about skills, orientations, approaches, talents… and your cover letter is the place to convey that,” advises Green.