This article is for recent college graduates entering the job market.
If you’re a recent grad entering the job market, you’re familiar with the catch-22 that every job requires experience — but you can’t get experience without getting a job.
This can be frustrating, but look at it from an employer’s perspective; hiring you means taking a risk. Why should they hire a recent grad, when there are plenty of experienced workers to choose from?
The secret to getting a job without any job experience is simple: don’t get a job. You’ll only set yourself up for frustration, low pay, and years of working up the ladder from the bottom rung. There are a variety of alternatives to full-time work that can help you quickly get the experience needed to land a full-time gig.
In this article, I’ll run through strategies for working around the “experience requirement” issue so you can quickly get a job, even without experience.
Understand your potential employer’s perspective
Your potential employer has only one question about you: will hiring you result in higher profit for the company?
This is why they care about experience — they need proof that you won’t lose them money. Employees are expensive — especially when you factor in healthcare, insurance, bonuses, etc. If the total compensation package you’re getting is $60,000 annually, and you can’t do the job, they stand to lose a lot of money.
Imagine you’re the owner of an ice cream shop. Say you’re hiring someone to help you with marketing. Sure, you care about their skills — but only insofar as those skills create profit for your company.
So who would you rather hire: a 21 year old with a marketing degree but no job experience, or a 26 year old who has worked in marketing for a couple restaurants in another city? Obviously, you want the candidate with proven results.
Your challenge is to prove results before getting a full-time job.
Use the “PBR Approach” to build employer confidence
The good news is, you can absolutely get experience without a job. The details depend on your career path, but most creative job seekers can use what I call the “PBR Approach.”
- Prove your skills by doing side projects.
- Build experience by microfreelancing.
- Remove risk by proposing a trial period.
1. Proving your skills with a side project
Presumabely, you chose your career path because it’s something you’re interested in. So prove it: do a project on your own to demonstrate initiative and a “doer” attitude.
If you’re a graphic designer, this could mean desiging posters for bands around town for free. A programmer might create a small web app. To break into copywriting, start a blog or Medium account. You get the idea.
2. Building experience by “microfreelancing”
Once you’ve tested the waters with your own projects, look for ways to get paid doing small parts of the job.
Glamorous? Definetly not. But it’s a way to gain experience. Fast.
3. Removing risk for employers by offering a trial period
At this point, you have “experience.” You just don’t have “job experience.”
The simplest way to work around this is to offer a trial period when you apply for jobs. You need to tell the company: “Yes, I’m low on job experience. But I’ve demonstrated my skills and drive with personal projects and freelance clients. Give me a two month trial period, and if it doesn’t work out, no hard feelings.”
This removes their fear that you’ll drain them of cash and fail to do the job properly. Businesses tend to be savings-oriented, and you want to play to that if you’re up against a lot of qualified candidates.
Example: using the PBR Approach to get a web development job
Marc is interested in getting work as a web developer. He’s taken programming classes at school and taken a few online courses, but he hasn’t actually done any paid work yet.
He starts by building small sites on his own — they aren’t designed to make money or scale up, they just demonstrate that he knows the neccessary languages and tools for the job.
Once he’s confident in the basic skillset, he starts freelancing, through his personal network as well as Upwork. The fees are low — but that’s fine because his goal is experience, not money. To start, he only takes small, bite-sized jobs that can be finished in a day or two. Over time, he builds up to longer and more involved contracts, gathering positive testimonials and new skills along the way.
After six months, Marc starts applying to full-time junior web developer roles in his area. He leverages the case studies and positive testimonials from the past few months to make a higher salary ask than he would have with no experience. Marc applies to several companies and one of them makes a $70,000 offer. Marc takes the job.
Example: using the PBR approach to earn a full-time PR role
Jennifer is interested in breaking into the PR world. In this case, the role is more social, so personal projects are less clearly defined. However, Jennifer knows a couple small business owners through her school network, and volunteers to help them get positive media attention.
After seeing some success contributing to her friends’ projects for free, she starts looking for entry-level PR gigs online — mostly low-level work like outreach tasks and writing “about” pages. Eventually, she works up to more involved contracts and a few of these clients offer strong testimonials to the value of her work.
After a few months of freelance PR work, she gets an offer from one of her regular clients to go full-time in-house.
Example: my personal story using the PBR Approach to break into product management
Like most English majors, I entered the job market with no idea how to apply my studies to the real-world market. Beyond maybe eventually getting an MFA to defer reality longer, I didn’t have a real plan. (Part of why I made this site was to create the sort of resources I wish I would have encountered earlier.)
I realized my coursework on these topic made me uniquely positioned to produce content for people and companies in the tech industry. So, I started chasing that specific type of client and looking for longer-term relationships.
Building up my profile as a “tech writer” introduced me to a couple long-term clients who taught me the ropes in SEO and content marketing. After a couple years, one of these clients made a full-time offer, which allowed me to stretch my responsibility and cover more technical aspects of our projects.
That company got purchased by a larger one, and I got promoted into a product management role — reaching it in half the time it would have taken to start at the bottom in an agency.
Build a career runway: The longer you freelance, the higher your base pay at your first job
I can’t stress this enough: entry-level employees have no leverage for negotiating their salary. You can’t negotiate if you don’t have success stories on your resume.
With full-time jobs, building these success stories can be very slow. In a full-time role, there’s a strong expectation that you will remain with each employer at least a year, if not longer. This can make the journey up the ladder very, very long… if you start at the bottom of the ladder. (And let’s be honest, anything you accomplish in an entry level job will likely be credited to your manager, anyway.)
Freelancing, on the other hand, is all about jumping from one small gig to the next. It’s stressful, risky, and often low-paying, but it allows you to start fresh every week or month with a new set of clients. Each gig you do is a new testimonial you can use for securing future gigs. It quickly becomes a virtuous cycle, and you get many more “success stories” out of a year of freelancing than a year of entry-level work.
“I helped X client raise their conversion rate Y percent.” “My work contributed to launching an app that won two design awards.” These are the sort of things you want to be able to say about your past work.
Over time, move from small to large contracts
What I’m saying here is: build a career runway. The longer you can spend freelancing and building your own projects, the more success stories and leverage you’ll have walking into an interview for a full-time job.
Keep in mind some companies will view multiple years freelancing as a bad sign — but in most cases, a few months to a year of freelancing is just proof that you’re motivated. (so long as the contracts in that time period start to transition from gigs to long-term relationships.)
The danger with freelancing is that you can get caught in a rut, providing the same small service over and over again. Be sure that you’re stretching yourself a little with each new contract. In the begining, it’s best to only take contracts that are short and clear. As you gain skills, look for longer-term contracts where you can demonstrate more value. (And take more credit.)
Develop an “experience and results portfolio”
The work you’re doing as a freelancer is only a third of the workload. You’ll split the rest of your time between marketing yourself and cataloguing results.
Keeping track of your clients, projects, and results is the most important part of this phase in your career. Don’t worry about the paycheck; worry about how good the client’s brand looks on your testimonials list. Doing a gig for a well-known SaaS company is better than doing a gig for an unknown blogger. The quicker you can work up to known brands with your work, the better.
When you complete each job, make sure you check off each of these items:
- Contribution: what you contributed to the project. (e.g. “I built an Instagram following to ecommerce leads for X shop.”)
- Impact: how the project benefited the client. Percentage gains and hard numbers are best. (e.g. “They saw a 12% lift in Christmas season sales compared to last year.”)
- Testimonial: “Elizabeth’s work on our Intsagram strategy had a huge impact on our business this year. I was nervous investing in social, but she made the process easy and fun and demonstrated an excellent ROI. Can’t reccomend her services enough.”
How to convince your first employer to hire you
The process of landing a job comes down to three stages:
- Setting the stage: planning your public profiles to make yourself appear hireable on LinkedIn, social media, and any platforms relevant to your industry. (Dribbble for designers, GitHub for developers, etc.)
- Written communication: writing your cover letter and resume, and any email interactions leading up to an interview.
- Verbal communication: communicating your skills and experience effectively to make a positive impression.
Planning LinkedIn and social profiles when you have little or no experience
This point is an article unto itself, but the short version is:
- Select an appropriate headshot for your profile photo.
- Set a clean URL for the page (e.g. linkedin.com/janedoe).
- Add skills relevant to your schoolwork and any freelance/volunteer work.
- Volunteer somewhere relevant to your chosen career path and include it in your profile.
- Write a short, to-the-point professional summary highlighting your projects and career goals.
- Get reccomendations. Even if it’s from a high school job or mentor at school.
- Include any projects or published work relevant to your career path.
The challenge here is that you have no full-time jobs to include in the experience section. If you’ve been freelancing for a few months, it’s best to be up front and enter “Freelance Consultant” or similar entry as a job, and include some portfolio items on the job.
This shows that while you aren’t employed full-time, you are engaged with your craft.
Writing a cover letter and resume when you have little or no experience
Writing cover letters is hard no matter what. It’s even harder when you don’t have full-time work experience.
Your prospective employer has three concerns:
- Can this person do the job?
- Is this person reliable and trustworthy?
- Will hiring this person make me money?
If you’re following the PBR Approach, you should have plenty of interesting freelance and volunteer experiences to highlight. You should also have some solid testimonials you can include, as a form of “social proof.”
I reccomend the following structure to make sure you address each “pain point” in your cover letter:
- First paragraph: briefly introduce yourself, education, and location. If you have a contact at the company, mention it.
- Second paragraph: briefly explain how your experience and skillset will solve the problems they’re hiring to solve.
- Third paragraph: briefly describe a specific example of a task you did related to this job, and how it was a success.
- Fourth paragraph: briefly describe what you find compelling about the company, and where it fits in your career path.
This should be as short as possible. The person reading it is likely sorting through a large pile and anything with paragraphs longer than five sentances is likely to be skimmed.
I will be doing a followup article soon to go over examples and how to approach the challenge of writing a cover letter with no experience from a psychological copywriting perspective.
Interviewing for a job when you have limited full-time work experience
This is the hardest part — keeping it cool while the interviewer grills you about “why don’t you have a real job yet?”
Stick to past success stories and specific examples, whenever possible. If they press you on employment history, be honest: “I graduated into a rough job market. I’m not the sort of person who can sit around waiting, so I immediately built up a freelance roster to sharpen my skillset. I figured I could learn faster by doing — and that’s what I’ve been doing the past few months.”
If you sense that it’s not going well, ask them what their main concerns are with your application. Even if you can’t solve them with more specific examples and case studies, knowing what the problem was will be hugely helpful for the next application.
Above all, stay calm and don’t appear desperate. Job seeking is like dating — you want to appear attractive, interested, but not needy.
Resources for recent grads seeking work
Creator of Afield, a publisher of insightful guides about the future of work and navigating the tech industry.