Job searching without much work experience can be frustrating; employers will tell you that you need more experience, but how are you supposed to get it if no one will hire you? Whether you're a recent graduate or a stay-at-home parent re-entering the workforce, here are eight tips that will help 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 three to five 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 résumé or consist of a few paragraphs of generic filler. It needs to explain why you'd excel and why you're truly excited about the opportunity. For example, if you're applying for an admin position 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 wants? 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 come across as inappropriately cocky or naive about your own experience level and what it will take to do 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 résumé. 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 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, where 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 résumé 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.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.
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