Find a Job Without Experience: Six Strategies to Consider

By Lynn Friedman, Ph.D.
Special to
Wednesday, March 12, 2003; 4:44 PM

Many people, particularly those new to the work force or those reentering after a hiatus, claim that they have "no experience". But, of course, everyone has some experience at something, except for perhaps a day-old infant. People who discount their own experience tend to neglect to tell prospective employers about it, and the prospective employers discount them, too. It's a vicious cycle. The prospective employee may represent him/herself as having "no experience" but a willingness perhaps to work hard and learn. And the prospective employer, sensing their lack of certainty, gets "cold feet" and goes on to the next candidate. The prospective employee, in turn, "never hears anything," or at least anything useful. Frustrated and self-doubting, the prospective employee goes to the next interview a bit more frustrated and a bit less confident. And the cycle repeats itself, with the prospective employee becoming just a little more bitter and a little less confident each time.

So, how does a college student who is preparing for a future in the work force avoid this vicious cycle? Consider six possible steps.

1. Define your ideal job

First, it is important to define, in explicit detail, your ideal job. What would you be doing? Where would you be doing it?

2. Be well aware of your professional talents and skills

A second step is to define the experience that you can bring to any work setting. Starting tomorrow, catalogue exactly how you spend your time for the next two or three days, from morning to night. List each activity in which you engage. How are you spending your time? Next to your list draw three columns; place a check in one of the three categories: (1) I love doing this, (2) I don't mind doing this, (3) I'd rather not do this. Now, you have a list of things with which you have experience.

If you are a student, your list may include: organizing tasks, reading, memorizing, researching, Web-based research, writing and interacting with others. Don't forget to consider your hobbies or other interests. For example, if you are active in your fraternity or sorority, you may have developed excellent leadership and administrative skills. It's hard to imagine that you might acquire skills from your active social life - the fact that a lot of people want to date you, for example. But, these "soft" skills, knowing how to relate to others and getting them to like you, are very valuable to some employers such as those in marketing, sales, conference planning, higher education, etc.

3. Incorporate all of your skills into your resume in a way that enhances them - not diminishes them

Many people differentiate between their volunteer and paid experience, this is a mistake. Employers care most about what you can do for them - not where you acquired the skill or whether you were paid to learn it. Describing experience as a volunteer is a way of minimizing it, especially in a society where some measure self-worth by the size of their paychecks. Instead, create a heading such as: "professional experience" or "professional and academic experience" and place your relevant experience below it. For example, a student who has written numerous research papers could use the heading, "research and writing experience". And, then, describe the experience: "conducted extensive literature reviews in the social sciences, summarized literature".

4. Acquire experience through internships and volunteer activities

What if you want a job that requires experience that you do not have? What if you want to be a Web designer or a public relations writer but do not have related experience? Here's where volunteering or interning is an excellent idea. Do your best to seek out an experience in which you can develop useful skills and hopefully, useful contacts. Ideally, volunteer or intern in a place where you would like to be hired. Then, do a great job.

If you are uncertain about how to obtain internship experience, check with your advisor or with a favorite faculty member. Chances are that your school has an internship program and that you may be able to receive academic credit for your internship.

5. Create work samples

What if you are self-taught? If you want to do something in which you have no formal training, create some work samples. Let your portfolio speak for itself.

6. Network informally with those in a position to hire you

In this day and age, it is easy to network informally with those in a position to hire you. Start with your faculty. Talk with them about your interests and goals. Seek their advice.

Beyond the ivory tower, join their listservs. Just be sure to lurk before you post. Learn about the community. Give yourself a few weeks to learn from other people's successes and failures. After learning the "lay of the land," post something that displays your skills. For example, offer the solution to someone's problem. Bosses love people who can solve their problems! Maintain a presence by posting helpful information, periodically. Initially, don't be overt about asking for a job. Just use your skills to be helpful. After you have established a positive presence, you can network with fellow subscribers online and off.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company