We’re not in the thick of an economic crisis, but being at entry-level sure feels like it. Jobs are sparse. You keep getting rejected. Here are our failures and accomplishments at entry-level; keep the insight going and share your stories in the comments. Because let’s face it—we could all use some help at 22.
No soothsayer can predict the sequence of events that will lead you to your first job.
Not the Wizard of Oz, not the fortune teller from that one Simpsons episode, not Zoltar, not your career counselor.
“Beware the ides of March” was coincidentally fitting for me—almost a year ago, on March 11, I ditched my post-grad-dick-around-circus for a ‘career’—you know, the real kind. I felt odd describing it as a ‘real job’ to my grocery store coworkers. Some, like me, said, ‘Good for you! Get the hell out of here!” And others looked at me puzzled—offended, really—inquiring, “What do you mean real?”
Truthfully, the transition from grocer to careerist was hard. I gave up having weekdays to do things. And swearing at work. And not showering every day. And free cheese samples. But shelving my brainpower left me too much time to craft a perfect bagel sandwich and not enough time to write. So I stopped. I just…hung out. A lot. And after almost a quarter-century of pre-scheduled learning, it felt wonderful.
That’s not to say I wasn’t looking for something more serious. I would spend at least two hours a day on the job hunt, hurling 30 different versions of the same cover letter across the San Francisco Bay Area, my chosen land of opportunity. Nothing took, and I gave up.
So while the sequence of events that led me to getting hired a year ago was based on a preexisting relationship with a former boss (she sent me a Facebook message one day encouraging me to apply), I picked up a few pointers from my time interviewing at flash sale companies, ‘eclectic’ marketing groups, websites for Ebay collectors and Silicon Valley micro-startups.
First: don’t get discouraged. Most of my friends spent over six months looking for something—anything—whether or not it was in their field. And that’s OK, because society has granted us leeway to be the ringmaster of our own circus in our 20s, so that when we hit 30, we have a decent understanding of what we actually want.
That being said, you’ll probably apply for jobs that you’re not qualified for. I think I sent out a pompous, self-glorifying cover letter to Mountain Hardware for a social media position that I was at least five years away from being qualified for. No matter how you twist their job requirements (2-3 years of internship experience is the same thing, right?), you’ll get weeded. If entry-level’s in the title, that’s your green light.
Also, contracting jobs are a great place to start—the company gets to test you out, and you’ll get to see what it’s like to work 40+ hours a week—not as a lifeguard at the community pool, but as a real person! See? There I go again.
And when you’ve scoured every inch of Craigslist and had enough of checking Missed Connections in your downtime, hit up your network. Contact professors, friends, friends of parents and past employers. You’ll never know who has an opportunity that suits your level (or lack) of expertise.
So when you finally land an interview, please do me the favor of researching the company. I had the opportunity to work for a design magazine last summer, and blew it when the editor-in-chief asked me my favorite and least favorite things about the magazine, expecting me to dissect the last years’ worth of printed issues with tactical and scholarly feedback. Note to everyone: bullshitting your way through questions like these will make you look like an idiot. If you’re not sure or prepared, politely state so and save yourself a weeks’ worth of eye twitches and anxiety bowel issues.
Julias Caesar said that experience is the teacher of all things. At entry-level, you’re shit outta luck. But keep trying. If you’re confident, prepared and eager, you’re already halfway there.
I remember applying for my first entry level position. It was back in 2003. Post 9-11, even with my double major in psychology/sociology and superior understanding of Microsoft Office suite, it felt near impossible to compete with corporate veterans also vying for a simple 9-5 in Manhattan. I spent my graduation money on the finest power suit the juniors department of JC Penney offered. I wasted my days searching careerbuilder.com and scanning the local Pennysaver ads for leads. Getting an in-person felt like a tremendous feat in itself, but interviewing was worse than reading my personal vagina monologue in front of my creative writing class sophomore year.
If I knew then what I know now…
Having been the first in my family to get a college degree, I didn’t know many people in the white collar world. This was before ask.com and Wikipedia, making Job Interviews for Dummies my greatest resource. I had to learn from experience.
Fast forward ten years later, and you’re in a much better position, and more so, now having had experience both interviewing and hiring for entry-level jobs, I can share with you what I’ve learned.
My first resume was fancy. Fancy as in full-on curly serif font with colorful decorative bullets. I was trying too hard. Don’t do this. Your resume should be polished and clean, with good punctuation, short clear bullets and a simple font.
What we’re really looking at—before even reviewing your experience— is your cover letter.
Invest in your cover letter. Combined with your resume, this is the first writing sample you will provide your new employer. Even if you’re not after a writing-heavy position, good communication is important in all aspects of business. You will be surprised how many communications you will be writing each day in the corporate world. If you’ve got spelling errors, poor sentence structure or irrelevant information in your cover letter (or if it seems pretentious or made up), your resume will most likely not make it past a recruiters inbox.
The best thing you can do to prepare is simply to do your research, and with social networks and sites like glassdoor.com, it’s far easier today to get the scoop on your future employer than it was when I was just starting out. Invest a bit of time in reading up on company culture. Look up your interviewers on LinkedIn. Maybe you know somebody who knows somebody who can tell you a little bit about the company/people you will be meeting with. Knowing the playing field will not only give you a bit of an advantage regarding common interests and conversation topics, but it will also put you a bit at ease knowing what to expect before you walk in the door.
Should you wear a suit? If you’re unsure, dress up. You will never lose points for putting in the extra effort. Like your resume, keep it clean and polished. You want your interviewer to remember what you said, not what you wore (or your lipstick).
3-Use Your Relationships
It certainly helps to know someone on the inside, so take advantage of your connections. Tap past internships or even your parents’ friends for a lead. Those relationships may not get you the job, but can help you fine tune your resume for the job you’re after, and give you the scoop on the company you’re after. An insider can also help get your resume through the first-round sift.
Having someone pass your resume along serves as an endorsement, so keep in mind that if this is your foot in the door, you should be prepared to repay that endorsement with solid work, should you score the job.
Probably the most important thing for me, when meeting a potential hire for my team, is chemistry. I want to know if you’re a good fit for both the team and for our company culture. Can you roll with the punches? What makes you flinch? What gets you energized? While having a good skill set may get your resume through, what will score you the position is chemistry.
As your manager, I will train you and teach you your job. I will show you everything you need to know to be successful, because that’s my job. Your job is to be a sponge, take the knowledge I impart on you and take it a step further—knock it out of the park. After being in the workforce for years, you can sniff that kind of ambition out in an interview. I’ll be watching for what makes you tick, what gets you excited, and what makes you lose interest.
Clean up your social networks. Run a google search and see what shows up on the first page. Check out the image search. Invest some time in your LinkedIn. I’m going to look you up, and I’m going to cross reference your resume and experience with what I learn about you online.
Some other quick tips:
- Load your online resume with keywords—this will help you come up in more recruiter searches.
- Make eye contact in your interviews—eye contact is a sign of confidence.
- Be relentless, but don’t overstep—follow up on your resume, but don’t friend your interviewer on Facebook.
- Ask good questions—ask about culture, about which teams your role would interface with. Asking questions shows that you are interested and engaged.
- An interview is an opportunity to get to know more people. Even if you miss out on the position, that doesn’t mean the door is closed.
- Know that you don’t know everything, and you’re not expected to.
- Don’t be turned off by skype interviews. They’re common and painless. Just make sure you put on a good shirt and you’re sitting up straight—oh, and lock the cats in the bathroom before you hit connect!