It’s tough for college grads to find good jobs right now–but the very fact that they’re new grads makes it even worse. You’ll find yourself asking, “How am I supposed to gain experience if I’m constantly turned down for not having any?” Career experts Lynn Taylor, Katharine Brooks and Nicole Williams have some ideas for how you can avoid or overcome this catch-22, which almost all new college grads face.
“Not acquiring experience while you’re a student puts you behind other candidates who did
get experience,” says Dr. Katharine Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin and author of You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career
. “I think it’s one of the biggest obstacles students face.” Employers want to know that you have skills that go beyond those of the traditional academic classroom, so if it’s not too late, try to get as much experience as possible while you’re still in school.
Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant
, agrees. “Working before you graduate illustrates to employers that you’re serious about your career and appreciate the value of getting a head start,” she says. “It’s a good idea to get some part-time, temporary or volunteer work experience during your college years. In general, try to choose positions that relate in some way to your college major, even if you have to volunteer due to the weak job market. Your education will have more meaning and both pursuits with benefit each other.” If you can’t find a job in your chosen field of study, any job is better than none, as long as you remain focused on your first priority, she says. “Succeeding in your path of study and absorbing the knowledge you’re there to gain.”
Before you set about acquiring experience—in college or after gradation—think about what skills you want to develop, what talents you want to cultivate and use, and what experiences would interest an employer. Then choose your options accordingly, Brooks says.
Through this exercise you may learn that you already have what employers are looking for and that you just need to package it properly in your résumé, cover letter and interview.
“Getting your foot in the door always presents a catch-22 for college students, so you must sell the projects you completed in relevant courses,”
Taylor says. Try to draw connections between the job you’re applying for and your coursework or activities you engaged in throughout college.
Nicole Williams, LinkedIn’s career expert and best-selling author, agrees. “The fact of the matter is that employers know when they hire a college grad that he or she is going to have little or no relevant experience,” she says. “Those college grads that are able to articulate their college experiences in terms of tangible work and skill development experiences will be head and shoulders ahead of the game.”
But if you need more practical, hands-on experience for the job you’re pursuing, there are things you can do get it.
LinkedIn found that one in five hiring managers consider volunteer work experience a valuable asset when considering candidates. “For a lot of employers, it’s one part the initiative and one part skill development,” Williams says. “One of the major things that has been happening in the world of volunteering is that with limited funding, many organizations are expecting their volunteers to contribute real skill-intensive talents.”
Most people think of volunteering in terms of providing services to individuals, such as tutoring a child or visiting an elderly person, Brooks explains. But that’s just part of the picture. If you want experience in accounting, see if any local nonprofit agencies would let you volunteer with their accounting staff. Want to learn marketing? Offer to create a Twitter feed, write brochures, or call prospective donors, she suggests.
“Select an organization that promotes a cause that you care about, and speak with the volunteer coordinator or someone on the management team about ways you can assist,” Brooks says. “In addition, volunteering doesn’t have to be an onerous time commitment. A few hours a week or even a month can go a long way if you’re using or developing your skills.”
To avoid the catch-22 completely, try to get some part-time, temporary or volunteer work experience during your college years. Summer jobs are one good option, particularly if you’re not taking summer courses, Taylor says.
“Over the years I’ve heard of students working as volunteers who networked with business professionals at nonprofit organizations and had great success,” she says. Some students were hired for other jobs because managers could see them in action; some were referred to other colleagues with openings; and some were ultimately hired by the nonprofit organization itself.
Find an Internship or Temporary Work
Internships aren’t just for students. In this day and age, they are considered the new entry-level job, Williams says. “You need to think about how you are going to turn this experience into an income-generating opportunity, and there are three parts to this equation: passion, skills and relationships.” Find something you’re genuinely interested in and ensure that the opportunity will allow you to develop the skills you need to get the job you want. Also use the opportunity to network. “It’s all about the people you meet,” Williams says. “I promise that the majority of jobs come through the relationships you develop.”
You don’t have to wait for an organization to offer you an internship. Create your own, Brooks says. “Consider looking around your community for small start-up businesses. Most new business owners can’t afford to hire help, so they could use your skills in a variety of ways.” Develop a description of what you could do for an organization or an entrepreneur, and ask them if you could intern for them.
Highlight Any Entrepreneurial Activities
What projects or activities have you taken on yourself? How have you made some money on the side? Do you mow neighbors’ lawns in the summer, babysit or nanny children, privately tutor students, place items on eBay for your friends, program or fix your neighbors’ computers, create your own greeting cards, or fix up your car or your parents’ car? All these activities have potential for the formation of a small entrepreneurial operation. Even better if you can get recommendations from people you have helped, Brooks says.
Don’t Discount Your College Experiences
Williams says the biggest issue she sees with college students is that they underestimate their accomplishments and experiences from college.Fund raising for the sorority auction, developing a social media strategy for getting the word out about a campus event, writing for the school paper, and even organizing the yearly alumni gala can all be considered work experience, she says. “Make a list of all the activities you were involved with over the course of your college career. Consider all of the tasks that you performed and translate them into real work experience.”
Brooks suggests thinking back on classes that required more than reading, listening and taking tests. “Did you have to conduct research, compile data, survey individuals, write an extensive research paper, conduct laboratory experiments, or present a report to a class? You can write up your classroom experience in the same way you would write up a job in your résumé, with bullet points for the active skills you used or learned in the class.”
Network Anywhere You Can
When you don’t have a ton of experience to rely on, the key is to build relationships with people who can vouch for the fact that you’re the kind of person who an employer should take a chance on, Williams says. “I’m all about making connections with people in and around your everyday life.” Try to initiate conversations when you’re walking the dog, riding the bus, or standing in line at the coffee shop. This can lead to a conversation about what they do for work, and what you’re looking for. “Who knows who they know and if they have an opportunity for you?”
Use Social Media
Taylor suggests using social media and LinkedIn groups to spread the word that you’re looking for a job. She also recommends visiting online career boards and temporary agency listings.
Williams agrees. “I’m also a big proponent of using LinkedIn to connect with people you may not have the opportunity to come across in your everyday life. Build a profile and connect with people you admire with a personal but professional connection request that indicates that you’ve done your research and would like to connect with them. The combination of research and initiative is a great way into a job.”
Ask Your Professors For Help
If you’ve never had a job before, you’ve never had a boss—which can pose a problem when it comes to providing references on a job application. If you did research for a professor in college or had a particularly good relationship with one, ask if you can list him or her as a reference.
Take On A Leadership Role
If you belong to any groups or organizations, take on a leadership role by offering to organize an event or spearhead a project. Leadership activities are viewed positively by employers, particularly if your role has substance, Brooks says.
“We all experience the student who shows up in the career center at the end of their senior year announcing that they are now ready to start the job search,” she adds. “They don’t realize that the job search starts freshman year and goes on from there.” Brooks tells students that if they don’t have the experience they need to start in their chosen field, they should develop a one- or two-year campaign to acquire it.
“It could involve starting at a desired company but with a lower title, creating an internship opportunity with an entrepreneur or organization, taking a job to pay the bills while they seek additional relevant education, or a combination of all of these.”
The key question to ask is: “What do I want to have on my résumé a year from now?” The answer will tell you what you need to do next.