How Do I Get Experience?

As a recent graduate or someone shifting into a new field, do you find yourself thinking: “Nobody will hire me because I don’t have experience, but how can I get experience until I get hired?”

Feels like a Catch-22, right?

Even when you have the academic credentials for an entry-level job, employers often look for practical experience too. Why? Because bad hires cost time and money. Employers want to minimize the risk of hiring the wrong person, by hiring only people who’ve proven they can successfully do what the employer needs.

How to compete when you’re new to a field:

1. Use the experience you have. Identify skills you’ve demonstrated in the past, that are relevant to the job you want. Then talk about how you’ve used those skills to deliver successful results.

Aiming to be a project manager? Talk about group projects you did in school, or activities you managed for your student organization. Want to showcase your leadership abilities? Talk about student committees you led, or volunteer groups you were involved with. Career change? Find skills from your previous job that translate well to your new one.

This Achievement Stories template will guide you through taking your top accomplishments and turning them into a crisp story you can tell hiring managers during an interview.

2. Start as an intern. Many large companies offer internship programs for college students. This is a great way to get a foot in the door for full-time employment, and for you to scope out prospective employers. Internships help you build connections, develop your skills, and establish a track record.

This can also be a good option for mid-career shifts, especially if you’re flexible on salary while you’re building up experience in your new line of work.

According to a Chegg survey of 1,000 hiring managers, 91% hope to see that applicants they hire have been involved in extracurricular activities in their field of study. 82% think recent graduates they hire should have completed an internship before graduating. (In contrast, just 48% of hiring managers rated a high GPA as very important).

Didn’t do an internship? Try these other options:

3. Create a portfolio. How do designers, writers, and freelancers land jobs? By having a portfolio that demonstrates what they can do. Think about the projects you did for school, and round out your portfolio with any personal projects you’ve completed. Don’t have good past projects to show? Create a sample of work based on what employers typically look for in your field – if you’re a web site designer, create a few good mockups to show hiring managers.

4. Find a sponsor. Do you have a family friend, professor, or mentor who’s in the business? Offer to help them on a project, in exchange for citing them as a case study (in your portfolio!) or as a reference.

5. Get involved with an industry organization. Join your local industry organization, and find ways to contribute. This is an excellent way to meet potential mentors and sponsors, while building up your credentials and experience. You could offer to research and write a regular newsletter, or take care of organizing events.

6. Volunteer with a non-profit. Find a cause that you’re passionate about, and see how they can use the kinds of skills that will be relevant to your dream job. Use your contribution to the non-profit to build up your portfolio of results. Are you an event organizer? Good at communications and marketing? A finance whiz? There are many skills that are useful for both non-profits and the corporate world.

7. Contribute to open source projects. If you’re in a technical field, another way to get experience is by contributing to an open source project. Create something you’d use yourself, or join an established project. You can start small by helping with documentation or testing, then work your way up to solving small bugs and submitting proposed patches for review. This is also a great way to find mentors who can help get you off to a good start. You’ll learn not just technical skills, but how to work well in a team – something many employers value.

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