How I landed my first job out of college
I was recently asked by a few people how I was able to land my first job out of college (as a writer with the provincial government), with no experience. I don’t really think I’m qualified to give much advice on this topic, but I can definitely tell my story and let you know what I learned. This is going to be kind of a long post, so I apologize in advance.
It seems so cliché to say that I “worked hard” while in college, but I worked effing hard. What I’m doing right now doesn’t even come close to the effort I put into my education. I volunteered my creative services to build up my portfolio, worked 2 part-time jobs (one was career-related), and spent free evenings pouring over tutorials and internet forums trying to teach myself new skills. Not to mention the countless blurry-eyed nights spent until 4 or 5am in the studio.
The program I took was for media generalists. We focused on key areas such as graphic design, writing, radio, television and photography. It was a very broad program, and some people really chose to focus in on one area – like radio or television – because that was where they wanted to take their career. But since I don’t have the personality to be on radio or television, my strategy from Day 1 was to make myself as employable as possible. So even though it wasn’t a marketing program, all of the applied skills we were learning were directly applicable to any career within the marketing realm. I knew my best shot would be to take all of the skills I’ve been learning and pitch myself as a walking, talking all-in-one marketing machine. That way, I could fit into whatever position was needed within a large marketing department (since my skills were diverse), or I could work and run as a one-woman-show.
My trial run of my strategy came when I was applying and interviewing for the mandatory summer internship. Because I had volunteer experience under my belt, and had a great part-time job where I led a team of 3-5 workers, I was able to land a job as a Project Coordinator for a non-profit organization. The pay was awful, but I was able to do a little bit of everything – website/graphic design, print production, event management, and writing.
Once I graduated, I continued to work my 2 part-time jobs for the first month while I looked for work. I knew I wanted to get serious about my debt, and I thought my best option would be to try for a job with the government. It would provide me with steady pay, and the ability to move within the organization. Because it’s true what they say – once you’re in, you’re in. The competition is always fierce when you live in a capital city, so I kept my ear to the ground, applied for entry-level government job I thought I was qualified for (and was interested in), and started networking like crazy. Then, one day I got word from a friend that there was an unadvertised opening for a clerk position (which is basically the lowest on the pay scale – lower than an admin assistant). I wasn’t really interested in being a clerk, but figured it couldn’t hurt to throw my resume into the mix – and if anything, I could practice my interview skills. Because unadvertised job openings don’t really follow normal hiring rules, I knew I had to act fast. I was called an hour after I submitted my resume, and had an interview scheduled for the next morning.
Turns out, they were actually looking for someone with my kind of skills – they just didn’t have the budget to have the position classified as anything higher than a clerk. And since they couldn’t afford to hire someone more qualified, they were just going to hope for the best. So even though I only had a 4-month internship and volunteer experience under my belt, I was able to convince them that I could do whatever it is they wanted me to do. Plus, I was willing to work under the ‘clerk’ classification. It was kind of a lucky break, but I would have never known about it had I not gone crazy with my networking. I was hired on the spot, and started the very next week with a salary of $32,000.
I have to say, even though I’d probably never work in government again, it was the best first job I could have hoped for. I spent 50% of my day ghost writing for government big shots, and the other 50% of my time I spent analyzing and summarizing error reports for a new software program (it was more fun than it sounds, I swear!). It was totally unglamorous, and I was still technically a ‘clerk’ but the experience and contacts I was making were priceless. I spent 6 months working and paying off my debt until I got the itch to try to see if I could harness my experience and move onto something else more in line with what I was looking for.
Miraculously, I landed an interview for a 12-month marketing coordinator contract, but this time within municipal government. The qualifications were for 5+ years of experience and a bachelor’s degree. I had 6 months of (government) experience and a diploma. I ended up not getting the job, but when the person they offered the contract to declined the position, it was offered to me and I scooped it up. And the rest is history!
Here are a few things I’ve learned about my experience:
- Work hard in school. This may sound like a no-brainer, but seriously put in as much effort as you can in the areas that matter. I focused more of my attention on beefing up my portfolio, networking, and working on my graphic design skills, than I did studying for tests or working on video editing. That’s not to say I didn’t try in the areas that I wasn’t necessarily interested in, I just chose to focus most of my energy on what I knew was going to benefit me the most.
- Have a killer resume and cover letter. Your resume and cover letter are your first impression, so make it a good one. Get someone you trust to look over your resume. Five years ago, when I was looking for my first job, I asked two HR managers to look over my resume. Now, whenever I apply for a job, I am confident in how my resume portrays me as a person. If you can’t think of anyone who can look over your resume, consider hiring a professional editor. It will be well worth the money.
- Know how to market yourself. If you have relevant work or volunteer experience, don’t be afraid to apply for jobs that are a step above entry-level positions. If you are really keen on the job, let that show in your cover letter. You might not get the job, but you won’t know until you’ve tried, and it could open up other doors for you. There have been a handful of times that I’ve applied for a position, only to get a call asking me to interview for another position within the company instead.
- Network, network, network. Talk to family and friends, go to industry/community events, volunteer – do whatever it takes so that people know your name and your face. Engage on social media, especially with those already in your field of work, companies you’re interested in, and people within the community. Put yourself into the conversation. Oh, and get on LinkedIn. Right now.
- Be interview-ready at all times. Employers are not shy about asking tough interview questions – even for entry-level positions. Find a friend or someone in the industry to help you prepare for upcoming interviews. I keep a notebook of standard interview questions, as well as my responses to them. Then, before any interview, I will read over the answers and practice speaking them out loud in the mirror. It might feel dorky at first, but it really helped me. I might not be the most qualified candidate, and sometimes I can be painfully shy, but for some reason, I’m pretty good at interviewing.
- Just get your foot in the door. Normally, entry-level positions are not glamorous. In fact, it might not look anything like the dream job you’ve been imagining. But we all have to start out somewhere. Do a good job with every task you are assigned, and be proactive in asking for more responsibility. If you aren’t getting what you asked for, don’t be afraid to move on once you feel you’re ready.
Did you have a hard time landing your first job out of school?
Author: Krystal Yee
I’m a personal finance blogger and marketing professional based in Vancouver. I’m a former Toronto Star (Moneyville) columnist, author of The Beginner’s Guide to Saving and Investing, and co-founder of the Canadian Personal Finance Conference. When I’m not working, you can usually find me running, climbing, playing field hockey, or plotting my next adventure.