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.

During college
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.

After graduation
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?

Note: This post was entirely written by me.

Get your graduate certificate today from Keller Graduate School of Management.

About Krystal Yee

I'm a writer, 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, playing field hockey, or plotting my next adventure.

22 comments

  1. Great post! The competition is pretty fierce for new grads, and I think everyone can use a few career tips once in awhile :)
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  2. Once out of post education I was able to land the job I thought I wanted fairly easily. It was during the interview process that the job was offered to me and looking back I should have asked to think about it instead of just accepting it. Turns out that 4 months later I ended up walking away from the job and then found the job that I've always wanted.
    The tips that you gave are a great resource

  3. hundreddollarbills

    why are you so unlikely to work for the government again?

  4. It sounds like you were ready and waiting whenever opportunity knocked-you made your own "luck" by working your butt off and networking. Great story!

    I was fortunate in landing my first gig out of school (my current employer-going on 4 years now). Positions in my field are few and far between, especially if you're aiming to stay in a particular geographical area (which I was-DH had a good job, and we were sick and tired of moving all the time). I had only gone on two other interviews before this job popped up. (As a side note, I got offered one of the other jobs a few months later, but had already committed to my current position-the right choice I have no doubt. I also learned that the other job was posted, even though they knew who they were going to hire-they just had to follow hospital policy and interview a minimum number of people. It was the most horrid interview of my life. I left honestly not wanting the job!)

    At least 4 people sent me the posting for my current job, saying I'd be perfect for it It turns out they were right :) I met my boss, things went well in the first interview, and when I appeared for the second interview, I was offered the job. I think networking played a role here too, because I might not have seen the posting if not for it being known by many that I was seeking a local job in this area of practice. That said, I feel a bit lucky too, as this job popped up at just the right time, and it has turned out to be a wonderful place to work.

  5. I love this post and so much of it mirrors my own experience in landing my first job out of college. In fact, I love it so much that I think I may copy you!

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  6. Have to say that I really agree with all of your points but especially the last one about getting your foot in the door. I think many grads expect to land big salary positions right away – but it's next to impossible to get them without a lot of experience. My first job out of college was an internship . . . which gave me the industry experience to qualify for a low-level position within my current organization. In six months, I was promoted – and then promoted again. I know make twice what I was making when I started and am in the position I always wanted. So, saying yes to positions that you may think are below your skill level is a good thing in order to prove yourself in the organization. If you work hard enough, the right people will notice.
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    • I totally agree. I find that some people have absolutely unrealistic expectations about their first jobs. But the first job is just a launching pad. You have to do the best you can, and then move on with that experience. You can't expect to make it to the top fresh out of school. Your career so far is proof that if you work hard, you will be rewarded.

  7. This is a great article.

  8. I've just graduated and your advice has been a great inspiration for me! I worked hard during university but maybe not having put enough time into extra curriculares like I might have but I am making up for it this summer trying to get more involved in my industry (marketing as well)!

    Keep all the great advice coming, love your blog!! :D

  9. Some really good tips in this post.
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  10. This was a really interesting post – thanks for sharing. I struggled to find a good position for about 12 months after finishing university. I think your story about taking a clerk position and then over delivering on it is a particularly good one. I would also agree with the idea that people need to work hard during their college/university years, but tests and exams may not be the most important thing.

  11. I really liked this post and the other one in which you expressed how a degree in communications is indeed not worthless. I am a highschool senior and i am planning to study communcation. However, I don;t want to stick to just ONE program (communication studies or radio,television, film). I want to get the best of both and work with both, as you have. I’m quite clueless as to how I can accomplish this. Is it possible? How did you do it? I would really love your advice, please and thank you (:

    • It is possible, but there aren’t very many programs that offer everything. In fact, there’s only one in the province of BC that I know of (I graduated from that program), and the school just recently got rid of it – despite there being a 2-year waiting list to get into the program! :| I would suggest looking at technical schools and colleges – chances are you won’t find what you’re looking for at a university.

  12. Thanks for the story. I’ve been reading these to get the generally gist of things after school.

  13. Hello,

    I am from an older crowd than most of the people posting here. I graduated in 2010 after putting family before career. Most of the jobs that I worked are health related, but since I was a child this is what I wanted to do. While in college I looked into internships, but was told I was too old or advisers would say that an intership I wanted to apply for was not for me. Needless to say, I did not get the experience that I needed and when looking for employment I did not get help from the school’s employment counselor. In fact he would ask to talk to younger students during our appointment and forget I was there. He got upset with me once when I told him I felt he was not interested in helping me. He ignored or did not return my calls. I don’t know what to do because I have always been told by teachers and professors that I am a talented writer, just a little contraversial. I have a disabled son and we are barely making it. I am working a fulltime job to make ends meet, but it is not a related position and people really look at it as a negative when trying to find a better job. The money stinks and does not cover half our expenses. I did budget counseling,but was told that I need a better job making at least for starters $3000 a month. I don’t think my education is useless, just that people are discriminating because of my age and gender. I asked the hospital I work at if there were jobs that I could apply for, but at first they said no. This is the Vice President who later came back and said that they hired (during the time of our previous conversation) several young people in communications related departments. She told me to go back to school for nursing that the young people probably would be in those departments for the next thirty years and I could be doing something else with myself. I don’t know what to do. I have decided to relocate from South Carolina after I finish some legal guardianship situation concerning my son. If there is something anyone can advise me on I would greatly appreciate it. I don’t want to be broke all my life and I need to be able to better provide for my son and myself.

  14. Forgive me for getting a bit off topic, but I haven’t seen a thread about what I’m about to bring up. I just got back from 3 months in Europe and I have pretty much decided that I want to work in Switzerland or France for some settling down. I’ve applied and been accepted into every law school I’ve applied to which consists of decent 3rd/4th tier law schools, some with scholarships, but I’m really concerned about the debt. Although I’m really interested and vested in attending law school, I think I’m way more interested in working in Europe. My background is in communications and business, I have strong credentials, and I was very involved both in academics and extracurricular activities. Assuming I don’t decide to attend law school, how would I get my foot in the door for a job in Europe, particularly business or communications related?

  15. Funny I graduated 4 years ago and am still working 2 part time jobs. I have done internships. I have done free spec work. I started a freelance business that failed. Hard work doesn’t always equal success. It just matters that you get into the right persons pants n make the right connections.

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