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Entry level job seekers face an old conundrum: you can not get a job without experience, and you can not get experience without a job.
This may seem unfair. Entering the job market is hard enough without facing a seemingly impossible challenge right away! Relax: it is not impossible. Think of it as a test, one that serves employers and job seekers alike by enabling exceptional candidates to distinguish themselves. How? Simply, the good candidates recognize how to get past this obstacle.
The truth is, no matter how entry level you are, you have years of experience to draw on, unless you've done nothing but stay home and watch television. However, it takes a positive attitude and analytical skills to translate previous experience – which may not immediately seem relevant – into what interviewers want to hear.
Here are some examples of entry level candidates who dropped off this challenge:
- For a marketing position, consider the candidate who had worked extensively with his college radio station on promotional activities. He engaged in public relations with local media and volunteered to complete a detailed analysis of listener demographics. He walked into an interview with samples of marketing materials he helped develop, based on the demographics. This candidate not only stood out from other entry level candidates – he was well ahead of many experienced ones.
- For a service position, one impressive candidate had a notebook of "case studies" from a summer internship (she worked in a call center) the year before she graduated. These case studies described difficult service situations, and how she had handled them. Not every one had a happy ending (that would clearly have been fictitious). Among other things, this "portfolio" showed that she kept track of her experiences in customer service and endeavored to learn from them.
- For a sales position, one candidate stand out by sharing a description of his recent attempt to start up his own business, which was not successful. Aside from the fact that he had done a good job of analyzing what went wrong, his optimism and refusal to let the experience discourage him from his chosen career path were very promising qualities for an aspiring salesman.
- For a service position – one with the responsibility of managing a small staff- the candidate who translated her college athletics experience into a "management dossier" was impressive. This can be a tough sell, trying to convince an employer that managing a college soccer team (or, another common example, being a resident assistant) is the equivalent of managing a team of employees. By identifying the real requirements for the open management position and mapping each to specific experiences with her team, she made a compelling case.
If you think about these examples, you can see a few common denominators. The impressive thing is not usually the prior experience itself, but how the candidate understands and positions the experience. The candidates in the precedent examples:
- Successfully analyzed key requirements for open positions – both hard and soft skills – and translated their experience into these terms.
- Provided evidence of certain skills and qualities, in the form of stories about their experiences. Evidence is more powerful than just description.
- Demonstrated initiative, a positive attitude, and a proactive approach to getting hired.
In these ways, these individuals really stand out from the crowd. Most entry level candidates believe they have no meaningful experience and are thoroughly cowed by the job market. Those who believe otherwise – those who see valuable experience behind them, and wonderful opportunities ahead – translate these convictions into reality. These qualities will help them now, and for the rest of their careers.