By Andrew Forrester
Whether you’re looking for an entry-level job or a career change, it can be hard to convince the hiring team when you have little experience. Here are some tips to help you lead with your best qualities.
“If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.”
Ivan Turgenev, novelist
If you Google the phrase “entry-level catch-22,” you’ll find links to site after site talking about an age-old problem: in order to be considered for most jobs, you need experience, and in order to get experience, you need a job. What do you do?
This conundrum isn’t limited to people seeking entry-level roles, but to anyone thinking about a position, title, or altered career path that will mean a shift in direction or even a change in industry. You know that you have marketable, transferrable skills; you know you’re a quick study, but how do you convince the people hiring you? Here are some steps to take in both the application and interview process in order to lead with your best qualities and leave the doubters in the dust.
Be Realistic But Confident
You’ve probably heard the statistic that most women will only apply to jobs for which they’re 100% qualified, while most men will apply for jobs even if they only meet 60% of the qualifications. Tara Sophia Mohr surveyed 1000+ people in order to give this statistic more context, asking “If you decided not to apply for a job because you didn’t meet all the qualifications, why didn’t you apply?” She found that both men and women are most likely to refrain from applying because they think “they [need] the qualifications not to do the job well, but to be hired in the first place.” She goes on to say, “What held them back from applying was not a mistaken perception about themselves, but a mistaken perception about the hiring process.”
Mohr points out a significant distinction: getting hired for the job and doing the job aren’t the same thing, and this is worth remembering for two reasons. First, no one should be applying for jobs that require an impossible leap when it comes to skills and knowledge. If you’ve just completed the CPA Exam, it’s probably too early to set your sites on a CFO position. So be realistic. At the same time, don’t undersell yourself. Everybody starts somewhere, and being qualified for a job isn’t the same as having done that exact job before. Once you’re ready to start applying, know your worth and operate from a place of realistic but hopeful confidence.
Expand Your Definition of “Experience”
Everyone—seriously, everyone—who goes out for a job is doing what they need in order to put their best foot forward. This doesn’t mean being cryptic or disingenuous, but it might mean engaging in a certain amount of, well, spin. But unlike a politician trying to dress up flip-flops on key policies or personal indiscretions, the most successful job applicants simply know how to cast their skills, know-how and past experiences in the best possible light.
Consider the kinds of popular phrases that appear on job descriptions: “project management,” “team leadership,” “defining goals,” “client communication,” and so on. Chances are, you’re already accomplishing things that, in some way, correlate to one of these categories. Just because you don’t consider yourself to be a Project Manager in name doesn’t mean you haven’t already been doing the work. You might not be listed as a Team Leader on the company website, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t been the point person for a group of people who look to you for direction. So don’t hesitate to define yourself in those terms on your resume—as long as you’re prepared to back it up in word and deed.
Use Your Application to the Best Ends
The cover letter is a great place to take that first step towards demonstrating your skills. If the resume is the recipe, the cover letter is the cooking demonstration. It’s likely that the people leading the hiring process are dedicating a lot of time to combing through materials, and the last thing they want is to be unduly bored. Just regurgitating a list of the things mentioned in the job description isn’t going to do you or the hiring team any favors.
That means it’s time to get specific. If you’ve described yourself as a “team leader” on your resume, we’re going to need to see some evidence of that, even (and perhaps especially) if your experience is not traditional or expected. Now is your chance to surprise and excite your reader! Now is your chance to make them look up from your materials and say, “Wow, that’s really interesting.”
Maybe your current boss tends to make you the de facto leader in impromptu settings or in a pinch. Talk about why you think that is. Maybe, on a recent project, you found yourself answering your colleagues’ questions and conducting the group’s decision-making process. Explain what that process looked like and how your team benefited from your guidance. Maybe you’ve been a jury foreperson or coached a rec league softball team or, heck, taken a group of friends camping. You are the one writing the cover letter or answering the application questions—so you’re the one who gets to tell the story. Make it a great one.
Use the Interview to Answer (Not Avoid) Tough Questions
If you’ve successfully made it past the application stage, it’s time to prepare yourself for some pointed questions. Your interviewers might put pressure on the language you’ve used in your resume and cover letter, or they might want to shine the spotlight on what they perceive as gaps in your qualifications. These questions should not come as surprises to you. Rather they are opportunities to give a human face to your materials and win over the people on the other side of the table. This is where you show off your personality, your intellect, your interest in the industry. This is where you prove that you’ve done the research, ask compelling questions of your own, and tell specific anecdotes that demonstrate your readiness for the work.
The interview is also your chance to be honest about areas of growth. No one is expecting you to come into the job knowing each of its esoteric ins and outs. There are always going to be bullet points in the list of duties that need a little extra attention. Here’s a solid answer you can trot out when necessary: “That’s something that will be new to me, and I’m really excited to learn about it.” Don’t twist yourself into knots trying to draw connections between experiences and job requirements that don’t quite line up. Show that you understand your need for growth, that you’re willing to learn and back that up with genuine enthusiasm.
And when you get the job? Prove it. Your new role will require a learning phase, and there will be bumps along the way. But if you’ve shown yourself to be an eager study and a passionate potential hire, you’ve already earned the benefit of the doubt. Now make the most of it!
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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