Getting a job with no prior experience is tough, but certainly not impossible. Find out what you can do to improve your chances of success
It’s a classic catch-22 situation: you need experience to get a job and a job to get experience.
The position you find yourself in can be disheartening, but remember, you’re not alone. With ambition, hard work and self-confidence, it’s possible to get a job with little or no experience – you just need a lot of determination and tenacity to find the right opportunities.
In terms of getting your foot in the door, there are lots of ways to give your CV a boost and gain the skills that potential employers are after.
Look for internships and apprenticeships
If you’re struggling to find an employer that’ll give you a shot at a long-term or permanent position, internships and apprenticeships are great ways to gain that much-needed experience.
They make it possible to earn a wage while acquiring first-hand knowledge of a job or organisation. They’re also incredibly useful for building a network of contacts. What’s more, opportunities of this nature can sometimes lead to permanent employment.
‘Many graduate employers understand that not every student is going to be able to secure an internship during study,’ says Rowanna Smith, careers consultant at the University of Exeter. ‘Applying for an internship or apprenticeship in your final year or after you’ve graduated can be a really effective way of experiencing what a particular industry or job would be like.’
Relevant internships look impressive on your CV and can make you stand out from the crowd. They last from a couple of weeks to a year, but be warned – competition for positions is fierce. Some larger companies may have a formal internship programme, so check the websites of organisations you’re interested in. For small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), you may need to apply speculatively, as opportunities are rarely advertised.
On an apprenticeship, you’ll be employed to do a real job while studying for a formal qualification. You’ll sign a contract with your employer who then trains you in a specific profession. Apprenticeships are a long-term agreement and can take from one to four years to complete. The majority of apprentices are guaranteed a job on completion of their programme.
Volunteering positions are more easily won than an internship and they’re a sure-fire way to boost your employability, especially if you have no relevant experience. While unpaid, what you lack in financial gain you’ll profit from in terms of the skills and contacts.
Employer’s value volunteering experience as it shows commitment, initiative and a strong work ethic – after all, you’re working for free.
This kind of experience also provides a range of sought-after transferable skills, such as team work, confidence, time management, flexibility, communication and organisation.
Where possible, try to gain volunteer work relevant to the area you’d like to work in – for example, aim to volunteer in schools or with youth organisations if you’d like to work with children. However, any volunteering experience will bolster your CV and give you real life examples to mention at interview.
Find out more about volunteering, including the different types of work on offer and how to apply.
Build your networks
When you’re starting out with no experience, who you know can be just as important as what you know. A recommendation to an employer from a personal contact can go a long way. But how do you build up a network of contacts if you’re struggling to enter the world of work?
In reality, you have more connections than you think. ‘Draw yourself a number of rings, like an archery target,’ advises Rowanna. ‘Identify people in the centre that are close family and friends, the next ring could be students on your course, further out might be contacts from clubs and societies etc.’ After completing this activity you’ll be surprised at the number of contacts you already have.
When trying to expand your network, make sure you utilise opportunities while at university. Attend careers fairs, recruitment events and employer talks or lectures. Visit your university careers service to see if they can put you in touch with employers in your area of interest.
Maintain contact with lecturers, the people you meet on work experience placements or internships, and fellow volunteers, you never know when they might come in useful.
Social media is also a really effective way of building and maintaining your professional network. Being present on sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn, and following and connecting with companies and individuals in your chosen field can yield impressive results. It’s not unheard of for students and graduates to be offered a job solely off the back of their social media profiles.
Emphasise the skills you have
When it comes to the application stage, to ensure that your CV doesn’t look empty, work experience, internships and volunteering are essential.
Focus your CV on the skills you do have, rather than the ones you don’t. Analyse the job description and list all the skills and personal qualities that make you a good fit for the job. Be sure to emphasise soft and transferable skills such as communication, leadership ability, team working and attention to detail.
However, if you lack direct experience in your chosen field, don’t gloss over the fact; instead use it to demonstrate your passion and motivation to learn. Highlight examples of your dedication and commitment to learning gained through volunteering work, internships or work shadowing.
‘It’s important to think about any extracurricular activities that are going to help you stand out from the crowd,’ advises Darius Matusiak, associate director at recruitment consultancy Macildowie.
‘Playing sports can demonstrate both leadership and team working qualities, while being part of a society could involve project and planning work, both useful to employers. Emphasise other areas such as student awards and charity work. These will help portray you as a more rounded individual.’
See our example CVs and discover how to write a cover letter if you’ve got no experience.
Target realistic roles
There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, but if you’ve no previous experience, it’s pointless starting your job search by applying for senior roles. Be realistic and instead target entry-level or junior jobs and be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up.
‘It’s also a waste of time to apply for opportunities that are exceptionally competitive. Successful candidates are likely to have significant experience,’ adds Rowanna. ‘Applying for opportunities in regional offices may be less competitive or applying to SMEs can help you discover fantastic companies that may be by-passed by other students and graduates.’
Speculative applications are also a useful tool. While the majority of advertised vacancies require some form of previous experience, who’s to say you can’t create your own vacancy by applying speculatively?
‘Being proactive is critical,’ adds Darius. ‘Use LinkedIn to approach companies. Also, send letters and pick up the phone. Being one step ahead gives you a competitive advantage.’
Do your research and apply to companies that interest you. Tailor each application and ask if there are any entry-level positions available, as you’re looking to break into the industry. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. The organisation might not have any suitable openings, but you can still use the opportunity to your advantage. Ask if you could do some work experience for the company or shadow one of its employees. Never waste an opportunity.