Top 10 Tips for Your First Job

Editor, Carnegie Communications

Congratulations, you’ve just landed your first big-kid job! Maybe you’re on co-op with a software company. Maybe you’re an unpaid intern at a repertory theater. Or maybe you’re settling into that coveted postgraduate, entry-level position. Regardless of the gig, and whether you see yourself doing the same work until you retire or you’re just testing the waters to see if it’s a good fit, you have a remarkable opportunity on your hands: you can walk away from any job with invaluable experience.

While there are plenty of differences between student positions (like internships and cooperative education) and full-fledged employment, there are certain pieces of advice that will help you standout (in a good way) and stay ahead.

1. Go above and beyond

Clearly, you impressed them with your interview—you got the job. But your first weeks are still full of first impressions. Make each one count by putting your best foot forward from the get-go. You want to be known as “Wow, the newbie!” instead of “Oh, the newbie.”

What it says to your employer: you’re the kind of employee the company is lucky to have—and should retain.

2. Ask questions . . .

It’s totally normal to feel self-conscious when you don’t know the answer to something, whether it’s how to use some new software or just make two-sided copies. But it’s always best to confirm details and make sure you know what you’re doing rather than charge ahead, only to make a mistake.

What it says to your employer: you want to make sure you’re doing your job well.

3. . . . but make sure they’re the right questions

You’re bound to have tons of questions as the new kid on the block, and, as discussed above, it’s fine—preferred, even—that you ask them. However, take a moment to consider whether your question could easily be answered on your own, perhaps by looking through the employee handbook or online. If so, try to figure it out yourself. Even if your search leaves you empty handed, the person you eventually ask will appreciate the effort. Also, be mindful of not asking too many questions, or asking them just for the sake of asking.

What it says to your employer: you’re willing to do the legwork and you value your colleagues’ time enough to only come to them when they’re truly needed.

4. Take notes

Don’t show up for meetings empty handed. Bring a notebook and a pen, or a laptop, if that’s the norm (see tip #6) to show you are fully prepared and taking the job seriously. Worst-case scenario? You don’t need it. But you’ll be kicking yourself later if you missed the chance to write down something important.

What it says to your employer: you care about the details, and you’re committed to completing tasks effectively.

5. Stay organized

Out in the working world, you might be expected to juggle a lot of different tasks, and you certainly have plenty of new information to keep track of during your first few months. But staying organized can make all the difference. For example, just updating your calendar can prevent awkward moments like rushing breathlessly to a meeting that caught you off guard. Set up an organizational system that works for you (maybe using the same time management skills you developed for your classes?) and stick to it.   

What it says to your employer: you’re capable, responsible, and dependable.

6. Follow the leader

This advice boils down to just paying attention and being mindful of your surroundings. Are your e-mails super casual when your boss takes a more professional tone? If so, then it’s time to tighten up that text. Do you make personal calls at your desk when your colleagues are working intently around you? Save those chats for after hours.    

Of course, you still need to be true to yourself, and if you realize your supervisor (or supervisors) is the kind of person you don’t want to emulate, it might be time to reassess your current position. But if you love your job and want to get ahead, it’s helpful to imitate the movers and shakers at your company. Of course, this isn’t to say you should be a mindless follower . . .

What it says to your employer: you’re thoughtful, observant, and can be trusted to represent the company in a professional way.

7. Stand out

When you’re a young person in the working world, sometimes just making a suggestion in a meeting can feel like a risk. But one of the great things about bringing new people into a company is the fresh perspective they have to offer. Who knows, you might raise an important concern no one has thought of before. You might even inspire the next big thing! So send an e-mail, speak up in a meeting, or just chat over the water cooler. Take a risk and get your ideas out there.

What it says to your employer: you want to see your company succeed, and you’re willing to put in the time and ingenuity to make that success happen.

8. Dress the part

Tied to tip #6, take your dress code clues from your new colleagues. If you had an in-person interview, you probably got a glimpse of the typical attire. If you’re still unsure, business casual is generally a safe bet. But even if you work in a super laid-back environment, be sure not to be too relaxed. Dirty, ripped, and/or wrinkled clothing is rarely acceptable, plus it’s often better to err on the side of formality.  

What it says to your employer: you’re a self-assured professional who cares about presentation.  

9. Stay positive

No one expects you to be the walking embodiment of sunshine all day every day. But if you’re in the habit of airing your professional (or personal) grievances, rest assured, no one wants to hear it. You’ll just bring everyone around you down. However, by maintaining a good attitude, you can influence others and make your life a little better by fostering a positive environment. You’re part of a team now, and maintaining a calm, professional demeanor—especially during stressful times—is not just appreciated, it’s expected. Finally, don’t forget that you’ll be spending a lot of time with your new colleagues, and they have the potential to become good friends. Don’t squander that opportunity by pushing them away with negativity.

What it says to your employer: you’re pleasant, respectful, professional, and a positive influence on those around you.

10. Say yes

And by “say yes,” we mean embrace every opportunity. And by “embrace every opportunity,” we mean even the less-than-glamorous tasks, because you never know where they might lead. Being new is all about proving yourself and paying your dues, as they say. This is particularly true of interns, co-ops, and entry-level workers. You’re not expected to be a master of your profession as a young professional, and your skills are largely untested, which is why you’ll probably be given beginner to intermediate tasks. But if you prove you’re skilled and dependable in those tasks, if you open yourself up to opportunity and change, it won’t be long until you’re given more challenging responsibilities. And more interesting projects. And probably more money too.

What it says to your employer: you’re flexible, trustworthy, and worthy of investment, because you’re clearly the bright future of the company.

One final pro tip: Bring in food. People love free food.

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