How to Get Work Experience as a Student

For anyone who is fresh out of college and looking for a job, the famously circular reasoning of the job search is one of the great sources of frustration. You cannot get a job without experience. You cannot get experience without a job. How do you break the cycle?

President, Shimmering Resumes

Originally Posted: Feb 8, 2013
Last Updated: Feb 11, 2013

For anyone who is fresh out of college and looking for a job, the famously circular reasoning of the job search is one of the great sources of frustration. You cannot get a job without experience. You cannot get experience without a job. It’s a daunting challenge especially during job interview preparation.

It makes a certain amount of sense, of course. Especially in a difficult job market, where applicants are plentiful and jobs are scarce, it’s hard for an employer to justify hiring someone who has yet to demonstrate the ability to function in a working environment.

Two different worlds

Students might answer by saying that school has its own demands and that they’re not that different from the demands of work. They have deadlines, requirements, and evaluations. They have to perform in a structured environment. They have to show persistence and creativity, along with the ability to manage competing demands.

However, employers see work and school as very different animals, and, even if they’re wrong, their opinions are the only ones that matter.

To fill the experience gap, college students should consider both internships and summer jobs. Each has its advantages.

By definition, a job puts money in a student’s pocket. Even if it’s not enough to support a student completely, every little bit helps in an age when the cost of a college education is increasing faster than almost any other cost in the United States.

Internships, on the other hand, are unpaid, but they are much more likely to give students experience in their chosen fields. That means the experience gained is actually relevant to the student’s goals, an advantage when it comes time to write a résumé, but it offers something more: the opportunity to network with people working in that field.

Reference bonus

Both internships and summer jobs offer an additional benefit by providing students with a source of references. Professional résumés no longer conclude with the tagline “References Available Upon Request,” but that does not mean that references have become irrelevant.

Employers assume that references will be available. The applicant needs to get far enough in the process first. Then, and only then, will employers take the time to look for references. When they do, the best reference is from someone who can attest to your ability in a working environment. It’s nice to be able to produce glowing words from a professor who only knows you from the classroom, and that’s certainly better than nothing. But a reference from a boss is far more persuasive.

Students who have neither jobs nor internships on their résumés are at a loss. Employers expect to see résumés with clearly defined sections devoted to experience, regardless of what it is called, and education. As the application process has become automated, and the volume of applications has increased, a résumé with an experience void will have a hard time making the cut.

The project option

Some people take a creative approach to filling that void. Instead of including a category devoted strictly to work experience, the space can be filled with personal projects that are relevant to the field. A project can involve time in the studio, a programming project, or involvement in a campus activity. Though these options don’t have the impact of activities that are structured in ways that mirror the structure of actual employment, they are much better than nothing. 

Job interview gold

The advantage that comes from having a history of internships and summer jobs becomes even more apparent in the job interview. Even the standard questions, the ones that ask about strengths and weaknesses, and the inquiry into why you want the job, are best answered in concrete terms that refer to specific workplace experience. A student without experience can speculate, trying to draw analogies between other activities and an actual job, but the best answers are the ones that come closest to the employment situation.

That is especially true of the popular “behavioral” questions. They ask the interviewee to describe actual situations: “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult colleague.” “Describe a situation in which you disagreed with a manager’s approach to a project.”

Even if the interviewer’s questions do not take that form, the best answers to any questions are the ones that can reference specific cases. Abstractions and generalities are not going to persuade an interviewer. Persuasion comes from the use of concrete examples of qualities that matter to the employer, and those examples do not have to come from the exact field in which you hope to work.

Jobs in all fields have things in common. Time management, answering to a boss, meeting deadlines, working productively with colleagues, and being able to balance competing demands are all part of work.

Even if you are applying for a position in marketing and you waited tables for your summer job, there are qualities that apply to both environments, and employers care about those qualities.

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