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No Experience, No Problem!

Experts say you don't need a lengthy work history to be competitive

By Katie Ford
June 2008

As the economy churns along, new graduates are discovering that sometimes their competition for a traditionally entry-level job is a more experienced, but laid-off, professional. How can you gain an edge over someone with working world experience? These experts say it's all in your attitude and presentation.

"The first thing is to understand the differences between what you bring to the company and what they bring; perception is reality," says Michelle Tillis Lederman, founder of Executive Essentials, a corporate training and coaching company. "If you think you can't compete, you will project it in an interview and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Why is it better to hire a new grad? Well, you aren't going to jump ship as soon as the economy turns around!" Lederman continues. "Also, you don't feel the work is beneath you, and you come with an eager-to-learn attitude. Employers often seek attitude over aptitude; if that's the case, you win."

Here are some surefire steps to gaining a competitive edge:

Demonstrate up-to-date knowledge in your field. Julie Rains, a career services professional and writer for, says to play up the cutting-edge research and skills you learned in school. For instance, Generation Y workers seeking marketing/advertising positions may have a stronger grasp of social media and its impact on today's consumer market than their older competitors.

Apply for jobs that offer great experience but are considered unappealing to competitors who are further along in their careers. "For example, consider a job with a major corporation in a small town; a startup with long hours, low pay and benefits, but high potential for growth; or a position that requires extensive travel to mundane places," Rains says.

Get out of the country. Study and work abroad organizations typically offer programs in a wide range of industries, including culinary, finance/business, teaching, government and more. "As more and more employers are looking for incoming employees with global experience, spending some time in a foreign country can really make a potential employee, and recent college grad, stand out among his or her peers," says Kara Silverman of MASA Israel Journey, a study abroad umbrella organization that sends high school, college and post-college Americans to Israel for internships, fellowships, and work and study experiences.

Create a visible and strong personal brand. Don't just sit behind a laptop and mass email your résumé; get out there and participate in events or create situations that boost your visibility and credibility. "A journalism graduate could launch a blog that contains investigative pieces on a narrow, but important topic, such as the commoditization of green marketing," says Jean Biri, founder of Groupe Biri, a strategy consulting firm to entrepreneurs. "Such topics would attract the general attention of the public, activists and other organizations, which would benefit her image and attract headhunters."

Transform classroom experience into marketable skills. Take the experience you gained during classroom projects and internships and document it on your résumé as you would a real job, says Kathy Sweeney, a nationally certified résumé writer. "You can detail the components and processes that were critical to the project [or internship] and relay the results and experience gained," Sweeney says. "Furthermore, if you've held leadership positions in organizations, you can consider those 'jobs' as well."

Be prepared to answer the inevitable question. Have a response ready to counter a question prodding about your inexperience, says Kristen Fischer, author of "Ramen Noodles, Rent and Résumés: An After-College Guide to Life." "You should always acknowledge that while you're just out of college, you do have a set of highly transferable skills and you are used to taking direction well," she says.

According to Fischer, a college graduate's newness to the working world and eagerness to land a first job are actually bonuses.

"College grads have more energy, for the most part, and they are more accepting of a lower salary - whereas a mid-level person may be more demanding," she says. "I think college grads need to stick to their guns and not worry about the economy as much as possible. They're just trying to get their feet wet and they don't need another challenge slapped on them."

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