How do I get my first job?

You’ve just left education and you’re looking for your first job – but how do you apply when you don’t have any work experience? So many job adverts will ask for at least a year’s work in the industry, and you might be left wondering how you stand a chance with so little to put on your CV.

Thankfully, there are many more ways to demonstrate that you have what it takes to do the job. Ensuring your CV highlights your skills and achievements to date will give you the best possible chance of getting an interview – even if you don’t quite meet the job spec.

Do your homework!

Researching the company can help you get your first job

Tailor your CV to the role, industry and company 

Employers have to read lots of CVs to make a short list for interviews, and as you can imagine they are very busy and like to do it quickly. So only the best presented CVs which highlight relevant skills and achievements will get a second look.

Conduct lots of research before you write your CV and make sure you tailor it to the role, industry and company you are interested in. What does the company do, and how do they do it? What skills are required for the position? Try to build up a picture of what the employer is looking for, and then apply that knowledge to your CV ensuring you highlight skills and achievements that relate to the specific role. Without any work experience, you’ll need to look at alternative experience, such as that gained while studying for your GCSEs, A-levels, University degree and so on (we’ll explain how below).

Don’t copy

A common mistake made when creating a CV is to blindly follow someone else’s example CV that you’ve found on the internet. Sure, using an example is a fantastic way to create a CV, but does that example allow you to present yourself in the best possible way to the reader, and does it allow you to highlight everything that’s relevant?

The more bespoke you make your CV to the position and company, the better chance you have of being noticed – so whilst reading others’ CVs is a good way to get a feel for the type of thing you might include, writing your own CV from scratch is the best approach.

Tailor your personal statement

Job interview - personal statement

The personal statement on your CV tells your prospective employer who you are and what you are looking for.

Your personal statement goes at the top of your CV and summarises who you are/what you are looking or. Tailor it to the role and keep it punchy – you’ve only got a few seconds to grab a would-be employer’s attention! Here is an example:

“I am a hardworking individual, having just completed my A-Levels with exceptional grades in Media (A) and Graphic Design (B). I am looking for an apprenticeship in the marketing industry to build on the skills I have acquired. I have volunteered for Oxfam for the past 6 months which included writing content for and updating their website. I have a working knowledge of HTML/CSS and a good understanding of SEO.”

Use the skills section well

Student debate

Showcase soft skills by highlighting projects, presentations, achievements and participation in groups

For those with work experience, the skills section will be limited – it might highlight for example that they have 5 or 6 of the key skills required for the role. The prospective employer will therefore rely more heavily on their work experience to judge if they are a good fit. However, those without work experience need to make better use of the skills section, highlighting both hard and soft skills that are relevant for the position, with real-life examples.

Skills can be broadly divided into hard skills and soft skills.

Young person typing

Fast and accurate typing might have been acquired through using Facebook (no need to mention this!), but it’s still a valuable skill to prospective employers.

Hard skills

Hard skills are specific, teachable skills that can be defined and measured. It’s likely that you already have some hard skills that have been built up through the use of computers over the years – for example, using Word/Excel and typing. If you can type reasonably well, do a quick free test online (for example, here) and provide your prospective employers with a typing speed. Click here for a list of other hard skills you might include.

For hard skills (such as programming or use of a software programme) it helps to indicate your level of ability. Here is an example:

HTML/CSS – intermediate

PHP – basic

Use of Adobe Dreamweaver – intermediate

Copywriting – advanced (examples available)

Graphic design – advanced (examples available)

Use of Photoshop – advanced (examples available)

If you are awarded an interview, take along any examples of your work that you can. It may help to take a laptop or tablet (for example, if you want to showcase a website or app that you created, whether or not this was paid work).

Soft skills

Soft skills that you likely will have acquired through studying include:

  • Time management
  • Organisation
  • Research
  • Social networking
  • Presenting ideas
  • Reasoning
  • Decision-making
  • Persuasion
  • Overcoming obstacles
  • Commitment
  • Self-motivation
  • Confidence
  • Problem solving
  • Listening
  • Budgeting (Source: University of Essex)

However, don’t simply duplicate this list – choose the skills that are most relevant to the position and find examples of how you developed those skills during your time at school, college or university:

  • Did you take part in a presentation? This would be a great way of showing an employer your great communication skills. You could mention how long you spoke for, how many people you presented to, any equipment or software you used and what the presentation was about.
  • Did you take part in a group discussion, team or activity? This would also be another great example to highlight in your CV as it showcases your team-working and problem-solving skills.
  • Meeting tight deadlines is also another great way of showing your potential, as are attendance records.
  • If you built, wrote or created anything noteworthy as part of your studies, you could mention this.

For soft skills (such as communication) it helps to offer a quick example of how the skill was developed. Here are some examples:

Leadership & organisation – developed through doing pro bono work and dealing with external agencies during my legal studies

Excellent communication, flexibility & good time management – developed through volunteering for Oxfam whilst studying

Critical thinking, teamwork & leadership – developed through participating in the University’s debating team

Coaching, mentoring, leadership & teamwork – developed through being a student mentor for my last 2 years at university

Leadership, teamwork & communication – developed through completion of the Duke of Edinburgh award

Highlight projects you did outside of school

Musical project

Projects completed in your own time are a great way to showcase skills, creativity and passion

If you’re passionate about what you’ve trained to do, you may have completed projects in your own time just for fun. These projects are a great way to demonstrate to a would-be employer what you are capable of. You might, for example, have started a blog and produced quality articles on issues that you’re interested in. Alternatively you might have designed small electrical items for use around the home. These projects show initiative, creativity and passion – so they are worth including on your CV.

You might also have done tasks that show responsibility, dedication and commitment – such as regularly babysitting for a younger sibling or taking shopping to an elderly relative.

Do some voluntary work

Voluntary work

Voluntary work is especially valuable if it is within your target industry, but all voluntary work helps to demonstrate a range of skills.

If you’ve volunteered in the past or you’re currently doing voluntary work, this should be included on your CV – listing as much info as possible. This might include daily tasks and responsibilities, as well as anything you achieved whilst you were there. Did you for instance improve a system whilst you were volunteering, or is there an example of when you went out of your way to help a customer?

If you haven’t got any volunteering experience then you could consider this as a possible route into a career. Gaining some great voluntary work experience will look fantastic on your CV and will show a potential employer that you’re not afraid to get stuck in and learn something new.

Want to volunteer? Try the Do-it website to find opportunities.

Include a ‘hobbies and interests’ section

Going to the gym

Many hobbies can demonstrate soft skills to prospective employers.

This section is overlooked but it is a great opportunity to tell an employer about some of your qualities. Remember that marathon you ran last year to help raise money for charity? That’s certainly something you should be very proud of and needs to be seen by an employer. You might play the piano in your spare time, or love creating websites – which could be a valuable skill to your employer, even if it doesn’t relate to the role.

Hobbies and interests are also a great way to highlight how you have acquired transferable soft skills. For example, if you are a part time referee at the weekends, you could write:

I work as a part time referee for XYZ Football Team at the weekends. This has allowed me to develop:

Excellent communication and people skills

A self-confident, firm manner

The ability to take on large amounts of information, to build up a thorough understanding of the rules of the game

Decision-making ability

Observational skills (Source: My job search – football referee)

Even the simple act of going to the gym provides evidence of a range of skills, in addition to suggesting that you might not take too many days off for sickness. You could write:

I go to the gym three time a week and I am committed to good health and fitness. Through regular gym sessions I have developed my knowledge, self-discipline, goal setting and self-awareness.

Avoid mentioning hobbies that are potentially undesirable to an employer – for example, socialising or partying both suggest that you might not be at your best on a Monday morning!

Find out more: Does the hobbies & interests section of my CV matter?

Get started with a great free CV template – click here.

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