21 minute read

How to Get Your First Job


Melissa J. Doak

Looking for your first job—whether for a part-time job while you're in high school or college, or for a full-time job after graduation—can seem like an over-whelming task. Finding a job is hard to begin with—but if you haven't had any work experience, have never written a resume or been through an interview, and don't even know what kind of job you want or are qualified for—job hunting can seem impossible. Take heart—everyone has to search for, and land, their first job sometime. But how do you go about doing it?


Do Your Research

What do you want to do? Where would you like to work? What jobs might fit your skills, appeal to your interests, or possibly advance your career goals? These are important questions to ask yourself before you begin your job search.

Even if you are only searching for a part-time summer job while going to school, you should do some research into occupations that might interest you in the long term. Consider using even a part-time job to explore larger career goals. Why take a job as a stock clerk at your local department store if you think you might be interested in landscape architecture someday? Instead, you may look for a local landscaper who needs summer workers to help maintain the gardens of business clients, or you could approach the family-owned nursery about a part-time position in the greenhouse.

Take the time to explore your options. There are many books that list careers and jobs, including the books in the Career Information Center series. The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains an up-to-date online career guide, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, at http://www.bls.gov/oco/home.htm. You might also talk with friends and family about what types of jobs are available where they work. Employment counselors or college or high school career counselors also may provide useful guidance.


A common problem for first-time job seekers is lack of experience. One way to address this problem before looking for your first job is to volunteer your time. Volunteering not only provides valuable experience, it also is a great way to contribute to your community while fostering your own personal growth. And you won't be alone—the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between September 2004 and September 2005, 28.8 percent of Americans volunteered at least once; and those who did volunteer donated, on average, fifty hours of their time.

Melissa J. Doak is a freelance writer of reference books and educational materials.

Once again, you should consider your own personal career interests and goals as you choose an organization or company to approach about volunteering opportunities. For example, someone interested in a career in social work might want to volunteer at a homeless shelter, food bank, or senior citizens' center. Someone interested in a career in education might volunteer to help others learn to read or spend time helping in a local elementary school classroom. Those interested in health care might volunteer at a hospital or nursing home. Someone interested in forestry might look into volunteer programs at state and national parks. Aspiring politicians might offer to work on local political campaigns. Not only are the possibilities endless, but volunteering will help you explore your career interests and give you valuable experience to give your resume some punch.


Students planning their careers should investigate the possibility of an internship. An internship is a cooperative learning activity that provides students with professional experience outside of the classroom related to their career goals. While the focus is on the educational aspect, internships also provide real-world, practical experience. Typically, internships are unpaid but provide college credit. Internships are actually required in many fields—think of the ubiquitous student teachers in elementary school classrooms—but even in fields where they are not required, an internship is a good way to build experience and credentials for the job you want when you graduate. You might intern at a library or a bank, in a historical society or counseling center, at an advertising agency, a television or radio station, or a newspaper, in a variety of social service agencies, at a community theater, or in a political action group. You might explore career possibilities in education, medicine, public administration, or computer programming. As with volunteering, internship opportunities can be found almost anywhere.

Sometimes internships lead directly to job offers. At the very least they provide valuable experience by helping you to explore what types of work you may want to do, bolstering your confidence, and strengthening your resume. The Occupational Outlook Quarterly Online, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, asserts that employers look first to their interns when seeking to hire new college graduates. Internships also help you gain and practice crucial communication skills; employers responding to the Job Outlook 2006 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers cited these as the most important "soft" skills or qualities possessed by job candidates. You should also emerge with a good letter of reference from your supervisor. And searching for an internship gives you good practice for many of the skills you will need when searching for your first job: researching and speaking with potential employers, completing applications, and writing resumes and cover letters.

Most colleges have formal internship programs, and some high schools are implementing them as well. For example, the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles has helped nearly one thousand high school students find internships with law firms, non-profit organizations, and corporations since 1995. Check your course catalog for information on credit for internships. Visit your career information center or guidance counselor's office for guidance on where to begin looking for the internship that will best help you advance your career goals.

A Special Kind of Preparation for Your First Job: Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are highly structured programs of on-the-job training combined with classroom instruction. Apprenticeships typically train people for highly skilled production or crafts jobs—although they are available for more than 850 occupations. Programs vary in length from one to six years. Searching for an apprenticeship is actually a lot like searching for a job. People accepted into apprenticeships typically learn on the job while being paid for their work, and, in addition, they receive classroom instruction in technical aspects of the job. Formal apprenticeship programs are registered with the Department of Labor, and graduates receive certificates of completion that are accepted by employers around the country.

Although the process of being accepted into an apprenticeship is generally competitive, many apprenticeship opportunities are available. There are nearly thirty thousand apprenticeship programs in the United States, including more than three thousand programs newly established in 2005. Common apprenticeship programs train people for jobs in the building trades and manufacturing industry. Apprenticeships are available for prospective firefighters, cooks, and telecommunications technicians. People can also apprentice in less common fields, training to be stage technicians and actors, designers, paralegals, environmental technicians, computer programmers, and landscapers. Many apprenticed occupations are expected to enjoy an exceptional job outlook over the coming decades—including cooks, auto mechanics, practical nurses, carpenters, electricians, and hairdressers. And apprentices pay nothing for their education (although they may have to pay for the tools of their trade); in fact, they are actually paid to learn.

If you think an apprenticeship program might be right for you, the first thing to do is to find an open program. Begin with your state Bureau of Apprenticeship or state office of the Department of Labor. Also try career counseling offices, trade unions, and professional associations. Some apprenticeship programs will also be publicly advertised in the newspaper, on job boards, or with state job services. Military recruits can also participate in apprenticeship programs. Local recruiters are the best source of information for these opportunities.

Once you find an apprenticeship program, the next step is getting in, and in some occupations, apprenticeships are highly competitive. You generally must be eighteen years old and possess a high school diploma or passing score on a high school equivalency exam. You must fill out required forms and take any required proficiency or aptitude tests. Common tests measure reading, math, and problem-solving skills, but specific programs may require other assessments as well. The application process will usually include an interview, after which qualified applicants are ranked and placed on a waiting list.

For your best chance at being accepted into an apprenticeship of your choice, prepare yourself with a solid high school background in the basics of English, math, and science. High school courses in drafting, mechanical drawing, and industrial arts can also provide an advantage for those interested in construction, production, or mechanical occupations. There may also be tutoring programs available to help applicants prepare for and pass the qualifying exams for particular apprenticeships.


Creating a Resume and Cover Letter

For most jobs, putting together a resume is very important. Even if a particular position does not require one, having a resume will help show prospective employers that you have put some effort into the job search, and therefore will put some effort into the job. In addition, a well-done resume and cover letter will show employers that you have good written communication skills, which are crucial for many jobs in today's information-based economy.

First-time job seekers may believe they have little of value to place on a resume. That is untrue. Your goal is to answer the prospective employer's big question: How will this candidate add to the company or organization? To answer that question, consider your education, extracurricular activities, awards or recognition you have received, and unpaid work.

Here are some things you will want to include in your resume:

Schooling and Other Training

Of course, list any degrees you have received. Include any coursework you have completed that is relevant to the position. List your GPA if it is over 3.0. Also list other training you have received. Think broadly. Your CPR certification might be very important if you are applying to work at a summer camp for kids, as will the babysitting class you took in ninth grade.

Extracurricular Activities

Were you on the yearbook committee? That might be important if you are applying to work in the local photography shop. Did you play on the school's basketball team? After-school programs for youth will want to know that. Did you help organize your school prom? A catering business might be very interested in your organizational skills. Make sure you include your participation in extracurricular activities, especially if they relate to the position you are seeking.

Volunteer Work

You may have already explored your career interests while volunteering at a local business or organization. Any work you have done, even unpaid work, counts as experience. Make sure to list it on your resume.

Awards or Special Recognition

Did you get elected into the National Honor Society? Get special recognition at an athletic awards banquet for your leadership as captain of the football team? Win an essay contest? List this recognition on your resume. It will make you stand out from the pack and help a prospective employer evaluate what she stands to gain from hiring you.

Technical and Computer Skills

You may take for granted your ability to design a Web site or use advanced functions in Microsoft Office, but your prospective employer won't. List these skills on your resume.


You can choose to list your references and their contact information right on your resume, or to include the phrase, "References are available upon request." Make sure you can provide the names and contact information of at least three people who can vouch for your ability and responsible nature. Good choices include teachers, people you have helped in the past, and supervisors in any organizations for which you have volunteered.

Once you have compiled all of the information you want to use in your resume, you will need to focus on its design. You want the look of your resume to make the right impression on prospective employers. Go to the library or your school's career information center and study books on resumes. All books will provide examples. Choose the style that most appeals to you and that is most relevant to your information, and lay out your resume in that format. Make sure to include a header with your contact information, including your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. Limit your resume to no more than one page.

Cover Letters

When mailing a resume to a prospective employer, you should include a cover letter. In this letter, you are introducing yourself, stating what position you are applying for, and explaining your interest and qualifications. A good cover letter will have a three-paragraph format. In the first paragraph, explain why you are sending a resume and indicate where you heard about employment opportunities at the organization. Are you looking for a part-time summer job or a permanent position? Are you responding to an ad in the newspaper or following up on a suggestion from a worker at the organization?

Use your next paragraph to convince the reader to look at your resume. Summarize how your combination of skills and experience makes you perfect for the job. Be specific. Call attention to the parts of your resume that are most relevant to the position. Expand by using examples of your experience that are not listed on your resume. Make sure to emphasize personal qualities that are important for the position: your motivation, enthusiasm, responsibility, and communication skills, for example.

End by providing any information that was specifically requested in a job advertisement (for example, state that you have attached a writing sample, or indicate when you are available to begin work). Thank the prospective employer for his or her time and consideration, indicate what you will do to follow up (for example, "I will be in touch the week of June 15th if I have not heard from you"), and make note of how you can be reached.

Where to Search

So now you have your job hunting materials. But where do you look for job openings? You should use a variety of sources to search for advertised openings (for example, print and online advertisements, job banks, and career centers). But you should also target companies or organizations where you would like to work but which have not advertised any positions.

Advertised Openings

How do you know what employers are hiring? You can look at a variety of sources. The help wanted ads in your local newspaper are a good place to start. Sometimes retail stores and restaurants have help wanted signs in their windows. Your school's career center should also have lists of job openings.

The Internet also has thousands of sites that list job advertisements. Some sites offer tens of thousands of job listings; others offer only a handful. Some are sponsored by professional trade associations, others are sponsored by local, state, or federal governments, and still others are for-profit ventures that charge job hunters for their services. Some offer the ability to post resumes online—but it is unclear how many employers bother to search these resumes, so it may not be worth the time. And some occupations are not very well represented in the job banks. So while online job sites are worth visiting, evaluate very carefully which ones are most worth your time and effort.

You should also locate the nearest provider of public employment services, either by visiting http://www.servicelocator.org or calling 1-877-USA-JOBS. These services generally include help planning your career, finding work, finding summer work, and getting skills and training. These centers often have a library with books on how to craft a good resume and cover letter. Take advantage of these free resources where they are available.

The Hidden Job Market

Don't discount targeting employers you want to work for, even if they are not advertising in the help wanted pages. Experts generally agree that the number of unadvertised job openings exceeds the number of advertised ones. Therefore, if you only apply for advertised positions you will miss more than half the opportunities available to you. Although it takes more time and effort to search out these opportunities, job seekers probably face less competition for these vacancies. And seeking out these prospective employers gives you a chance to demonstrate your commitment and initiative.

To access this hidden market, a job seeker needs to do three things: research companies and organizations for which she would like to work, cold call for job leads, and network. First, job seekers need to use various methods—business directories, the Yellow Pages, word-of-mouth, and online searches—to identify companies that are likely to hire workers like them. Job seekers should put in a little extra time and research each identified company or organization to find out more about them and what they are like to work for. Newspaper articles, company Web sites, and informal questions of current workers are good places to look for this kind of information. This research will not only help job seekers determine which companies will likely be hiring and which companies are good to work for, but also may eventually help in the interview process.

Once prospective employers are identified and researched, job seekers must make contact with those organizations. Because job seekers are not responding to a help-wanted advertisement but instead making unsolicited contact with prospects, this contact is called "cold calling." Some job seekers telephone targeted companies to ask if there are any openings. Others may show up in person to inquire. Still others may send resumes and cover letters out to prospective employers, although this is a less successful method—after all, it is much easier to ignore a letter than it is a phone call or an in-person request for information. Without a compelling reason to do otherwise, making a telephone call or an in-person inquiry is generally your best strategy.

With luck, your cold calling will uncover unadvertised job opportunities. And since you have sought these opportunities out yourself, you face less competition than you would for an advertised position. And taking the initiative will impress the prospective employer as well as save him the work of reading through hundreds of cover letters and resumes that he might receive in response to an advertisement—both of which give you the advantage.

Job seekers looking for unadvertised positions should also network. Using the people you know, and the people they know, to discover job leads and other employment information is called networking. Make sure to use basic manners and common courtesy when making job-related inquiries of your network. Tell everyone you know that you are searching for a job, and what kinds of positions you are interested in. Make sure to follow up on any suggestions or leads you receive, as well as thank those who help you in your job hunt.

Temporary Staffing Services

Another place you may want to look for your first job is with a temporary staffing services company like Kelly Services. Temporary staffing agencies provide employees to other organizations, on a contract basis and for a limited period, to supplement the client's workforce. Some employers are using contingent workers—workers who are employed on a temporary basis to meet an immediate need created by employee absences, temporary skill shortages, and varying seasonal workloads—to fill 30 to 80 percent of their jobs. More than two million people per day are employed by the temporary staffing industry, which is one of the fastest-growing in the country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry is expected to gain about 1.6 million new jobs between 2004 and 2014.

Temporary workers tend to be younger, with less experience, than other workers. The hiring process is more relaxed than it is for permanent positions, which is helpful for workers with no prior work experience. Usually temp workers are employed in clerical, service, or sales positions, although there are opportunities in production occupations, health care, and even professional positions in the temporary services industry. Temporary work will definitely bolster your resume. In addition, an assignment as a contingent worker within an organization will help you get on the inside to find out about permanent positions. In fact, as many as one in five organizations use temporary staffing services to screen employees for permanent jobs. Other advantages to this work include the opportunity for a short-term source of income while enjoying flexible schedules, an ability to take extended leaves of absences and the ability to explore various careers, and the opportunity to experience a variety of work settings and employers.

If you decide to register with temporary staffing services companies, make sure you are on the roster of several agencies, rather than just one, to enhance your opportunities for temp jobs. Make sure that you are clear with the company about what kind of work you want. The Web site of the American Staffing Association, http://www.americanstaffing.net, can provide you with more information about this quickly growing industry.


The prospect of an interview can be very frightening, but there are ways to make it easier. The keys to a successful interview are to be prepared, present yourself professionally, and describe your qualifications for the position well.

Before the Interview

One secret to a successful interview is to do some work ahead of time to learn all you can about the position you are interviewing for and the company itself. Search the Internet, ask your friends and family, and visit public libraries and career centers. Make sure you know what the company does, how big it is, if it has undergone any changes recently (or is preparing for any), and what the organization's goals and values are. Employers are impressed by well-informed job seekers.

Also practice describing yourself and explaining how hiring you would benefit the organization. Think about examples from your schooling, extracurricular activities, or volunteer work that illustrate important skills and characteristics. Your interviewer will probably ask you questions along the following lines: What are your strengths and weaknesses? Why do you want to work here? Why should we hire you? Preparing for and practicing the answers to these questions in advance will give you an advantage. Simple yes or no answers will not do; make sure you are able to draw on examples to give your answers some sub-stance. Try to put everything in a positive light, including your weaknesses.

The Interview Itself

On the day of the interview, dress appropriately. You want to look professional and well groomed, but you do not want what you wear to be the most memorable part of the interview. Be conservative with makeup and cologne, wear muted colors, and don't make bold fashion statements.

Make sure you arrive on time. Drive your route ahead of time, or take public transportation there the day before. This way, you can be certain you will not get lost and you will know how much time it takes to get there. Leave early anyway. If you arrive early, you can use the extra time to collect your thoughts.

When you meet your interviewer, greet her with a smile and a handshake and look her directly in the eye. The interview will probably begin with the interviewer describing the position or the organization in more detail, and then move into questions for you in order to evaluate how well you will fit into the organization. If you have prepared adequately, you can feel confident about describing yourself and your abilities and how they will contribute to the company or organization.

Most interviewers will end the interview by asking you if you have any questions. This gives you a chance to not only find out more about the organization and the position, but also to make a favorable impression. A thoughtful question will communicate as much to the interviewer about you as will your answers to his questions. Questions you might want to ask are: Are there opportunities for advancement? How do you train employees? What do you like about working for this organization? Use your research to come up with other questions that relate directly to the company. As you leave the interview, make sure you thank the interviewer and state again your interest in the position.

Following Up

Sending a thank-you note after the interview is an important step that many job seekers omit. Be sure you send this note within two days. It should be printed on simple, white business paper, not a flowery thank-you card. Use standard business format for this letter. In the first paragraph, thank the interviewer for the meeting and express again your interest in and enthusiasm for the position. In your second paragraph, briefly restate the main skills that make you a good candidate for the position. If you forgot to mention anything important during the interview, this is the place to include it. In your third paragraph, thank the interviewer again, mention how you can be contacted, and tell the interviewer you look forward to speaking with him again. Proofread your letter carefully. Grammatical errors at this stage could cost you the job.

Remember that Rejection Is Part of the Process

It is a highly unusual job hunter who lands the first job he applies for. Usually, job seekers are rejected several times, even dozens of times, before being hired, so you need to prepare yourself to hear "no." Remember, a business owner or a manager may not need to hire anyone right now, may have hired his aunt's cousin's son's sister-in-law to fill the advertised position, or you may just not be exactly what he is looking for. When you are told a position is filled, make sure you respond appropriately—you never know when another position will open. Show the manager or owner you are serious in your job hunt by being polite, leaving your resume, and inviting her to call if she needs anyone in the future.

Following the rules of the job hunt, knowing where to look for positions you are interested in, and persevering will pay off in the end, and you will land your first job.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesEmployment Trends