5 Ways to Spin Quirky, Non-Traditional Work Experience to Land Your First Job
By the time you reach high school, you’ve likely gained some unique life experiences. Maybe you’ve grown up helping out on your parent’s farm or you’ve spent the last year babysitting the triplets who live next door. Perhaps you’ve devoted yourself to mastering musical instruments or perfecting your golf game. Whatever the case may be, these unique skills and experiences contribute to who you are and what you bring to the table.
When you decide it’s time to get your first real job, though, how do all those awesome skills and experiences translate to your job hunt? After all, teaching yourself to knit might have been a fun and productive eighth-grade hobby, but how can you describe it in a way that makes a potential employer care about it?
Well, there’s good news. All these non-traditional or quirky experiences that don’t exactly qualify as work are still easily recognizable for their value in your job hunt — if you know how to present them. If you play your cards right, you can clearly translate your unique skills and experiences to clearly convey how they make you an ideal job candidate.
In this post, we’ll discuss how to communicate and spin your hobbies, skills, academics, and past experiences into solid resume builders that will help you land that first, real job. If you’re getting ready to start your job hunt, keep reading!
What do we mean by a ‘real’ job?
There are many different ways that you can be employed, and we’re not judging which ones are more legitimate than others. It’s not uncommon for a young person to start their working life in a more informal arrangement mowing the lawn, delivering newspapers, and so on. Any way you slice it, if you’re getting paid money to deliver a product or perform a service, you have a job and, in fact, some of these informal jobs bring in big money.
When we talk about “real” jobs, though, we mean something a little more formal. They aren’t actually any more “real” than less formal experiences, but they are generally more structured and official. Your first “real” job usually represents a bigger time commitment, with a schedule that is set by a supervisor. You are usually paid on a regular pay scale and pay schedule, and you will notice that taxes and other deductions come out of your wages.
In general, these types of jobs hire employees through a formal process that includes an application and interview. You’ll be held accountable directly to a single employer, with written goals and items you’ll likely be accountable for.
So how do you get from your side-gig or hobby jobs to a real job? Here are five ways to get started.
1. Gather Recommendations From Any Supervisors or Mentors
Usually recommendations are something you receive from a teacher or employer when you are applying to another school or job, but this shouldn’t stop you from amassing recommendations even when you aren’t actively on the job hunt. You can request a written recommendation from anyone with whom you’ve worked closely. Keeping these recommendations on file will ensure that they’re ready to go whenever a potential employer asks for them.
Gather recommendations from teachers, volunteer supervisors, or informal employers like parents you’ve babysat for or neighbors whose lawns you’ve mowed. If you have some idea of what types of jobs you’ll be applying to, let them know which skills will be valued at your intended position, so that they can work those into your recommendations.
While your experiences might seem unrelated, it’s actually pretty easy to apply soft skills across fields. For example, if you’re applying to scoop ice cream for the summer, a parent for whom you’ve babysat might be able to vouch for your timeliness, your professionalism, and your outgoing personality, all skills that would be highly valued at the local ice cream shop. Maybe you’ve even handled food for their kids, which directly translates to your prospective new job.
When you request a recommendation, be sure to also ask if it’s okay for potential employers to contact the person writing it, should there be any questions. It seems unprofessional if you hand out phone numbers or other contact information without getting the okay first, and the last thing you want is for your reference to sound surprised or confused when your potential employer calls.
Finally, be sure to write a thank-you note to anyone who provides you with a reference!
2. Start a LinkedIn Account and List All Your Activities and Experience
You might think that if you haven’t started work yet, you don’t have any reason to start a LinkedIn account, but it’s actually an important part of networking and letting others know what skills and talents you possess.
A LinkedIn account will allow you to connect with teachers, potential employers, mentors, family members, and even alumni from your high school. You never know when these connections might turn into important networking opportunities.
LinkedIn is also a way to validate your accomplishments and skills. One feature of the site lets other users endorse the skills you list on your profile. For example, if you say you’re proficient at Java Script, your computer science teacher at school could “endorse” you for that skill, thereby confirming your skill level. Here, you can list all the awesome interests, skills, and experiences that make you qualified for a job. (To learn more about how to frame them, check out our resume tips in #5.)
You can also upload and display those recommendations that you gather from your informal work or other experiences. By starting a LinkedIn profile early on, you’ll have plenty of time to accumulate endorsements and recommendations before you begin your serious job search.
3. Do Your Research About Companies You’d Like to Work For and Find Ways that Your Experiences Can Be Relevant
If you want to spin your talents and experiences as valuable to a specific company, you’ll need to do some homework first. Whenever you’re interested in working at a specific workplace, you should find out as much as possible in advance.
Figure out what positions they have open, dig into their website to get a sense of their company culture, and decide which skills are most necessary or valued for employees. You can also use your LinkedIn account to see if you know anyone or have connections with anyone already working there.
By learning as much as possible about the company in advance, you’ll gain a better understanding of how your skills and experiences relate directly to the work itself. For example, if you find out that the company has a customer service branch in a neighborhood that’s primarily Latino, you’ll know to highlight your Spanish-speaking skills more prominently on your resume. Remember, you can’t know exactly which skills might be most relevant until you do your research.
4. Spread the Word About What Kind of Job You’re Seeking and Why You’d be a Great Fit
Let everyone know you’re on the hunt for a job. Ideally, you should also let everyone know specifically what kind of job you’re hoping to land, but sometimes you won’t have much of a choice when you’re first getting started in the formal employment world.
You can spread the word that you’re looking for a job by posting on social media, writing a post on your LinkedIn account, and of course through good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Leverage your network to help you out to make the valuable connections that will land you a job.
Also, don’t be shy about telling people what skills qualify you for the kind of work you hope to do. If you want to get a job working at your local animal shelter, go ahead and post about your two years of experience as a neighborhood petsitter and how you’re just dying to share your love for animals with all the homeless pups at a shelter. When people know not only that you’re actively looking for a job, but also what exactly qualifies you for it, they might be more likely to help you out should an opportunity cross their radar.
5. Write a Strong Resume Linking Your Non-Traditional Experience to Traditional Workplace Values
Your resume is your chance to really highlight all those awesome but seemingly irrelevant experiences and skills in a way that directly relates them to your potential job. A strong resume, even when it doesn’t reflect any actual work experience, is often the determining factor in landing a job. Sometimes, you won’t even make it to the interview phase if your resume doesn’t wow someone or have the right keywords.
If you have no formal work experience, your resume doesn’t need to exactly say that. Instead, focus on what you do have. This is likely a combination of experiences, skills, and education, so these three headings may make up the bulk of your resume. Be sure to emphasize the same skills the employer is looking for via their website or job posting, so that they recognize the qualities you have as the ones they want.
Experiences on Your Resume
In the “Experiences” section of your resume, you can include each activity or experience you’ve had that could in any way be related to an actual job. These will ideally include volunteer activities, informal jobs, internships, or those random side-gigs that you did a few years back. It might also include leadership positions on teams or clubs.
For example, if you’re applying for a job as the parking lot attendant at your local swimming pool, don’t be shy about listing your experience acting as a hall monitor, serving on the Honor Board, and manning the register at your softball team’s bake sales. These experiences are clear evidence of your dependability, maturity, and trustworthiness, and it doesn’t matter that you weren’t paid for them.
As you list each experience, also try to quantify it with numbers. Instead of saying “Regular babysitting job,” say “Babysat six hours per week for five months.”
In addition, list specific hard skills you developed through each experience. Rather than writing “Babysat for three children,” write, “Practiced safe and efficient child supervision for three children aged three through eight.” Being as specific as possible will give a clearer picture of your exact responsibilities and demonstrate that you took your role seriously.
Skills on Your Resume
This section won’t just highlight skills, but will also allow you to mention hobbies and other pursuits. It’s often titled “Other Skills and Interests” or something along those lines. Here, you’ll list specific hobbies and extracurriculars you’ve pursued seriously.
As in the experiences section of your resume, this section should link your hobbies and activities with hard skills that will be useful in the workplace. Again, be as specific as possible and try to use numbers to quantify your skills. Instead of writing “Taught self Spanish during the summer,” write “Self-studied Spanish for four hours per week, resulting in spoken proficiency.”
In this way, you can show you have skills that would be valuable to a potential employer, and you can highlight that you are a well-rounded individual with the ability to commit.
Academics on Your Resume
This section of your resume actually serves two purposes. First, you’ll highlight your success as a student, which is strong evidence of your ability to learn, your willingness to work hard, and your dedication to your work. An employer will always value these skills.
Second, in this section you will also highlight any classes that are especially relevant to the work you’re pursuing. If you took a science class that included a unit on local ecosystems and native plant life, and you plan to pursue a job as a landscaper, include a line under your science course that summarizes this. It might be something along the lines of “studies included a unit on local ecosystems and native plant species, including how to identify them and their role in the environment.”
Applying for your first formal job can be a daunting prospect. You might feel underqualified or inhibited by your lack of formal work experience. Rest assured, however, that literally every person who now has a job started without any experience.
By leveraging the experiences, accomplishments, and skills that you do have, you’ll be able to establish yourself as a mature and responsible young adult who is eager to work. While you might not get your dream job right away, simply securing a regular, formal paid position will give you the boost you need to establish yourself as a serious employee.
For more guidance about extracurriculars, college applications, and how to choose activities that best suit you, download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
For more information about quantifying your experiences and building a strong resume, check out these CollegeVine posts:
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