My first job mostly sucked, and I didn’t deserve to get it. It was at a soup/salad/sandwich chain in the suburbs, and I was hired because my friends already worked there. I had zero experience doing anything beyond babysitting or washing cars, so I was lucky. And it taught me two important things about the world: first jobs are mostly terrible, and at suburban chain stores soup comes in giant frozen bags.
But when I applied I had so many questions: Can I list my parents as references? Am I allowed to quit when school starts at the end of the summer? What’s my Social Security number? Anna tackled some of these topics about a year ago, but the questions from you guys kept on coming, so what follows are even more tips from both me and a panel of distinguished experts—people in the working world who actually hire other people—to help you look for and get a job, whether it’s a gig at the local pizza place or a Real Adult Career.
Finding the Right Job
Hold on a second! How old are you? Are you even allowed to work?
Laws vary from state to state and country to country, so you’ll have to check with both your national and local labor departments (guidelines for the United States are available here). It can be complicated: in the U.S., for instance, 16- and 17-year-olds can work more hours and in more types of positions than 14- and 15-year-olds. Try Googling “permitted employment for minors” + your city for more information. Your age can also affect how much you’ll be paid: in the U.S., if you’re younger than 20, you can be paid less than minimum wage (which is $7.25 per hour) for the first 90 days of your employment, which is especially important to know ahead of time for, say, a summer job. Once that’s out of the way, you can get your search on.
Websites like Craigslist are full of possibilities, but also creeps and scams; be careful with your personal info and be a defensive browser. If you know the field you’re interested in, more-specific sites are helpful, or you can create an all-purpose profile on one of the internet’s many job boards. Just a few examples:
- Indeed, SimplyHired, LinkedIn (general)
- Mediabistro, JournalismJobs, Ed2010 (magazines, media, advertising)
- Idealist.org (nonprofit, social justice, volunteerism)
- Fashion.net (fashion, design)
- Dice (technology)
But there’s nothing like word-of-mouth. Use your network of friends, educators, and neighbors to spread the fact that you’re looking. Email your mom’s most well-connected co-worker, your cool uncle, and your favorite teacher from last year to tell them you’re on the market. It’s not about begging or guilting anyone into hiring you—you just want them to think of you next time they hear of an appropriate opening. So they know when to think of you, be sure to tell them what kind of job you’re looking for.
High schools and colleges usually have a job placement office or counselor whose entire mission is to help motivated people like you find work. Use them! Check in often enough so they remember your name, face, and interests, but not so obsessively that you begin to seem unhireable. Also feel free to walk right into places that have the kinds of jobs you’re interested in—or email them if they’re in an office or otherwise not open to the public—to ask about opportunities. Being proactive is a plus. There might not be a spot free at that exact moment, but letting a potential employer know that they’re your favorite company/website/bakery is a good way to get a foot in the door for when they’re hiring.
If there are no paying jobs to be found anywhere—“IN THIS ECONOMY!?” you might have heard an adult cry-scream at some point in the last five years—consider exploring the world of internships. Yes, they can be exploitative or even illegal. And yes, they are often rigged to benefit the more privileged among us, who don’t necessarily have to earn money. BUT, if you happen to be living with your parents or have another source of income, an unpaid or for-college-credit internship is a good way to gain experience and lines on your résumé. It also gives you a chance to sample different industries and decide exactly W.Y.W.T.B.W.Y.G.U. (What You Want to Be When You Grow Up). If it’s not about the money, an internship probably beats thawing bags of soup.
Convincing People to Hire You
After you find the perfect available job (kid psychic, junk-food tester), or at least one you’re pretty sure you could do, the next step is convincing the person doing the hiring to take a chance on you. This usually starts with paperwork: job applications, résumés, and cover letters.
Most job applications will ask for basic details about you and your work/school history. Some places will give you the application to fill out at home or direct you to a website, but some will want you to fill out the form right there, by hand, in front of them. Don’t forget a pen! And make sure you have all the information they’re asking for with you already so you won’t have to call your stoner roommate and ask her to turn on your computer and look for the phone number of that old tutor you want to use as a reference. Write neatly, and fill out all the required sections, which will usually be:
- Your name, address, and phone number (easy)
- Your state-issued identification numbers (your parents/guardians will probably have these if you’re not sure about what they are)
- Some information about your education, including the name and address of each school you’ve gone to from ninth grade on, your focus of study (if any), awards/honors you’ve received (if any), and, if applicable, the date you graduated
- Your employment history, if you have one—including the phone number and street address of each place you’ve worked, the name of the person you reported to, and the dates that you were employed there (month and year). If you’ve never had an official job, get creative. (Anna has really good ideas about how to add “unofficial work” experience to your application.)
Some applications will also ask you to list about three “professional references,” which can be daunting when you have no professional experience. You can use teachers, community leaders, guidance counselors, the people whose kids you babysit, coaches, and basically anyone you’re not related to who has supervised you in some context and will vouch for your trustworthiness and work ethic, and who can tell everyone how great you are (the GREATEST, obviously). Get their permission first, and tell them what kind of job you’re applying for so they’ll know which of your wonderful qualities to emphasize if and when they’re contacted. It’s somewhat rare for references to get called at all, especially for entry-level positions, but as you work your way up the job chain, a good recommendation can make a big difference.
The unavoidable truth about résumés is that it just sort of sucks to write them, so you might as well get yours ready while you’re in the job-getting spirit. It should summarize your education, work experience, and skills. Formats vary widely—check out these creative examples—but, as Anna said, the key is that your résumé be neat, concise, easy to read, and generally no longer than one page. If you have room, type at the bottom: References available upon request. Have that information ready (see above) in case your prospective employer asks for them.
If you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot (or any!) job experience, that’s OK. “Put down the skills you have,” says Barbara Hewitt, the senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. That includes languages you speak, unpaid volunteer work, student council experience, technical know-how, or any of your other amazing activities or abilities—especially if they relate to the job you’re applying for. “You have to be able to demonstrate that you have a background or some sort of expertise that really qualifies you,” says Elizabeth Spiers, a writer/former editor of the New York Observer and the digital entrepreneur behind sites like Gawker and Crushable.
“Special talents” can be its own section on the page, but call them Additional Skills, because we’re adults now. Yes, your Tumblr and Twitter obsessions can be marketable. You may take it for granted that you’re an expert at social media, but “a lot of older people are not,” says Hewitt. (Though some really try.)
Do: Advertise fluency with computers/the internet and include a link to your website, blog, or other site where your work—be it writing, graphic design, or photography—is on display. But make sure there’s nothing too personal or unprofessional on there, like compromising photos or your own contribution to the screaming-goat-song craze.
Don’t: Let any typos slip in. In a big pile of similar résumés, sloppiness could land yours in the garbazh. Ask someone else to proofread it for you.
When you send your résumé to a potential employer, don’t let it fly off into the world all by itself, naked and alone. Pair it with a cover letter, or letter of interest, to make your pitch. (Anywhere that asks for your photo better have a damn good reason.)
This will probably happen over email. Keep the body of your message short but specific, describing who are you and why you’re right for the job. Try sticking to four paragraphs: “An opening about why you’re interested, a couple paragraphs that say why you’re good, and a closing paragraph to encourage an interview,” recommends Hewitt.
It’s also wise to attach the same cover letter—or a slightly more detailed version—as a Word document or PDF to the same message. (In bigger offices, the person who gets your email might be printing the applications for another person to review.) “You definitely want it to be one page and not any longer,” says Hewitt, adding that you shouldn’t “go smaller than a 10-point font or crowd the page.”
Cover letters should be personalized as much as possible. Instead of “To Whom It May Concern,” do a little research—even give the place a call, if necessary, to find out who the boss is and who’s doing the hiring. (But if the job listing says “no phone calls,” follow directions. Eagerness only goes so far.) These letters also need to be tailored specifically to every job you apply for. “Take the time to find out about the organization and tell them why you want to work there,” says Hewitt.
If you’re short on experience, Hewitt advises you to talk about your transferable skills. “Maybe you haven’t worked as a camp counselor in the past, but maybe you did fundraising for a food bank,” she says. “That’s still teamwork. Make [your skills] relevant to them.” And even if you find yourself coming up short, take heart: “You’re young and eager, and you want to learn. People will give you a lot of leeway if you seem excited about learning new things and pitching in.”
The amount of things to remember about cover letters may have already tipped you off that they, too, are kind of a drag to write. Resist the urge to slack, especially if you’re applying for more than one job at the same time. “You can smell when you get a blast email,” says Ann Friedman, a writer and former editor of GOOD magazine. “Someone blanketing themselves everywhere like, ‘I would love to be a part of your organization’? Noooo! Specificity is good. People remember details.”
Do: Think about your tone. “Nobody wants to be told by somebody who’s never had a job before that ‘you’re going to be making a big mistake if you don’t hire me,’” says Spiers. “There’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. If you can’t get that tone right in a cover letter, how are you going to get it right in personal interactions?”
Don’t: Rely on gimmicks. “Don’t make it like you’re applying for a reality TV show,” says Friedman. It’s not about “standing out from the crowd and being the weirdest.”