Illustration by Dylan

Your first job can be an exciting and nerve-racking endeavor. Responsibility! Life skills! Character building! All those other buzzwords that you pretend to care about when earning a paycheck! Whether you’re saving for something big like college, or just looking for spending money to go out with your friends, chances are many of you are beginning to look for income beyond babysitting for your neighbors. While it might seem overwhelming to figure out where to start, as with everything else, the process is less intimidating when you break it down into steps.

Step One: The Résumé

Your résumé is essentially a list of your qualifications that you use to sell yourself to potential employers. It’s part of the first impression you’ll offer when applying for a job.

The top of your résumé should have your name in significantly larger letters, followed by your contact info, education, skills, and relevant experience. If you’re not sure how to format a résumé, you can base it on a template online and then personalize it. Don’t succumb to the urge to “jazz it up” with Comic Sans and “fun” clip art. It’s important to keep your résumé professional looking. Proofread everything carefully! Then get a friend to proofread it again (you never catch all your own errors). You may also want to look into making a new email address just for job-seeking purposes: [email protected] will not make the impact you are looking for.

When you’ve never had a job before, it can also be hard to figure out what to put down for your prior experience. Pretty much everybody has been in the same boat that you’re in now. You can be honest about your experiences while still filling out your résumé, though: did you ever babysit or mow lawns? Were you part of any school clubs or teams? Do you have any hobbies that you are passionate about? Do you write daily on a blog related to the job you’re going for? Anything that shows you can handle responsibility, be creative, take initiative, and/or work well with others is worth including. You can also make multiple résumés that play up different skills if you plan on applying to a wide variety of jobs.

Step Two: Applying

It’s generally a good idea to submit résumés to as many places as you can, even if you don’t think they’re currently hiring. Keep an open mind. When I was 15, I had dreams of working in a cool record shop or café like Josie in the opening credits montage of Josie and the Pussycats. In reality, the only place that called me back was a fast-food hamburger chain, for a position that required a hairnet. Glamorous, right? Anyway, the experience ended up being great; I was the same age as most of my co-workers and they became some of my best friends. Plus, I learned to love our regular customers (including one little old man who would lend me his favorite poetry books after learning I that loved reading). My point is: you don’t know how much you’re going to like a job until you actually work there, and pretty much every job will involve doing a fair share of stuff you just don’t want to do. That’s why they’re paying you.

That being said, it still isn’t bad to be somewhat discerning. Working at a movie theater might seem fun, but they can stay open until one or two in the morning. Is that cool vintage store a 90-minute bus ride away? Consider things like safe transportation, location, whether your hours will interfere with school, and the general atmosphere of the place. Google a place if you are unsure about working there, or talk to current and former employees and ask them how they like(d) their jobs. (These are also good things to ask in an interview.)

In Store: For a lot of part-time jobs (especially retail and fast food), one of the best things to do is just go into the store and drop off a résumé. Ask whoever is working if you can speak to the manager or supervisor; when this person appears, smile, politely introduce yourself, shake their hand, and tell them that you are looking for a part-time or summer job. If the manager isn’t in, you can ask when they’ll be around and come back later (bonus: ask for their name, so when you come back you’ll look like you’ve done your research). Some places are used to getting a ton of résumés every day, so if the employee offers to take your résumé, give it to them, but ask their name so you can follow up later. If there’s a separate application to fill out, I’ve learned from experience it’s better to bring it home, take your time filling it out, and come back later.

There are probably more things to keep in mind to not do. Some of these tips might seem obvious, but I’ve worked in multiple stores and accepted résumés from people who have done all of the following.

Don’t drop off résumés in a group with your friends. Don’t have your mom drop off your résumé for you. Don’t stay and shop/eat when applying for a job. Don’t come by during peak business hours. Don’t chew gum. Don’t wear super-casual clothes. Don’t interrupt a customer transaction. Don’t try to engage the (probably very busy) employee with a 20-minute conversation about how bad you want to work there. Don’t badmouth the job you are applying for to the employee. Seriously. Don’t do that.

Online: The internet can be a good tool, but it can also feel like throwing your résumé out into the wild. Stay safe and stick to reputable and legitimate websites. Here are some sites to keep in mind:

  • Government websites: Many city and state government websites have special job searches for students.
  • Community centers: These are good if you’re looking for a camp-counselor position.
  • Company websites: If you know exactly what store or business you want to work for, consider contacting them directly through their website.

Step Three: The Interview

If, within a week of dropping off your résumé, you haven’t heard anything, you can follow up with a phone call. The same rules apply: be polite, ask to speak to the manager, and say: “Hello, my name is X. I dropped off a résumé with [employee name] last Monday, and I was wondering if you’d had a chance to look at it yet.”

If they call you up to schedule an interview, ask if you’ll need to bring any references. Either way, bring in an extra copy of your résumé. Before you go in for the interview, make sure you know a few things about the company and the job you’re applying for, even if this means skimming their website. Usually, there are a set of questions that are asked during every interview, so you can start to think of some answers beforehand. Here are the questions that tend to come up a lot:

  • Why do you want to work here?
  • What are your biggest weaknesses? (Yes, this is a dumb question. The trick here is to think of something unrelated to the job at hand, and then talk about how you’re working to improve that. This shouldn’t be something super personal, like “I date really codependent girls.” Try something like “I don’t pay as close attention as I should in classes I’m not interested in, but I’m working on it,” or “I am bad at talking on the phone, but I’m practicing.” Don’t try to disguise an asset as a flaw, e.g., “I’m just SUCH a perfectionist,” because employers can see right through that.)
  • Can you give us an example of a problem that arose at another job, and how you fixed it?
  • What can you bring to our team?

Be at least a couple of minutes early to your interview. If an emergency comes up, call them as soon as you can to reschedule. Make eye contact, dress professionally, don’t interrupt the interviewer, sit up straight, take a moment after every question to think about your answer, and RELAX. Seriously, it might sound like I’m throwing a lot at you right now, but all this boils down to:

1. Be professional.
2. Be prepared.
3. Don’t stress yourself out too much. Part of what your potential employer is trying to discern is whether you would be a pleasant person to work with. If you are so nervous during your interview that your real personality is obscured by jittery sweating and panting, they’ll never get to see how awesome you really are.

Usually, you get a chance to ask the interviewer questions at the end. This is a good time to ask any technical or practical concerns you might have: What is the starting pay? How many hours will you require to work a week? Is there a dress code or uniform? Will you have to pay for it yourself? When will you hear back about the job? Will they notify you if you don’t get it? At the end of the interview, thank them for their time. When you get home, write them a thank-you email and reiterate your interest in the job.

The Alternatives

You don’t have to limit yourself to looking for conventional jobs that tend to be recommended for teenagers. By my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and started submitting pitches to every alternative publication I could think of. I lucked out with a paying job. It wasn’t much (I was also working a retail job and interning at a newspaper), but I did make a bit extra money and was building my writing portfolio.

Most of us don’t get our dream job right away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work toward that in your spare time. Think about your favorite hobbies—is there any way to make money doing one or more of them? If you love to draw or craft, consider opening an Etsy [] store. Start a portfolio on Tumblr for your writing or photography, and constantly keep an eye out for publications you can pitch to. Be creative, and use whatever resources you can access to help you.

There’s no foolproof method to landing a job, at least not that I’ve discovered. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get hired after your first interview, or if you need to drop off a million résumés before even getting one. The more places you apply to, the better your chances will be at getting hired. Keep at it, and if you have any specific questions, let us know. Good luck! ♦