A screenshot from designer Florian Holstein's Adidas-focused resume.

How to Get Hired When You Are Just Starting Out

At 99U, we often share best practices and insights from the world’s most productive creatives, but what about those of us just getting started? How do you fill out “past experience” on an application when, frankly, you don’t have any?

We talked to Career Advisors from art and design colleges around the globe about resourceful ways to package any amount of experience on your CV, application or in an interview. Here are our top tips for promoting your “student” status and jumpstarting your creative career.

1. Include personal projects to bulk up your resume.

Don’t limit yourself to the confines of a traditional resume. Recognize that under “Skills” you can list everything from Photoshop to silk-screening, that studio time can be just as important as past employment, and that unpaid side projects show dedication, initiative, and responsibility. If the majority of your experience is personal, studio, or classroom work, add more of a description than you normally would, explaining the kind of timeline you were working with and why you chose the subject matter.


Above: Illustrator Simon Prades effectively displays personal work and side projects in his online portfolio.

2. Don’t just list the facts; tell your story instead.

Whether you’re looking to freelance or join a creative company, business is all about relationships, so recruiters, clients, and hiring managers want to know who you are and not just what you’ve done. Including a bio on your website or in your portfolio is a great way to share your back-story and highlight what you stand for.

Your bio should address the following five questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. How can I help you?
  3. How did I get here?
  4. Why can you trust me?
  5. What do we share in common?

For more insight on how to craft a bio, read 99U’s The Resume Is Dead The Bio Is King.

3. Showcase your creative process by sharing iterations and mockups.

Show prospective clients and collaborators how you think by including the rough sketches, prototypes, mockups and mood boards that led up to your finished piece. In addition to showcasing your creative process, this will help define your role within a given project – something that’s especially important within the realm of creative collaboration.

For example, if your portfolio includes a website, specify whether you built the entire thing, worked on the graphics, coded the frontend, etc. Bonus points for including captions under each asset you display that explains where you got your ideas, how you made decisions along the way, and what impact they had on your finished piece.

Above: Illustrator Tyler Jacobson includes sketches and iterations that bring his process to life. 

4. Hiring managers expect tailored applications. Do your research before hitting send.

Before submitting an application make note of your target company’s style – you can gather this from their website, campaigns, client list, and the content they share on Twitter and Facebook. As many recent (successful) “Hire Me Campaigns”  have taught us – in some cases the medium can be your most important message. Want to get a job as a community manager? Create a Twitter campaign. If your specialty is information architecture, turn your skills section into an infographic. If working at Vimeo is your dream job, make a video resume.

Targeting your portfolio toward a specific company gives you an opportunity to showcase your skills, initiative, and passion for the company in question.



AboveFlorian Holstein, a Creative Director who was in love with design and sports, created an interactive website to showcase his skills and land himself a job at his dream company, Adidas. 

5. Don’t be afraid to mention your idols, mentors, or creatives you admire in an interview.

Refining your knowledge of established creatives in your industry can really add to your interview repertoire. Musicians often promote themselves by referencing the artists they grew up listening to or the albums that shaped them. This can be applied to any industry.

Picture two candidates with similar education and experience (little to none) interview for the same photo assistant job. The hiring manager asks, “So why did you choose to major in photography?”

Candidate A responds with the typical “because it seemed interesting and I wanted to get a job as a photographer.”

Candidate B says, “I’ve been obsessed with fashion photography my whole life. I used to tear Annie Leibovitz’ portraits out of my sister’s Vanity Fair and today I really admire the work of photographers like Steven Meisel and Mario Testino and the risks they’re unafraid to take.”

Candidate B has a clear advantage, making up for what they may lack in experience by articulating their passion for their field and knowledge of established artists and trends.

What’s Your Take?

How did you land your first job? Any tips to add?

Jenn Tardif

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Jenn is a Product & Marketing Manager at Adobe and a Yoga Teacher. Formerly, she was the Associate Director of Partnerships for Behance and the Sr. Marketing Manager for The Drake Hotel. Say hello on Twitter.
load comments (51)
  • Daniel

    Interesting insight, however I’d have to disagree on a lot of the advice. It’s good advice perhaps if you’re looking to work in a small creative shop or design firm. If you’re wanting to work for a company to do in-house marketing/advertising/design, or even a larger firm, online applications are basically 99% of the time the only way you’re going to get a resume through the door.

    Jazzing up your resume to show off your creative skills isn’t going to matter if the only way they want your resume is in .txt format to upload to their application database.

    My final semester in college I branded myself ranging from my own letterhead, resume design, envelopes, business cards, website, etc. Everything was clean, creative, unique to me and showed off my skill set and personality…truth though, I only was able to show those pieces a few times out of all the jobs I applied for.

    At the end of the day, you’re at the mercy of how the company/job wants you to submit an application for the job and most of the time it’s electronic via their own online form. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wasted my time doing what I did to create my own brand. I think you still can in your portfolio, but the rest of the pieces like resume, envelopes, letterheads, are just a waste of time.

    • SlothsAteMyKids

      Eh, I’d say it’s more about who you know. A foot in the door or a friendly mention to someone in HR goes a lot further than anything I’ve ever heard/seen.

    • David Bosquez

      Ya, I gotta disagree with you that its online 99% of the time. Most of the time ive applied for jobs, I straight up called the HR and “sweet-talked” them into letting me submit my resume to them directly, for “review”. Regardless of how your resume looks, still try this. You’ll either get an interview, or you’ll get some helpful advice for your next time trying.

  • http://www.bklynresumestudio.com/ Dana Leavy-Detrick

    I think it’s also important to show your relevance and involvement in the industry. What kind of content are you out there following and sharing, which thought leaders do you follow, how are you representing yourself across things like social media? You’re talking about a career building other people’s brands, so you better be good at building and promoting your own. This is just a piece of it – I agree with some of the folks below who mentioned that you still will have to deal with impersonal online submission process. But there is still a human behind it reviewing your work! That was me for 10 years.

  • Bart Cleveland

    Great advice here, Jenn. Thanks. In the advertising industry, there are other things to do as well when you’re starting out. 1. Know where you want to end your career before you begin. If you take the wrong job in the beginning, you can be typecast and never reach your true goal. 2. Get professional training in addition to your schooling. Internships are critical but so is career training that is offer from companies like Job Propulsion Lab. 3. Build the perfect portfolio to sell your perfect employer. Don’t rely on school assignments to provide the right work. Study the companies you wish to work for and make your work match there’s in quality and category. 4. Look like a pro. If you’re trying to get into the best places, you’ll be in a long line. You will be competing with people with several years of experience. Look beyond your years. This will require extra work, but it’s worth it. 5. Nail the interview. This necessitates that you have great “soft skills.” McKinsey did a study that revealed soft skills are the deciding factor on hiring. Hard skills are necessary, but they don’t get you the job.

  • http://www.rainmakervt.com Mike O'Horo

    “Experience” is a shell game. People assume that experience equates to capability. That’s not necessarily so. We look at resumes and infer capability from the experience presented and described. There are two flaws there: 1) the description was written by someone who’s trying to influence your experience = capability inference, and 2) inferences are the product of the inferrer’s biases.

    Capability doesn’t necessarily require experience. A musician who has practiced and played an instrument privately for ten thousand hours is likely quite capable despite having no recognized experience. You can demonstrate capability. People hire capability. Experience is a plus if it causes the person to have judgment and context.

    You can’t control others’ inferences. Focus on demonstrating capability.

  • http://www.jobsclark.com/ Ruby Rocha

    In searching for a
    job, you really have to be creative enough to get the attention of
    your prospective company. The competition is high and because of this
    we have to think outside the box to stand out. Thank you for these
    wonderful tips!

  • http://o-wdesign.net/ Owdesign

    Since 2009 I create websites. I’ve had the privilege to design a few sites for several clients. I think it’s all about networking: connect to people in a trustfull way and keep engaging! I still get some asignments and it gives me a nice income.

  • apnerve

    In my last round of interview(back in 2010), one of the questions was “what according to you is a really well implemented web application. Both in terms of technology and user experience.”

    I answered Grooveshark and explained why. I was hired!

  • Herlin Farnandis

    Very inspiring blog post! I am writing this intensely written blog as it is original
    and well significant. Good work!

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