Resumes & Cover Letters

How to realistically fill your resume when you have no experience

Written by Kate Lopaze

You need to have a job to gain experience, but you need experience to get a job. At the beginning, just about everyone faces this catch-22. Even jobs that seem like entry-level gigs require a resume as part of your application, so how do you craft your resume to make sure you’re presenting a solid, “hire me” package even if you don’t have experience yet?

Pick a friendlier format

The good news is that resumes have gotten more flexible over time. It used to be that everyone submitted pretty much the same resume: header + objective + reverse-chronological job history + skills + extras. Now, employers are used to seeing a variety of formats. For job hunters who are forging into a new field or just starting out, it makes more sense to play up your skills—not necessarily your experience. For that, you want a resume that prioritizes your skills and know-how.

For example, your resume might break down like this:

  • Header
  • Objective/Summary Statement
  • Bulleted list of skills, targeted specifically to this job description
  • Education/Certifications
  • Work Experience

The whole point of your resume isn’t to create some arbitrary cookie cutter version of yourself, it’s to show yourself off in the best possible light. So don’t be afraid to switch up the sections if it means you’re creating a stronger narrative about who you are as an employee.

Your resume should build a narrative about you that’s clear to anyone reading it, so you want to put your highlights reel first. Start with a clear statement about who you are and what you’re seeking, then emphasize the skills and strengths that you bring to the job. You should still include a work experience section even if it feels a little sparse, but you can tuck it at the end after you’ve played up your strong points.

Realize you have more experience than you think you do

You may not have full-on work experience yet, at least not in the field for which you’re applying. But chances are, you do have some kind of experience, and have built skills along the way. If you’re a student (or a recent grad), think about courses you’ve taken that are relevant to this job or company. This doesn’t mean you should list every class you ever took just to take up space. Think strategically, and pick courses that relate to the job for which you’re applying. Internships are even better, if you’ve got any of those under your belt, because that’s hands-on experience.

And don’t forget extracurricular activities. Volunteer experience is often overlooked because people tend to assume that unpaid experience isn’t the same as job experience. Guess what? Volunteer experience is time spent building skills and relationships—both things that look fantastic on a resume. It may seem like your volunteer experience doesn’t necessarily align with the job you want, but you can finesse it. For example, say you volunteered at a kids’ community center but you’re applying for a marketing gig. Think about the tasks you did in your volunteer work. Did you arrange things (organizational skills)? Manage a schedule (time management)? Act as a liaison for people or groups (communication and teamwork)? Create programs or lead anything (leadership)? Take skills that employers value, like ability to work with others, leadership, organization, communication, and try to match up your volunteer experience with those skills.

Resist the urge to exaggerate too much

This is a case where “fake it ‘til you make it” is not going to help you. If you include skills and experience points that aren’t quite true, you’re running a significant risk of getting caught. Best case, no one questions your whale tales and it gets you the job. All is great until someone asks you to demonstrate the Spanish language fluency you listed on your resume or use that fancy Excel wizardry you claimed to have developed at your last job. Over-exaggerating isn’t really a way to compensate for a lack of experience, and if you’re called out on it, it will be very awkward (not to mention harmful to your prospects of getting the job).

Consider certification

Another way to make up for a lack of specific job experience is to get specific education or certification that prepares you for the job. Are there certifications in your field? Licensing organizations? By going through the process of becoming certified, you’re getting an outside party to say, “hey, this person is qualified.” And that’s something you can put near the top of your resume to show you’ve got the skills and training—if not years of experience.

Remember: it’s all about emphasizing what you do have and framing your resume narrative in a way that shows you’re ready, willing, and able to take the job, no matter how much experience you have (or don’t have).

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.