Think You Lack Relevant Experience? Think Again

Instagram: @phyllee105
Financial District, New York, New York

Ever since I started working at my college's career services two years ago, I have helped many students and even friends from other schools with resumes and cover letters. A question that I've been asked the most is "I'm really interested in this position, but I don't have the relevant experience. What do I do?"

In this post, I'll share with you my main takeaways from my actual "consultations" with students to illustrate how to leverage your diverse experiences, whether they're relevant or not, and portray them in a convincing story. I've found that they worked really well for me and the students I have helped.
All names with an asterisk (*) have been assigned fake names to protect students' anonymity.

ONE: Be self-aware! Being able to sell your strengths, capabilities, and what you've learned from your past experiences (yes, even if they are unconventional from other candidates') is a crucial skill that, when mastered, will open up so many opportunities in the future.

While the lack of relevant experience may be a hindrance, at least for undergraduate students, I think the bigger issue at hand is being able to convince someone (an employer in this case) that you are a strong candidate for the position. However, I will caveat by saying that self-promotion can only go so far. Depending on the circumstances, you may have to get some basic qualifications to not only show your competency but also your commitment to the job or industry.

Let's say you are an accountant and you wish to work for a hedge fund. No matter how great an accountant you are, the skill sets of an accountant and a hedge fund analyst have little overlap, so you may have to go to business school to build a solid foundation in finance.

TWO: Understand what the job is about. If there are any gaps in your understanding of the job, literally Google "roles and responsibilities of [insert job name]." 

Because job search is time consuming and tiring, make sure you have a good understanding of the job. It's incredibly important to know whether the job would be a good fit for you. If it's not a good fit, you will not enjoy your work. Look up job descriptions from companies' career portals, forums and other career-related websites. If you know people who work in the role, you could even schedule a brief phone call to ask them what the job is like.

THREE: If you feel that you lack the relevant experience, you should always ask yourself, "Why am I interested in this position?" This question helps you realize whether your personal interests and values align with those of the job.

One time I helped my friend Bob* (great fake name, I know) with his resume. He attends a prestigious undergraduate business school and wants to work for a healthcare-focused venture capital (VC) firm. However, most of his experiences were in film production, and this concerned him because other applicants had previous finance internships. 

Was this a valid concern? Yes, it is. But was this a reason to stop trying? Definitely not. When I asked Bob why he was pursuing a job at this healthcare VC firm, he replied:
There are so many great ideas that people have. Funding is the biggest factor as to whether those ideas come to life or not. I especially realized the importance of funding when I was making my own films. Without funding, my films would not have been possible. As a finance and biology double major, I realized that the healthcare industry has a lot of room for improvement, especially for medical diagnostic technology. The idea of helping a budding entrepreneur with making his idea come to real life and make a positive impact on the healthcare industry excites me.
 OK, not bad. Makes sense to me.

FOUR: Once you know what the job is about, AND you are convinced you would be a good fit, then you should take a look at your past experiences and convincingly connect them with the desired job.

If there is a connection between the two, show it. Whatever you did before, there must be some skill that you can transfer onto your next job. It could be a soft skill (e.g. communication, relationship building), and it could be a hard skill (e.g. advanced skill in data regression).

For example, I once helped a student who was interested in a sales role at a midsize company. Her only experience was working at a local ice cream shop. Selling ice cream is still technically sales.
When people walked in on a hot summer day, she interacted with her customers, promoted the shop's vast range of flavors, and ultimately generated revenue for the ice cream shop.

While there is a difference between a local ice cream parlor and a midsize company, she can leverage her experiences if she focuses on her possession of the key skills required for successful salesmanship: communication and relationship building.

FIVE: Most people actually have more relevant experience than they think they do. 

Relevant experience could come from anywhere: classes, extracurricular activities, society memberships, you name it. It's not limited to just internships.

Let's go back to Bob. Bob had taken a lot of relevant classes, even a VC class, where he learned valuation methodologies, wrote VC-specific reports, and how to select companies to invest in. He was also a member of a healthcare entrepreneurship club. Well, if you ask me, these are all pretty dang relevant.

Aside from this VC class, the rest of his work was in film production. I asked him to tell me, from beginning to end, what he did at one of his film internships.
Well, I wrote the script and finalized it with editors. Then, I had to think about how many actors I would need and estimate the cost for filming venues. Once I had that figured out, I had to raise money to finance those expenses. I ended up raising over $700 in two weeks. I made the film in a month and presented it to Disney executives.
I told him to include his film experiences under the Professional Experience section on his resume, to which he responded, "Really? Even though it's not a finance internship?" Even if it's not directly related to finance, he clearly demonstrated considerable skill in leadership, organization, and time management, which are all relevant skills.

SIX: Your story needs to be 100% you!

Creating a smooth story with a good flow is the final and crucial step, and it determines everything. If you do not make a convincing argument for yourself, there is a low possibility that you'll get what you want or need. Your story also requires honesty. Although I am a strong proponent of strong self-branding, I cannot tolerate lying. Your story needs to be 100% you.

With that being said...

While the six steps may seem intimidating, it really comes down to three things: knowing yourself, what you want, and why you deserve it. I hope they are helpful for you!

Best,
Phyllis