What Does Entry-Level Mean?

Ryan Morris
By Ryan Morris
- Mar. 1, 2021

Find a Job You Really Want In

Entry-level positions are, typically speaking, the first job you’ll ever have in your chosen industry.

Traditionally, these jobs have required either very little or no experience of applicants, which makes a lot of sense — they’ve never worked in the industry before.

But as workers today have grown increasingly qualified thanks to early college work experiences along with other extra-curricular experience, it’s becoming tougher and tougher to land a low-level job.

Nowadays, even most supposedly “entry-level” jobs require at least some degree of experience, which can make finding a first-time job an exercise in futility.

We’ve put together a guide to help make this experience a little more manageable.

What Does entry-level Mean?

When it comes to declaring a job as “entry-level,” there are more of what you call “guidelines” than there are actual rules.

Every company has a different and individual idea of what entry-level means, which can be as much of a hindrance to job seekers as it is a boon.

One thing that entry-level jobs have in common is that they’re almost always the bottom rung — you can assume that you’ll be entering the company at the lowest possible level.

Traditionally, this has also meant that jobs marked “entry-level” don’t require any experience at all — but as we’ve mentioned, this is no longer the case.

In fact, it’s a common sight at this point for entry-level positions to require anywhere from 1-3 years of relevant experience in order for them to consider you for the job.

But there’s a silver lining here: just as each company has a different idea of what “entry-level” means, so too does each company have a different internal definition of what constitutes “experience.”

Why Do Some Entry-level Jobs Require Experience?

Job seekers these days suffer from an overabundance of competition.

Even with rising employment levels, there are still too many applicants for the same jobs, and the same education initiatives that help give new college graduates a leg up in their given industry have resulted in one of the most competitive workforces there has ever been.

That means that even in some of the lowest level jobs in a given industry, you might be expected to have some kind of relevant experience.

But fortunately, what that experience is can mean a lot of different things — including things you might already have done by sheer virtue of having been in college for a few years.

So if you see that a job requires a year or two of experience, don’t give up hope just yet.

Here are some things you might have already done that could count as “experience” for an entry-level job position:

  • Classwork. Granted, this one can be kind of a stretch, but if you’ve taken classes that are relevant to the work that you’re doing, that can often be an excellent thing to bring up in an interview.

    Talk about specific projects you undertook, or if you were lucky enough to work with professors who are or were experts in their field, mention them by name.

  • Hobbies, clubs, and other extra-curriculars. Odds are that if you were even a little social in college, you probably worked with at least some form of club designed around one of your interests.

    In addition to the way that club might have allowed you to do work relevant to the job you’re trying to get, clubs and other social groups often give you experience that’s a little more universal — the kind of experience that lets you develop teamwork or leadership skills, for example.

  • Side jobs/non-industry-related jobs. Lastly, unless you were a trust fund kid or had a particularly stellar scholarship, odds are that you had some kind of job while you were going to school.

    Regardless of whether it was directly related to the entry-level job you’re trying to get, you ought to be able to draw some kind of line from the work you did there to the work you hope to do in the future. When it comes to side jobs, most hiring managers respect the hustle.

How to Gain Experience for an Entry-Level Job

Now for the bad news — depending on how complicated your industry is, there’s a distinct chance that a hiring manager will be a huge stickler on what constitutes relevant experience.

That means that no matter what side stuff you did in college, they’re just not going to hire you unless you have direct experience in your chosen industry.

If that ends up being the case, you can despair a little bit. It’s allowed.

After all, finding that experience in such a bloated job market can be like looking for a piece of hay in a needlestack. That is, excruciating. But not, contrary to popular belief, totally impossible.

Here are some things you can do to gain the level of experience necessary for an entry-level job in your industry:

  • Internships. If you can afford to live on the negligible (and often non-existent) pay that an internship offers, there are always opportunities out there for people with no experience to work in an industry for free.

    But it’s worth remembering that, for one reason or another, employers often look for younger people when they’re considering candidates for internships — so make sure you look for these while you’re still a spring chicken.

  • Work in a related (but different) industry. Sometimes, it’s best to just start looking for work wherever you can get it. That doesn’t mean you’re throwing in the towel — in fact, it’s best if the job you’re looking for is as close to your chosen industry as possible.

    But it does mean that you’re taking more of a long-term approach to finding a job — one that keeps food on your table in the interim.

How to Find an Entry-Level Job

It might feel hard to lock down even an entry-level job if you have no work experience. While it’s good to tamp down your expectations a bit, both for your role and the salary it pays, it’s still possible to find a decent job that sets you on the right career path.

Follow our step-by-step process for finding an entry-level job that’s right for you:

  1. Create a list of your skills. Starting with a master list of your skills and experience is a great place to start. Make this a judgment-free brainstorming session where everything is on the table, even if you can’t think of how “whistling” might translate into a job opportunity.

    Even things that might seem unrelated, like team sports or hosting parties, could give you some impressive talents, like teamwork, communication, and planning. If you truly don’t know what kind of career you want, this is a great jumping-off point to match your skills to a job.

  2. Narrow down your search. Keywords are important in your resume and cover letter, but they’re also important for the job-search process. Use synonyms for entry-level like “junior” or “associate,” to help weed out job postings you won’t qualify for.

    If you know, in general, what industry you want to work in or what role you want to have, consider targetting more specific local job boards.

  3. Use your network. If you’re a recent graduate or soon-to-be graduate, make use of your school’s career center and alumni network. Some companies have probably have relationships with your school, and a recommendation from a professor or university official can go a long way.

    Regardless of whether you’re in school or not, look out for local career fairs. They’re a great way to introduce yourself to a lot of employers at once and get a feel for what you want to do.

    Be sure to bring lots of resumes and gather plenty of business cards. You’ll have to shmooze a bit, but don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself for these events.

    Friends, family, teachers, and classmates can also be a great resource for learning about job opportunities.

  4. Read the job description carefully. Determining whether you’ll make the cut for an entry-level job opening is all about reading the job description carefully.

    Check for education and experience requirements, but don’t despair if you don’t have every single one. As long as you can make the case for a few of the requirements, go ahead and apply. Just don’t get your hopes up.

    Tailor your resume and cover letter for each position you apply to. Mirror language from the job description when listing skills and describing your experience. Don’t over-do it, exaggerate, or lie, but do look for places where you can honestly use the same keywords.

  5. Don’t be afraid to leave your major. After four years of studying something, you probably feel committed to a job in that field. But you’re not.

    The great thing about entry-level jobs is that your background isn’t super important. Of course, for scientific, academic, and medical roles (or any job with stringent certifications), entry-level still means you need to have certain credentials.

    But if you’re a Humanities student who wants to get into data analysis, live your dream.

Getting Ahead in an Entry-Level Job

After you’ve landed your entry-level job, it’s time to make the most of the opportunity. Here are a few tips to excel as an entry-level employee:

  • Go the extra mile. Entry-level employees can rise quickly with a good attitude. Take the initiative to perform extra tasks nobody asked you to do (as long as it won’t mess anyone else up). Offer to help your coworkers with their work when the chance presents itself.

    Speak up at meetings (an appropriate amount) and ask for clarification when you need it. Good managers should pick up on the effort you’re putting in, and if your effort leads to tangible results, even bad managers should take notice.

    Also, ask for feedback and be willing to make adjustments based on what you hear. If you care about doing a good job, you’ll start to get more responsibilities. That’ll help beef up your resume for a non-entry-level job or earn you a promotion with your current employer.

  • Epxplore your options. One great thing about being an entry-level employee is that you’re not typically married to your responsibilities the way more senior roles are. You’ll probably do a bit of this and a bit of that, which is a great chance to learn what you like and what you’re good at.

    Jump at the chance for opportunities to learn something new, and then take notes and reflect on what you’re learning. You can even study up using an online course or just YouTube tutorials and get better at your job on your own time.

  • Get a mentor. Mentoring doesn’t have to be a super formal thing. But if you can find an upper-level coworker who you get along with and can help show you the ropes, take advantage of that.

    This person can help you avoid pitfalls in your career path and help you achieve your goals more efficiently. As they say, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

    Aside from that, it’s good to have a buddy you can learn about the industry from and bounce ideas off in a non-formal way.

Final Thoughts

Even in cases where companies definitely mean that they only want to hire people with genuine industry experience, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get a job without that experience.

It does, however, mean that you’re going to have to get creative.

It’s often the case that even though companies want to hire someone with a lot of experience, their expectations are unrealistic compared with the candidates that are actually available to apply for the job.

So if you can sell your non-work experience well enough, you might just find that you’re being seriously considered for positions that, on their face, would never have given you a second glance.

A little confidence goes a long way there too.

Never miss an opportunity that’s right for you.
Ryan Morris

Author

Ryan Morris

Ryan Morris was a writer for the Zippia Advice blog who tried to make the job process a little more entertaining for all those involved. He obtained his BA and Masters from Appalachian State University.

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