How to Craft a Resumé That Shines When You Have No Professional Experience

Landing your dream job isn't unrealistic

Make sure you're passionate about the role you're applying for. Illustration/Animation: Tenzin Tsepel
Headshot of Nicole Ortiz

Writing a resumé, particularly when you have no professional working experience yet, can seem daunting. What do you include if you lack a slew of jobs in your related field to boast about, especially when companies are asking you to showcase your specific industry experience?

Well, actually, there’s quite a lot you can include on your resumé. And if you’re having trouble piecing something together, there are multiple routes you can take to create a resumé that makes you stand out.

One place to start is to list any internships you’ve had or any work experience. And that means any jobs you’ve held in your college career (there are rare instances where it makes sense to highlight work you did in high school).

Amy Hoover, president at Talent Zoo, recommends listing “any type of work experience, whether it was an odd summer job, etc.—no job is too menial.”

She continues, “Don’t discount the fact that there are also a lot of professional qualities that come from other areas that aren’t necessarily a paying job, like volunteering or any type of leadership roles you may have had in school. In my opinion, none are too big or too small. If it wasn’t chairing a committee in a sorority or fraternity, maybe you were the leader on a class project.”

Which brings up another point: Relevant experience doesn’t necessarily pertain only to work experience. With that in mind, it’s easier to find experiences where you can pull out applicable skills, whether that’s from a project you worked on in class, volunteer work or extracurriculars.

Katie Ramp, director of talent at Muh-Tay-Zik Hof-Fer, says that you want to “[take] those transferable skills from the classes you’ve taken, the internships you’ve had, those experiences that maybe you’ve had in college that will transfer over to that job, and [highlight] those skills.”

“By highlighting areas of collaboration and work that they’ve done in the different industries that they’ve worked in, they can absolutely put that on their resumé and make a pitch for a position within this industry,” says Lisa Rodriguez, chief talent officer at Havas Media.

If you’ve thought through all your coursework and are still coming up empty, then the next step is taking the initiative to seek out resumé-building opportunities and attend networking events. If you didn’t join any clubs or sports in school, that’s OK, but now is the time to apply for an internship, work on a side gig or cash in on one of your hobbies.

For instance, running your own Etsy store could show your creativity, but also your leadership and management skills. And if you’re a musician and write the lyrics to your own songs, that could showcase strong writing skills and innovation.

This step will likely involve doing your fair share of research. Ramp recommends that recent grads “leverage their alumni network, that they get into the industry publications, find out what agencies are interested in and try to find someone at that agency to connect with and start doing informational interviews.”

By informational interview, Ramp means essentially seeking out a connection at an agency that you want to work at. She often sees applicants reaching out through LinkedIn to recruiters and also those who hold a position that they’re looking for, even if the company isn’t hiring. And from there, you just have to establish a connection.

It can be as simple as touching base with a recruiter to ask about open opportunities or asking for a tour of the agency. Once you have an in-person meeting established, you should come prepared with questions as if you’re interviewing for a job—what does success look like at that agency? how would you prepare for a job there? what are some challenges new employees often encounter?—and try to leave an impression so that they’ll think of you when a position does open up.

But regardless of who you reach out to, you’ll want to keep the recruiter looped into the conversation so that they can keep your information on file and will keep the conversation going.

Hoover notes, “You might just have to dig a little deeper into what you have been doing with your time. … Look at what you do on a day-to-day basis that allows someone to see the character [and ambition] that you have and the kind of drive that you may have.”

She continues, saying that there are essentially two options: “one is to self-teach and create a mini portfolio, and the other would be to consider portfolio school.” By seeking out online classes or a portfolio school, you’ll bulk up your skill set to be in a position where you’re ahead of the curve.

When applying for a job, you need to keep in mind that yours is not the only resumé recruiters will be looking at. And sometimes, that means going the extra step, like Jade Delaney, who dressed up as Fearless Girl when applying for a copywriter role at McCann Bristol, or Chase Zreet, who wrote a rap cover letter when applying to Wieden+Kennedy.

Ramp says, “We’re here in advertising to create entertainment. We’re here to create something that touches people, that entertains them, that cuts through the clutter.” This is especially important for those applying for creative jobs where your innovation and originality is one of your key assets.

However, sometimes it can be hard to stand out, so it might be necessary to find another route to your dream agency job like starting in a different department and growing within the company. In the end, it’s not the role that makes your career, it’s the company you work for and the passion you have for it.

“It’s about getting into the type of place you admire, go to an agency that you really like what they’re making, you like what they put out into the world and you want to be a part of it,” Ramp says. It’s especially important to consider “somewhere that you feel you’re going to find a great mentor, somebody who’s going to spend the time with you to teach you the skills that you need.”

Ultimately, Rodriguez says, “Most of the hiring managers really want to see that there is a sense of passion, purpose, and that [the applicant is] pertinent to their discipline.”

It boils down to making sure you’re passionate about the role you’re applying for and then using that passion to incite your purpose and help you create a resumé, cover letter and portfolio that’ll perfectly showcase your skills.

@neco_ornot Nicole Ortiz is a senior editor at Adweek, overseeing magazine departments such as Trending, Talent Pool, Data Points, Voice and Perspective.