The 15 Things Every 20-Something Needs In Her Career Toolkit

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I’m not great with my hands (even my handwriting is mostly illegible), but I do love a good toolkit. Stashed away out of sight, I can take it out at a moment’s notice to fix everything from leaky pipes to crooked picture frames. I don’t need it most days, but when I do, I’m covered.

I have lots of similar “toolkits” in my life — if I’m on the go, I have some combination of Tide To Go pens, lip balm, and gum in my purse. My gym bag is always one sports bra away from being ready to take me from yoga to the locker room to work. Maybe it was my years as a Brownie, but I like being prepared.

Not all my toolkits are physical. Like anything else, a career needs a little fine-tuning or TLC every once and awhile, too. And having a fully stocked career toolkit pays off — it means you’ll be ready to jump into any situation, be it a new job search or run-in with your boss’ boss’ boss, without breaking a sweat.

Ahead, the 15 things every 20-something needs in her career toolkit — no hammering required.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
More than one friend has said to me that she’ll start making moves to get out of a job she hates — once she finds time to update her resume. Don’t let this one boring yet important task stand in your way. An up-to-date resume, even if you’re not job hunting, is also smart in case unexpected opportunities appear. Layoffs, dream jobs, and a friend’s friend who can put you in touch with a hiring manager can arise at any time; when they do, make sure you're ready.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Actively job-hunting can be exhausting, so it’s understandable why having a good (or even decent) job can keep you from looking again for a long, long time. But we recommend keeping job alerts active on Indeed.com (which aggregates listings from many sites), even if you’re happy in your current position. You can set alerts by job title and even by company, and you’ll get emails when new jobs are posted. You might find most aren’t tempting at all, but you may also find a perfect next step on your career ladder, without even really trying.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Like an outdated resume, a cover letter can drag down the job search process. But if you’re applying to jobs within a similar field, the contents of your cover letter may not vary all that much. Rather than starting from scratch every time, have a cover letter ready to go that highlights the experiences and achievements you keep coming back to. With each new application, you’ll want to tweak and add specifics for the company and job, but if you’re working off a draft rather than a blank document, you’ll be able to do this in no time.

Just remember to triple-check your grammar in each cover letter and make sure you’re not accidentally referring to other companies or jobs you’ve applied to in the past. (True story: I once left another magazine’s name in a cover letter for a different publication. Needless to say, I didn’t get an interview.)
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Does this sound familiar? You’ve made it to the final round of your interview process, you’re feeling confident… and then the hiring manager asks for references. Now, you’re scrambling to compose nice emails to former managers you haven’t spoken to in years. Instead of having to start from scratch every time, ask those same managers if they’d be willing to be your go-to reference as long as you give them a heads up. It’s best to ask this when one of you moves on from a job, but it’s fine to do it after the fact as well. Offer to provide them a list of your accomplishments so it will be top of mind when they’re talking about you.

Having a few references at the ready means that you’re only alerting your former manager that you’ve listed them as a reference when the time comes, instead of sweating it out waiting for their response.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Just like keeping references on hand, make sure you also have a record of the address and phone number of your old employers as well. It will make applying for jobs and providing references way, way easier. Keeping a document saved in the same place as your resume is an easy way to keep it organized.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
You probably won’t have just one mentor over your career, but, at any given point, you should have at least one. They’re invaluable resources for advice, perspective, and, sometimes, frank feedback you need to hear. If you don’t have a mentor right now, consider what your current goals are, whether it’s growing in your current role or learning a new skill, and think strategically about the best people who can provide insight and advice to help get you there.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Speaking of things changing, at some point, you may find yourself without a job, or between jobs for longer than expected. That situation is stressful enough, but if you don’t have an emergency fund, you may find yourself going into debt, or even taking a job you know you won’t like out of desperation.

A proper emergency fund isn’t one-size-fits-all. It’s based on your current fixed expenses (the stuff you can’t cut out like rent and groceries) for anywhere from three to six months. If it’s relatively easy to get a new job in your industry, you can have less. If you know it will take you a long time, consider funding it through six months.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Have you ever gotten to a review or promotion conversation and found yourself tongue-tied? (Meanwhile, you’re still losing sleep over the time you were reprimanded for breaking the copier, because that’s just how the human mind works.) Instead of searching your memory on the spot, keep a folder on your desktop or email where you record compliments and accomplishments. You can draw on this in your current and future job, and even look at it if you’re having a bad day.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Thinking up a five-year plan is daunting because it can feel like you’re writing it in Sharpie. (Heck, I don’t even know what I’m doing for lunch today, much less doing with my life in a year or two.) But having a larger goal or direction in mind can help you stay focused and think in terms of the big picture, beyond your daily to-do lists. Of course, things change and new opportunities arise, and you may find yourself in a completely different place than you ever thought you’d be. The trick here is to think big, but be willing to revise and adjust as you go.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
If we’re talking toolkits, your office buddy is your Swiss Army knife — she’s there for gripe sessions, coffee runs, and emergency advice. Different from a mentor, your office buddy should be someone in your peer group. Not only can you bug her with things you might not want to bother a mentor with, you can also get a second opinion from someone who is there with you every day. Just make sure the relationship is balanced and you’re there for her as well. Being able to listen and problem-solve for someone else will help you grow, too.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Even the hardest worker needs a break to rest, rejuvenate, and regroup. If you’re burned out, your work suffers, too, so it helps you and your company if you’re taking your allotted time off. Not to mention not taking paid time off is essentially losing money — you’re working more days for the same pay.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Speaking of keeping yourself open to new opportunities, your LinkedIn profile is an easy way for people to find you, even if you’re not looking. Making sure that your profile reflects your job experience through your most recent employer and job title. Not only will it give recruiters a more accurate picture of your current experience and skill level, it will make you look more dynamic and engaged.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
A dynamic, interesting LinkedIn profile should include a good profile picture, too. If it’s your graduation picture, a grainy shot of you at a party, or (even worse!) no picture at all, take a few seconds to find a more professional substitute. Anything that shows you alone, looking at the camera, in good lighting, is a great place to start.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
A cover letter is a great way to sell yourself in a formal setting, but what if you wind up at drinks with someone you want to be your mentor, or in an elevator with a VIP from your company whom you don't ordinarily have a chance to speak to? Having a succinct way to sum up what you’re doing and why it matters (or what you hope to do, and how you’ll do it) is an easy card trick to keep in your back pocket. You don’t want to seem overly rehearsed, of course, but you don’t want to be tongue-tied and kicking yourself afterwards for wasting the opportunity.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Having a weekly check-in with your boss, even if it’s informal, has two benefits. The big one is that it will allow you structured time to raise questions and concerns before they snowball out of control. You might not have something to talk about every week, but it’s better to occasionally cancel than never touch base at all. A very real second benefit is that by using the time to ask questions and update your boss on progress, you’ll be making her life easier, which is going to make you look even better. Talk about a win-win.
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