A little over a month ago, I was listening to one of the two young women who I’ve been mentoring talk about the daunting process of applying for internships. She’s graduating from university this spring, and the transition from student life to work life seemed less like a step up a ladder rung and more like one toe up a mountain. A week later, I spoke to another young woman also about to leave student life behind who worried there was nothing about her experience that would make her resumé distinct within the avalanche of applications recruiters are wading through this spring.
If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of Canadian students currently on the hunt for your first “real” job, a coveted paid internship, or hell, just a regular freaking paycheque, this kind of almost crippling anxiety will likely seem pretty familiar to you. And that’s completely understandable. As I recently wrote in a piece titled “Are Women F*cked?,” young women have been hit hardest by job losses this pandemic and their mental health is suffering more so than any other group.
So listen, I’m not here to tell you to pull your tube socks up, grit your teeth, and carry on like the world isn’t a total tire fire for you right now. But I am going to argue that there are ways to stand out in the sea of applicants, and that you do have something to offer that no one else does. The trick is getting that message through to recruiters, employers, business owners, and hiring managers. Here are four steps to do just that.
Develop your story
One of the best pieces of advice I received ahead of a job interview (advice that led to me landing the role of Executive Editor here at Refinery29 Canada) is that it’s an opportunity to tell your story. You want to be memorable and send a clear message about who you are and what makes you incredible. In order to do that, you have to know what that story is. How do you figure it out? Start by grabbing a pen, your favourite notebook or journal, and a quiet corner. (I absolutely forbid you from doing this exercise with a screen. Turn off your notifications.)
Think about what makes you unique — this is about both a combination of your hard skills and the experiences and perspectives you have that nobody else does that make you perfect for a company or a role. Take some time to think about the hard skills and work experience that really make you shine. Write them down. For example, if you’re looking to join a skin-care or beauty brand in a marketing role, this may include being a total nerd at social media analytics, or your time volunteering as a coordinator for a community organization. FWIW: Entry-level candidates applying for the same job often have similar skills. That’s where developing a story helps!
Your story could include how your own skin-care journey led you to understand the relationship between skin and confidence. Or it could be about how hard it was to find a bronzer for your skin tone, and that’s why you stand behind brands that offer a wide range of shades. This is what hiring managers will remember! Practise telling your story (out loud!) in under five minutes.
Think local; act local (Or, tap that follow button)
Many mega brands and large corporations offer formal internship programs and, depending on how their industry was impacted by COVID, may have job boards with (hurrah!) entry-level job postings. Here’s the thing: Everyone in your graduating class will be applying for those positions. That’s not to say you shouldn’t. But... There are so many smaller companies and brands that need support (or, more bluntly, cheap labour). And that’s where you come in.
Many companies are trying to reach a Gen Z consumer — you are a Gen Z consumer! That’s powerful.
Invest hours doing your research! Love fashion or design? There are plenty of small Canadian brands and studios popping up. Get on Instagram and follow them. Learn what they do, how they do it, and who they’re trying to reach. Think about what sets a brand apart from all the other companies out there. Just like you, they have their own story as to what makes them special. Now think about what you could add that could bring value. (Hint: You’re young. So many companies are trying to reach a Gen Z consumer — you are a Gen Z consumer! That’s powerful.) Find 20 of these brands in your city or province, and study them like you did your last exam.
Introduce yourself to members of your dream industry's community
My mom always said there are three things that factor into job opportunities: luck, timing, and who you know. She’s not wrong. And now that you know the companies operating in the industry you’re passionate about in the city or province where you live, it’s time to network. Email the owners or heads of these smaller companies, tell them you love their company (be specific about why), and ask them if they’d spare 30 minutes of their time to tell you about themselves and their business. Be honest: You’re looking for an internship or entry-level position, but you’re also just hoping to learn more about their path to success in the industry you’re passionate about.
If their email is not listed on the company website, look for a generic info email and send a note there. (Re-read your email for typos.) I know what you’re wondering: Can’t I just slide into my potential future boss’s DMs? Try not to. I get a lot of inquiries from job and internship seekers in my Instagram DMs, and I think this is a bad strategy for a few reasons. 1) I’m usually scrolling through my DMs when I’m not working, and am therefore not going to respond, and am therefore more likely to forget about your note. 2) I don’t like reading long messages in my DMs. 3) My company email is available on the Internet with some easy sleuthing. If you aren’t the kind of person who has the initiative to find my email address, I’m not sure you’re the kind of person I want to hire. At the very least, ask me for my email via social with a quick note. And, yes, it seems more professional to do so through LinkedIn since it’s a career-focused networking site. (You have a LinkedIn, right? With a professional-looking headshot, yes? Good!)
Now ace those informational interviews (hint: shut up for a sec)
So someone agreed to give you 30 minutes of their valuable time? Yay! Your goal for this conversation is twofold: to learn about the industry and how this person found success within it and make a good impression. One way you can blow that precious half-hour: by talking about yourself for a big chunk of it! You want to give a brief introduction (here’s where that quickie story of you comes in), and then pass the Zoom mic.
Get someone rolling on what makes their brand or their business so great, and they’ll think you’re great.
Here’s a hot tip: People love talking about themselves! Get someone rolling on what makes their brand or their business so great, and they’ll think you’re great. Bonus: You’ll have learned a bunch. And let’s face it: You’ve got a lot to learn, so be a sponge. While you’ve got them, ask what they look for when they hire, ask what advice they have for someone in your position, ask about what qualities they think led to their success, and ask what’s challenging about their jobs, too. Then ask who else in the industry you should talk to learn more. Find the courage to graciously ask if they wouldn’t mind putting you in touch with their contact. This is all about developing connections, so that even if the conversation doesn’t lead to a job, it could lead to one that leads to that first internship. Make sure to send a thank you email afterwards — it’s incredible how many people don’t bother and therefore those who do are more memorable.
My mentee, by the way, followed my advice, began following local brands that reflected her passions on Instagram, sent emails and messages to reach out, and two weeks later, I received an email from her. The subject line read, Internship Update (Spoiler: REALLY GOOD NEWS). I think you guess what it was.