Entry-levels jobs usually aren’t much fun. They tend to involve a lot of drudgery that feels like a step down from the level of your work you did in college. Often when you’re fresh out of school, you end up taking the first job that comes your way, no matter how uninspiring, because you’re anxious to start making money (or, let’s be honest, pay back your student loans).
But some people are lucky to land the internships and entry-level jobs of their dreams, or to quickly score positions at top companies within just a few years of graduating. How? Fast Company spoke to several of them–plus a few recruiters on the inside–to find out.
Kévin Lancelin admits that one of the reasons he landed a job offer from Nike before he graduated was cliché: “It was really about being at the right place at the right moment.” An employee on the team he was interning on had recently left, and space opened up for him.
But that’s only part of the story. Lancelin, an apparel designer for the brand’s activewear line, NSW, had deliberately put Nike in his crosshairs years earlier. At Créapole, the Paris art school where Lancelin studied, it was considered standard practice to look for design work in France after graduating. But “I really wanted to go to the Netherlands to Nike,” he recalls.
So Lancelin chose activewear coursework within his fashion degree program, and in his third year “built a stronger portfolio really based on the Nike atmosphere and values.” Then he says he “aimed high and told myself, ‘I have nothing to lose,'” and applied. He got it, and eight months later the internship turned into a job offer.
Looking back, Lancelin sums up his strategy this way: “I really studied to impress Nike.”
“Wherever you can bring reality into something that you see as a problem or an inefficiency, those are the things that really stand out to us since that’s what we do every day,” says Hyla Wallis, a university recruiting programs manager at Facebook.
Wallis leads the team responsible for hiring the more than 1,000 interns Facebook brings on board each year in the U.S., most of whom become full-time staff. What type of problem-solver does she look for? “We had a student who actually collected a database to show events or activities [and] volunteering opportunities within their community that they couldn’t find [elsewhere],” says Wallis, “and they built something and shared it out.”
Because everyone’s coming through the door with minimal or zero work experience, recruiters and hiring managers have to look for other signs of what candidates can do. Any examples you can show a hiring manager of “something you thought of, you created . . . and got other people to use,” adds Wallis, can help put you over the edge.
Six months ago, designer Charlene Chand joined Taco Bell’s marketing team, where her job is to design restaurant posters and drive-thru menus that make the “Quesalupa” (“essentially a taco with a quesadilla as the shell”) look maximally mouthwatering. Chand, 26, started her career in UX/UI design at smaller companies, but when a friendly acquaintance from college posted on Facebook about an opening on her team at Taco Bell, Chand decided to take the leap.
The standard networking advice for undergrads and entry-level job seekers is to tap your alumni network–which you should. But sometimes just keeping an eye on where your own classmates land–including those “loose connections” in your college network–is better than reaching out to someone who graduated a decade ago.
“Taco Bell is the first ‘big’ company that I’ve worked for,” Chand says, “and giant corporate places are a bit scary.” But the team she interviewed with seemed to like her small-company experience and assured Chand the work culture was intimate and close-knit. She says they were right. “Being a graphic designer at Taco Bell is fun–it’s upbeat, it’s cool, [and] it’s catering to an audience that I’m familiar with. I’ve learned so much in six months.”
Face it: When you apply to your first job or internship, your resume isn’t going to be that impressive. Your real task is to show your potential, not your track record. That’s where cover letters–otherwise reputed to be taking their last gasps–still matter.
When Landon Peoples, 23, applied to intern at Vogue, he recalls, “I was living in a dorm on the Lower East Side, going to a private Christian college. I had no prior fashion experience, no contacts. I also didn’t study fashion,” Peoples adds, “and I made a point of that.”
“I looked at my favorite editors and people I always looked up to and none of them did either,” he says. When Peoples was still in high school, he recalls, “I tweeted Eva Chen [formerly Teen Vogue‘s beauty editor and now Instagram’s head of fashion partnerships] and I just asked her, ‘What do I major in?'” Peoples says (paraphrasing) that she told him to “study something that you’re already really good at so you can excel,” and the rest just comes down to passion.
This was useful intel later on when it came to drafting a knockout cover letter for Vogue. Peoples knew it was his best shot at showing off his writing chops, his perspective on the magazine, and what he thought he could bring to it.
It worked. A second internship (at the beauty site Into The Gloss) and a few years later, and Peoples landed an editorial assistant gig at Refinery29, which soon turned into his current role as staff fashion writer. When he first applied, he did a little digging again, and found the email address of the fashion features writer. Then he sent her his application, too.
“I wasn’t aggressive there either, though,” says Peoples. “I literally was just like, ‘I just did this, have a look.’ I think that’s key.” Much the way he’d tweeted Chen, he says, “I kept it super short.”
“I know that as someone new to the job market, people may not be able to point to prior experience and say, ‘I can do this job because I’ve already done XYZ,'” says BuzzFeed recruiter Dan Geiger. “But a lot of entry-level hires tell me, ‘working at BuzzFeed would be a dream!’—which is cool because it is a fantastic company,” he says. But it’s better to get enthusiastic about the specifics of the role, not just the brand.
“I also want someone to take the effort to really read a job description, pay attention to the fine details, and create an application that speaks to the job, as well as the company,” says Geiger.
Taylor Smits, a recruiter at Refinery29, agrees. Gushing about the company, he says, “puts all the work on me . . . So rather than saying you are about to graduate with a marketing degree and you want to work at Refinery29, you should mention your ability to work with analytical data in Excel, Tableau, or Domo; your internship that taught you how to use Google Analytics; or how you learned to drive traffic to websites in college using Facebook ads.”
“One approach focuses on what you want,” says Smits. “The other focuses on how you can help my company. Which one do you think I want to see?”