What’s the Deal With Entry-Level Job Experience Requirements? The Frustrating Truth
You’re ready to get started in a new career. As you look for entry-level positions to apply to, you keep running into the same problem—most seem to require one to three years of experience.
You’re not alone if you’re feeling a little miffed by this entry-level experience requirement paradox. If you’ve put in the work to earn a degree, you probably don’t feel like you have a ton of applicable experience outside of the classroom—so how exactly is anyone finding a job with requirements like these?
While this frustrating practice from employers can make you feel discouraged during your job search, it’s not necessarily an insurmountable hurdle for job seekers new to the field.
So what should you do to adapt? You’re in the right place to find out. Keep reading to see what these entry-level requirements really mean and how to tackle applying to these positions.
Frustrating truths about job postings for entry-level positions
There are few, if any, concrete guidelines for what “entry-level” is defined as. For most employers, entry-level falls into a range from needing no experience to requiring five years of experience. Depending on the role, school projects and internships can count toward this work experience, while others might be asking for proof of working a related job in the field. Ultimately, a lot of this definition just depends on the employer.
Inexperienced-yet-educated workers have long struggled with getting past this experience requirement barrier, with many settling for roles that typically wouldn’t require a college education. That’s a disheartening—and likely economically inefficient—use of an educated mind.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining to be found in this cloud. If job posting education “requirements” aren’t bound to anything beyond employer preference, that means there’s typically some leeway given for otherwise-qualified candidates.
Before giving up and moving on from a job opportunity that seems like it could be a fit, let’s first take a step back and understand the scenario from an employer’s point of view.
Why do entry-level job postings often list years of experience requirements?
There’s very little potential downside for employers to list experience requirements that may be a hair above what’s truly necessary. In the best-case scenario, they find a candidate that perfectly fits the description. Otherwise, employers have to “settle” for a qualified candidate who covers most of the requirements.
Additionally, many entry-level job descriptions are written in ways to help filter through what can be a deluge of online applicants.1 Automated hiring and talent management systems help human resources professionals and recruiters narrow down what can be an overwhelming number of applicants by using keyword searches or other filtering criteria.
Experience requirements for entry-level jobs are often posted with an acceptable range of applicants in mind, and these indicators can even work to deter candidates who are overqualified or too experienced.
“They’re trying to find someone with the skills and knowledge required for the job but also hasn’t had enough time in their career to develop bad habits,” says Kimberly Tyler-Smith, lead strategist at Resume Worded.
Is applying worth it even if I don’t meet all the criteria?
The short answer is typically “yes,” but there are some caveats to keep in mind before diving in.
While you probably don’t want to apply for positions where you only match half of the description, you certainly don’t need to be a perfect word-for-word match to stand a chance. When companies post entry-level positions, they aren’t necessarily looking for someone who meets one hundred percent of the description. Often, they are just seeking a solid enough candidate who is eager to contribute, learn and get up to speed on what may be missing.
Kali Wolken, career counselor and founder of The Lookout Point, recommends first doing a resume check to compare your resume to the job description.
“If you can say yes to at least 85 percent of the job requirements—and integrate these into your resume—then go ahead and send in the application,” Wolken says.
While the exact percentage you use as a reference point can vary a bit, this rule-of-thumb approach can help you weed out the roles where your chances are likely to be slim as you advance through the interview process.
Once you have your pool of 85-ish percent matches and are passionate about what these roles have to offer, it’s time to focus on what you can do to put your qualifications in the best possible light.
Read on for some simple steps.
How to build confidence and highlighting the qualifications you do meet
Tune up your resume
Make sure your resume is up to date and accurately demonstrates the experience you have. You don’t want to change your resume too much from application to application, but a little tailoring of what you want immediately presented is just fine. Don’t forget to include unpaid, volunteer or other relevant experience. These experiences can be just as valuable as a past job or paid position.
Use your network
If you know someone in the field or think you know someone who’d have a relevant connection to you, reach out and see if you can chat. Expanding your network and using your contacts is one of the best ways to get your name out there—and potentially overcome that initial automated screening process.
Even if a connection doesn’t know of an opportunity you could be a fit for at their organization at the moment, making a good impression can help ensure your name comes to mind if an opportunity opens up.
Highlight transferable skills
If you’re short on years of experience, it can help to include a skills section on your resume. Here, you have an opportunity to highlight your hard and soft skills. Your hard skills will be things you learned in classes that are specific to your field—essentially the technical skills that apply to the role.
Soft skills are things like creative problem solving, reliability and being organized. These skills can likely be applied to any job. While it’s a good start to list the soft skills you feel like you can bring to the table, be sure to have anecdotes and examples to share. Remember that anyone can say they’re adaptable, but they don’t always have a way to prove it when interview time comes around.
Most employers understand candidates with limited industry experience aren’t going to have a huge list of projects or accomplishments to their name in the field. But they can glean a lot of insight into your drive, decision-making ability and more by homing in on the life experiences that have shaped you so far.
Play to your strengths
Depending on your personality, you might feel a little uncomfortable talking about what makes you a great candidate. While you don’t want to overdo it with unfounded boasting, you shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge the things you are good at.
Recognizing your talents shows employers you are confident and believe in the value of your contribution to their company. You can emphasize your strengths through your resume, in a cover letter and while interviewing. When you can talk about your strengths, you are providing the hiring team with tangible ways you might be a great addition to their team.
You’re ready for a breakthrough
Now that you have a better understanding of why entry-level job experience requirements exist, you should be able to tailor your job search approach and find the roles that can truly be a good fit. Breaking through that initial application barrier is a huge step, but you’ll also need to make a great impression during the interview phase.
For tips on how to prepare for that critical step and handle some of the trickier questions that may be coming your way, check out our article “7 Strategies for Handling Challenging Interview Questions.”
1 Kate Morgan, “Why inexperienced workers can’t get entry-level jobs,” BBC Worklife, September 20, 2021, [accessed September 2022], https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210916-why-inexperienced-workers-cant-get-entry-level-jobs.