Design Career Tips: How to Land Your First Job Out of College

More than one-third (34 percent) of advertising and marketing executives rated previous experience as the most important factor when hiring entry-level creative talent, according to a recent survey by The Creative Group. It ranked higher than interview performance, an impressive resume, professional references and your design portfolio.


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If you’re looking ahead to your first job out of college, now is the time to gain practical experience in a real work setting. Reading this after graduation? We’ve got some helpful pointers for you, too.

The good news: There are several ways for you to obtain valuable work experience, impress hiring managers and land your first design job. Here are five tips:

1. Find an internship.

One of the best ways to gain practical experience before graduating is to spend a semester or summer as a design intern. Many design programs offer a practicum as part of the curriculum. During this on-the-job training, you’ll learn about industry best practices and acquire valuable skills you can highlight in your job hunt. While most internships don’t lead to full-time jobs, some do. If you impress your internship supervisor with your initiative and ideas, he or she may make you an offer for your first job out of college. As you consider internship prospects:

  • Aim for onsite internships where you’ll work side by side with experienced professionals. It improves your odds of learning as much as you can.
  • Seek out internship projects that you can include in your portfolio.

Get to know as many people as you can and strive to gain at least one professional reference from the experience.

2. Pick a mentor.

When you’re looking for your first design job, seek out an experienced creative professional who can answer questions and offer career guidance.

  • Find someone whose professional trajectory you’d like to emulate. For example, if your goal is to work for an ad agency, you would benefit from a mentorship with a designer who has recent ad agency experience.
  • Once you’ve identified a willing mentor, cultivate the relationship by asking for regular meetings and opportunities to shadow the individual one or two days a week.
  • Pay close attention to the person’s advice, ask follow-up questions and respect your mentor’s time and expertise.

Where to Find Internships: Most universities offer career fairs where students can meet companies seeking interns. Contact your college career center or alumni association for information on how to participate. In addition, Robert Half (TCG’s parent company) and websites such as AIGA, InternMatch, and Creative Interns offer internship information.

3. Seek out part-time work and freelance assignments.

While you may not have enough experience to land that first job out of college, you may want to consider pursuing part-time employment or freelance projects — anything that exercises your passion and initiative. Perhaps a creative agency is looking for an assistant to support the design team for 10 hours a week, or a local restaurant needs help designing a new website. At this point in your career, any relevant experience builds your graphic design resume.

4. Volunteer.

Startups and nonprofits are especially in need of free design services. Although there is no pay with volunteering, the benefits of pro bono design work are plentiful. You’ll not only hone your skills and gain practical experience, but you’ll be adding to your design portfolio and professional network.

5. Highlight your experience during the job interview.

Although previous experience was first on hiring managers’ wish list in The Creative Group survey, interview performance came in a close second. Prepare for the meeting by:

  • Researching the company and tying your experience and passion to what the employer outlined in the job description.
  • Checking news and industry reports that discuss the organization’s priorities and areas in which they are looking to improve their performance.
  • Identifying anecdotes from your time as an intern, part-time design professional or volunteer that showcase your creativity, problem-solving skills and collaborative attitude.

“Experience required” might throw timid candidates off the scent of a design job opening, but not you. By actively seeking a variety of opportunities to develop your skills and experience before (or after) graduation, you’ll have the academic chops and real-world skills needed to impress hiring managers and land your first full-time design gig.

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