Building a career isn’t easy, especially for graduates. It’s particularly difficult if you find yourself competing against people with better qualifications than you.

The bright side? Experience and skills carry a lot of weight when it comes to applications. It’s not all about pieces of paper. If you can show a recruiter that you developed your skills through hard work and initiative, you’re not just demonstrating technical talents—you’re highlighting positive character traits.

What are some of the great ways to boost your career prospects and gain a job-hunting edge? Here are five career-building tips to help you kickstart your career.

1. Do an internship or get work experience.

Unpaid internships are controversial, but work experience can be incredibly useful when trying to crack into any industry. Why is that? For a start, it works: this YouGov employment survey of HR professionals revealed that 85% of employers felt relevant work experience was more important that non-vocational degrees.

Why does it work? In a lot of industries, many candidates may not have studied the areas academically, so experience counts for a lot. Working for free (or for super low wages) also shows a lot of character; if you’re willing to log hundreds hours in return for little more than the chance to learn, it shows a lot of determination and dedication.

Work experience or internships aren’t possible for everyone, but if it’s an option for you, it could give you an edge over other candidates.

2. Sing up for a volunteering placement.

Employers love candidates with volunteering work on their resume. In the same YouGov survey referenced earlier, almost half of HR professionals said they would be more likely to employ an applicant with constructive volunteering experience, and 63% revealed that volunteering makes an application stand out.

Why does this make sense? Because signing-up for a volunteering placement abroad with an ethical, independent organisation like Original Volunteers allows you to develop desirable skills and experience that employers crave. Stepping out of your comfort zone and into a challenging environment means you need to learn to be independent, organised and self-reliant. It builds your confidence, forces you to work on your communication abilities and rewards initiative.

These skills, often earned through challenging experiences, can put you streets ahead of other job applicants fresh out of university with no “real world” experience.

3. Build a brilliant online portfolio.

If you want to work in any industry that depends on impressions, personality and communication, you need to be effective at promoting your achievements. An old-school printed portfolio is useful, but only for face-to-face interviews. An awesome resume and LinkedIn profile is important, but it might not be enough.

So what’s the answer?

Create your own online portfolio to promote yourself, and demonstrate what you can do. Publish links and references to your best work, and point prospective employers in the direction of where they can find your stellar stuff around the web. Turn yourself into a brand.

Why does this work? Because the easiest way to become a fan of a band is to work through their greatest hits, so make it simple for recruiters: present them with an accessible “best of” version of yourself online.

4. Network with the right people.

Networking used to be all about face-to-face meetings, robust handshakes and physically moving in the right circles. But thanks to social media, on sites like LinkedIn, you can now research, discover and network with the right people without leaving your bedroom. Yep, from the comfort of your own home you can kickstart your career by finding recruiters and their companies—and making sure you show up on their radar.

What does this entail practically? Following them on social channels, engaging with the posts and content they share, and generally coming across as a switched-on, digitally savvy industry hopeful. So that might mean retweeting and favouriting on Twitter, commenting on LinkedIn and plus-one-ing on Google+ (yes, you should be using it).

The “who-you-know” arena of professional networking can be a dense and frustratingly behind-closed-doors world. But with online social networks, you have a chance to “infiltrate” these worlds and get involved in the conversation.

5. Have something to say.

All the research, clever networking and smart profile creating won’t count for much if you’ve got nothing to say for yourself. To take your career kickstarting to the next level, you need some views. Some opinions. What are the trends in the industry you want to break into? What are the big changes coming in future?

You don’t need to pretend to be a thought leader with 20 years of experience, but you need to have something interesting to say. Parroting the leading voices you follow on Twitter isn’t going to cut it. When it comes to applications and interviews, recruiters are looking for candidates who have a mind of their own and stand out.

A word of warning: you don’t want to be too controversial. Interesting is good. Original is better. Edgy can work, too. But beware the danger of trying so hard to impress a recruiter that you come across as unprofessional. In fact, there are lots of things you should keep quiet about in interviews.

Featured photo credit: Nana B Agyei via flickr.com

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