Tips on Landing an Entry-Level Job: Research and Advice from SHRM’s Young Professionals Advisory Council

Leaving school and entering the wide unknown of the workforce is a big change for any college or high school graduate. For job-search newbies, knowing what employers want and how to navigate the hiring process can be about as confusing as a Yogi Berra quote. And sifting through conflicting advice from well-meaning friends and family just adds to that confusion.

Luckily, a new report by SHRM titled Entry-Level Applicant Job Skills Survey offers some insightful information and tips for graduates and educators. The survey was commissioned by and produced in collaboration with Mercer and funded by the Joyce Foundation. The survey evaluates entry-level skills employers seek in high school and college graduates.

The survey asked HR professionals what skills are very or extremely important to them when determining whether an applicant possesses the necessary qualifications to be hired into an entry-level position. Strong “soft skills” such as dependability and reliability, integrity, respect, and teamwork ranked highest. The majority of HR professionals surveyed also indicated that their organizations use employee referrals (87 percent) and careers sites (72 percent) to identify potential entry-level job applicants. About one-half of companies also use job fairs (53 percent), school recruiting (49 percent) and LinkedIn (49 percent).

Members of SHRM’s Young Professionals Advisory Council (YPAC) provide advice below to entry-level job applicants. The YPAC, which is made up of 15 young professionals, advocates for SHRM’s young professional members and provides guidance to SHRM for attracting and retaining nonmember young professionals.

What attributes do you feel most entry-level job applicants should have/hone before entering the workforce? Do you believe most entry-level applicants have these skills?

“Before entering today’s competitive market, entry-level job applicants need to develop excellent communication skills, both written and verbal. Gone are the days of subjective analysis, which makes it imperative that entry-level candidates are able to analyze data and communicate their findings to senior management. Lastly, entry-level candidates should expect to show initiative on the job. Employers are looking for fresh ideas from entry-level candidates and the ability to implement these ideas in their daily responsibilities. I do believe most candidates have the fundamentals of these skills but do need to develop them further and tailor them to the company culture once on the job. Culture is the large hurdle to adjust to as an entry-level employee, but utilizing these skills will allow individuals to assimilate more quickly.”

Stevie Sprague, Senior Specialist

Union Pacific Railroad, University Recruitment


“I think some of the most important attributes that most entry-level job applicants should have or hone are communication skills, emotional intelligence, knowledge of job basics, drive to take initiative and [the ability to be] collaborative/team-oriented. I believe most entry-level applicants may have knowledge of job basics but lack some of the more subjective skills I mentioned.”

Kirsten Benzaquen, Talent Acquisition Specialist



What do you think was key for you in landing your first job (e.g., utilizing employee referrals, having necessary soft skills or applied skills, etc.)?

“I landed my first entry-level professional position after the successful completion of an internship with the same organization the summer prior to my undergraduate graduation. That on-the-job related experience and training were key in addition to having had the benefit of showing my future employer my ability to be a dependable employee. I found that internship via my local SHRM student chapter’s advisor.”

Ashley Leveque, HR Business Partner

Hewlett Packard Enterprise


“Networking. I made contacts through SHRM and my local student/professional chapters. Building practical knowledge through multiple internships helped, too. The internships provided me with some experience to be able to talk about in interviews.”

Dan Higham, Senior HR Generalist

Charter Communications


“In my case, the key for landing successfully in my first job was the experience that I had participating in student associations, NGOs and volunteer programs because that helped me to develop skills that are very useful in “the real world.” 

Verónica Castañeda Sauza

Culture & Change Management Coordinator

FEMSA (Mexico)


What general advice do you have for students who are applying for their first job?

“If you don’t meet the minimum years of experience, still apply. There’s a good chance something you’ve done in college will be applicable for what the employer is looking for. Also, don’t get discouraged when those rejection letters start coming in. It’s hard when you have finance/accounting or engineering friends who have jobs lined up six months before graduation. Your self-worth is not determined by the fact you have a ‘real job’ on graduation day!”

Jessica Gofforth, HR Manager

Bemis Company, Inc.


“Interview the company as much as they are interviewing you to make sure it is a place you want to be. Don’t be afraid to show who you really are and share what you’re passionate about, particularly if it has any applicability to your desired field or industry.”

Dan Cross, Talent Acquisition Strategy Manager

Capital One








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