opportunityCompetition for jobs can be fierce, especially for recent grads with modest work experience. So how can you get a foot in the door and make professional inroads?

I recommend finding a mentor and also suggest, if you need to and can swing it, working for free.

I met my first mentor, Barry S., as a student at UT Austin. I was 20; he was 36 and the President of the largest advertising agency in the South.

The Texas economy was tanking and entry-level advertising jobs in Dallas were few. But I did receive a few interview invitations, including one at SLW, the agency of record for a large American airline.

At Barry’s urging, I sent a cover letter and resume to the head of account management, Bob C. I never heard from Bob. Barry urged me to follow-up and leave messages. He called this respectful persistence.

Bob finally did call. He was curious about my tenacity because he respected it. This showed my work ethic, how I would respectfully treat clients and that I was unafraid of risk. I did more research on SLW and Bob’s career. It was a great interview.

With Barry’s coaching, I told stories of my past internships. For example, while working at an NBC affiliate, I wrote and co-produced ten TV commercials for local businesses. This showed that I understood TV commercial production. (Notice that I also quantified specific examples of past work.)

Bob said, “We need help on the airline account, and I would love to hire you, but I can’t afford to pay you.”

That was my opportunity. Bob was saying that I met SLW standards. (I hire and prep students and professionals for interviews. We don’t say stuff like that to blow smoke up your skirt.)

I went home and called Barry. Barry advised writing Bob a thank you note and proposing working for Bob for a specific time period for free. Although it would be unpaid, I definitely wouldn’t be getting paid while not working and this opportunity was a foot in the door. (Note that you may need to keep your night or weekend job.)

If given a similar opportunity for your ideal job, you should work for free. The upside is gaining real experience, exposure and another resume entry. Plus, it gets you up and out as well as some much needed self-respect, for free, no less!

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