After days or weeks of scrolling past just-OK and “I guess I could do that” jobs, you’ve finally stumbled upon a serious contender. This job is in your ideal industry, has responsibilities that don’t preemptively bore you to tears, and is at a company with a mission you’re actually genuinely enthusiastic about.
The only problem? The job is categorized as “entry-level” but the description states that the organization is specifically looking for applicants with at least two years of experience. That’s not uncommon. In fact, a LinkedIn analysis of their own job postings found that 35% of entry-level jobs required three or more years of experience.
It’s the ultimate catch-22 of job searching: As a recent graduate or a professional looking to make a career pivot, you’re targeting entry-level roles, but even these often seem to require at least a couple years of industry work.
How on earth are you supposed to get any exposure to the field if you can’t even step onto the bottom rung of the ladder? If an entry-level job is one that’s designed for people with no prior experience, what’s up with the explicitly stated requirement? Why do so many employers include it in the listing? I know this is incredibly frustrating, but I promise, the entry-level job market isn’t quite as futile or impossible as you might think.
Why do so many entry-level jobs ask for two years of experience?
In most cases, you can think of job descriptions as a hiring manager’s wish list. You’ll typically find all kinds of details about what your potential future boss would consider an ideal candidate—from personality traits and work style (i.e., proactive or independent) to specific knowledge or hard skills (i.e., understanding of Salesforce or familiarity managing social media pages). They’ll likely also choose a certain number of years in the field based on the expertise level they’re seeking, but usually, this is more of a “nice-to-have” than a “must-have” point.
I’d be lying if I said that some recruiters don’t use the “two years”—or any other amount of experience they ask for—to screen candidates out. Especially when they receive a high volume of applications, it’s an easy (albeit kind of oversimplified) way to narrow down the applicant pool. I’d also be lying if I said employers never have these types of experience requirements for less-than-savory reasons. But if an employer truly won’t hire someone for an entry-level position who hasn’t been working full-time in the field for a few years, it could be a sign that they don’t fairly value their employees—or their professional development.
How can I gain experience if no one will hire me without experience?
Here's the deal: You don’t only gain experience from full-time work in an industry. So if you meet at least 80% of the requirements listed in a particular posting, don’t overthink it—just apply.
You might also be surprised to learn what can qualify as “relevant experience”—you likely have it already! Especially if you’re targeting entry-level opportunities, all of the following “count” toward that two to five years of experience in a certain skill or job duty that an employer might be seeking:
- Projects you completed while earning your degree
- Part-time jobs
- Volunteer work
- Extracurricular activities—particularly those where you took on a leadership position
It’s really pretty simple: If it’s in the description and you’ve dealt with it in some capacity, be sure to include whatever “it” is on your resume. Even if you’re fresh out of college, you could be qualified for a role requesting multiple years of experience.
How to apply to entry-level jobs that want two years’ experience
When you’re applying to a job that’s looking for more experience than you have, don’t dwell on that fact in your application. Rather than apologizing for the experience you don’t have, Muse writer Lily Zhang says to focus on the transferable skills you do have and clearly state your “ability to contribute directly” to the company or team.
Most online applications nowadays go through an applicant tracking system (ATS), which helps recruiters and hiring managers search for candidates who have specific experiences or skills on their resume—but these systems cannot be used to search for only resumes with a certain number of years’ experience or more. It’s up to the human who reads your resume to do that. So if you’re able to convey your knowledge in a way that makes it easy for a prospective employer to see how your unique abilities would complement their needs, you stand a decent chance of surviving this initial test.
Not quite meeting that 80% of qualifications cutoff I mentioned earlier? That’s OK, too. If it’s something you’re really excited about, and you realistically think you can handle the job, give it a shot. But don’t forget to stack the deck in your favor by drafting a customized cover letter, tailoring your resume, linking your personal website, and using your network to get in touch with people who work at the company you’re pursuing.
Many hiring managers are going to be way more excited about an applicant with a clear passion and demonstrated exposure to some of the key elements of the role they’re trying to fill than a candidate who has the exact number of years they decided to include on the listing.
How do I know if I really shouldn’t apply to a job that requires two years’ experience or more?
In other words, how do you know if you’re wasting your time? By keeping it real. If you don’t have any transferable skills (unlikely unless you’re doing a major transition) or if the number of years outlined in the posting is way more extensive than anything close to what you’ve experienced in your career thus far (like 10 years when you only have one), you may want to think twice about dedicating time to that particular application.
The bottom line
It might sound obvious, but the most important factor in landing a role—regardless of how long you’ve been working—is proving to your future employer that you can actually do the job. Ultimately, whether or not you get hired is more about the full package you offer, not some arbitrary number of work experiences on your resume.
Regina Borsellino also contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.