Geeks on Campus

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Getting Hired Without Professional Experience

Posted by jeggent on September 12, 2014

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

How do you get hired when your relevant experience isn’t from a paid job?

When I was earlier in my career, the question was “how do you get experience in an area when you can’t get a job in the field without experience?”  There have been many suggestions offered to this problem, and programmers especially have a number of options available such as side work, volunteer your services to a non-profit, contribute to an open source project, and hobby programming.

But how do you list these things on a resume so that they will be considered by the search committee?

Pretty much all resumes have a section called something like “Experience” or “Professional Experience”, on my resume the label is “Relevant Work History”.  If you have significant experience that isn’t from a paid job, I would just label that section as “Experience” and include what you’ve worked on just like you would a paid position.  Include all of the relevant tools, skills, experience, tasks, etc just as you would with any job.  Here is a fictional example of having programmed a game as a hobby:

Falling Apples Counting Game
Java Developer |  October 2012 – June 2014

  • Defined requirements for the project
  • Programmed the Falling Apples Counting Game in Java language using the Eclipse IDE
  • Completed thorough user testing and fixed identified flaws
  • Responded to user questions on wiki, blog, and Twitter

I would format the section exactly the same as other professional experience and include the same details, especially those relevant to the job posting.  Search committees often have rating sheets to indicate if you meet the requirements of the job and how good of a match your experience is.  Give them every opportunity to consider your relevant (if not professional) experience in their assessment.

Beyond the Resume

You will probably want to include a brief explanation of this non-professional experience in the cover letter.  The cover letter is a good place to talk about why you are qualified for the job you are applying for.  It is also the place to answer questions someone looking at your resume might have.  Going back to the Falling Apples example; they may wonder why that time frame overlaps with a another in the Experience section.  You can mention that you worked on that project “independently” or something like that.  Don’t include any language to minimize the experience such as “in my spare time” or “as a hobby”.  If it is a project that you put a lot of work into and are proud of, don’t short sell it.

Project Overview

To go one step further, I also think it makes sense to include a single page project overview.  Remember, you are competing for this job with other candidates that may have the professional experience that you lack.  You need to use plain language to sell yourself to the nontechnical people while still including enough technical details so that the geeks know you are for real.  Some things to include in this overview would be an abstract (description of the project), technical details (language, database, server, etc), download counts (if applicable), testimonials, and some images from the end result.  Additionally, if you have presented at a conference or user group or anything similar, include those details also.  Try to make this project overview document visually appealing.  Search committees will read as little as possible, especially when there are lots of applicants.  So make this look interesting so it gets read.  Finally, if there is a significant difference in your professional experience and what is required for the position, consider including letters of reference up front even if they are not required yet.


I have just a couple of parting points to leave you with.

  • Who you are online matters.  I’m sorry, it just does.  People will look you up.  Keep it clean and clean it up.
  • Use a land line phone for phone interviews.  Don’t let poor reception, a weak signal, or solar flares screw up your chance for an in person interview.
  • Have someone proofread everything before you send it in.  It is really hard to accurately proofread your own writing.  I know it is hard to open yourself up to others like this, but this is important, this is your career we are talking about.
  • Use a professional looking e-mail address in your contact information. just doesn’t look good on a resume.
  • Be honest.  You will not be happy in a job you are not qualified for but got because you lied on a resume or in an interview.
  • Don’t be shy about bragging.  The search committee needs to know what is great about you.  I know that some people don’t feel totally comfortable with this part.  Just know that they are interested in hearing about you and what you’ve done.  It’s not bragging if you can back it up.  🙂

Good luck out there!