In March, on Pi Day to be exact, I started my first full-time copywriting job.
And like any new kid, the first thing I did was update my LinkedIn profile (which is like changing your relationship status on Facebook — aka a really big deal). And I can’t tell you how happy I was to put “junior” in front of “copywriter,” if only because it meant I didn’t have to put “intern” at the end of it.
But, Shannon, didn’t you graduate from college, like, a full year ago? Yeah, I did. It’s just that finding a good job takes time. I think it’s safe to say that kids like me, entering the work force for the first time, apply for upwards of 100 jobs and internships before we find one that’s a truly good fit. As Three 6 Mafia would put it, “It’s hard out here for a pimp.”
Hard. But not impossible. To be clear, I’m not some schmo who got a degree and expected a job to be handed to me when I graduated (though that would have been awesome). I knew that to become a copywriter, I’d have to do my time with resume-builders like internships, blogging for groups at school and taking creative advertising-focused classes. I knew I’d need to do whatever it took during my college years to scrounge up experience.
So how did I pull it off? Among other things, I put together a portfolio and made sure it represented my personality, I got organized, I emailed a ton of people and I looked out for #1: me.
I was very fortunate to have taken classes that got me started in my junior year of college. I spent the majority of the following four semesters working on my portfolio — or book — with a small group of students who also wanted to go into “creative.” We executed based on vague prompts like “Pick a brand leader, then create a campaign for the underdog” or “Pick a luxury brand.”
In every class we hung our work, and in every class our skin grew a little bit thicker with our attempts to knock each other off our pedestals. We also came to adopt the phrase “kill your baby,” which was the nail in the coffin for a campaign we had fallen in love with but just wasn’t working.
A lot of what we created didn’t end up being good enough to put in our books, but I think we all ended up with work that rang true to us as individuals.
For example, I have a knack for bringing up uncomfortable topics in very casual conversations. While I was encouraged to use that to my advantage (because it’s important to show I’m able to push the limits of being comfortable), I also had to show that I can rein it in. Even though I really want to say, “Keeps you drier than a piece of plain toast at an AA meeting” when talking about antiperspirant, I showed I can edit myself down to “Drier than your grandfather’s jokes about beef jerky.” Both real lines in my book, by the way.
And though lines like that were fun to write, I’m sure I didn’t get a lot of interviews because of them. But my sassiness and off-color humor define my writing, so I really didn’t mind — I was staying true to myself.
Though limiting my job opportunities as a young writer may not seem in my best interest, I’ll take not getting an interview over working in a place that doesn’t “get” me any day. (Hair flip.)
By the end of my senior year, I had put a decent book of student work together, and I started the soul-sucking experience that is job hunting. I realized very quickly that I had to get my shit together. When you go on a mass applying spree, it’s easy to forget all the agencies and companies you’ve contacted. So if I have any advice, it’s to start keeping track of where you’ve applied and the position titles. Then, when you get a voicemail from an unknown number and it’s “Melissa in HR” about “the creative intern program” you applied for three months ago, you can look back and see that this can only be one of a few companies where you applied for a creative intern program.
By the way, I learned the hard way that it’s a good idea to focus your time applying for creative internships rather than full-time positions right off the bat.
So if you’re applying to higher than junior-level positions and not getting any nibbles, maybe it’s time to shift your focus. But never forget it’s often about who you know, not necessarily where you apply.
Since I didn’t know anyone yet, that meant contacting my favorite college instructor, who put me in touch with a former student of his who gave me the contact information of a bunch of his industry pals. Three of them responded, which opened doors to a few office visits. And after months of off-and-on contact, I got my first shot at an agency internship. It was exhausting, but it can be done.
If getting an internship interview means you have to email your dad’s co-worker’s sister-in-law, do it. It’s no secret that breaking into an industry is the hardest part, so I had to set aside the feeling that I was being annoying or awkward and go after what I wanted. Most of the time it won’t go anywhere. But sometimes it will!
Rejection is tough, though. After doing internships and networking and feeling like you’ve put in the time to deserve a full-time job, it’s easy to fall into a pit of thinking you’ll never be good enough, or contemplating going back to school to be a zookeeper or something (that’s still not off the table). But in my case, I knew it was difficult to find a good job because I’m just a kid. And it’s a risk to take a shot at hiring a kid. I couldn’t blame them — all I had was half-decent student work and a promise that I would get better. All I wanted so desperately was for someone to give me a chance to learn.
So when I started to break into the industry at last, it was like my big sister was finally letting me into the treehouse to play with the cool kids.
My first full-time offer came three months after graduation, and I was thrilled. But every time I talked about it, I heard myself say, “I’m not really excited about the position…but they’re offering a great salary” or “I’m not really excited about the position…but everyone I’ve met so far seems so cool.” It took me a surprisingly long time to realize that I was trying to convince myself to make it work.
Maybe I sound like a brat for being too picky, but no matter how much I wanted a full-time job, it didn’t outweigh my gut feeling that I wouldn’t be happy there. Like when you’re trying to buy a couch from a guy on Craigslist and he asks you to “come alone” to pick it up. It may be a really cool couch, but it’s still a hard pass. This is what it means to look out for #1.
Putting myself first in this way was, I think, the most important thing I did while job hunting.
Even if I had gone through four rounds of interviews or went as far as verbally accepting an offer, I learned to understand that I didn’t owe these companies anything. If it didn’t feel right, turning down an offer was the best decision for everyone involved because I was making the best decision for myself.
During an interview for the position I have now, I was told that bouncing around freelance gigs and internships was good experience, but it looked like “I needed a home.” Wow, nailed it. And after 10 months of job hunting, which seems like a lifetime for a 22-year-old, Simple Truth offered me a spot in their lineup. I’m so grateful to have a full-time agency position at my age, and I believe it happened because I stayed true to myself.