How to Gain Experience When You Can’t Accept an Internship

When I was a 21-year-old creative writing major in college, I realized something: there was no way I could attend school full-time, work part-time, and accept an internship for 15 hours a week.  Yes, while some internships are paid, most of them aren’t, and while I was in college, working was a necessity.  Like many others, I had college books to buy, bills to pay, and other needs as a young adult.

It wasn’t until my junior year that I started to panic. Would I be able to get a job once I graduate without internship experience? I searched job boards for my field of interest out of curiosity and saw that many jobs in entry-level positions required some kind of experience beforehand. Even if they didn’t, I knew I would still be competing with people who had experience that I didn’t. After speaking to my professors and friends who completed their schooling, they admitted that it would, in fact, be harder to get a job without prior knowledge in the field.

That was when I decided to take matters into my own hands. If I couldn’t afford to take an on-location, credit-only internship, I was going to have to make my own experience — on my own time. That was how I became the Editor in Chief of a digital fashion magazine when I was only 21 years old.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s still a lot of work, Megan!” It was. However, over the next 5½ years as Editor in Chief, I learned how to do so many things I might not have learned otherwise at such a young age. I gained experience as a manager of an entire editorial team. I gained writing and editing experience, marketing experience, and public speaking experience. The best part was I was able to do it on my own time: evenings, weekends, in-between classes, and on my 40-minute bus ride to and from school.

While running an entire publication may be a hefty order for most, there are still tons of ways creative individuals can gain appropriate work experience on their own. Here’s how you can, too.


First: find your niche.

This may seem like common sense, but it isn’t. A lot of people want to be successful and happy, but don’t quite know what they are passionate about. You may have a lot of hobbies and enjoy certain activities, but is it something you can see yourself doing for years?

I knew I wanted to be a writer or editor ever since I was young. I was constantly writing stories and keeping journals, but it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I realized I wanted to break into the journalism industry. I loved reading magazines when I was a teenager and thought it would be so cool to work for a magazine someday. It seemed exciting and fun, like there was something new to discover and write about each day.

I never dreamed I would run my own magazine, but sometimes when you listen to your gut and take a risk, incredible things can happen. But first, you need to nail down that thing you love to do the most, and once you do, it’s only uphill from there.



Research and practice the skills you need.

If you’re trying to break into a certain industry, you will need to research all the skills and requirements needed for that job. Pretend you are looking for that dream job right now and look up descriptions on different job boards. See what skills you are missing and take note of what you need to work on, starting today.

If you want to be a writer, it may be time to start brushing up on your grammar rules and writing styles. If you’re a photographer, you may need to take that leap and start learning everything you can about Adobe Photoshop.


Build up your own portfolio.

When it comes to creative individuals, a portfolio is a must. The truth is you don’t need to work for anyone else to create a portfolio. Just start building your own work samples! If you’re a writer, gather all your relevant clippings from either school or your own personal writing. For example, if you want to be a fashion writer, tailor your portfolio to show examples of your best fashion-related articles.

If you want to be a graphic designer, gather all the work you’ve created for assignments or even those you worked on for fun. If you want to be a photographer, get out there and start shooting different subjects. The point is, you can create things without a work assignment from a company — just create the kind of work you want to be paid for!



Start a blog or website

Starting a blog or a website is one of the most important things creative individuals can do before applying for a job. Having a personal space or “brand” online speaks volumes to employers. Not only does it show that you can regularly keep up with a project, but it also shows that you are passionate and know how to market yourself. When I was recruiting interns for Cliché Magazine, I was always more impressed by candidates who already had their own blogs versus those who didn’t.

On your website, you can have an About page for future employers or clients to learn more about you, a Portfolio page to showcase all your work, and a Contact page so people can reach out to you. It’s so convenient to have all this in one location, and it makes you look professional and serious about yourself and your career.


Volunteer — but only when you can

Sometimes gaining experience before you can land that dream job means doing work for free. While there are definitely times you shouldn’t work for free, there are many benefits to working for free when it means massive exposure or real-life experience you may not have a chance to come across otherwise.

For example, if you are a budding makeup artist and a photographer friend says they’d like you to do the makeup for a beauty editorial or runway show, but they can’t pay you, it would be pretty hard to turn that down. If you can manage it, go for it! Not only will it add a great line to your resume and beautiful photos for your portfolio, but you will have real-life experience doing the kind of work you want to do in your career — and that’s priceless.

However, seeking free work shouldn’t be your goal. While it’s a stepping stone to more opportunities, don’t be afraid to turn down jobs you aren’t comfortable accepting. Remember: it never hurts to ask about payment, so don’t be ashamed to inquire up front or in the future.


How did you gain professional experience in your field without an internship? What were your most valuable early career stepping stones?

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