I like to see my CV as a story.
When telling a story, delivery is often crucial. There’s one line that’ll always impress if you add it to the end. This line, this powerful line elevates a great story to an eye-bulging legend:
“And I didn’t spend a penny.”
Cue tiny sandwiches tumbling from slack fingers as your audience gapes in shock. In just a few short words, you’ve topped the guest lists of all subsequent parties. Ever.
It’s the freeness which makes that story exciting. But it also makes it easier for the story to exist. Imagine building your CV, that story of you, without having to pump quite so much money into it.
Attractive prospect, right?
Here’s how to build a CV out of free opportunities.
Search low, and close
Starting small is a must here, since the smaller opportunities are easiest to get and can act as stepping stones to bigger ones. Have a look at what’s in your immediate reach. For example, your school may have loads of roles you could get involved with. You could run to be on your student council, or apply to be a prefect, or offer to help run extracurricular activities.
You could also get help from your family or friends. Does the family business have a job opening? Does one of your mates need a volunteer for a fundraising thing? Ask around, you may be surprised at what you find if you offer to help someone out in your free time.
The advantage of aiming at the immediately available, especially when you’re in school, is that the people offering these opportunities know you’re in school. Therefore, they know you likely have no money of your own!
Make the most of what you get
Once you have your entry-level role, you need to milk it for all it’s worth!
Firstly, it’s important that you perform your role as well as you can. Not only will you learn more skills if you do this, but you’ll also impress whoever’s in charge of you. You never know when you might need a good reference from someone, even this early in the game.
Secondly, always try to seek out ways of making the role more of a fit to you and your needs. Try to engage with the things that you want to learn or improve on. This could be as simple as improving your public speaking, if you’re a prefect or in some other leadership role. Or maybe you have an idea for an amazing fundraising gala, to hone your project management skills. Think outside the box, you can make any position work for you!
Working that platform
Now, here’s the truly clever bit. You’re never too young for a bit of professional networking. This involves making contacts which you can use to search out new opportunities in future. Think of it as your own personal spy ring!
Once you have an extracurricular role at school or a job (paid or voluntary) elsewhere, you have a platform to network from. Aside from mingling at infrequent social or networking events, live conferences, parties or guest speaker events, there are three main ways to consistently network from here:
1. Building good relationships with your colleagues and higher-ups
This is particularly useful if your role is within an organisation, like a charity or school. If you get on good terms with the teacher responsible for you, or you line manager in a charity, you may gain access to further, similar opportunities. Even if it’s not direct access, it may help to ease your advance into more far-reaching roles.
From personal experience, I got myself picked as a biology prefect in year 12. Just for a laugh, you understand. I didn’t have this grand plan to network my way to power or anything like that. But by engaging with the lead biology teacher’s ideas and taking her feedback on board, I built a decent rapport with her. Unbeknownst to me, she later put forward my name as a potential candidate for Head Boy.
I didn’t get that spot, but it definitely helped me to get one of the slightly less impressive Deputy Head Boy positions. This principle also applies to colleagues. Try to get somewhat friendly with any new peers you meet over the course of your role, as their outside life could be quite well connected! Also, you know, making friends is a good thing to do anyway…
2. Get recommended and remembered by clients
If you’ve got a client-facing job that’s on a more intimate basis than your usual shop floor, or restaurant, then there’s more scope for building a relationship with a client.
For example if you babysit or dog-walk, you have an opportunity to build a long-term understanding with your clients, perhaps leading to them referring you to friends who may also be in need of your services. Or, if you’re friendly enough with them, you could even ask them to recommend you to some friends.
And this may also be a way of branching out of your current job, since clients have lives beyond the service you’re giving them. They may have opportunities of their own they could offer you, or know of an opening somewhere else that they could relay to you. It’s therefore always worth doing your job with professionalism but also blending it with some affability when it comes to clients.
3. Talk to the organisations you liaise with
If you’ve found yourself in an organising role, perhaps for a school disco or charity event, you responsibilities may include making contact and negotiating with external companies. Maybe you need to get catering, or need to hire a bouncy castle.
Always be polite and courteous when you contact these organisations and try to get a single point of contact within them. If you’re emailing one person once a week, with good manners and reasonable requests, you’ll be remembered.
Do this well enough, and you’ll have made a contact in a company that you can get in touch with in future. Now, you might not be able to get a job directly through such a contact, but you can ring them again when you need similar services in future roles. And then, if you’re able to keep the lines of communication open for long enough, you may finally be in a strong enough position to ask about openings.
After all, you’ll have proven that you can conduct business-to-business communications really well! Remember that you’d also be their contact in your school or charity, so external companies would likely be keen to stay in touch with you. Hopefully that makes this sound a lot less scary!
Take more opportunities than you decline
So once you’ve got your first role, expanded on your professional network, you may find yourself facing an offer of an additional role. Which is excellent – you’ve obviously got a knack for this!
It’s essential now that you weigh up the benefits and drawbacks of the new position. Maybe it’s on a school committee that you don’t really care about. Or perhaps it’s a job in a shop that seems really welcoming. These spots may not be what you’re aiming at in the long term, but they could act as yet more stepping stones to grow your network of contacts, to eventually get where you want to be.
However, while it’s important to be discerning about the scope for progression, you need to remember that you can often create the scope for yourself. Networking is a skill that you learn by practice. Some roles are more conducive to it, yes, but networking is a vital ability that you can bring to any position, improving it for yourself and your organisation.
As long as the role appears enjoyable enough, with skills to learn and space for you to work your networking magic, you should probably take it!
Write it all down!
The final tip is something that everyone realises at the last minute – if you take on a lot of roles, you’ll probably forget the details!
As early as you can, put together a bucket CV with all the roles you hold and have held. Include the skills involved, the dates and the organisations you worked for. This is good practice for professional life in the future and will save you the trouble of having to reconstruct a timeline based on newspaper archives and passport stamps.
(Yes, I have had to do that. It’s not fun. Learn from my mistakes!)
None of the above involved money changing hands. But all of it did require hard work, commitment and creativity. Opportunities will rarely just be handed to you with zero work on your part. Even free rides to paid experiences like Immerse summer schools often require you to win a competition of some kind.
So nothing is truly ever free, but at least with these tips, you now know how to build a CV with a healthy bank account!