How to Nail An Interview When You Lack Relevant Experience

How to Nail An Interview When You Lack Relevant Experience

Being on the Praxis admissions team, I get to interview so many cool young people who are eager to jumpstart their careers. They come from many different backgrounds and all have different levels of professional experience under their belt.

A common issue with a lot of qualified applicants is not their lack of work experience, work ethic, or ambition, but their lack of confidence in selling themselves. They often don’t think their past experience is relevant or respectable enough, and they don’t realize that 9 times out of 10, their soft skills (attitude, mindset, work ethic, etc.) compensate for their lack of hard skills.

There is no such thing as irrelevant work experience. Your experiences are far more transferable than you think.

Isaac recently wrote more on this topic, explaining that learning to get good at something — anything — is far more transferable than spending all your time studying one thing you never actually start doing. Once you can apply grit, determination, and self-mastery to one job, you can apply it another.

For example,

James Walpole was 18 years old working on his family’s farm before he joined Praxis. He’s now 21 years old working as the Marketing & Communications Manager at Bitpay in Atlanta.

Jackie Blum built a career for herself as a teacher for many years and she is now apprenticing full-time at a successful tech startup doing customer service and sales.

Luke Ruffing was working seasonally at Barnes & Noble before joining Praxis. He’s now working full-time in sales at PandaDoc.

Brian Nuckols used to do manual labor on boats in the Carribean and now he’s doing marketing full-time on the Praxis staff.

The job postings for these types of roles usually say things like “college degree required” or “3+ years of relevant experience preferred,” but these young people got hired anyway.


Because they did something more interesting than simply check off boxes and meet boring basic criteria. In addition to creating value propositions rather than blasting out their resumes to hundreds of companies, they used their “irrelevant” past experience as an intriguing selling point, not a shameful secret that they should avoid talking about.

In an interview, don’t feel pressured to hide your previous employment as a retail associate or pizza delivery driver or substitute teacher. Make it obvious and undeniable that even though you don’t meet the company’s traditional criteria, you are still a phenomenal asset who can out-work any other applicant.

Stop Worrying About Whether Your Job is “Respectable” Enough

A common assumption I run into when interviewing Praxis applicants is their belief that their previous “menial” jobs in food service, retail, customer service, etc. are unimpressive and not worth talking about.

It’s a huge missed opportunity. You should be selling the crap out of those jobs that other people view as monotonous and pointless.

When I applied for Praxis in 2014, my only work experience was a year and a half at a fast food chain and some occasional gigs doing balloon animals and face painting at kids’ parties.

I didn’t think any of this was impressive or relevant. I was probably even a little ashamed of these jobs for not being “revered” or “professional” enough.

During my Praxis interview, I chose to talk much more about my leadership position as a club president at my high school, my involvement with student government, the college classes I was dual-enrolled in, my community service, and my meaningless 3-month stint as a marketing volunteer at a technical school where I did nothing but sit in a swivel chair for a few hours per month.

I thought these activities were a fancier signal of my maturity and professionalism than my fast food job where I stood by a window at 11pm wearing a visor and an apron taking drive-thru orders.

In retrospect, I now realize why my Praxis interviewer kept steering the conversation away from my extra-curricular activities to talk more about my fast food job. My 1.5 years working that job completely out-shined my resume-padding internships, clubs, and college classes.


That fast food job transplanted me from a cushy, schooled environment to a bustling business where I had to think fast and learn quickly. I learned how to work full-time hours, start conversations with strangers, multitask, solve customers’ problems, build social capital with my managers, and make delicious milkshakes. Oh, and disinfect urinals. If nothing else, food service jobs build character and humility.

Let’s put this mindset into a hypothetical interview context:

Q: “What’s been a challenge you have overcome at Chick-fil-A?”

Answer 1: “I mean, there’s nothing very challenging about it. I haven’t had too much work experience yet. At Chick-fil-A, I mostly just take customers’ orders, answer questions about the menu, and help out the kitchen staff from time to time. It has helped me come out of my shell a little to help customers when they have problems.”

This is not a horrible answer, but it’s very common and generic, plus it undermines the work you do. It’s not overtly negative, but it doesn’t show me you’re an optimist. On the surface, it tells me that this person doesn’t completely hate their job, that they have benefitted from it in some way, but they don’t really go out of their way to use their time there as a learning experience.

Answer 2: “I’ve been working at Chick-fil-A for over a year and it’s been a great opportunity to get my feet wet in a professional working environment while I’m still in high school. I’ve gotten to see firsthand how a business operates. When I started, I was pretty shy, but I quickly learned how to interact with customers in a personable way.

For example, one time our kitchen was backed up and there was one customer who had to wait over 25 minutes to get her meal. All of my coworkers were so busy and stressed out that they ignored her. I decided to walk up to her, apologize for the wait, and give her a coupon for a free meal for her next visit. Then, since there were no customers left in line to place orders, I ran back to the kitchen to help them with the rest of the rush.

There have been many situations like that where I had to think fast and solve problems under pressure while maintaining professionalism with guests. I have a sense of urgency, pride, and a problem-solving mentality in everything that I do.”

Answers like this tell the interviewer so much more about what type of worker you are. It’s positive, energetic, and highly specific. This answer shows that you care about your job and your reputation. You have a growth mentality, you like to learn, and you enjoy creating value for someone. It signals you are someone who sees a problem that needs solving and immediately solves it.

Your “Irrelevant” Experiences Make You Multi-Dimensional and Interesting

Your “irrelevant” experience can and should be used as a selling point, not as something that would deter an employer from hiring you.

Companies are not looking for people who can only do one thing. They don’t want to talk to a bland cardboard cutout who isn’t willing to take risks and do something a little unconventional. The unique value of your previous odd jobs can make you stand out amongst all the other applicants who played it safe.

Your previous jobs as a part-time dental assistant or a construction worker or a traveling circus performer are only as useless as you allow them to be. Each of your experiences have molded you into the type of worker you are. When approaching a job interview, talk about your jobs, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, as if they’re something you’re proud of.

Let’s say I’m talking to a 19-year-old college student who works as a surf instructor during the summer. Here’s a hypothetical interview question:

Q: “Why do you think your one part-time seasonal job as a surf instructor is transferable to a sales role at our company?”

Answer 1: “I’m really personable and people are drawn to me. I like hard work and I’m a quick learner. I had to learn quickly to become a certified instructor at such a young age, which taught me to be disciplined and hardworking. I’m a really dedicated employee and I like seeing students succeed in my classes. I’m interested in sales work, and although I don’t have much experience with it, I’m eager to learn and work hard.”

This is an okay answer, but it’s not going to blow an interviewer away. It’s a good start, but it’s vague and only scratches the surface as to why someone should hire this guy.

Answer 2: “It would be a challenge, but I love to be challenged. I’m no stranger to hard work and I’ve been able to use that in situations where I’ve needed to adapt and learn things quickly. I was the youngest person at my job to become a certified instructor and I finished the training in half the amount of time as my coworkers. When I wasn’t getting up at 5am every morning to practice, I was studying the certification and teaching materials to past the tests.

When I did become an instructor, I wasn’t used to talking to people all day, but I quickly fell in love with socializing and building relationships with my students. Most of my first-time students continuously come back and request to have me as an instructor again because of the rapport I build with them. I’m constantly challenging myself to be the most-booked instructor.

I love my job, but I’m eager to expand my skills, learn a lot more, and sink my teeth into something more long-term. I’m really interested in sales, and my communication and relationship-building skills as an instructor could be very transferable to a sales role. I have a competitive edge that I think would fit really well in a sales role.”

This answer is highly specific and enthusiastic. He didn’t speak negatively about his current job. He didn’t speak in platitudes or put the responsibility on the interviewer to interpret vague, roundabout answers into an actual pitch for him. He didn’t beat around the bush.

His answer gives the interviewer multiple concrete examples of his best qualities: he’s dedicated, reliable, and personable. He learns quickly, he’s good at building relationships, he’s competitive with himself, and he’s hungry to learn and be challenged, which are all qualities an employer would be excited by during the hiring process.

Identifying and Selling Your Strengths In An Interview

If you’re struggling to brainstorm your top strengths and skills in the workplace, here are some questions to consider the next time you’re at work:

  • What am I better at than everyone else at this job?
  • When do I feel most in my element?
  • What am I doing every day to help the business?
  • What am I most likely to be praised for?
  • What have I learned while working here?

Don’t assume you have too little to offer to land an opportunity. Don’t spend time looking at all the ways in which your previous jobs are too different or irrelevant. Look for the similarities that make you hirable. Write down as many as you can and think about how you can use them as selling points.

Working in retail teaches you patience. Becoming a freelancer requires time management. Repairing computers requires problem-solving. Design demands creativity. Being a factory worker helps you conquer monotonous, repetitive tasks. Door-to-door sales builds a thick skin. Being a writer requires discipline and attention to detail. Digging ditches requires mental strength and resilience.

Career pivoting or breaking into the professional world for the first time can be a much less painful process with the right attitude. If you can show an interviewer that you’re a creative force in your professional life and you don’t view your jobs as limitations, but as learning opportunities and tools for self-expression, they’ll be much more interested in working with you.

Originally published at on December 14, 2017.

The Time I Got a Job Offer From My Airbnb Host

The Time I Got a Job Offer From My Airbnb Host

This past summer I took a month-long trip to a few major U.S. cities. New York City, Austin, Atlanta, Portland, and Seattle. I was still working full-time while I was traveling and a large percentage of my job at Praxis is customer service calls, emails, and live chat on our website.

At this point, I feel very accustomed to handling uncomfortable, weird, and challenging social interactions. Beyond my current job, I’ve worked at several restaurants and spent endless late night hours taking drive-thru orders from stoned teenagers.

One of my favorite orders I ever received:

Me: “Hi, thank you for choosing Culver’s! I’d be happy to take your order.”
Guy: “Mint.”
Me: “I’m sorry, what? Mint?”
Guy: “Mint.”
Me: “A mint milkshake? A mint sundae?”
Guy: “Mint.”

But my threshold was tested in a new way when I was in Seattle a few months ago.

Where I was staying in Seattle was one of those hotel-style Airbnbs where this guy named Eric owns a 4-story building in Capitol Hill and rents out all of the rooms on Airbnb.

When I got there, I couldn’t find my room and had to ask one of the very friendly and accommodating house-keepers to point me in the right direction. He walked me downstairs to the basement and unlocked the door to room 110 — an 80-square-foot room that used to be a utility closet. No window. Concrete floors. A thin cot on a metal bed frame. A toilet right next to the bed. A showerhead drilled into one of the walls. Basically a jail cell with a mini fridge and some clean towels.

I can’t complain, though. I was warned. This was the description of the room on Airbnb:

“Very, very small, 80sf, single bed. 8feetx11feet. it is in the basement and has a small, window. It can be cramped. This place is meant for someone who values quiet, privacy and efficiency.”

It was cheap, in a great location, and I was only there for two nights. I settled into my room after a long day of travel, checked my email, opened a bag of chips, and started watching an episode of Planet of the Apps in my underwear.

Then my doorknob turned and the door swung open. A young Korean girl was standing there with her iPhone in one hand and the handle of her rolling suitcase in the other. She quietly gasped and jumped backward.

She said nothing, clearly still stunned at the sight of me sitting there with no pants on and a hand full of Doritos.

To break the silence I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I just checked into this room today. What room are you?” I asked.

She confirmed she booked room 110 and we exchanged a few more sentences, while I still sat there pantsless and politely explained to her that this was my room and she must have made a mistake. She nervously nodded and left.

Then I was filled with guilt and realized that if she had the code to unlock the room, then clearly she booked this room as well and our Airbnb host messed up. I put on some pants and opened my door – she was still standing outside my room scrolling through the Airbnb app on her phone.

Her English wasn’t very good. Everything on her phone was written in Korean. I pulled up the Airbnb app on my phone as well and showed her that I was also booked for room 110. I texted the Airbnb host, Eric, and told him what was going on. I had to wait long periods of time in-between texts until I heard back from him.

We stood in the hallway for at least 45 minutes while I texted back and forth with Eric, and she asked me where I was from. We made small talk. It was her first time in the U.S. She was here for a tech conference.

I finally got on the phone with Eric and put him on speaker. He explained to us that she had accidentally booked two reservations in his building and the second reservation overrode the first one, so room 110 was double-booked.

The girl didn’t understand everything Eric was saying so I did my best to explain. At this point, nearly an hour had gone by of us standing in this hallway. Eric got her a new room on the same floor and I helped her unlock it with her new key code.

When I was still on the phone with Eric he said to me, “You’re awesome. Thank you for the help. Seriously, can I hire you? Like, for real.”

I appreciated the nice ego boost. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t abandon my customer service persona until everyone was happy. Some people may have been annoyed by the situation or shrugged it off and said “Not my problem,” but from my personal experience, I knew this situation would have been a mess and taken a lot longer to resolve without my help.

Despite my shitty room and awkward series of events, it was an awesome Airbnb. Every housekeeper said hello to me. There were fresh muffins and cucumber water in the lobby every morning. And someone offered me a job to work for his weird but pleasant prison hotel.