5 Expert Tips to Stand Out in Your First Job

Congratulations! You're about to start your first job. Odds are high that after you celebrated your first few blissful moments after signing the contract, you found yourself spiraling down a path of endless questions. What do I wear? Who do I eat lunch with? How is this job going to lead to another job — the one I really want to be doing years from now?

Joining any new environment comes with its own set of variables and questions, so it's totally understandable if you're nervous. Luckily, there are plenty of people who have done this before you, and they're ready to help guide the way.

PS spoke with Ahyiana Angel, host of the career-focused podcast "Switch, Pivot or Quit"; Anouck Gotlib, CEO of Belgian Boys and one of EY's Entrepreneurial Winning Women of 2021; and Iza Montalvo, an award-winning journalist and a career and media coach for Latinas. All three women are not only successful in their own careers but also spend their time mentoring younger employees, so they have tons of thoughtful, helpful advice on how to ace your first job.

Read on for all of their tips and tricks to make the most of your first job.

Make Genuine Connections With Your Coworkers

Networking might seem daunting and foreign when you have little experience with them, but making connections in your early career will be invaluable. These connections can be there to answer the inevitable questions that arise during your first job, and some can even turn into lifelong mentors. Networking doesn't need to be formal or one-directional — it's done best when you're making genuine connections through being a team player at work or bonding over common interests with your coworkers.

Angel explains that there are many ways to connect organically with your coworkers. Whether it's bringing up a point they made in a meeting that spoke to you or news about something you know they're interested in, take the extra step to strike up a conversation. If you're having a tough time figuring out what to say, Angel recommends staying up-to-date on the news and being well-read, which can provide you with some easy talking points.

As an entry-level employee that's new to the workforce, it's easy to feel like you have a lot to learn and less to teach. However, Angel says, "I wouldn't underestimate what you bring to the table, because the business world is always evolving and changing." You have helpful and interesting insights to contribute — remember that.

Gotlib, now CEO of her own company, spent her early career connecting with people across departments to learn about their different roles. "It is invaluable for any team member to understand how they fit and how their role makes a broader impact," she says. "Especially for someone young in their career, it can also expose you to career opportunities you may not have considered before."

As a company leader, Gotlib says she takes note of her employees that connect with their coworkers and put in that extra effort. Not only are they more successful, the entire mood of the company changes when colleagues work as a team. In fact, making genuine connections is the best way to establish yourself as a team player — a sentiment that Montalvo also emphasizes. "As a team, we understand success has to do in part with your environment, the people you associate with, or the network you build and how we lift each other up," she says.

The connections you make throughout your career will be important for your personal development, but those you work with at your first job will always be special. They knew you when you were just starting out and have the most insight into your career path. "Looking back, I would make a better effort to maintain those relationships with the people from early in my career, because those were the people who were really cheering for me," Angel says.

Take Initiative

In addition to doing your assigned tasks, it will make a difference in your early career if you take initiative and identify additional ways you can help without being asked. "I will never stop noticing when someone takes initiative, even in the most humble things — like taking the trash out or emptying the dishwasher if it's full or volunteering for an errand," Gotlib says. "This kind of initiative always makes an impression on me."

Taking initiative can also make you feel more connected to your work. Angel explains that in her early career, she was given the freedom to work on projects outside of what her boss assigned, which gave her a stronger sense of ownership over her work and the ability to be a leader in unlikely places.

If you're someone who often overthinks, Montalvo says that taking initiative can be a way to break past your limits. "Keep in mind that every time you see someone doing something impressive, they have been afraid at some point," she says. Do be mindful that finishing your assigned work before seeking opportunities beyond is important and shouldn't be overlooked.

Ask Questions

It's safe to say that as a new employee, you won't know how to do everything. While that might be nerve-racking for you, a good supervisor will understand."I put a lot of pressure on myself to know things when I was starting out that there was no reason I should have known," Gotlib says. This partially came from her company's culture, which she acknowledges can make a big impact on a younger employee's ability to grow.

Angel says that how comfortable you feel asking questions is a great barometer for measuring company culture. "If you don't feel comfortable asking the person who gave you the assignment for help, you definitely need to take a step back and ask yourself why you don't feel comfortable asking them, because early in your career, there's so much that you don't know and shouldn't be expected to know," Angel says. "If this person makes you feel like you should know it, but you know that there's no other reason that you should, well, that might be a toxic situation, and you might want to exit stage left."

If you are in a healthy work situation where you feel comfortable asking questions, go for it! Always do your best to find the answer on your own, but know that your manager would rather have you ask for help than feel stuck or do something incorrectly.

Speak Up

Speaking up at work is crucial. It can help you make connections, share your ideas, or get help when something goes wrong. "Speak up when you're in meetings, speak up when you are in an elevator and crossing paths with someone, speak up when somebody is asking you your opinion on something," Angel says. "Just be more vocal."

If you come from a background that is marginalized or systemically silenced, speaking up can be even more difficult — and even more important. Angel and Montalvo reflected on their journeys as women of color, saying that they encourage women of color to use their voices in the workplace despite the fact that they think they may not know the norms of the business world, don't fit their boss' expectations, or feel more pressure to perform perfectly.

"As a Black woman coming into corporate spaces, one of my concerns was that I wouldn't fit in, and now I realize that you have to amplify what makes you special in this situation," Angel says. "You have to walk into every room like you deserve to be here, and for me, I know now that I would have expressed myself more and been more confident in the voice that I know I have." By connecting with other colleagues who can help clear up the ambiguities of corporate life and recognizing your differences as strengths, Angel says that women of color can be better positioned to speak up.

"Having an accent as a Spanish-language native speaker and all the stereotypes that come with the fact that I am Latina — even though I am a white Latina, and understanding the privilege of what that could mean in the workplace or business — held me back from speaking publicly and sharing my gifts with others, but the moment I embraced my language as part of my Latina identity, the game gradually changed," Montalvo says. "As Latinas, we are conditioned to believe we have to follow 'respectability politics' to be seen as leadership material, downplay our identity markers, dress a certain way, not speak 'too much' or be 'too loud' to avoid being labeled as 'aggressive' or 'too demanding.' We are told the only way to make it, regardless of our competence, is to try to fit into the dominant workplace culture — even if that culture is rooted in white supremacy, stereotypes, or misogyny."

Montalvo's advice is to "stop questioning yourself, embrace your loudness, don't apologize for it, and start rising." Because when it comes down to it, you bring something unique and valuable to the table, and that's an asset to your company. "A company worth working for will see you as a valuable player and not as a threat," Montalvo says.

Maintain Perspective

Chances are your first job isn't your dream job, and that's OK. "Be patient with yourself, but be intentional when designing your career path, and don't do it alone — you can only get so far by doing it all by yourself," Montalvo says. Getting help from your colleagues and mentors and being intentional will enable you to navigate early-career struggles and set yourself up to keep growing.

Starting out lower in your company's hierarchy means there are many ways for you to learn and grown. There is always an opportunity to learn something that will help you make the most of your job and keep you interested, even if it's not your long-term dream job. "I would encourage everyone, regardless of whether they are in their first job or fifth, to view every day as an opportunity to learn," Gotlib says. "Even if you know your days with a certain company are numbered, you can still move yourself and your skills forward."

Angel says that rather than focusing on larger career goals, it might be easier to think of expectations you have for yourself. "Have a running list of what your expectations are for yourself so you can see where there is or isn't alignment, and then you can use these expectations for yourself and for your career as your guide," she recommends. Focusing on smaller skills or goals early in your career can help keep you focused and propel you on your larger path.

This job is your starting place, and you can't be sure where it will take you. By making connections with your coworkers, taking initiative, and speaking up, you will be a valuable member of the team and learn something about yourself and the jobs you'd like to do.

"I think a lot about how there is no endpoint where you win a career, like you might win a tennis match," Gotlib says. "It is through daily practice, growth, and evolution along the journey that you are successful and feel purposeful and fulfilled."

Olivia Luppino is a former PS contributor.