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by Kaitlin McManus | March 17, 2020

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LinkedIn is a necessary evil. You need a profile, and it should be pristine. You probably already know this. I myself have often touted the importance of LinkedIn on this blog.

Which is why I’m ashamed to admit that my profile was previously a mess.

I’m honestly surprised anyone bothered adding me to their network—I made just about every single mistake a young person can make on LinkedIn, and I can’t believe I left it in that state for so long. But I hope someone else can learn from my embarrassing professional online presence—let me walk you through a few of my mistakes and how I fixed them so that you can do the smart thing and just avoid them altogether.

Say Cheese!

Your picture is one of the first things people see on LinkedIn—and mine was pretty bad. It was a selfie in which I’m wearing a knit beanie atop very purple hair and giving a kind of bored half-smile. It’s not a good LinkedIn picture for several reasons: One—to my mother’s unending relief—I no longer have purple hair anymore, so the photo no longer reflects what I look like. Two, I’m wearing non-professional garb. And three, my expression is neither earnest nor serious nor neutral—it’s almost sarcastic, which is a pretty good indicator of my personality, but not the professional image I should be putting out there. The photo I changed it to is of me in a dress that I frequently wear to work, no hat in sight, and I’m smiling for real. It’s not the best photo of me ever taken, but it’s head and shoulders above the former version.

Your LinkedIn photo is, ideally, what you’d look like on an “I’m feeling fancy” workday. Business attire or business casual are the most common choices. Pictures should be taken from the chest up—more than just your face, but a full-body shot isn’t necessary. A shot in front of a blank wall is certainly acceptable (I got my roommate to take my new pic), but some schools will do professional-quality photos for free—so check in with career services to see if this is an event they have planned.

The Headline

Okay, my headline was the one acceptable thing about my LinkedIn profile. “Associate Law Editor at Vault.com”—my title and my place of work, easy-peasy. It’s not jazzy, but it’s standard. Some people get a little fancier: They describe their job or their expertise, or, in the case of job-seekers, describe what kind of position they’re searching for. It all depends on what works best for them.

Your headline appears right below your name on your profile page, which is an indicator of how important it is. Your job title and place of work is a good place to start. But, if you have a job that isn’t what you’re looking for in a career (a part-time service position or a work-study gig, for example) think about putting down something else. For students, “Engineering Student at X University” will certainly suffice until you’re further in the job search process. If you have an internship, set that as your headline (just don’t forget to change it when your internship is over). If you’re actively searching for a position, this is a spot to say so. Whatever you choose to put in your headline, make sure that it’s concise and accurate.

The About Section

I like to call this the elevator pitch section. Because that’s basically what goes here. It should be a little more in depth than your headline, but not a comprehensive essay on yourself. Your About section should answer three very simple questions: what do you do, what have you done, and what do/would you like to do? My About section used to be some rambling thing about how I’m trying to get into publishing—now it’s a fairly concise statement of my current job, some ongoing projects, and my favorite parts of my work.

When writing this section of your LinkedIn profile, I would advise imagining that you’re at a networking event and talking to someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t really care who you are—you’ve got about three sentences to make an impression on them before they excuse themselves and mosey on back to the open bar. What do you say? That’s what you write in the About section.

The Experience Section

Oh man—y’all, my Experience section was a mess. This the portion of your LinkedIn page that looks like a resume, and mine basically listed every job I’ve ever had, going all the way back to my undergrad file-clerking job. Yikes.

Resumes are, first and foremost, a story. And the key to telling a good story is knowing what to include and what to leave out. You should include experiences that are relevant and not include those that aren’t. I very much enjoyed my two-year stint at GameStop, but it doesn’t really relate to my current line of work. I worked nine different gigs and internships before starting my current job, and while one’s first thought may be that listing them all shows my vast experience, less is definitely more.

I parsed my job history back to my current position and the relevant internships I’ve worked. If you’ve yet to really begin your “career,” it might be worth it to list your most recent part-time job, just to show that you do actually have work experience (especially if you’ve been there for over a year) but, otherwise, keep things simple and straightforward.

A Final Note

You know that employers will check out your social presence when vetting you as a candidate—and LinkedIn will be the first place they look. It’s critical, therefore, that your LinkedIn presence be as flawless as you can make it. So don’t make my mistakes—take the steps to polish your profile and make a great online impression.

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