Get a Foot in the Door With No Stubs

Posted March 24, 2010 at 4:05pm

This is the season for summer internship applications. And like job applications overall, the competition is fierce around Washington, D.C., for coveted, albeit temporary, spots at newspapers, Capitol Hill offices, businesses and nonprofits. And when the internship happens to come with a salary, the competition heats up even more.

We here at Roll Call offer two summer internship spots in the newsroom and have been receiving a number of strong applications for those two spots. But what is fascinating about some of the applications is what they lack. In a tough job market, some young people seeking a foot in the door are doing more to stub their toes than putting their best foot forward.

Therefore, we’ve compiled some tips for applicants that we hope will serve not only those seeking work at Roll Call, but also future applications for permanent jobs anywhere:

• Find out about Roll Call, and, in particular, find out about the nature of the internship program. Every semester, we receive applications so generalized that it’s hard to tell if the applicant is aware of whether he’s applying to work at a political newspaper or for the local Dairy Queen. For example, “I learned of this exciting opportunity through my school’s career website, and I would be very grateful for the chance to interview with your business.” Here’s another example: “I am extremely interested in the type of coverage upon which your publication focuses and I believe my strong writing and reporting skills would be a great asset to your organization.” We receive a number of applications from students all around the country who tell us they read Roll Call every day. While that may be true, they’d need to pony up for a subscription to the paper, so that claim might make us skeptical if the applicant hails from San Antonio. In addition, applicants need to make sure the name on the application is updated so that they’re not reaching out to an editor who left five years ago.

• Write a dynamic cover letter. One of the main things a cover letter tells us is whether the writer has a sense of voice, a command of grammar and an ability to focus on what matters most. At the same time, a cover letter can come off as trying too hard or sounding too gimmicky, so an overemphasis on style can sometimes backfire. One young man spent several lines talking about the color purple, and we still can’t figure out why. A cover letter can often provide more information than published clips — because published clips can be edited. We once had an application from a young man with outstanding clips and a terribly written cover letter. It was obvious that someone else had a strong hand in polishing the articles.

• Tell us what you can do for Roll Call, not what Roll Call can do for you. Often, intern applicants are so focused on putting together all the elements of their budding careers that they forget that they’re trying to convince an employer to hire them because they would add something to the company, and not the other way around. One applicant wrote, “I am sure that this opportunity will allow me to gain a greater sense of purpose in my writing.” Not only does that tell us the wrong things, but it also makes us wonder just how directionless this young woman is.

• Don’t call. We know every applicant is enthusiastic, but calling a busy newspaper office is rarely appropriate. One applicant wrote, “I’d love to find out more about position you would like to fill, and I would welcome the opportunity to tell you how my skills and ideas can benefit Roll Call. I will call you in two weeks to further discuss the internship.” That’s the last thing an editor wants to hear.

• Although e-mail certainly has an informal quality these days, any kind of job application needs to step it up a notch in terms of formality. Here’s one e-mail that was way too informal: “Seeking any information on possible internship. Thanks, [name].” That, obviously, is just too casual for our tastes, as are e-mails that begin with “Hey” and then an editor’s first name.

• Focus the résumé on the job at hand. Although harvesting grapes in a Burgundy vineyard and working as a secretary for a trucking company are fine occupations, they’re only loosely related to reporting. If we have to read through the Habitat for Humanity work and the various soccer teams, we’re tired. Focus on the journalism. As for GPA, it matters for grad school. But we’ve seen too many reporters who muddled through high school and college with a dismal average and went on to change the world with their stories. One might even argue that undergraduate grades suffer because a student was preoccupied with writing top-notch stories for her college paper instead. At least that’s what we told our parents.

• Make it all look good. Badly photocopied clips, links to entire newspaper sites that force us to read through too many other things or that don’t load properly are signs that the applicant hasn’t taken care to double-check the details.

• Think about your Facebook profile. If it shows you sprawled out on a beer pong table, dressed as a prostitute for Halloween, or being carried sideways by a couple of guys dressed as Vikings (you know who you are), think again. Added to that, remember that blogs are public, so if you want to do some public pondering about whether you think your journalism career is going to work out, think also about who might be reading those words.

• Follow instructions. If we ask applicants to file to a certain editor, don’t send the application to human resources. If we ask for four or five clips, don’t send 10. It tells us that you might create problems in a busy breaking-news environment where every second counts and accuracy needs to be without question.

• Think about whether you meet our requirements. In today’s competitive world of journalism, applicants who haven’t had at least some experience writing articles for their high school and college paper make us wonder about their commitment. We’re sure that short stories and position papers are lovely, but, sadly, they have no place in this newspaper.

• Proofread. More than once, an applicant has written as the objective that he would like to apply for a job at the American Prospect or the New Republic. In that case, we think, go for it. And more than once, we’ve seen typos that make us cringe. One applicant not terribly long ago wrote to a newspaper about an editorial “postion.” Believe us, we know of these mistakes from firsthand experience.