February 3, 2016

Budding journalists, how many places have you applied to this week? Last night? Today? It’s a slog. We sympathize with you because we’ve been there before.

Last week, the editorial staff at Poynter read resumes and cover letters from 160 Google News Lab Fellowship applicants. We’ve had good luck with this position in the past — Poynter’s Ben Mullin turned it into a staff position and Gurman Bhatia had a big impact on us last summer before she left to join the Palm Beach Post’s investigative team.

This group was packed with talented journalists who already had impressive experience and big ideas.

But as we reviewed the applications, our Slack conversations centered on some common mistakes. Are you applying for an internship, fellowship or new job? I checked in with Poynter’s editorial team and we all agree — don’t do these 10 things.

(Also, editors, what would you add from your hiring days? Email or tweet them to me, and I’ll add them here or make a master list if we get enough.)

OK, here we go:

1. Spell our name wrong. This is true for any place you apply. Get the details right because, well, that’s the job you want to have, right?

2. Have a work objective. “Work objectives are terrible,” Mullin said. “Everyone’s work objective is the same.”

See also: 10 ways to make your journalism job application better than everyone else’s

3. Copy and paste in another news org’s name. Slow down.

4. Lead with how you’ve wanted to be a journalist for as long as you can remember. That’s pretty much all of us. Pick a different moment to begin your narrative that will help it stand out instead of blending in.

5. Try too hard to sound smart. “I found that personal letters that were genuine were better than those trying to be smart,” my fact-checking colleague Alexios Mantzarlis said. “I’d rather get a real story than a smart story of why you’re coming to work here. I don’t need some elaborate metaphor of the world of journalism today. If you tell me how this fits into your trajectory and show passion, I’ll believe you and remember you.”

6. Get your tone wrong. If you’re applying to a job at places that crackle with snarky voice and personality, by all means, show what you can do. Poynter’s probably not that place. This also goes for swearing in your cover letter. Newsroom cursing is a real and hallowed thing, but save it for your fourth or fifth impression, not your first.

See also: Eight lessons learned from a former journalist’s job search

7. Not really knowing where you’re applying to. “…It’s not the same as sending the same admissions application to 50 colleges or universities,” said Jim Warren, our chief media correspondent. “There are major differences among The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Poynter, C-SPAN or Esquire magazine. Leave me, as somebody hiring, with a sense you are mindful of what we do and what we are looking for.”

8. Quote random historical figures. We love some good journalism quotes, trust us. But what does that lovely quote have to do with you? We don’t want to see that you have a firm grasp of cliches with that “In the words of the great …” lead. We want to see who you are and what you think. (See also tip five.)

9. Blather on. “Brevity is essential, as is a resume tailored to the organization,” said Warren, who has done this a few times before, including as managing editor of The Chicago Tribune. “The same resume meant for an internship at the U.S. State Department won’t work for a daily newspaper. And a mere laundry list of achievements and past jobs can fall short, too, rather than a resume with a solid, short opening summation of why you are fit for this particular employer.”

10. Exaggerate. “No one can expect the same experiences as one might from a veteran reporter,” Warren said. “So skip the obvious hyperbole.” Do be specific about what you’ve done, he said, don’t exaggerate “and cite understandable examples of your work product.”

If you’re looking for a job or a fellowship or an internship, good luck. We know it’s tough out there. Hopefully someday soon, you’ll get to be on the other side of the application.


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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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