November 17, 2020

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter by and for women in media. 

I still remember my application for Poynter’s 2016 Leadership Academy for Women in Media. I remember finishing it and immediately walking to my boss’ office, closing his door and, almost through tears, saying, “Clay, I’m a complete failure and I just realized it.”

He was shocked. I was referring to the digital project I had just written about for the application. I didn’t realize how much I had failed in my very brief tenure as a professional journalist and digital strategist until that moment.

Clay responded by pulling up his reference letter and reading the following:

“After less than a year at The (Palm Beach) Post, Samantha applied for a Social Media Producer position and came to the interview so prepared that we had no choice but to promote her on the spot. Her path from newbie to expert was dizzyingly swift, and soon she was leading social media seminars for audiences both inside and outside the organization.”

You aren’t a failure, he said. I submitted my application shortly after, and, much to my surprise, I got in.

As this column was coming together, Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior vice president and an OG academy reviewer, faculty and coach, reminded me: “Not everyone has this, but I really look (into the application) for someone who has a champion or a sponsor. The reason for this is that it’s really hard to get anywhere on your own. If you don’t have a champion, you’re not going to be as effective.”

RELATED: Apply for Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Media.

Clay was that for me. My question: Who is that for you?

Today’s Cohort column, like the others, is coming from experience — as a participant, applicant reviewer and faculty member. And just for you, I’ve spoken with some of Poynter’s finalist judges about what makes a strong application. If you can tick off each item on the checklist below after completing your application, I assure you, you can submit with the confidence of the dope-ass woman leader you are. Let’s get to it!

My checklist for nailing the Poynter Leadership Academy for Women application:

(Sara O’Brien)

1. I am vulnerable.

TL;DR — Your application should be honest and self-reflective. 

We often get applications filled with examples of excellence. On one hand, this is great as you know we women can have a hard time bragging about ourselves. But on the other, it makes it hard for Poynter’s panel of judges to see what opportunities for growth the cohort can help with.

It’s important for you to know that this program is built for you — your whole self. And each cohort is special, bringing different strengths and weaknesses to the table, all of which complement one another. The goal of this program is for you to graduate with a group of women you can trust, lean on and celebrate with.

For Poynter, our job is to build a unique but complementary cohort and then hold space for you and your members to, well, be you. In order to do this, we look for our applicants to be vulnerable throughout their application. Ask yourself: How is my application revealing my leadership story?


2. I am a leader with capacity to fill, and my reference letter expresses this.

TL;DR — Your reference letter offers a glowing but constructive take.

The recommendation letter is such an important part of the application.

“You want a reference who will highlight your current influence as a leader — regardless of title — and who has a vision for where you might go in your career,” said Poynter’s head of diversity and training, Doris Truong. “The best references are familiar with your work and your style as a colleague. They also know the areas in which you need to grow — whether that’s being more confident about your ideas or being more adept at communicating.”

For those of you who aren’t yet in a managerial role, this reference letter ought to forecast that future and how you’ve displayed some of the skills already.

Note: With the number of applications we received last year, we’re no longer accepting multiple reference letters, so keep in mind that the best references, according to Truong, are “also people who will be able to provide feedback as you continue in your career.”

Doris Truong, Poynter director of training and diversity, teaches a variety of sessions (and leads some of the best social activities!) during Poynter’s leadership academies. (Sara O’Brien)



3. I know how this academy will help me grow.

TL;DR — You kept it real with how you want to develop as a leader.

Did you know we start each academy experience with a 360-degree feedback session all about how others see you and interpret your leadership style? We do this to ensure self-awareness is at the foundation of the experience. Everything builds upon this foundation, which is why it is important to weave your own sense of self-awareness throughout your application.

Without beating yourself up, be honest about your opportunities to grow. Listen, none of us are perfect, and for the application, we’re looking for women who go beyond the hype of this program and dig into why it truly is the best fit for them right now.

Related: Applying for ONA’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator? Check out their FAQ for tips to nail the application process


4. I am not an imposter. I’m the real deal. *submit*

TL;DR — You got this. You did that. Own it all. The end.

It can be hard to translate confidence into typed words, but hey, we never said the application wasn’t challenging. Academy faculty and Poynter’s Locally editor, Kristen Hare, breaks it down like this:

“Claim what you did. We (judges) don’t know that you wrangled 15 people (and their egos) to cover that project unless you tell us. We don’t know that piece your reporter won awards for went through months of guidance and edits and has your touch all over it unless you tell us.”

She adds, “If you’re still feeling uncomfortable claiming what you did, just picture Brad (or Brett, or Chad, or whatever white guy you work with who has no problem claiming what he did). Be Brad.”

This item is on the checklist because I want you to be able to submit with authority and in power. You are talented and deserving, and I know I speak for all of the Poynter judges and alum when I say, we want you to complete your application, read it back and say this statement with pride — even joy: “I am not an imposter. I’m the real deal.”

Good luck! And remember, has dozens and dozens of Poynter alum (myself included) offering free coaching. Plan to sign up to get feedback on your application before you submit. One last thing: The deadline is Nov. 30 for all three 2022 academies.

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