Recruiters List Top 3 Application Turn-offs
December 13, 2013
Adrianne Flynn

They’re certainly not haters, and they are definitely looking for you, but you might want to mind your P’s and Q’s if you run into a journalism job recruiter.

Here are the top three application turnoffs for hiring editors whom we contacted recently:

1) An application with errors or typos

There are few things that grate on the nerves of hiring editors more than spelling, grammar or fact errors.

“If the resume and cover letter are imperfect, what shape will your copy be in after you’ve got a job?” said Doug Tallman, editor of The Gazette, a chain of weeklies owned by The Washington Post. “I probably won’t worry about a that/which error in the 13th paragraph in a 30-inch takeout, but if the hed gets effect and affect wrong, I’ll hit delete.”

And if you think an editor won’t be paying strict attention to your materials, think again. Andy Knobel, deputy sports editor of The Baltimore Sun, sent me what he said was “the worst email cover letter I’ve received.”

It goes like this:

“Good evening Mr. Knoble. My name is XXX, I’m a senior journalism student at University of Maryland. I have been referred to you by George Soloman about a possible sports internship with the Baltimore Sun this fall. I am very interested for the position. Attached is my resume and some of my work. My email is XXX and my phone number is XXX. I look forward to hearing from  you.”

Knobel went on to say, “The first sentence is missing a comma and misspells my name. The second sentence is missing a conjunction. The third sentence misspells George Solomon’s name and doesn’t capitalize the “The” in the newspaper’s name. The fourth has the wrong preposition after “interested.” And the fifth has an error in agreement.”

Just this semester, I had a student applicant for an internship address his cover letter to “Dear Andy” – way too informal for the associate executive editor of a major media chain — and another who closed his cover letter with “Respectively, (his name).” Geesh.

2) An applicant who’s failed to do his or her research on the target company

“Often, during interviews, candidates struggle to answer the question: ‘Tell me what you know about my news organization,’” said Rob Doherty, Reuters U.S. general manager.

I always recommend that job-seekers do their homework. Find out something about the person or people doing the hiring – where they worked in the past, or if you know any people in common – and learn all you can about the company and the kind of work it’s producing. You may find your interests or portfolio are in sync, and you won’t fall flat when asked to speak intelligently about the place where you want to work.

Bridget Broullire, who is joining the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission after heading Rockville 11, the City of Rockville, Md.’s, public information channel, put it this way, “Another no-no would be to come into an interview without being familiar with our programming or social media presence. It is easy to find us and if applicants are interested in working with us, they should at least check out a few videos on our YouTube channel.”

3)  Bad cover letters

Cover letters are the first introduction to your writing in something that remains a writing business. Some are overly long, others are purple or effusive, and still others come straight out of a business writing handbook. If it doesn’t grab a hiring editor’s attention in a good way, your presentation is already a fail.

Tallman says to keep it clear-cut and clean:  “Just a few simple sentences, in active voice, on why you want to work for me. Don’t be too clever. Don’t tell me too much. If you can’t write a simple cover letter, it makes me think you’re going to stink at cop briefs.”

And Doherty said that an “interesting, lively cover letter” can mean a “second look” for a candidate with a resume that’s a little weak.

“It demonstrates the ability to write well and can sometimes highlight an interesting life experience that may be difficult to describe on a resume,” he said.

Knobel said that cover letters, resumes and emails are how applicants reveal themselves. Although clips are important, he said, it’s hard to tell how heavily edited they are.

I like cover letters that tell a story about the applicant and his or her relationship to journalism – perhaps a very short anecdote that leads the reader quickly into a discussion of the applicant’s work and ends with a request for a discussion about a job. We’re talking four, five, six paragraphs at most. Whatever they say, cover letters should avoid talking about what the company can do for the prospective employee, and focus on what the prospective employee can do for the company.

And let me leave you with three other tips the recruiters shared.

  • Write thank-you notes, particularly for interviews, said Broullire.

“After we take the time to interview an applicant, they should take the time to show their interest and appreciation for the opportunity,” she said.

These thank-yous can be as simple as a one-paragraph (perfectly proofread) email, or a nicely handwritten note on a store-bought card. You can even get creative and put one of your own newsy photographs on the card’s cover – as long as it’s good.

  • Keep resumes simple.

Lisa Shroder, editor of Bethesda Magazine, said she hates to “have to search to figure out where the applicant goes to school and when he/she expects to graduate and what his/her relevant experience is.”

Resumes should adhere to the one-page rule and should be very easy to read at a glance. Hiring managers want to see where you worked, what you did, for how long and when. Anything else is superfluous.

  • Pay attention to deadlines.

A lot of great candidates get locked out of a big job pool because they missed the deadline date. Journalism is a deadline business. If you miss the application date, what other deadlines will you miss?

Good luck out there!


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