Applying for summer internships? Learn from my mistakes

Hey, j-students, it’s finally here. Applications for summer internships at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and The Canadian Press are all due this this week.

Of course, those are just the big outlets and don’t fret — if you feel like you’re not going to make the deadline, this isn’t necessarily the end of the line for you. There are other ways to carve out a job for yourself.

Last month, I had the good fortune of sitting down with Wendy McCann, the Ontario Bureau Chief of The Canadian Press. Our meeting was in conjunction with a two-day event organized by the Ryerson Journalism Alumni Association. There was a panel discussion the first evening and on the second day, students who signed up in advance got to have a private 30-minute consultation with the people in charge of hiring from many of the big media outlets in Canada. Wendy took a blue pen to my resume and…let’s just say I left feeling like I learned something, okay? Criticism; it’s not fun to receive it, especially from someone you’re trying to impress, but it certainly is edifying and I get satisfaction out of that.

On a side note, I learned that a few people were hired from those critique sessions so here’s a quick tip for you to remember: you never know when opportunity will strike. If you’re good enough and you’re just doing a cold call, you will get noticed because a) you had the tenacity to ask for someone to talk to you and b) you will have followed these tips on how to write excellent cover letters and resumes. I expect 10 per cent of whatever you earn.

Wendy also gave every student she interviewed a list of ten things to remember when writing a cover letter. I’ve included my goofs where applicable. So, without further ado, here they are.

Ten tips for writing application packages:

1. Tell the story of you. Don’t write a form letter. Pick a relevant anecdote and work it.
I did this to beef up my cover letter when I was starting out. I told the story of how dropping out of high school shaped me. Problem was it was two full pages and right off the bat Wendy told me my cover letter was too long. Which leads to the next tip.

2. Keep your cover letter to a single page.
Here’s a chance to practice your tight writing and editing skills.

3. Decide what your most relevant experience is, and highlight that.
Is it your education at this point, or your relevant work experience?

4. If you don’t have enough experience, go out and get it. Volunteer wherever you can.
Tough to do when you’re in school, but there are options. Have you considered contributing to J-Source?

5. Don’t include irrelevant information. You’re applying for jobs in your profession. It doesn’t matter that you once worked at Sears.
I’m guilty of this one. The resume I showed Wendy included my job at Medieval Times and the North American Midway Company (I was a carnie for a summer). Big mistake. Only include experience that’s relevant to journalism. 

6. Don’t simply claim to have the great traits of a journalist (i.e. excellent interviewing skills, outstanding grammar). Anyone can make those claims. Show what your talents are, don’t just tell the employer about them.
Doubly guilty of this one. Kids, please have your CP Style and Caps and Spelling style guides nearby. Save yourself the embarrassment. Also:

7. Make it clean. You can’t claim to
have superior journalism skills if your letter is littered with typos,
spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Have someone proof read what
you intend to submit. And double check it again.
Give yourself a couple of days to write your applications. Day one, figure out who you’re going to use for references (and make sure those references know). Then brainstorm, write a rough draft and then sleep on it. The mistakes will jump off of the page if you give your eyes and brain a rest.

8. Consider that page to be your real
estate. It’s your page to sell yourself. Make every word count. No
throw-away lines. No white spaces where you could be making yourself
seem indispensable.
Self-editing rules.

9. Don’t exaggerate your experience. You will be found out.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew, don’t go for jobs you know you’re not qualified for. It will hurt your prospects. Think of it this way: you get hired for your dream internship but you underperform and your editor lets you know. Are you going to include that experience on your resume? Are you going to use that contact as a reference? Ambitious young journalists are always wrestling with the urge to push and go hard — to get their name out there, now. Take a breath. Realistically assess your skills. What’s missing? Cultivate the experience you need from somewhere that won’t make or break your reputation.

10. Find the right balance between telling the employer what you can do for them, and what the organization can do for you.