Here are 7 common mistakes to avoid on your journalism CV
It’s that time of year when new journalism graduates start to apply for jobs. Having seen a lot of these over the years, I thought I’d put together a list of the mistakes I see most often — and what to do about them.
1. Talking about the activities that you‘ve done rather than the skills that you built
You might have work experience in the media with obvious relevance to the job you’re applying for, but what about other experience?
Remember that bar work, volunteering, manual labour, etc. will all have helped you develop skills that are useful as a journalist.
So when listing your employment history, don’t focus on what you did (“Working at the tills”, “Collecting money”, “Moving boxes”) — focus on the skills that make you employable for the job you’re applying for.
For example, any job that involves dealing with the public will have given you skills in speaking to strangers, building relationships quickly, communicating with a diverse range of people, and so on. You might have had to deal with aggressive or vulnerable people, conflict or other issues.
Any job involving money or figures will have developed skills in numeracy or even dealing with data.
Repetitive work might have developed your patience or persistence.
Most jobs involve colleagues and bosses where you had to work with others, compromise and organise. You may have had to manage time, people or resources.
And all jobs will have provided insights into a part of society that people in the organisation you’re applying to may not have worked in.
2. Cliches and unnecessary words
Are you conscientious and hard working? Work well in a team and individually? Join the club.
You don’t have a lot of space on a CV so make every word earn its place— this is also a demonstration of your journalistic skills.
Avoid generic phrases, be concrete, and focus on what makes you stand out.
3. Overlooking mistakes or inconsistencies
This might seem obvious but if you’re applying for a job in journalism it is absolutely vital that you don’t make any spelling or grammatical mistakes in your application.
Some employers will filter out applications based on this alone: one told me that two-thirds of applications failed at the first hurdle because of typos and other mistakes.
There are broadly four types of mistakes to watch out for:
- Spelling mistakes are the first. Double-check that any names (not just people, but also places and organisations) are spelt correctly. Watch out especially for homophones (e.g. their/they’re/there).
- Grammatical mistakes include using capitals when they’re not needed (a very common mistake) and vice versa (less common). You should check every apostrophe in your application, but also look out for other punctuation mistakes like failing to close parentheses or misusing semi-colons (on the whole it’s just better not to use a semi-colon at all)
- Using words incorrectly is something else to watch out for: in seeking to show off their vocabulary, people sometimes use an impressive word without being 100% confident about what it means. If you have any long words in your application, look them up. (And if possible, use a simpler one: journalists are rarely hired because they are sesquipedalian 😉)
- Inconsistency and style: part of the professionalism of a journalist is an awareness of the conventions they operate within, including consistent style. If your CV has bullet points, for example, make sure that you are consistent in how you start and end them (capital letter? Full stop?)
4. Education treated as a tickbox
I’m always amazed how many students relegate 3 years of their life to just two lines on a CV — institution attended, name of degree obtained — while a week of work experience might get a full paragraph on the same CV.
It’s as if those three years were geared towards one thing only: getting a piece of paper.
But that degree title doesn’t tell a potential employer about all the things you learned, all the skills you developed, or all the experience you gained during your undergraduate or postgraduate degree.
So make sure you devote at least a paragraph for each piece of education which outlines the skills, knowledge and experience that you developed that are relevant to the job.
Those might be obvious —writing for the student paper, studio experience, running social media accounts, producing an in-depth investigation, learning media law, etc. — but don’t undersell transferrable skills like developing research skills, communicating complex concepts succinctly, or working within teams to deadlines.
5. No examples of work
While your education and experience will get you through the first stages of an application, perhaps the most important thing in getting you the job itself is the quality of your work itself.
Make sure you include a link to a place where people can see examples of your work — for example, a portfolio site where you collect together the best and most varied examples of your work.
Remember that you don’t need to be published to create a portfolio of work: reporting independently shows initiative and resourcefulness, and you can (and should) publish it yourself.
6. Lacking personality
Perhaps the trickiest thing to pull off in a CV is to convey a little bit of your personality — but if you manage to do it without appearing unprofessional, then it’s worth doing. Remember that it’s a journalistic skill to write in an engaging way.
Hobbies are typically one way that this is done, but how you write about those can be just as effective.
When I was hiring for a news editor job many years ago, one applicant mentioned that she was learning German — “badly”. It stuck out at the time and still sticks in my memory now, years later. Never underestimate how a little wit might make you stand out enough to get that job interview.
7. Underestimating the value of your personal experiences
The structure of a CV favours people with formal qualifications and a lot of professional experience — even those with interesting hobbies. By default CVs exclude those personal experiences that don’t fit into those boxes.
But you don’t have to fit into those boxes.
There will be experiences that you have had which are still relevant to the job you’re applying for.
For example, if you have had caring responsibilities or raised a family then that is an experience every bit as important as a part-time job.
If you were the first person in your family to go to university, then that’s an achievement to shout about, not to hide.
If you’ve experienced prejudice or poverty, been a victim of crime or injustice, or overcome obstacles that others haven’t had to face, then you might well be able to offer experience to the newsroom that it doesn’t have.
If you come from a place whose voices aren’t normally represented in that news organisation’s output, then that has value too.
Consider including the value that these experiences bring in a personal statement or covering letter, and/or adapting relevant sections to make room for them.
Change ‘work experience’ to ‘experience’, for example, to include any labour that didn’t come with a wage. Change ‘hobbies and interests’ to ‘other information’ if you need to.
As reporters part of our role is to report on systems and look out for the cracks — being aware of those in the very system you use to apply for jobs will help prevent you from falling down them.
If there are other common mistakes I’ve left off this list please let me know on Twitter @paulbradshaw.