I’ll never forget my first difficult interview. It was a two-hour painstaking interrogation for a summer copy-editing internship at a small local flyer. I had applied for the obscure, but paid, job under the assumption that I would be a shoo-in, and ended up being utterly unprepared for my interview. I didn’t get the job, but I learned what mistakes to avoid in the future. Here are a few lessons I learned from every job I didn’t get.
Treat every application like it’s your dream job and put in the corresponding effort.
You should never apply halfheartedly, because it will show in your cover letter and in your interview. When I applied to the small local copy-editing internship, I was asked during my interview why I wanted to work at that company, and because I hadn’t done adequate research and preparation before the interview, I gave a sloppy answer. While every job may not be your dream job, every job may be a step on the way to your dream.
Always, always, always research the company extensively.
You should know who you’re going to work for before you even write your cover letter and especially before you go in for an interview. You would be surprised at some of the questions they ask you to ensure that you’re interested in the position. I’ve been asked questions such as “Can you name all the cities in which our publication circulates?” “Can you name a recent piece we’ve done and explain why you like it?” “Who do you admire from our company and why?” To get even more specific, as a journalist, I get targeted questions about the news as well, such as, “What policy is important in regards to Trump’s phone call with Taiwan?” “Name the three biggest stories of the year and explain your choices” and “What are some of your story ideas?” No matter what industry you’re in, you should always stay well-versed in your area of expertise and always come to an interview with ideas.
Double-check, triple-check and have your neighbor, friend or family member check the hiring manager’s name on your cover letter and email.
I still remember applying for a job in which I spelled the man’s last name as “Kellog” instead of “Kellogg,” which for some reason, even after double-checking his name, I still missed. My eyes glazed over the mistake numerous times, and as a result, I got this response: “These internships are much sought after because they are paid and because they have been successful launching pads for our best interns. That's a polite way of saying the competition is significant and all applicants must concentrate on putting their best foot forward. (That would include correctly spelling the name of the person you're writing to.)”. I knew I wouldn’t get the job, but I also knew that from then on, I would always ask for a second pair of eyes when checking emails and cover letters.
Never write the first draft of an email in the email box.
While we’re on the subject of typos, you’re less likely to catch mistakes when writing in your email box than when you write on Google docs or a Microsoft word document. After sending a few emails with sentences that were missing appropriate commas or that contained small errors, I now always write the first draft of my emails in Microsoft Word so that I can use the spelling and grammar check feature. You want to avoid illogical sentences such as, “Please let me know if there is any I can do to make myself a stronger candidate for this internship,” which is actually a sentence I emailed once. (eek!)
Don’t apply to only a few jobs, but also concentrate your effort wisely.
A good rule of thumb is that you’ll tend to get responses and interviews from about 10 percent of jobs that you apply for, and of the ones that you interview for, you might get offers at about half of them. Of course, this isn’t a perfect formula, but it’s important to keep in mind that you’ll have the best chance of getting a job if you apply for a lot of them. That being said, it’s impossible to put forth 100% of your effort on every job if you’re applying for 30 or 40 positions per semester, but you should identify which jobs you have the best chance of getting, or which ones you want the most, and put in a little extra effort when applying.
Don’t wait too long before following up.
Generally, I like to send my follow-up email about a week or two after my actual application. In the past, I’ve sent my follow-up email only to discover that the position has already been filled. Most internships tend to fill up within 3-6 weeks after the application deadline, so it’s important to act fast if you want to stand out. Your follow-up email itself should also stand out. Have something interesting to say in your email, whether it’s a compliment for recent work that the company has done, an idea that you would bring to the company, or another reason why you’re a perfect fit for the job.
Play by the rules.
If they say “no calls please,” don’t call. If they say “three to five samples of your work,” don’t submit six. If you can’t follow directions when applying for the job, what would make the company think that you could follow rules at the job itself? It’s often annoying or obnoxious if you don’t follow the guidelines set down by the company, and it can be a waste of everyone’s time. Additionally, and this should go without saying, sometimes people still think they’re an exception to the rule: your cover letter and resume should only be one page each! At this stage in the game, there’s no reason to submit a longer resume. By sending long cover letters and resumes, you’re overloading hiring managers, and I’ve had one hiring manager tell me that if she receives any applications with two page resumes or cover letters, she just throws them out.
Personalize your cover letter.
Don’t make the mistake and settle for a boring cover letter. Each cover letter should be customized and tailored to the company and should tell a story. Never start your cover letter with “Hi my name is *blank* and I’m applying for *blank*. While you do need to put the name of the position you’re applying for in your cover letter, never put the hiring manager to sleep with a boring and bland opening statement.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll get a job even if you avoid making mistakes, but the biggest mistake of all would be to give up. I applied for NBC Universal five times before they finally interviewed me and offered me a job, and it was 100% worth all the effort. Just because a company rejects you doesn’t mean you should stop trying. Sometimes, they’re just waiting for you to gain a little more experience or they don’t have enough positions for all of their amazing applicants. If you don’t get hired, use it as a learning experience: Ask yourself, what can I do better next time?