Girshman's Dos-and-Don'ts Guide to Writing a résumé for a Journalism Job
In conversation with Career GPS, Kaiser Health News Executive Editor, Online Peggy Girshman shared a document she has created over the years chronicling her DOs and DON'Ts for journalism résumés. Here, she shares her tips with the ReportingonHealth community.
(All examples drawn from real-life résumés)
tell me your "professional objective." I don't know you, so I'm really not curious about what needs you have. Here is a typical one, which does not enhance the résumé: "Objective: A position in writing, research, analysis and plan development in which to apply interpersonal, organizational and conceptual skills." The only exception to this is if you have no experience, for example, "Objective: to be an editor," if your skills are as a reporter. But even then, be brief and specific.
list your professional skills separately and at the top, even with cute bullet points (with the exception of one particular way to do it, below). Yes, I know the books tell you to do it, but the most important thing in a journalism résumé is to tell me what you've done. Try to incorporate various skills within a particular job: "shot and edited a documentary on sleep apnea."
put your education at the top, unless you have no applicable experience at all. Otherwise, I think that your education is what you consider to be your most significant experience.
send a generic résumé. Nothing gets tossed onto the (virtual) reject pile faster than something that says "researched and analyzed information."
just upload your résumé to a résumé service. This means I have to leave my e-mail/company site and go to a blind page and click through. Try, if you can, to send it directly to the hiring official (or, at least, the organization).
write a long, overly complicated or cute cover letter. (Example from the second paragraph of a cover letter: "Writer and painter, Henry Miller once said: 'All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.'" Say what? Your résumé is much more important. And don't ever start your cover letter "your search is over!" Actually, don't ever use exclamation points!
tell me your hobbies. If you get an interview, and you happen to find an appropriate opening, then it's ok.
tell me that you've been a finalist for an award, unless it was the Pulitzer, a national Emmy, the National Book Award or the Keck Communications prize.
send me 200KB+ or more huge files of clips. (I've gotten them as big as 11 MB.)
send me PDFs of your work.
list a reference without checking with that person that he/she will give you an enthusiastic recommendation. I called someone who said "Did he actually list my name? I couldn't possibly recommend him. I helped fire him."
make spelling or grammatical mistakes in your résumé, cover letter, etc. Sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised. (It's best to have someone proof read it for you; everyone needs an editor.) Most importantly, don't misspell the name of the person to whom you are writing. (I get Grisham, Gershwin, etc.)
tell me about your very personal connection to a beat or assignment ("I have had xxx disease for five years and I can bring a unique perspective to your medical coverage.")
tell me you're a "communicator" or "educator." They are not synonyms for journalism.
send me material via the U.S. Postal Service unless I specifically ask you to. And never FedEx; it's always a waste of money.
ever use any of the following phrases: "Team Leadership," "Strategic Positioning and Branding," "Expertise in Consumer Messaging," "Project Implementation," "My goal," "Multi-talented," "Multi-tasking," "Public Relations," "artistic creation," "utilize my skills," "dynamic communicator."
quote other people in your own résumé: "I have been called 'professional who knows his craft,' 'the best marketing writer on the eastern seaboard' and 'a gentleman with brains.'"
use journalism professors as references, unless they're known by the people doing the hiring or you really don't have anyone else who knows your work.
list any activities (even important ones) that you did for a fraternity or sorority under "experience."
list "letters to the editor" under "experience."
make the hiring person do work, such as sending me to various websites for even the most basic information or asking me to reply to a message like this one (sent in March): "I'm graduating in June and I'm interested in applying for the web producer opening. The earliest I'll be available is June 21. Do you need the new hire to start before this date?"
make sure your name, address and contact information are at the top of the résumé. Some résumé programs have "boxes" and it's not included in there.
tailor your résumé for the job. If the news organization is looking for a political reporter, highlight everything you've covered that is political throughout the résumé. Yes, it's a pain to do it every time, but it really helps.
take maximum advantage of any web knowledge and skills you have.
if you have no/limited web skills, create web examples for your 'clip reel.' Take a class, or pay for a tutor if necessary, it'll be worth the small investment. Learn how to make a slide show, crop photos, create a simple chart. You may want to check out JournalismTraining.org (though this is not an endorsement).
at the bottom, if you have SPECIFIC multimedia skills, briefly list them: Photoshop, HTML programming, Dreamweaver, etc. If you can, include examples in your clips.
explain gaps in time. If your most current work doesn't go until today, tell me why in your cover letter.
remember that anyone reading your résumé might have detailed knowledge to vet your truthfulness. So avoid gilding the lily (for example, don't say you worked for CBS News if you worked for a KCBS, a network-owned affiliate).
send me samples of your work. (Links are especially good, but check to see if they're still active, and still possible to access without having to log in.)
send your material to a friend who can try to open it in a variety of browsers, to make sure the formatting is correct. Relying on your own machine can sometimes be deceptive.
.tell me if you speak a language other than English.
.list significant awards.
list journalism organizations you are in. Ethnic specialty groups are especially good. Not a member of anything? Join a group, it never hurts, and can establish common ground, and it says something about your interest in learning new things and networking.
tailor your references to the job.
find out where the hiring officials worked before and pursue contacts, connections, etc. Even if there is no connection, learning about who is hiring you helps in the interview process – you can discuss mutual story interests/challenges.
check out the résumé-making websites, ones that allow you to include your work samples in a lovely format, such as www.visualcv.com.
read the "minimum qualifications" thoroughly. Try to customize your résumé to maximize your qualifications to match the minimum. Many news organizations have strict rules barring them from hiring people without those minimum qualifications. I posted a job calling for some knowledge of health and got a lot of résumés which didn't mention health anywhere, nor did the applicant address that deficiency in the cover letter. That just means he/she didn't even read the job description – a red flag for the person reviewing the résumés.
maximize your qualifications in the "strongly preferred" part of the job description.
label your Microsoft word documents with your name: "John Smith résumé.doc." Also, when sending the e-mail, put your name and the job in the subject line: "John Smith, science editor application."
be careful about media-specific terminology. For example, "edit packages:"
in newspapers, it could mean you were the editor responsible for a big project
in television, it means you were the videotape editor of 1-3 minute stories
online, it could mean web producing/copy editing multimedia features
Google yourself to see what comes up and assess what opportunities or questions it might raise.
My final advice is about your whole approach. Learn as much as you can about the place and the job. Read the website. Listen to/watch coverage. The most successful candidates are not just those who know what they're doing, they are those who know what the employer needs and tailor the whole job application towards those needs.