No writing assignment strikes fear into the cold, calloused heart of a college journalist quite like the resume does. Yet no assignment is so shoddily reported and so clumsily written.
Every spring semester for nearly a decade, I’ve collected resumes from the staff at the student newspaper I advise – and I’ve taken them to local, state, and national media pros for a blistering critique. Every year, only a handful don’t suck.
Of course, the top reason for a crappy college resume is simply a lack of journalism experience. Too many j-school grads think they can land a media job with a diploma in one hand and some class assignments in the other. (For more on that, see 9 Mistakes that Crush a College Journalist’s Career.)
But even if your experience is impeccable, you can easily lose that first job you’d otherwise be destined for. Here’s why…
1. A resume isn’t a memoir.
You don’t know how to write a resume because you don’t know how to read one.
As a former hiring editor, I’ve perused hundreds of resumes. You know what I looked for? Very little.
A resume is supposed to hit your highlights, not tell your life story. Here are some stupid sentences from real resumes I’ve received…
- “Played/raised money for Broward Women’s Adult League for basketball.”
- “Founder of the Delray Monkeys climbing club.”
- “Spent a month last summer biking the east coast of the United States from Daytona Beach, FL to Atlantic City, NJ.”
It’s not that I don’t care about your intriguing hobbies. I just don’t care about them right now. When I slash the stack of resumes from 100 to five, I’ll call you. We’ll talk for 10 minutes, and if I still like you, I might take you to lunch at TGIFriday’s. (I never climbed high enough up the management flowchart to buy decent food.)
So you’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to impress me with how well-rounded you are. But trying to do so too soon tells me a couple things you don’t want me to know…
- You have no clue what to say when – a crucial journalistic skill.
- You might be a self-centered asshole.
Bottom line: A resume is not Facebook. Don’t dump your life on me.
2. Put yourself in perspective.
I’m the volunteer adviser for the University Press, the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University. The rest of the time, I work for a living. I’m a freelance writer, editor, and designer.
So when I gather the staff’s resumes, I take them to journalists I know who are higher up the food chain than I am: the managing editor of the National Enquirer, a bureau chief for NPR’s Marketplace, an Emmy-winning news anchor, and a New York Times editor, just to name a few.
Every time, they’d flip through the resumes and ask the same damn question: “What the hell is the University Press?”
That’s because the resume line often reads, in its entirety: “University Press, staff writer, February 2009-present: wrote news and sports stories.”
All too often, the students don’t even mention FAU. They just assume every employer has read our newspaper – when most students on campus haven’t.
The right way to do this: “University Press, staff writer, February 2009-present: Covered Student Government (2009) and the basketball team (2010) for the weekly newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, a state school with 28,000 students.”
This is the most common resume mistake I (and my superior peers) see.
Check out this otherwise intriguing resume from a woman named Julia Taylor, who graduates from Arizona State in 2013. She’s a consultant at a place called HawkeSoft and a freelancer for a paper called The Downtown Devil. I have no idea if I should be impressed, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to Google them. I’ll just skip her resume and find one that answers the questions I want to ask.
Bottom line: Journalists who can’t weave background into their resumes probably can’t do it in their stories, either.
3. Objectives are subjective.
When I recruit media pros to review resumes, I always ask them if they care about objectives. Most don’t. But they all have the same iron-clad conviction about poorly crafted objectives like these actual ones…
- “To gain experience and knowledge in a field I am interested in pursuing for a career.”
- “To obtain a position that will allow me to utilize my experience and skills in order to make a positive contribution within the organization with the opportunity for growth and advancement.”
- “To obtain gainful employment that allows me to utilize and strengthen skills (writing/editing skills, computer skills, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, professional flexibility, etc.) that are vital to the numerous fields.”
These reveal nothing about your hopes, your fears, your dreams. And if you’re applying for a media job, you’ve just announced that you can’t write worth a shit.
Bottom line: A good objective won’t land you a job, but a bad one can cost you a job. So don’t bother.
4. Your education doesn’t come first.
In journalism, experience trumps education. Ask any hiring editor (and I have) which is more important: kick-ass clips or a 4.0 GPA.
Even if you have both, list your experience first. The best way I can explain this is with an analogy I know college students will understand…
It’s 4 in the morning, you come home still slightly inebriated, and despite having 100 TV channels and TiVO, you find yourself unwinding to an Animal Planet documentary about the mating habits of nurse sharks.
Suddenly, out of the backside of a pregnant nurse shark spews 20 tiny little sharks. The narrator intones, “Many will not survive until adulthood.”
Guess what? You’re one of those little sharks. Your j-school is the pregnant mom, and every May and December, she’s forcing you out of her ass and into dangerous waters. Even worse, every other j-school in the country is doing the same thing at the same time.
When you email your resume to hiring editors, it’s clogging their inboxes along with – no exaggeration – hundreds of others. And if every one of them begins with “Education,” then no one is special. You’re just another defenseless baby nurse shark waiting to get devoured by an orca.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a tiny-pink-spoon-at-Baskin-Robbins taste of what I’m talking about…
Click on this page of 2nd Year Student Resumes from the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Randomly sample the resumes there. Every one of them leads off with “Education: Berkeley.” It’s hard to dazzle an editor that way.
Bottom line: You’re supposed to have an education, and no one’s impressed by what you’re supposed to do.
5. Your references don’t have to say a word to wow a boss.
Nothing says, “Adults don’t respect me” quite like the words, “References available upon request.”
I tell the UP staffers to always include three quality references on their resume – and if they don’t have any, to volunteer somewhere professional until they get them.
Why? Because references are like a big flashing billboard on the bottom of your resume that says you’re awesome. Few students have three media-related references beyond their professors. So this is an instant way to stand out.
But some students have an irrational fear of listing their references, and when they do, they usually screw it up. Let’s explode a few myths right now…
- Employers aren’t going to call your references before they call you. Bosses are busy people, and it’s a waste of time to ask someone else about you until they ask you about you.
- No one cares about “character references.” You’re supposed to have character. (I once saw a college resume that listed a priest as a reference. Unless you’re going into the seminary, who cares?)
- Listing another student as a reference is like asking a newly pregnant woman for advice on labor pains. What the hell does she know?
Bottom line: If you’ve ever impressed some media pros, listing them as references is an objective way to say you’re worthy of an interview.
6. Little errors add up.
None of these will cost you a job, but all of them might…
- Brag about high school. No one cares if you were editor of your high-school paper or yearbook. They don’t care if you won awards for it, either. Think of it this way: When you were a high-school senior, did you give a crap when freshmen boasted about what they accomplished in middle school?
- Get sketchy about your skills. Don’t list programs you barely know under “skills.” Instead, place them in two categories: “expert” and “knowledgeable.” What’s the difference? Knowledgeable means you can open a file and edit what’s there. Expert means you can open a blank document and create what the boss needs from scratch.
- Go into detail about retail. So your resume is looking mighty thin under “experience.” Time to add all those restaurant and mall jobs, right? Maybe try to pass them off as “worked under deadline pressure” and “managed a wait staff.” And that’s just fine – but list only as many retail jobs as journalism jobs. In other words, if you have an internship and a position on your student newspaper, only mention two retail jobs, even if you’ve had more. And the best ones are those you’ve had for a couple years – they show you can stick with a task, something your generation is often criticized for (unfairly, in my view).
- Go long. Your resume should be one page for two reasons: You haven’t lived long enough to be that interesting (hell, my resume is two pages, and I’m 45 years old), and journalists are supposed to be succinct. If you can’t edit your own life, how can I trust you to edit your own stories?
7. Ignore Google. And your school.
It’s tempting to simply Google “journalism resume” and blindly comply with whatever the top results tell you.
But then you get something like this, which recommends you write a lame objective (“To obtain an internship position utilizing journalism skills”), put education first, not describe the places you worked for, and list no references (not even an “available upon request”).
And if you listen to your school’s career center – likely staffed by good-hearted people who haven’t worked in media since before you hit puberty – you’ll get equally bad advice.
Pity the Vanderbilt grads who follow their career center’s Newspaper Job Sample Resume, which leads off with an objective, followed by a summary, then education, then “related coursework,” and finally experience.
Bottom line: Don’t listen to me, either. Act like the journalist you want to be someday and multi-source. Talk with j-school alumni, hiring editors, and pro reporters. If they get annoyed that you’re asking so many questions, then those are some hypocritical journalists.
Examples of what I’m talking about…
Here are very different resumes from two women who were the same age when they worked at the University Press a few years ago.
One became editor of the UP, freelanced a lot, slept only a little, and now has a more-than-decent-paying media job with her own office – and she’s only 24 years old.
The other woman quit the UP not long after turning in this resume, and then she quit the business. Shouldn’t be hard to figure it out (click to embiggen)…