We've written a lot about the link between college and the workforce — and the kinds of skills graduates will need in the 21st century to succeed. One of the skills you need is knowing how to present yourself. To put your best foot forward in the workplace, and in life.
And so, as we started to read the current round of internship applications, we have some advice for you.
The problem we see, over and over and over again? Well, let's just say your cover letter needs some work.
More often than not, the problems are there right from the very first sentence. Actually the first three words: "I am writing ..."
As in: "I am writing to express my interest in an internship" or "I am writing to apply for the internship with NPR."
Think about that for a moment: You've written to us to tell us that you're writing to us to apply for the internship that you've applied for.
(By the way, we blame the Internet for a lot of this form-letter stuff.)
In letters that start off that way, things usually head downhill from there. You're then probably going to tell us, in a lot of multisyllabic words, how you'll apply your creativity and your passion and your research and analytical skills, and the perspective you've gained in your academic work/daily blog writing/study abroad semester/volunteer experience to become a "dynamic" and "hard-working" member of our team.
Read that sentence out loud. Try doing it without taking a breath. See what we're talking about?
Continuing from there, you'll then praise us at NPR for our dedication to the mission of exploring the complex policy initiatives that are something something about America's something something education system.
Then, having put us to sleep with writing like that, you'll tell us about your writing skills.
Now, all of this isn't meant to poke fun at you. We're just trying to make it clear that, when you write us that paragraph, we pretty much tune out from there. Which is sad, because so many of you are amazing and talented students who've done some incredible things. You've started a nonprofit or traveled the world or raised a sibling or learned a third language or have insights into a culture or community that others don't know about.
It's sad, too, because in many cases you really like us and really want to work here. Usually, you're about to tell us, that's because you grew up listening to NPR in the back seat of the car while your parents had us on the radio and you came to admire the work that we do.
So, instead of all that, here are five things you can try:
Tell us a story
Here at NPR, that's what we do for a living. We tell stories, and the goal is to be interesting and exciting and make people want to keep on listening or reading. Stories have characters and movement ... well, you get the point. And so to introduce yourself to us right off the bat, and get us eager to know more about you, show us your stuff writing-wise.
Let's illustrate. Which of these, drawn from actual examples, would you rather read?
I am applying for the position of NPR Fall Intern. I believe that my strong interest in education topics and background in research qualify me for this internship. My undergraduate and postgraduate academic careers have taught me to critically analyze and synthesize large amounts of data quickly. I also have experience conducting research in corporate and office settings.
The first time I ever went on live television, I was in Lahore, Pakistan. By the time I ended up in Pakistan this past January, being on camera wasn't new to me. I had several years of on-camera experience under my belt traveling around the world with an educational travel show for kids. When I lived in Los Angeles, I spent my hard-earned bartending money on TV hosting classes for a year.
If you're like us, you'd much rather read that second one. It was written by one of our actual interns, Kat Lonsdorf.
Don't bury the lede
We're always afraid that, hidden down below, somewhere after that awful first paragraph, there's a fascinating person with great ideas. And we might not ever find out. It's a basic lesson of journalistic writing: Put the good stuff right up there at the top. Grab us and hold us and keep us reading.
Ask not what your internship can do for you ...
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, don't tell us what you'll get out of the internship, but what you can do for us.
Here's what you should avoid:
As a recent college graduate in the humanities, I believe I stand to benefit from the development of skills and career direction which an NPR internship provides.
I believe that NPR is the ideal internship for me as the position will allow me to explore ...
Aim at the right target
It's so nice when we get letters from people who've made it clear they're interested in our topic: how learning happens, and that you've read what we do. Slip in a comment that shows you've listened to a story or two, or checked out our blog. And maybe tell us — without a lot of big words and jargon — what you think about schools or teaching or education.
Instead of, "To Whom It May Concern," put our actual names (If you're applying to the NPR Ed internship, our names are at the top of this story) in the heading of your letter.
** Extra bonus: a story idea or two that you'd like to see us write about.
Have someone else read your letter
We call this editing. Spellcheck is great, but take the next step: Have someone look over your letter to check for misspellings. They can find punctuation mistakes or long, clunky sentences. If you can't find someone, read your letter out loud.
In the journalism world, all these things are important. But they might help you in lots of other fields, too.
Good luck! We're looking forward to reading your letter. Oh, and the deadline is Sunday, March 4. No extensions.
This post was updated Feb. 7, 2018.
It takes a lot to get noticed in this town, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do it.
An NYU undergraduate student named Mark has become the laughing stock of Wall Street after his awful cover letter to JPMorgan made its rounds among NYU Stern alumni, the financial district, and then went viral online.
A cover letter can make or break you in the job hunting game and Mark's letter is a lesson in exactly what not to do.
By boasting that he "managed to bench double [his] body weight and do 35 pull ups" while achieving a 3.93 GPA, young Mark invited the inevitable comparisons to the infamous Aleksey Vayner.
There's a fine line between convincing your potential employeer of why they need to hire you, and only you, and coming across as a pompous ass.
There is no doubt Mark's status as a triple major in Mathematics, Economics and Computer Science is impressive on its own, but throw in the fact that he held two part-time jobs, placed-out of two classes and managed to keep himself in top physical shape, and it's safe to say he crossed the line.
Mark's cover letter also could have used an edit from an English major, who might have advised him to find a different way to express that he "can perform basic office functions with terrifying efficiency."
He ended the letter with a disclaimer asking JPMorgan to "Please realize that I am not a braggart or conceited, I just wanted to outline my usefulness. Egos can be a huge liability, and I try not to have one."
It's a letter so obnoxious that it's unclear if Mark sent it as a joke.
According to Gawker, Mark is well aware of the bit of laughter he brought to the bankers on Wall Street. When asked if he'd gotten a job at JPMorgan, he laughed, telling the website, "No, not at all. Didn't you see my letter?"
Joke or not, Mark is not alone when it comes to terrible cover letters. An applicant for a position as an API Engineer in New York City recently wrote:
"I'm super awesome and have incredible experience compared to this -- it includes the required experiences below plus I am trained in MMA fighting, am the mayor of multiple Chipotles, Starbucks, and locally famous restaurants in downtown NYC, and I type really fast."
And we can't forget Roanald Dvorak's cover letter for a office manager position, where he wrote: "Forget all the other candidates for Aviary, I am the BEST," and listed his skills in bullet points: "Organizing shit? Check. Calling numbers and shit? Doublecheck. Customer support and shit? Mega-check. Faxing numbers and shit? MOTHERFLIPPING CHECK ALL OVER THAT."
At a time when even the most qualified applicants can't find jobs, it's questionable if sending over-the-top or ironic cover letters is a good idea -- especially given the fact that there's no expectation of privacy.
Last year, Business Insider even posted 12 of the worst cover letters they received, redacting the names to provide some protection for those who made the list.
READ THE COVER LETTER:
Dear Sir or Madame:
I am an ambitious undergraduate at NYU triple majoring in Mathematics, Economics, and Computer Science. I am a punctual, personable, and shrewd individual, yet I have a quality which I pride myself on more than any of these.
I am unequivocally the most unflaggingly hard worker I know, and I love self-improvement. I have always felt that my time should be spent wisely, so I continuously challenge myself; I left Villanova because the work was too easy. Once I realized I could achieve a perfect GPA while holding a part-time job at NYU, I decided to redouble my effort by placing out of two classes, taking two honors classes, and holding two part-time jobs. That semester I achieved a 3.93, and in the same time I managed to bench double my bodyweight and do 35 pull-ups.
I say these things only because solid evidence is more convincing than unverifiable statements, and I want to demonstrate that I am a hard worker. J.P. Morgan is a firm with a reputation that precedes itself and employees who represent only the best and rightest in finance. I know that the employees in this firm will push me to excellence, especially within the Investment Banking division. In fact, one of the supporting reasons I chose Investment Banking over any other division was that I know it is difficult. I hope to augment my character by diligently working for the professionals at Morgan Stanley, and I feel I have much to offer in return.
I am proficient in several programming languages, and I can pick up a new one very quickly. For instance, I learned a years worth of Java from NYU in 27 days on my own; this is how I placed out of two including: Money and Banking, Analysis, Game Theory, Probability and Statistics. Even further, I am taking Machine Learning and Probabilistic Graphical Modeling currently, two programming courses offered by Stanford, so that I may truly offer the most if I am accepted. I am proficient with Bloomberg terminals, excellent with excel, and can perform basic office functions with terrifying efficiency. I have plenty of experience in the professional world through my internship at Merrill Lynch, and my research assistant position at NYU. In fact, my most recent employer has found me so useful that he promoted me to a Research Assistant and an official CTED intern. This role is usually reserved for Masters students, but my employer gave the title to me so that he could give me more work.
Please realize that I am not a braggart or conceited, I just want to outline my usefulness. Egos can be a huge liability, and I try not to have one.
Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.