Getting a journalism job often starts with getting a journalism internship, but not all journalism internships are created equal. Some outlets don't pay; some outlets don't let interns write or produce content; and some outlets don't do either. So unless someone close to you–parents, grandparents, significant other–can pay your bills while you make coffee and do research for nothing more than college credit (or less), you should be looking for a journalism internship that pays you to build a portfolio. Such an internship is a dream internship.
Fortunately for you, Reason offers just such an opportunity. And after two years of sorting through hundreds of applications for Reason's Burton C. Gray Memorial Internship, I've come up with a list of roughly five tips that will make your application more attractive to me, and by extension, to Reason (and probably to editors at other publications, so long as they are not run by uptight bores).
1.) Follow instructions
If you look at Reason's ad for the Burton C. Gray Memorial Internship, you'll notice it contains specific instructions. We tell you what we want in your application (published clips or blog posts, not class papers), how we want you to send it to us (digitally, please!), and when you have to send it by (March 26 for summer 2013). Once you send your application, you'll get an auto-response telling you we've received it, and that we'll be in touch.
Reason asks you to submit these things a certain way not because we are pedantic jerks, but because sorting through intern applications is just one of my many responsibilities (and not, I confess, my favorite), so it needs to be as efficient as possible. There are almost no exceptions to this rule. If Jesus of Nazareth sent me, two weeks after the deadline, a manilla envelope stuffed with papers from his political philosophy class, I would not hire him, out of spite.
Not only are there disadvantages to ignoring our instructions, there are very real advantages to following them. The closer your application package is to our ideal application package, the happier I will be when reviewing its contents. Put your cover letter in the body of your application email (rather than in an attachment), and you will have the friendliest possible first read.
2.) Write the hell out of your cover letter
I know a couple of really solid writers who write really dull cover letters. It's like they dress their prose in a formal suit and then ram a metal rod up its ass, thinking it makes them seem more professional. But they seldom consider whether looking more professional (code for "boring") is actually helping them. I can tell you, it is not! Another type of cover letter writer doesn't spend nearly enough time thinking about how to stand out, relying instead on lists of accomplishments woven together with strands of business speak. Cover letters that fall into these categories are often bland and forgettable, which is not the kind of writing Reason publishes.
If you aren't already, start thinking about your cover letter as an opportunity to showcase your skills and experience, and also your personality. Are you funny? Be a little funny in your cover letter. Are you analytical and good at simplifying complex concepts? Briefly do that for me in your cover letter. Are you capable of telling really good stories? Tell me a really good, really short story. As a writer and an editor, my favorite cover letters are ones that make me actually want to look at your clips. So be bold. We value it, and so does the Internet.
3.) Show some familiarity with the publication
My senior year of college I applied for roughly two dozen post-graduation internships, which required putting together and mailing 24 applications while also having a social life, running the student paper, and researching and writing my senior thesis. Slammed, I didn't spend a whole lot of time tailoring applications to outlets, beyond changing names and addresses. By semester's end, do you how many of those outlets had called or emailed me for an interview? One.
After two years of sorting applications for Reason, I have a pretty good idea of why. Every cycle, without fail, we receive several dozen fill-in-the-pub-name applications for a 10-week internship that pays $5,000. I totally get why: Second semester of senior year is frigging terrifying, and if you haven't already landed a job, then you're probably flooding the zone in a panic. The problem is, for that kind of money, we don't want just anybody. We want someone who knows what we do (we publish a magazine, a website, and documentaries) and where we stand on big issues (civil liberties, the nanny state, foreign policy, government spending, and negative rights, for starters). That doesn't mean there's a litmus test, or that a civil liberties advocate who doesn't give two hoots about the Federal Reserve is going to get passed over. But it does mean that if you send us an application in which the most specific thing you seem to know about Reason is the name of its internship, we're probably not going to interview you when dozens of other candidates clearly want to work specifically for us.
And you know what? You will be happier working with a team you know about and respect. So focus your attention and your application efforts, even if it's not on us.
4.) Tell me what you can do for us, because we know what we can do for you
Almost as bad as the application spammer is the applicant who tells me she wants to work for Reason because it would be good for her career. Thing is, I know this internship will be good for your career. That's why people apply for internships. For their careers. What you need to tell me is why you would be good for Reason's career.
And how can you do that? Talk about your skills! Are you familiar with content management systems? Are you familiar with and/or interested in certain issues and/or policy areas? Do you write even when you don't have to, like for a student paper or for a group blog or for your own Tumblr? (There is nothing wrong with Tumblr. I would love, for instance, to hire this person as an intern.) Do you have practice transcribing? Can you make coffee? Do you know how to use Nexis and/or Lexis? While we're at it: what is a meme?
5.) Be Patient
Spend the time it takes to craft a good cover letter. Be patient while a friend or two looks it over once or twice. Double check that your application complies with all the instructions. Once you hit send and receive that auto-confirm email, sit tight. Really, it's in your best interest to just try and be cool.
Because no editor's full time job is selecting a new intern, if you email me or call me before the deadline to ask for an update on an application you know I received (the auto-reply, remember?), you're 100 percent likely to be interrupting me and 90 percent likely to be irritating me.
Granted, reaching out to check up is not a deal breaker. I remember what it was like to approach graduation day (or just the summer break) without a job lined up–much less an internship–and how crazy and impatient and anxious it made me. But the honest to God truth is that you absolutely cannot improve your chances by projecting that fear onto other people. So please, wait for me (or one of my colleagues) to get in touch with you. I promise that we will get in touch with each and every applicant, even if it's to break bad news.
I think that's it. I wish you all the best.