Step one: check your email

UnknownIt’s September, the start of the final year for seniors and many are polishing up their resumes and sending off job queries. Last week, the College of Business held a resume night. Underclassmen are doing the same, seeking internships. It’s an important season — one in which you’re preparing to change the world. But before you change the world, sometimes you have to change yourself a bit.

Recently, I was in touch with a man who works in the Washington, D.C. area and who hires a lot of interns. He’s enthusiastic about what he’s seen so far come out of JMU. (He wishes to remain anonymous, so we’ll call him Mr. A.) He writes:

My experience with JMU students has been truly superb….I hired a newly-minted graduate of JMU early last year… and he has been phenomenal. He’s in graduate school in D.C. now, but he received an excellent education at JMU that he was able to immediately put to use, and we have reaped nothing but dividends ever since he started. When I compare him to students in other universities, especially schools like UVA, Georgetown, Yale, Harvard, etc., they don’t even hold a candle to him. I would love to bring on more JMU students for internships here,….

Mr. A also had some cautionary words worth sharing — advice that many students may not have considered. He explained that because his office receives so many internship applications, they’ve adopted a kind of shorthand to screen them. It’s easy to extrapolate that large companies and government entities would do the same thing. It’s a numbers game, and every job-seeker is likely to be one of thousands competing for a job or an internship. Standing out of the crowd is important, but so is getting through the initial — and necessary — culling. Unfortunately, Mr. A points out, a lot of students eliminate themselves up front by failing in the first two items he examines — emails and essays.

Here’s Mr. A’s sage advice:


If someone wants to work [for me] …., the e-mail address is one of the first things in the application, and it can speak volumes….When I see student applications with an e-mail address* of onehotlover@…, Corylovespurplegold@…, footlooserebelgirl@…, jellopudding@…, gotbigchains@…, and others that are just too offensive to mention, that tells me that the student does not have the maturity or proper attitude to even be granted further consideration.

Mr. A goes on to outline some essay approaches that disqualify applicants from the get go — mistakes, he says, that he sees every application cycle. He continues:

For the essay, students do a lot of things to eliminate themselves.If an essay says, ‘this internship would be really good for my career,’ I eliminate them. It tells me it’s all about them and nothing else. Here are other things students say that tell me they won’t work out here:

    • no essay at all
    • essays that say, “I will answer this question later” (This is a particular favorite of Ivy League students.)
    • essays where almost every sentence begins with ‘I’
    • expectations that they will solve Middle East peace in ten weeks or travel the world negotiating regional security agreements
    • prior service military applicants writing as if no one else has military experience
    • no indication of their experience and/or ability to work in teams
    • no discussion of why they want to work here
    • an attitude that we should be thankful they even considered us. Here’s the beginning of an actual essay from a Georgetown student: ‘It would be superfluous for me to recount what is already in my resume. It should be obvious to even the most casual observer that I possess extraordinary skills and abilities that could easily be put to use in…’
    • an excruciating retelling of all the hardships you have faced with no discussion of what you could bring to the department or your goals or objectives

On a positive note, Mr. A also took the time to explain what makes a good essay.

First, show me you did your homework. Research the companies, bureaus or organizations that interest you and give an indication of what specific offices interest you. If my office isn’t listed, I don’t hold that against you. It shows me that you took some time to learn the territory, and maybe I could interest you in my office, anyway.

Second, how are you at teamwork? Don’t just say something like, ‘I work well in teams.’ Give an example or two of how you worked well, and how the group worked out.

Third, as they say around here, ‘It’s a great place to work if you don’t mind who gets the credit.’ Has an applicant worked in that kind of situation? There’s no harm/no foul if they haven’t, but I’d like to see what their experience was if they had.

Fourth, how can you help us? How would you describe your capacity to assist in our efforts to work better with another department? Or with two divergent groups to achieve consensus on a thorny issue — that counts just as much.

Fifth, what are your goals and objectives? I go out of my way to help interns get as much exposure to my department as possible. Do not write something like, ‘I want to learn more about how your department works.’ I’ve lost count of how many students have written words to that effect. You don’t need an internship to do that. Just go to the website. On the other hand, if someone writes something like, “I seek to contribute to the department’s efforts in enhancing relationships with another department,” then we’re on to something.

This last bit of advice doesn’t fit neatly in a list, but it does involve a JMU student. I looked at an application for a summer internship last year from a JMU rising senior. I wanted to hire him, and once I get past the screening, I contact them to arrange for an interview. The interview went very well, and at the end, I extended the offer. He balked, because he told me he wanted to wait to see if anyone else would contact him as well. I don’t play ‘prom date’ with undergraduates. We see almost 400 applications for summer internships alone, and of those 400, maybe four might qualify for an interview. I was stunned that he would say such a thing, so I immediately rescinded the offer and notified other offices of my experience. To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t receive an internship at all. If a student gets an offer, take it, because there is no guarantee anyone else will contact you.

Thanks to Mr. A for taking the time to offer this great advice. Now, who’s listening?

*While Mr. A sent me actual addresses, I’ve modified them to protect their owners.

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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