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.

Changing your job prospects

Kelsey Mohring ('12) posing with the Duke Dog statue

Kelsey Mohring (’12)

The American economy is limping. The job market is tough. And new college graduates are feeling the pain. There is one tool at their disposal, however, that’s a great way to finesse a job. An internship, the proverbial foot in the door, provides an avenue to transform job prospects from discouraging to promising.

The advantage to an employer is clear: inexpensive and sometimes free labor, as well as the opportunity to see how a potential employee works and fits into the company environment. For the intern, the benefits are even greater — hands-on experience, the chance to hone basic work skills, demonstrate their value and, best of all, become strategically positioned for a great job. One clever JMU alumna, Kelsey Mohring (’12), a magna cum laude graduate in communication studies, is mastering the art of interning. While at JMU, she interned with JMU’s Office of Public Affairs. Now, she’s interning with CRT/tanaka. Recently, we caught up with Kelsey. She writes..  

I did an externship with CRT/tanaka in high school, which led me to pursue an education in public relations at JMU. As an account coordinator at CRT/tanaka, I have had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of clients including Wilsonart, Cambria Suites, Air New Zealand, BISSELL, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, the Partnership at and I work on research, social media, media relations, strategic planning and day-to-day tactical execution for our clients. One of the most notable projects I worked was conducting blogger and Twitter outreach for the Partnership at’s Medicine Abuse Project, which launched in September. I garnered over 31 million impressions and secured tweets from Maria Shriver and Larry King in support of the five-year campaign to end prescription drug abuse among teens. At CRT/tanaka I have had the opportunity to learn from some amazing minds in the PR field and I have grown immensely from the experience.

Earlier this month, Kelsey published a blog post about how to handle that all-important internship. Reprinted with permission from CRT/tanaka Buzz Bin, here’s Kelsey’s best advice:

Take that, Real World; I made it!

By Kelsey Mohring (’12) (@mohrinkd)

Quick disclaimer: What you are about to read is about the PR industry as well as the transition from college to the real world, making it in a new environment, discovering your strengths, weaknesses and passions and making some mistakes along the way. So, if you aren’t ready for a life chat, turn back now.

I have grown immensely in the past five months as a CRT/tanaka Account Coordinator. I was one of the lucky few who actually graduated from college with a job and was excited to enter the professional realm, feeling like my college career had prepared me to offer value to a team. What they don’t tell you in college is it ALL changes in the real world. Suddenly research that you did hundreds of times for papers needs to be more in-depth; pitching isn’t just sending a quick email, but actually calling reporters; a lunch break becomes nonexistent (despite what Applebees might want you to believe), so you have to become skillful at eating and typing at the same time; and you now have to carry the weight of worrying about finances. Oh, and all of this is occurring at a pace you never experienced safe within your college bubble. The good news is, once you get the hang of it, you’re able to reflect on what you’ve learned and accomplished and can look back and say, “Take that, Real World; I made it!”

Here are my top 10 takeaways from my experience thus far:

1. Be humble

You may come out of college as a straight-A student, thinking your skills and excited attitude could add a lot to a company, and you’re probably right. Even so, your work and your attitude should be able to speak for themselves. Confidence is important (this industry would beat you down without it), but cockiness is unnecessary, and frankly kind of annoying.

2. Be a sponge

Listen in on as many client meetings, brainstorms and ordinary office conversations as you can. This is your chance to learn about the different facets of the industry, experience various clients and assist in multiple and varying projects. Soak up the knowledge of the talented people around you.

3. Be slow to speak

If you have something valuable to offer, by all means do so. But, carefully think about when you want to speak up and when it may be better to listen (while furiously taking notes). This is an important skill, because when mastered, people know that when you speak it is going to be good!

4. Be kind

You would be surprised how far this can get you with colleagues, contacts and clients. In an office environment, constructive criticism is important, so, yes, you have to learn how to take it. However, we should also start trying to catch people doing things right. In relationship psychology, they speak about the 5-1 rule, meaning you should have 5 positive things to say for every 1 criticism. The type of positive work environment resulting from this practice might just make for employees who are more passionate and productive.

5. Be social

This is applicable in a few different ways. Firstly, maintain a social life of some kind. Going home on Friday night and sleeping until Monday morning is just not acceptable (even though it sometimes feels necessary). Make the effort to get out. Secondly, if you aren’t already being social online, start. Read blogs, make comments, tweet, re-tweet — do whatever you need to do to start building connections in the PR world. You never know when that food blog you have been following for years may become your next pitching assignment (trust me, it happened).

6. Be positive and stay strong

Once all of the stress of being a grown-up hits you, this one becomes difficult, but is essential. There are days when you might get yelled at by an angry blogger for asking how he was doing (also happened), you run a Vocus search and get booted off just as you complete your 200-person list of contacts, you are starving because you haven’t mastered the eat-and-type, then a client calls on Friday at 4:59 p.m. with a last-minute request. It sounds cliché, but try to keep your chin up. First, because poor posture will give you a back ache on top of a bad day. But second, because you are going to have lousy days; it’s is just part of the real world. Remind yourself you are capable, smart and valued and that tomorrow will (hopefully) be a better day.

7. Be open

I came to CRT/tanaka with no strong indication as to where my talents and passions in PR lie. As a result, I tried to look at any project that was thrown my way as an exciting opportunity. This helped me discover that I enjoy conducting formal research and I can skillfully run a social media audit. I would never have known where my true interests lie if I wasn’t open to every opportunity.

8. Be overly helpful

Make the extra effort. When I first started here, my mentor told me, “Your job is to make the person who’s next in line’s job easier,” which I think puts it perfectly. This means researching a blog’s unique monthly visitors before suggesting a client team respond to their ProfNet inquiry. Even when creating an informal document, make it neat and easy to read (Hint: provide an executive summary to make it even easier to digest). And, in any meeting, take detailed notes, even if no one else in the room is. You just may be the person they turn to when they forget about that brilliant idea someone had but they never wrote down.

9. Be able to pitch, develop a media list and conduct research

These tasks are never going away and they are crucial tactical skills for our job, especially upon entry into PR. Also, learn how to provide social media content, and learn about monitoring and measurement tools like Cision, Vocus, Radian6 and Traackr – you’ll be more valuable to your team.

10. Be ethical

Never compromise your personal morals for your job. What’s even more ideal is finding a job that shares your values and a company culture that fosters your ethics. I chose CRT/tanaka because of their “Shared Values” which I felt matched perfectly with my personal attitude towards life. Find a place that you feel does the same for you.

I’m not going to say the real world doesn’t still scare me, or that I have somehow mastered this “grown-up” transition period, but I will say that “I made it!” and I learned a lot along the way.

Are you wrapping up an internship in the PR industry? What has your position taught you about yourself and about life?

Nice piece, Kelsey.  How would you answer Kelsey’s final questions? How has an internship changed your future?

The little snapping turtles of higher education

It came as no surprise when I looked through JMU’s Top Ten Stories of 2011. All of the featured stories are compelling, and each one demonstrates the spirit of change that is such a part of JMU.

There is one interesting aspect to the list that most readers might not notice. Four of the top ten stories were written by students. Two were written by Be the Change intern Tyler McAvoy (’12).

For almost two years now, Tyler has interned with us in JMU Communications. He arrived with an extraordinary natural writing talent, a good instinct for stories and a necessary boldness for interviewing and tackling topics he was unfamiliar with. He quickly became my go-to person.

What I find so remarkable ­— next to Tyler’s talent — is that so many student-penned stories have floated to the top.

Amelia Wood (’13), an intern with Madison magazine, wrote about alumnus Wes Mitchell (’10) and his innovative use of soccer to fight HIV/Aids. Austin Farinholt  (’11) who interned in the Office of Public Affairs told the story of engineering students who designed and built a bicycle for a high school student challenged by cerebral palsy.

That says something about JMU and the opportunities that students regularly find at this university.

In many ways, JMU is changing the playing field for college students. Ours is not a top down delivery system, where professors simply do an information dump on students, expecting them to become their clones. In very real and valuable ways, JMU opens doors for students, especially undergraduate students — doors that are not eagerly opened elsewhere. We see it everyday from the arts to the sciences and everywhere in between. It is part of a culture of collaboration that permeates the university.

Later this month — and you’ll see it previewed on the JMU web soon — the university will premier an extraordinary art collection, the Charles Alvin Lisanby Collection, to open the new Skyline Gallery. Once again, it is a student, Josh Smead (’12) who played an instrumental role. It was hardly the kind of internship that only allowed him to float around the edges and observe.

Opportunities, though, are only as good as those who seize them. Tyler and Josh, like so many JMU students, look for and seize opportunities like little snapping turtles. And, if I may carry my analogy one step further — they hold on tight. The result is extraordinary education.

Out of every college at JMU, we often hear stories of the immediate impact students have on the companies, businesses and institutions they join after graduating. Much of their success has to do with a culture that takes students seriously, not as subjects but as soon-to-be professional managers, artists, engineers, physicists, geologists, kinesiologists, biologists, financiers, publicists, historians, environmentalists, social scientists and the list goes on….

There’s also another aspect of the top ten list isn’t obvious. Beneath the accolades, beneath the heart-warming stories, there’s the JMU spirit that says, “Why not?” and “Why not me?” If some schools are caught up in traditions and the status quo, Madison is not one of them. Throughout it’s history, JMU has always been kind of a rebel — in the best sense of the word. It’s not afraid to try the unconventional, and as many individuals on our Be the Change website demonstrate — sometimes the seemingly impossible.

We’ll try things, experiment, take chances. Some things work out. Some things go up in flames, but on par, courage and determination move us forward. Steadily and tenaciously.

Like snapping turtles.

To see the Top Ten stories of 2011, visit

Changing your chances in challenging times

In January, 2010, the Washington Post* summed up the American economy this way: “There has been zero net job creation since December 1999. No previous decade going back to the 1940s had job growth of less than 20 percent. Economic output rose at its slowest rate of any decade since the 1930s as well.”

JMU's Showker Hall


Bleaker still for college students who’ll be looking for jobs over the next few years.  It’s definitely not the kind of change they had hoped for, and definitely a situation they’d like to change.  But how can they?

One way to wedge their feet into the job market’s door is to go in with an edge — like experience.  That’s one thing that hasn’t changed; experience offers an advantage in any job market good or bad.  And in the current economy, it’s more important than ever.

Internships equal experience — even if the experience doesn’t exactly match the job.   Employers want to know that students can handle a job, that they can show up on time, be reliable and work hard. One student I know opted for a non-paying internship in a lab this past summer. Though he didn’t get a paycheck, he earned valuable experience and an opportunity to work one-on-one with one of his professors.

Kaitlyn DiGangi (’11), who interns with JMU communications, says it well: “An internship really gives you an edge. I hate to sound all competitive, but that’s what it is. We’re in classes with our friends now, but after we graduate, we’re all competing for jobs. I feel like having an internship really gives you the foot up.”

Kaitlyn adds that her intern experience gave her much more. “I was excited coming into this internship. It wasn’t just about getting school credit for me. I was really hoping to learn a lot and get some insight from real, working graphic designers. Graphic design is a four-year program, but it’s impossible to get in everything you need to know before you graduate. The plan was to fill in some of those gaps this summer and maybe get a little ahead of the game. This internship far exceeded what I expected to get out of it though. I learned necessary skills that I may not have been able to acquire so easily at school. I got a one-on-one learning experience. I learned the workings of a project and all the pieces that contribute to the final product. There are many parts and people that make up something as “simple” as a brochure.  As a result I feel confident in my abilities and better prepared for a real world experience.”

Another summer communications intern, Stephanie Messick (’11), found her internship to be a confirmation of her career goals. ” My summer graphic design internship with Carolyn Windmiller (’81) for Madison magazine changed my future.  Doing this internship clarified this is exactly what I want to pursue as a career. In high school, I was so set on being an architect.  I did a one day “shadow” of an architect and, by the end of the day, I knew it was not for me.  After my eight-week internship, I am certain this is what I want to do.  I enjoyed every day of my job and even the small tasks helped me in a big way.  Carolyn taught me to become more organized with my project and this is something I will continue when I get back to school and afterwards.  On top of confirming, I learned more out of these eight weeks than I had in any graphic design class so far.  Truly, the knowledge of the job comes from the experience.  After having this opportunity to work with a great team of people and a great magazine, I am excited about graduating and using my knowledge of this internship in my future job!”

So although the job market is slow, Stephanie and Kaitlyn will be using their edge in next year’s job market — changing their own chances for a job.

*Aughts were a lost decade for U.S. economy, workers, by Neil Irwin, Washington Post Staff Writer, Saturday, January 2, 2010:

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