The perfect job application . . .

... probably doesn't exist, but here is what I like in an applicant.

The New Statesman website has been recruiting recently, and because we've been hiring people at graduate level, it has made sense to have open applications without strict entry requirements.

That has been wonderful, because we've discovered all kinds of talent we otherwise might have missed, but it has also meant that I have seen several hundred covering letters and CVs, and spotted the same few problems coming up time and time again. Here goes:

1. The endless CV

Unless you have led an extraordinarily eventful life, you do not need a five-page CV at the age of 21. I'm not really interested in your Duke of Edinburgh award, or even your GCSE grades. I'm certainly not interested in the nine places you've done work experience - pick the most relevant three, and summarise the rest in a list, if you must.

2. The sloppy typo

No, this magazine is not called the New Statesmen. If you think it is, or cannot be bothered to check, you are making it very easy to reject your application.

3. Freestyling

Kookiness is to be treated with extreme caution. Yes, your hilarious joke might well clinch you the interview . . . or the employer might not get it . . . or he/she might get it, but still think you are too clever by half. Insert LOLs with care, and probably stick to the one. 

4. Tone policing

Try to write the application in the same register as the job advert. So if the company is inviting applications in stiff, formal language, reflect that in your covering letter. If they have mentioned cat gifs or "no haters", however, you have licence to be a little more creative. 

On the question of tone, web editor Caroline Crampton adds: "I don't like applications that begin - "Miss Crampton, (if I may)" - are they writing to me from the Forsyte Saga?"

5. Missing the easy wins

On a related note, if the advert mentions a particular writer, or part of the publication, or other distinctive feature, that is a signal for you to turn it into a conversation starter in your covering letter. Our advert for a science writer said we wanted someone who had strong opinions on the existence of the Higgs Boson - most of the best applications referenced this (and some even gave us their strong opinion). If there's an opening to show a little of your personality, and make your application distinctive, seize it.

6. Suspiciously recent knowledge

When naming pieces that particularly caught their eye, applicants always seem to pick ones which have been published in the last few days. Hmm. It's almost as if they've only started to pay attention to the site since they decided to apply to work for it. This is not fooling anyone: in the words of my mother, "I didn't come up the Mersey on a bike, you know." 

7. The boring stuff

These are the bits that people really, really should know, and yet often don't. No, I am not "Mr Lewis"; I do, however, have a name that was included in the advert; use it. Do not question why our in-house blog is called the Staggers; instead, look at our Wikipedia page. Are there any specific requirements asked for in the advert? Mention them. Are any supporting statements or documents asked for? Include them.

It's also helpful to put your name clearly at the top of everything you send, in case the bits become detached. 

8. No, I do not want to "do more video".

OK, that's a lie: all websites are looking to enrich their multimedia offerings. But too often when asked to critique the site and suggest improvements, applicants reel off the same list of things they and everyone else in their journalism class has been told is The Future of Journalism. 

Do you want to stand out? Think of the generic suggestion that 50 per cent of candidates will make - "the site should have more video", "the site should have a Google Plus page" - and try to think of something more in-depth and interesting. It also helps if you back up your suggestion with data/references that suggest you know what you're talking about, e.g. "This site could be better optimised for mobile; recent research by [X] shows that [X] per cent of traffic to news sites is mobile/tablet" or "on our student paper, we found that improving our related links section at the bottom of articles noticeably lowered the bounce rate". 

The video thing really bothers me, incidentally. We're a current affairs magazine; we're not going to launch a rival to ITN. If you're going to suggest us doing more video, make it clear you understand the scale and size of our existing operation.

9. "My mum says I am the best journalist ever!"

Some applicants, particularly younger ones, like to include quotes from referees, e.g. "[X] was with us for two weeks, and was helpful, positive and fun to be around!" This is particularly egregious when the included quotes are not even that glowing, e.g. "[X] was here for three weeks and was no trouble at all".

10. Helen does not like this.

Writing your CV in the third person is weird. I'm sorry.

Anyway, that's enough of me being grumpy. If you have any other questions, tweet me @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
Show Hide image

Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit