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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.