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: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.