What I look for in a resume

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post.

Since I’ll be hiring for a few positions over the next couple of months, I’m already looking at resumes.

Here is my — very subjective — list of things I look for:

* Nice layout. Now, this has nothing to do with how good a reporter an applicant is. After all, they’re not the ones who are going to be putting stories and graphics on the page. But I can’t help it. I spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about layouts, so cluttered pages really set my teeth on edge. I like to see a crisp, clean layout. I don’t like to see too many fonts, too many sizes, too many margins, too many style elements or, god forbid, colors. I hate seeing italics, widows or orphans, and indents that don’t line up. And there’s no excuse for bad layout, especially with the resume templates that come free in every copy of Microsoft Word.
* Consistency. If you use all four digits for a year in one place, I like to see it that way everywhere. If you use sentence fragments in bullet points and end them with periods, I want to see those periods at the end of every sentence fragment. When things aren’t consistent, they jump out at me — even before I read a single word. Inconsistent style, to me, indicates a lack of attention, a certain degree of carelessness. My reporters write about business — I want them to be super careful with the smallest details.
* Grammar and spelling. Now, I’m willing to let this slide a little bit for non-native English speakers — not everyone has a native English copyeditor friend. But there’s no excuse for not using a spelling and grammar checker. Most of my resumes come in as Word documents — and I have the spell check function turned on. If I see those colorful little wavy underlines, I can tell at a glance that the reporter hasn’t run a spell check. Bad move.
* Conflicts of interest. If someone is applying for a job as a freelancer, and they’re working at a PR agency or a company that we regularly cover, that’s a big red flag. I normally send off a “sorry, but no thank you” letter right away. If there’s a conflict or potential conflict, the applicant better explain it in the resume or the cover letter — are they switching careers, for example?

Okay, for non-native English applicants I pretty much stop there. I don’t expect someone from China, for example, to have a great deal of experience — or to know how to write about it on a resume. I expect more from American applicants, however.

* Evidence of accomplishment. If a resume lists nothing more than titles and dates, that’s a big warning sign for me. Did this guy do nothing at his jobs? I would like to see at least a couple of sentences about beats covered, major stories, high-profile interviews. I would like to find out what they learned at those jobs – and what mistakes they made. I don’t like seeing “resume words” here – I prefer plain English, with nice, declarative sentences.
* Evidence of ambition. I want my reporters to be hungry. I like to see a resume that shows that the applicant routinely goes beyond the call of duty. I want to see extra-curricular research projects, active participation in professional organizations, membership in workplace taskforces. Even if you were only on an office committee to pick a new coffee filter, you’re still ahead of the guy who sat back and let someone else pick the coffee filter for him.
* Evidence of dedication. I was a dutiful immigrant daughter in high school and college, and mostly focused on computers and engineering. This left only a little time to work for my high school and college newspapers. As a result, I’m somewhat intimidated by and envious of people who did the whole Chloe Sullivan thing. (From Smallville — you know, that Superman TV show?) But I do like getting those resumes. And even someone who came to journalism late should have shown some signs earlier in life of wanting to do this, such as editing a church newsletter or being the webmaster for a club. Maybe reading Superman comics or keeping a diary regularly for 20 years doesn’t deserve a place on the resume, but it could go in a cover letter.
* Evidence of brains. I’m prejudiced against communication majors. I think that a communications degree is the lowest form of education. Engineers need to be good with numbers. Chemistry majors have to understand chemistry. Biology and history and foreign language majors have to memorize stuff. English and philosophy majors have to read a lot of books. What do communication majors have to do? I don’t know. I’m used to explaining the inverted pyramid in 15 minutes, with another half an hour for how to structure a feature story. What do they spend four years teaching, anyway? So I want to see a resume that shows that the applicant majored – or at least minored — in a difficult subject. The harder, the better. If it’s related to the beat, that’s better still. The very last thing I want to see is a masters in journalism. If you’re dead set on grad school, get a masters in economics and write for the local paper while you’re there. Maybe take a couple of journalism courses just to learn what the inverted pyramid is all about — or just read a book. It’s not rocket science. I’m currently hiring for a financial reporter and a medical reporter. I want to see majors in business or economics or math for the former, and biology and chemistry for the latter. If you can learn those, learning how to report will be a breeze. And given the employment situation in the United States these days, only a total idiot would be studying journalism and nothing else right now. Major in something serious — or at least minor in it. Don’t take “math for poets” — take the heavy-duty stuff. It doesn’t have to be an economics degree, though that’s great if you want to be a business reporter. You could major in government, sociology, history, criminal justice, languages, the natural sciences — whatever it is you want to start out writing about. Something that shows you can learn, that you’ve got a head on your shoulders.
* Evidence of persistence. This is the main skill required in reporting. Calling back, over and over, until someone finally gives you that quote. Scouring the Internet until you finally find that press release or financial report. Writing and rewriting a story until an editor is happy. I hate employees who keep coming back to me complaining that they can’t find the materials they need, or can’t find anyone to talk to. I’ve got just one answer for them: “Keep looking!” I have this really horrible habit: if someone can’t find something online and gives up, I can usually sit down at the computer and find it in three minutes (okay, I cheat — I usually have a good idea of where to find things before I even start, but it still looks imperssive). Then I do a little dance (really, I do) and sing a little song about it. It is humiliating. Oh — and it can be embarrassing for the employee, too. Anyway, a little bit of persistence would have avoided embarrassment all around. So I would like to see evidence of persistence in the resume. So if you called 100 people for a story, put that in. Though, usually, people demonstrate persistence by hounding me after they send me their resume. If someone calls or emails me more than five times, I usually offer them a job. Even if I have to create one for them. A reporter who doesn’t give up is the greatest gift an editor could possibly get.

Signing off in Shanghai,