NOTIONS: College course proposal: How to apply for a job

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Hetrick has the week off. In his absence, this column, an adaptation of one that appeared on April 14, 2003, is being reprinted.

The first line of the first song in the musical comedy “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is “How to Apply for a Job.” That’s also the name of the course I’m proposing to any university that will buy it.

I offer this proposal to my friends in academe because many of the candidates they’re producing fail miserably at even the most rudimentary job-seeking skills. I know, because I’m on the receiving end.

To benefit students seeking internships and permanent positions, my course would be mandatory for every sophomore on campus. The curriculum would cover the job-seeking spectrum: how to select careers, the importance of internships, how to research prospective employers, how to gain entry, how to handle interviews and how to follow up.

There would be portfolio reviews, resume and cover letter critiques, sample screening tests, and on-camera mock interviews with real employers. Most important, there would be message-honing exercises so each student could explain what they’ve learned in school and how that’s relevant to employers.

Here are some sample subjects for the syllabus:

It’s about the job, not you

Nearly every resume and cover letter I receive begins with an objective. In many, the objective has nothing to do with employer needs and everything to do with applicant desires.

“I hope to obtain a job that will allow me to advance my knowledge of important concepts” said one resume. “[A job that will] provide new and valuable skills that will help to further my career,” said another. “To secure contemporary knowledge of public relations,” said a third.

Cover letters can be equally self-serving. “This would be a great experience for me and I am excited to be applying,” said one. “I am very interested in any entry-level position within your company,” said another. “I am a senior with ambitions of finding a job upon my graduation in May,” said a third.

Sometimes, applicants even customize their resumes for the wrong business. A recent example sent to my PR firm sought “an entry-level position in the field of sales.”

Research matters

Collegians should know how to do research. But many won’t even use a telephone. Recent letters arriving at my firm have been addressed to “Human Resources,” “Human Resource Manager,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” “Dear Madame or Sir,” “Dear Sirs,” and “To Whom It May Concern.”

Write well

No matter what you want to do for a living, you’ll have to write something someday. Your first assignment is your cover letter and resume. Yet the words we receive from recent graduates often are garbled.

“Please accept this letter as an application for the public relations internship which I was informed of by my [relative],” said a recent letter. “Ambition, self-sufficient, a self starter, organized, good communications skills, goal-oriented, creative, strong leadership, and hard working are just some of the skills I possess as my resume shows.”

“As a motivated self-starter, I am taking the initiative to contact your firm at this time in order to express my interest in joining your associates,” said another. “In appreciation for the merit and time involved in building a trusting, mutually profitable relationship I have included this modest statement regarding my character and vocational perspectives, as well as a brief resume for you to better assess my employment potential.”

Timeliness is next to godliness

Most letters requesting summer internships and entry-level jobs arrive in April, one month before graduation. However, we received our first application last November and inked the deal in February. By the time April rolls around, we’re sending out “sorry, you’re too late” letters by the dozen.

Internships are essential

Last year, during spring break, I took my sons to Cleveland for a few days. While there, we toured the local newspaper, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. During our tour, my would-be journalists got to meet the woman who hires such professionals. She told them about recent graduates who arrive at her doorstep bragging about classroom learning, lofty grade point averages and table-waiting summer jobs. Then she told my sons that if prospective employees haven’t worked internships, formal coursework and fancy grades don’t matter. I’m glad my teen-agers heard that.

Say thanks

Most interviewees don’t send thank-you notes. At many workplaces, the ones who don’t aren’t hired.

My prospectus and draft curriculum are available to the first college president who bites. During negotiations, we can discuss upfront fees, plus a cut on tuition revenue. Tough as it is to find jobs these days, we can make this the most popular and profitable course on campus-without even trying.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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