1. Be Realistic Ask as far in advance as possible. In your cover letter always offer your availability almost immediately, show your flexibility and mention you are willing to arrange for next Christmas/Easter/summer if this is more convenient to them. Any requests placed just before the summer holidays for those following months will be ignored, so be organised. The only exception may be if you are using a contact (see later section). Don’t forget smaller, local publications which are also easier to access – London is expensive and competitive!
So where do you start?
2. Perseverance is the key! Take one industry at a time & (sorry to be blunt) be prepared for rejection every step of the way. I sent around 50 individual letters to all sorts of publications and was rewarded with silence or a rejection letter at best from every single one. There is no way to sugar-coat the fact that it is a painful, disheartening process but it’s not personal. Publications are simply overwhelmed with requests, and the larger companies can have waiting lists of up to 2years.
It is usually an issue of time – people simply don’t have it. At Heat magazine I witnessed around 30 messages a day bombarding email and post boxes, all saying the same thing over and over. Many emails also get sent straight to junk folders, simply due to unrecognised addresses so you aren’t always being ignored. Those receiving them are trying to complete their regular job and deal with work experience only as a duty on the side so try to be a tiny bit sympathetic.
But don’t despair!
Look out for official internship programs (Now magazine runs a few), and social networking sites occasionally advertise some; start follow/liking as many pages as possible on the off-chance an opportunity comes up. Also ask around your friends, family & colleagues and track down absolutely anybody who has a connection in your chosen industry – exploit every contact you can find.
Meanwhile, rather than contacting editors, try to gain names or addresses for interns or editorial, lifestyle and personal assistants, as these are usually the people who deal with ‘workies’. I gained experience with the Daily Echo newspaper after receiving an automated response from the editor to contact his personal assistant if it was an urgent enquiry whilst he was away. I sent the same message to this fresh contact and she was the one who responded.
3. The dreaded cover letter – time is everything.
Every cover letter must be individually crafted to the company you are trying to get into. This can be very time consuming but NEVER duplicate the same one – it is always noticeable. Do not under-estimate flattery, which can be incorporated by mentioning specific articles you enjoyed and how you could relate/contribute to the publication, (but keep it short & sweet!) Subject headers are the thing I always struggle with. You want to stand out and get it opened but it’s hard not to be generic; be creative but be careful to keep it professional, rather than desperate or annoying.
ALWAYS proofread as spelling mistakes/typos/auto-formats happen to the best of us!! Reread the last line. Seriously, proofread it again – trust me!
Your CV needs to be ONE PAGE . I am also terrible at this but you must be ruthless. They will honestly not spend more than 30 seconds scanning it. It needs to flow from one section to another smoothly, highlighting relevant experience, skills or attributes to the industry. It is perfectly acceptable to alter the typical order of CV layouts to relate it to the experience/job you are aiming for as long as it’s all on there somewhere. Try not to cram in too much information (my weak spot!) as it looks crowded, confusing and time-consuming to read. Short & succinct!
Feel free to be creative with it too as the media is a dynamic industry; as long as it includes the right criteria and looks professional anything goes. Here is a brilliant example my last co-worker Alice showed me: http://www.celineislookingforafashionjob.com/. Although you don’t have to go quite so far it proves a point!
4. It’s not what you know… Everyone has to start somewhere and if you know somebody who knows somebody else, they are often more than happy to help you get your foot in the door. I landed experience at Heat magazine with my friend’s sister by dropping it into every conversation I had with people – sometimes inadvertently (the same way I found my house mates for third year but that’s another story). You’d be surprised – it’s a small world!
By summer I was looking for another; having left it so late I sent out a desperate plea via my Facebook status asking if anybody knew anyone in the industry. Almost immediately I got a response from someone I had worked with in a bar over 2 years before, saying his sister worked in Woman’s Own lifestyle magazine. In both instances I was able to choose my dates and skip the queue, so it is definitely worth asking around. For this reason, when you get there, network like crazy!
5. First impressions are (also) everything.
If you are friendly, enthusiastic and complete tedious tasks graciously you are more likely to become involved in more exciting projects, learn important skills and contribute more directly to the overall publication. Your co-worker is also more likely to warm to you and adapt your time towards the areas you are most interested in. At the same time, don’t get overly friendly – keep it professional and NEVER start calling them ‘hun’ or ‘babe’.
Remember they also have a job to do and will not be able to babysit you the whole time, so be respectful. This may all sound obvious but you’d be surprised how many people turn up expecting to be interviewing celebrities and writing articles, only to then drop out and leave everyone in the lurch.
If you are struggling, keep in mind how hard you worked (or might have had to) to get where you are. There are thousands of others who would do anything to be in your position so make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. You will not be doing ground-breaking projects and you must be prepared for some mind-numbingly boring tasks (think Devil Wears Prada), partly because there’s not always that much to do and partly because they need to gain confidence in your abilities.
To give you some idea of what to expect, here are some typical tasks I undertook at Heat and Woman’s Own magazine:
– Research for stories, writing web articles for their sites, proofreading horoscopes
– Sorting and handing out post, photocopying, errands
– Transcribing interviews, updating book/music archives with press release info
– Using the phone, contacting PR companies to order samples and images
– Picture mark-ups (counting every single image in each issue of the magazine)
– Occasionally tagging along to events such as press releases or meetings
Even if you realise halfway through it’s not for you, it is worth hanging in there to grasp any other inspiration that’s floating around. In the meantime enjoy the chance to soak up the atmosphere and observe the day-to-day running of the office.
6. You are being watched
While you’re there speak to as many people as you can. Get on friendly terms with the people you are working closest with as these are the people you may need to contact in the future if your progress runs dry. You then have more chance of gaining more advice, further contacts and being recommended. People talk within industries and it’s all about getting noticed in a positive light. I wouldn’t have got anywhere without the amazing people I met along the way and they gave me a lot confidence in myself along the way.
The buildings are huge with loads of companies all under the same roof so many people enter the industry at the bottom via an internship and work their way up by networking between companies and applying for jobs through the intranet. This builds up a reputation and you may even get headhunted so make sure its a good one!
One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to ask for each of your referees to write 2-3 lines about you and attach a couple of these at the end of each cover letter to gain an immediate first impression.
It is also a good idea to get your co-worker to look over your CV and cover letter for any advice they have, or even go for lunch and spend some time talking about where you want to go and how you can get there. It surprised me how small the magazine publication offices were, with teams of only around thirty people – some less. This gives you an idea of how competitive it is with so few positions available and thus how vital it is to make an impact at every opportunity.
7. It’s all a massive learning curve..
Work experience is not only essential for employers to realise how serious about your career direction, but also for you. It took two different magazines for me to realise this particular sector isn’t for me, but every experience moves you forward. You will always have an advantage by knowing as much as you can about an industry and will pick up many transferable skills to apply in others.
Before I finish, much of this advice should be credited to my first work experience colleague Giselle Wainwright who has given me a kick-start into this profession with loads of ideas, help & encouragement in an often disheartening process. You may not be feeling confident you have the right skills, chances or motivation to get where you want to be but she worked her way up the ladder without contacts, using a degree in fashion, internships and a positive, ambitious attitude…
Now all you’ve got to do is make it happen! Good Luck!