By Cynthia McComas, English M.A. graduate assistant
I can say with absolute certainty that there is one question all English majors are asked more than any other:
What are you going to do with an English degree?
And we probably ask ourselves this question occasionally, too. That’s why Dr. Kristen Lillvis and the English Department planned for English M.A. alumnus Daniel Lassell to speak to English majors on finding and applying to jobs outside of academia. Lassell has held several writing jobs since completing his Master’s degree, including Marketing eCommerce Copywriter for Angie’s List, Brand Journalist for MOBI Wireless Management, and Content Writer for Bluelock. He spoke on his experiences of obtaining these jobs and provided input on the job search and job interview processes. Here, I’ve compiled his advice into a step-by-step approach on how to begin searching for employment, successfully manage an interview, and secure a writing position of your own.
Make contacts and connect with friends.
You’ve undoubtedly been told of the importance of “networking,” and this can be easily achieved by creating a LinkedIn account. Here, job seekers connect with people in their fields who have similar interests while staying updated on what their friends and colleagues are doing professionally. Your profile is essentially an online resume; there is space to include your work experience, education, skills and endorsements, languages, volunteer experience, honors and awards, publications, and more. Employers use LinkedIn to search for potential employees who may match with the experience you have.
Know what you’re looking for.
After making your LinkedIn account, you may have gained some new contacts. As opportunities arise, ask contacts if they know of a specific job available, not just “anything.” It helps to know exactly what positions exist, and some common job titles for writers include:
Digital Content Specialist
Lassell stressed the importance of connecting skills to skills. Though you might not have any actual business training, which many of these jobs are in the field of, you may have obtained advanced critical thinking skills as an English major, showing that you are capable of solving problems. If potential employers ask if you do have a specific skill they are looking for, and you truthfully do not, your best response may be, “No, but I’m willing to learn.” If you aren’t trained in the field, don’t be discouraged; this may be appealing to them because they are able to fairly provide you with a lower starting salary than someone who has more experience. Employers are most concerned that you have what it takes to learn quickly and adapt.
Write a convincing cover letter.
When applying to jobs that exist within the business realm, remember that your resume probably won’t hold the same energy as a competitor’s who has been studying business or marketing for four or more years. The cover letter of your resume is the first point of contact you’ll have with your potential employer, which could influence him or her more than a list of your education and job experiences. Exhaustively research the company you’ve applied to and make sure it is clear that you understand their goals. Memorize their mission statement, know what they are looking for, and use your cover letter as a means of showing that you are genuinely interested in the work they do. Keep the cover letter short–no more than a page. Begin and end each sentence with something positive and actionable to provide the best impression.
Here are some further tips to consider when writing a cover letter:
Match your skills to the needs of the employer.
Don’t include any irrelevant information.
Avoid passive language.
Organize the letter with purpose.
For more information on writing cover letters, refer to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writer’s Handbook here.
Update social media.
During the job application process, check that all of your social media accounts appear professional, even if you suspect that everything is private. Lassell informed the audience that potential employers will undoubtedly look at every social media account they can find before deciding to hire someone. Use your profile picture as an opportunity to “dress for the job you want,” as these pictures are usually visible even if your account is private. Make sure you don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your boss to see, but also update your profiles so it is apparent that you are professional, educated, and well-spoken.
Prepare for your interview.
Congratulations! You’ve been called for an interview. Now what? To start, you might curate a writing portfolio to showcase your best and most dynamic work. Make sure that each of these pieces are clear and concise, drive a purpose, and show you that you have the ability to sell something (as this is something you’ll most likely be doing as a writer). The examples you provide probably won’t match up with the type of writing you would be doing in these jobs, but they are opportunities to show the interviewer what you are capable of. The more varied your portfolio, the better. Lassell stated that he included everything from research essays to professional emails to poems in his earliest portfolios. Present this collection to the interviewer by stating, “I know this isn’t the type of writing you typically look for, but this shows how versatile I am.” You may point out, for example, that your thesis statement “sells” the argument you are making in an essay.
Master the interview process.
The best way to do this is to practice common interview questions with a friend and prepare what you plan to say in advance. Even ask them to throw in a few uncommon questions or talking points that you wouldn’t have prepared for. Here are some questions an interviewer is likely to ask:
How would you be a good fit here?
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Can you describe a work situation where you struggled?
Spin every negative quality you have into something positive. Tell them about how you learned from your “struggle.” Even your inexperience can be used to your advantage; tell the interviewer that you can offer a “fresh perspective” to the workplace.
At the end of the interview, you will likely be asked if you have any questions about the job. By simply replying, “No,” you might seem apathetic or uninterested. It is best to go into the interview with questions already prepared so you will seem enthusiastic about the position. You might ask, “Would you describe the culture here?” Or maybe, “Where would my priority be?” Do not, however, bring up the subject of your salary at this point. Just conclude the interview with a strong handshake and say that you look forward to the opportunity of working with the company.
Finally, know the salary you want.
Research the average pay of the position you’re applying for. If you are offered the job and asked what salary you expect, say, “I noticed the average starting salary was ____, and I know I don’t have much experience, so I’m asking for ____.” Ask for slightly above what you’d be happy with because they will counteroffer with a lower number. Keep in mind that young people are paid less, so don’t be too offended by their offers.
Job hunting may be one of the most daunting tasks of adulthood, but the best way to make this process easier is to prepare. Make your LinkedIn account now, even if you haven’t completed your degree, and start familiarizing yourself with the professional world. Write practice cover letters and keep an updated resume. The more effort you put into this process, the more you will get out of it, which may result in a life-changing career opportunity.