Michael Hearn Intern feedback 2016

Feedback on the application process for the Michael Hearn Intern post, July 2016

We received a total of 142 applications and are very grateful to all of those who took the time and trouble to apply for the Michael Hearn Internship programme. Seven candidates have been invited for interview, and we hope to make an appointment by Friday 29 July, with the successful candidate taking up their post on 1 September.

As we are unable to give individual feedback on each application, we thought it would be helpful for our Director, Cathy Dean, to give the following explanation of our selection process and general advice to those who were unsuccessful in reaching the interview stage. Please note that whilst this is her personal stance on applications, we feel this advice is relevant for future applications.

The first shift

24 applications were excluded immediately for the following reasons:

  • Four were missing a cover letter or a CV (a requirement as explained in the job application pack). We do not accept emails consisting of a few lines as cover letters. A cover letter requires much more detail, and we would expect a side of text
  • One misspelled the name “Michael Hearn”. You might think it’s harsh to chuck someone out for a – let’s be generous – typing mistake, but attention to detail is a key skill for this role
  • Three were over-qualified, with a master’s degree. The job application pack set out eligibility terms, specifying that we would not accept students with a master’s (second) degree
  • Eleven graduated too long ago. Again, the job application pack set out eligibility terms, specifying that we would only accept school leavers or those graduating in 2015 or 2016
  • Two people had sent us applications for roles at other organisations
  • One was not available for the entire internship period
  • One applicant’s cover letter and CV document were blank
  • One had left track changes on their cover letter, detailing other jobs for which they had applied

Choosing the seven interviewees

118 letters and CVs were left to look over in detail and from which to choose seven candidates for interview; still an enormous task. Seven is the highest number of people we can see in one day, with interviews starting at 10am, breaking for lunch, and then restarting again. We allocate one day due to our limited resources as a small, busy team.

Our approach was to ask the four members of Save the Rhino staff reviewing the applications to mark each application with a “yes”, a “no”, or a “maybe”, depending on the criteria set out in the person specification and on other qualities outlined in the application pack.

We ended up with 22 applications that had four “yes” marks from whom we selected seven to invite for interview. We also wished to identify a further two people as reserves, in case anyone decided to withdraw their application, perhaps because they had since been appointed to another job. This is always the hardest bit of the whole process, and we focused on making sure that we see the people who have not only got great experience of volunteering at conservation organisations, but also have some admin and fundraising experience.

As for the ones that made it through – who have all now been contacted to arrange interview times – stood out because they had strong CVs which demonstrated real commitment to conservation; not just as part of a university degree course but also in work experience, whether paid or unpaid, and participation in wildlife clubs, etc.

These candidates also stood out because their cover letters had really addressed the question “Why do you want this job?”. They had thought about the role, researched Mike Hearn, our charity and our work, and referred to recent campaigns or news stories: all good evidence of having really done their homework.

Exceptional cover letters are tailored to the particular job in the particular organisation. A few people fell at the final hurdle because, on second reading, their cover letters could have been sent to any environmental organisation, exactly as they were but for a “find / replace” on Save the Rhino and the job title.

Avoiding pitfalls

Problems with the cover letter

Lots of people didn’t actually set out a proper letter. If you want it to look good, and print out properly, you need to do it as a separate word document or, better still, a pdf. That way it arrives looking exactly the same as when it left you and is much easier to read. A proper letter should have your address at the top, be addressed to Save the Rhino, have 4-5 decent paragraphs, and have your typed name (and ideally an electronic signature) at the bottom. It was noticeable that the seven selected for interview had all set out their letter well, which then made us want to read what they had written.

We rejected people with poor written English skills – spelling, grammar and punctuation – because all roles at SRI involve written work for a whole range of audiences, whether a grant application or a blog for the website. It is important that we are confident all our staff members, which includes our paid Michael Hearn Intern, have excellent writing and proof reading abilities. One person left in the tracked changes that someone else must have added.

Importantly, as the applicant you need to say why you want the job, as requested in our pack. Although details of your studies, travels and conservation experience can be – and often are – very relevant, rather than hearing all about your past we’d also like to hear about what you can do for us, and where you see this role taking you in future.

We have some real bugbears:

  • People who started off with “My name is …” If you lay out the letter properly, there’s no need to write this; we can see your name at the bottom. And apart from that, it’s impossible to continue reading without doing it in the style of Michael Caine
  • Preachers. Frankly, we don’t need lessons from people straight out of university on what is going wrong with our planet. It just irritates. We know this stuff, trust us and we would prefer you to use the space to talk about your skills.
  • People who repeated our mission statement back to us. It’s good that you’ve done your research, but perhaps you could talk more specifically about why you want to raise funds and support our work
  • Gushers. Yes, we love rhinos too, but a cover letter for a job application is a business letter, not a Valentine. Enthusiasm is great, but we need to see your skills and competencies
  • Letters longer than one page. We would prefer to save paper, and receive a succinct letter which addresses the person criteria properly.
  • Tiny font. Please, make it at least 11 point. Pity the poor readers’ eyes!
  • People telling us their cover letters that they are vegan / vegetarian. Why? We did not specify a requirement to be so in the job application pack. And in fact, if you look at our website, you’ll see that we are in favour of the sustainable use of wildlife, which includes culling, cropping and hunting wildlife. Individuals may choose to be vegan / vegetarian, but it simply is not relevant to a job at Save the Rhino. If you’re applying to PETA, then yes it is relevant. But you need to tailor your letter to the organisation to which you are applying
  • Another thing to watch out for: avoid beginning every paragraph with the word “I”. We are looking for team players. Good fundraisers, and good team workers, have a wider perspective

Problems with the CV

One of the main problems was that people talked about their interest / passion / commitment to conservation in their cover letter, and then failed to evidence that in their CV. We weren’t expecting relevant paid employment experience, but we were expecting some volunteering or other signs of interest. Many people seemed to have done an interesting university degree course but not added anything extra. Competition is tough these days and, to be honest, you need to build your CV: lots and lots of people can clearly demonstrate that they have worked hard to earn enough money that they can volunteer in a relevant area to gain experience. These people are always going to stand out.

Some CVs were too short. One page isn’t enough to demonstrate your academic and work experience, as well as showing your key achievements and giving us a flavour of you as a fully rounded person. When you’ve been working for a decade, I would drop the hobbies and interests, but actually, at this stage in your career, it’s kind of nice to see that someone has a mix of things in their life.

Conversely, some CVs were too long. Anything more than three pages needs to be edited. Summarise the key points and be selective. Again, tailor your CV to each role. You don’t have to include everything.

Recap on what we liked

So you cleared all those hurdles, but still didn’t get selected? Things we particularly liked were:

  • A succinct letter that articulated well what the person hoped to get out of the experience of working for Save the Rhino, as well as what they would bring to the post
  • References to Save the Rhino’s field programmes, events or rhino hot topics, but with some relevance, which showed that the person had done some research on our website or other places
  • Reference to a strong interest in conservation or wildlife, not just in the covering letter, but also backed up in the CV. (Yes, we know you’re probably applying to at least 20 other organisations at the same time, but we want to see a tailored letter and CV)
  • And people who  researched Michael Hearn

In this case, when trying to make the final selection, we found that the covering letters were where some candidates really stood out, because they conveyed something of the applicant’s personality, but in a professional and mature fashion.

We work in a small open-plan office and we need to feel sure that we’ll like the person we’re about to interview, and that they will have the right tone when speaking with a variety of supporters. A well-judged couple of sentences that tell us a bit about you and what drives you, that bring your CV to life, can make all the difference.

I hope this feedback has been helpful, and thank you again to everyone who applied.

I wish I’d known at 21 everything I know now.

Cathy Dean

Director of Save the Rhino International