The conservation job application process – 299 applicants to 1…

Save the Rhino have a rare paid, year long internship programme (Michael Hearn Intern) which proves to be very popular with conservation job seekers. Last year they had 299 applications, and published the results of their shortlisting process, and provide some practical advice which all conservation job seekers can learn from. We thank Save the Rhino for kindly allowing us to publish their feedback…

Save the Rhino

Save the Rhino

Feedback on the application process for the Michael Hearn Intern post, July 2014

We received a total of 299 applications, an exceptionally high number, and are very grateful to all of those who took the time and trouble to apply for the Michael Hearn Internship Programme. Seven candidates are being invited for interview, and we hope to make an appointment by Thursday 31 July, with the successful candidate taking up his or her post on 1 September.

As we are unable to give individual feedback on each application, we thought it would be helpful to give the following explanation of our selection process and general advice to those who were unsuccessful in reaching the interview stage.

The first sift

66 applications were excluded immediately for the following reasons:

  • 18 were missing a cover letter or a CV (required as explained in the job application pack). A two-line email does not, in my view, count as a cover letter
  • 7 misspelled the name “Michael Hearn” or “Save the Rhino”. You might think it’s harsh to chuck someone out for a – let’s be generous – typing mistake, but if someone can’t get the job title or organisation name right, what chance they can do other things well?
  • 8 were over-qualified, with a Masters degree. The job application pack set out eligibility terms, specifying that we would not accept students with a Masters (second) degree
  • 20 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 2013 or 2014
  • 7 people had not done their cutting and pasting very well, and sent us their applications for jobs at other organizations (Reservations Agent, journalist), or professed their desire to become bankers. I’m sure you had great CVs, but if you were to send one of our grant applications to USFWS addressed to DWCF, I guarantee our precious chance to get a grant would be lost
  • And 6 were not available on the interview date specified in the job application pack. Selecting, interviewing and recruiting candidates for a job, particularly when you have 299 to consider, is extremely time-consuming, and we cannot to take more than one day out of normal work to stagger interviews and then reconvene at the end of them

Choosing the seven interviewees

That left 233 letters and CVs to look at in detail and from which to choose seven candidates for interview; still an enormous task. (Seven is the most people we can see in one day, with interviews starting at 9.30am, breaking for lunch, and then restarting again. We can’t afford to spend more time conducting more interviews.)

Our approach was to ask the five 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 for which we were looking.

We ended up with 41 applications that had five yes marks; again, an exceptionally large number of strong candidates from whom we had to choose 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 organizations, but also have some admin and fundraising experience.

The ones that made it through – they 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, participation in wildlife clubs etc.). They also stood out because their cover letters had really addressed the question “Why do you want this job?” (again, as specified in the job application pack). They had thought about the role, researched Mike Hearn (with search engines and the internet, it’s really not that difficult!), researched 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 organization. A few people fell at the final hurdle because, on second reading, their cover letters could have been sent to any environmental organization, 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. 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. We don’t have time to proof-read everything each member of staff writes before it goes out, so if you haven’t bothered to check your letter or CV, what hope? One person left in the tracked changes that someone else must have added.

You need to say why you want the job (we spelled this out in the instructions in the job application pack). Too many people used the space to tell us all over again how brilliant they are and repeated reams of information that was already in the CV.

We have some real hates:

  • 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
  • People who repeated our mission statement back to us. (Yes, we know what it is.) It comes across as filler because you can’t think of anything else to say
  • Gushers. Yes, we love rhinos too, but a cover letter for a job application is a business letter, not a Valentine
  • Letters longer than one page. Too much to read. Do the maths: 299 applicants, 1 minute per application, that’s nearly five hours of reading. If you can’t say what you need to say in one page, you’ve lost our interest. Also, there’s nothing more irritating (particularly for a conservation charity) than printing out a letter which spills over onto a second page by one line. I hate a waste of paper
  • 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 organization to which you are applying
  • Another thing to watch out for: avoid beginning every paragraph with the word “I”. It makes it look as if you are focused on yourself and are not able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Good fundraisers, and good team workers, have a wider perspective. Mentally, I call these letter writers “Mimi”

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 grafted doing mundane jobs to bring in the bucks while volunteering in a relevant area. 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 show 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 3 pages smacks of desperation: you’ve thrown in the whole kitchen sink. Edit / select / summarise.

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 had bothered to research who Michael Hearn was.

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, to be honest, we need to feel sure that we’ll like the person we’re about to interview. 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.

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