An Open Letter to College Students Looking for a Career in PR

In my role, I review hundreds of entry-level candidates a year. I see them all: good ones, bad ones and many that fall somewhere in between.

Through that process, I’ve refined what I’m looking for in a good entry-level candidate for our firm: They come from a quality university that offers strong programs related to the work we conduct, and they’ve completed at least one good corporate, agency or non-profit internship. They have a well-organized, well-written resume that highlights their accomplishments in a way that isn’t distracting and, for Tech Image, they’ve demonstrated some form of digital marketing aptitude in their formal study program or in their previous work experience.

Here’s my advice to recent high school graduates and current college students who want a career in PR:

While many 17- and 18-year-olds (myself included) do not know what they want to be when they grow up, you’ll have a distinct advantage if you choose a university that offers a strong program in a related field. Particularly for entry-level candidates, top-tier journalism and communications programs like Northwestern, Mizzou, Florida and Indiana immediately draw my eye. These aren’t just brands; they are known quantities.

If you’re a late bloomer, or your personal situation doesn’t afford you the opportunity to attend a top program, don’t sweat it; there are numerous quality programs outside the top 10 where you can earn a great education that will prepare you for a life and career after college.

However, if you’re looking for a career in PR, your major should reflect that. Look at majors like journalism, mass communications, marketing, organizational communications and, of course, public relations. Your art history or computer science degree may teach you a lot, but you’ll be competing with others who have had more formalized training – some from top programs – as you seek out your first job in a crowded field.

Go find an internship. Your part-time job at Applebee’s might partially pay for school, help your family out, or teach you practical customer service or interpersonal communication skills, but you’ll need something else. While you’re running food, the girl in the front row of your PR class is helping to research and build media lists for a small agency you’ve never heard of. That’s the kind of experience I want! In fact, we just hired a young professional with four internships on her resume.

Speaking of internships, start early. You may not be able to land an internship between your junior and senior year if you haven’t done anything before then. Like entry-level jobs, most internships today are competitive in their own right, and hiring managers are looking at an array of candidates who have had at least some practical experience volunteering for a campus organization (or even have a previous internship!) in a marketing or PR role. Remember, if your only experience is a two-month stint running your sorority’s charity, you might be competing against someone who has that same experience, plus a quality internship.

If you haven’t found an internship by the time you’ve graduated, you’re behind, but there’s still time. Don’t be too proud to take an internship as your first job after graduation. You’ll put those three to six months behind you before you know it, and you’ll probably learn more about the profession (and maybe yourself, as you work a second, paying job at night to make ends meet) than you did in the previous four years in school. Plus, if you’re an absolute rock star with a great work ethic, you may earn your way onto that team by the time your internship is complete.

Finally, let’s talk for a moment about your resume.

  1. Identify the keywords most aligned with the job for which you’re applying. Chances are that either a computer or a recruiter with little-to-no knowledge of public relations will screen your resume before I even get a chance to see it.
  2. Don’t go crazy with templates. If you use a template, pick something simple that helps you organize the information in your resume. Also, choose a simple font. Believe it or not, some people have their resumes in Mistral or Comic Sans!
  3. Unless your GPA is beyond reproach, leave it off your resume. If you have a 3.5, you’re a good student – I get that. But do you really want to give me such a specific data point that would allow you to lose out to someone with a 3.6?
  4. Leave your photo off your resume. I don’t care what you look like. I care about your qualifications.
  5. Twice. In fact, find someone else you trust to proofread your work. Words matter in this field, and your resume is your first opportunity to demonstrate that you have a high level of attention to detail.

Earning your way onto a team for the first time in your career may be the hardest job you’ll ever land. I hope some of the steps I’ve outlined above will clear your path, and you’ll embark upon a rewarding career in digital public relations.

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