This time a few months ago, I was spening hours anxiously opening up incognito windows to get through the Telegraph‘s paywall and reading lots of old newspapers, in my efforts to give myself a decent chance of getting on to the Telegraph‘s graduate training scheme.
I made it through to the final round – a daunting day-long assessment at the Buckingham Palace Road offices.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the call – but at least the process has given me lots of valuable experience of the interview, which will hopefully give others a better shot at getting the job. Here’s how it went.
Stage 1: The application
The Telegraph’s application is probably the lengthiest one that you’ll do. Others generally ask for a CV, cover letter and some clippings – The Telegraph asks “if you could ask any person one question, what would it be and why?”
Cilla Black it ain’t.
There’s also a video element to the initial application. Rather than giving another written answer, you have to film a short video of yourself answering the question – my question was to explain a recent piece of journalism that I liked, and explain why. Don’t worry about this – I filmed mine in selfie mode in my bedroom while wearing my pyjamas. Like the rest of the application, it’s all about what you say and how intelligently you can back it up.
Don’t worry if you submit your application shortly before the deadline, as I did – for the 2015 intake, the deadline was extended and applications re-opened after they finished the first time. I finally submitted my application around an hour before the deadline on the final day of the extension. I got an interview, so I’m presuming they don’t care too much about that.
There’s a few tricky questions in there that you might not be used to if you’ve been applying for lots of grad schemes. The online application includes fields like “what would you do to improve The Telegraph‘s editorial offering?”, and “what are the three main resources you use to keep up with the news?”, and “name a journalist you look up to, and explain why”.
They’re unusual, and require a little more thought than the typical application. The important thing to do is: be honest.
The people who work there are much cleverer than you, and they’ll be able to tell if you’re just making stuff up to sound more impressive. My suggestion for improving the editorial offering was to “make the paper smaller”, and I said Tintin was the journalist I looked up to most. I was worried that they’d see me as a bit of dick, but I thought it was better to be honest and say things that I would be able to convincingly back up in an interview – rather than saying what I thought they’d want to hear.
You will be quizzed on what you say in this initial application at the interview stage – so if you give your own ideas, it’ll be easier for you to talk about them with authority and clarity. Remember, they want to know what you can bring to the table, so come up with some original ideas that you believe in, rather than parroting what you’ve read in media blogs.
Try to show yourself as the likeable, normal human that you are, rather than some sort of perfect journalist superhero. It’ll help you get an interview.
Stage 2: The interview
Well done! Those 5 hours you spent doing the initial application paid off, and you’ve made it to the interview stage. Out of roughly 2000 applicants, around 40-50 people make it through to this stage, so congrats for making it this far.
You will be individually interviewed by two members of senior editorial staff, and three interviewees have their interviews in the same slot – so there’s an opportunity to have some nervous small-talk with other applicants before you go in (or play mind games if you’re a total bastard). You’re not interviewed with other people, don’t worry.
Each interview takes 50 minutes, which sounds absolutely terrifying – when it actually happens, the time flies by, and it actually works in your favour. With such a long interview, you have time to ‘umm’ and ‘ah’, and wander off topic a little bit.
Obviously, you shouldn’t be going off on 10-minute long tangents. But The Daily Mail‘s grad scheme interviews are only 20 minutes long – there’s a lot of pressure to be on point all the time, because there’s not enough room to hesitate.
With The Telegraph, there’s a little bit more wiggle room. Feel free to expand on points you make if you’re prepared and they look interested – there’s plenty of time, and they’ll gently move on to the next question if they think you’ve gone on enough.
Honestly – I enjoyed my interview. It’s more of a chat about you and your career than a scary interview, and they’re not trying to trip you up or grill you. There were a few difficult questions that I wasn’t prepared for, but after a few seconds of thinking I managed to answer. Just make sure you know the industry really well.
And, more superficially, remember to speak confidently and loudly. Try not to shout in their faces, but if you’re confident and assertive then that will help you, and it’ll be good practice for the next stage.
If you’ve been invited for an interview, beating over 1,900 people in the process, they clearly see something in you – so try to conquer your nerves and don’t be a wallflower.
And finally – dress smartly. The Telegraph is known as one of the more formal papers, so naturally a suit and a tie for guys is basically mandatory. For girls, go smart. Many of the girls at both my interview stages were in dresses and heels, and they weren’t out of place at all. Don’t worry about being too formal – it’s pretty hard to be overdressed at a Telegraph job interview.
And remember to bring some clippings with you – they probably won’t directly ask for them, but it helps if you can back up what you say with proof.
For the sake of length, here’s a few questions I got asked.
- What’s a piece of work you’ve done that you’re especially proud of?
- When have you faced difficulty in your career, and how did you overcome it?
- What do you like about The Telegraph, and what could we improve on?
- Which of our writers do you especially like, and why?
A lot of the conversation will come from what you wrote in your application. For example, I mostly wrote about digital aspects of journalism, so most of our conversation was about data journalism, coding and which websites I like. Again, be honest in your application because it’ll make this part much easier.
Stage 3: The assessment day
Double congratulations! This is the final round of the application process. There will be around 15 people at this stage, and you’re all working together for most of the day. Again, less than 1% of all applicants get through to this stage – so you’ve done very well to get here.
Bear in mind that even if you think you’re not qualified enough for the grad scheme, give it a go anyway. Three of the six people who got on this year were City University MA students, but another two were still undergraduates. If you’re confident that you’ve got good work experience and the ability to do it, then you can.
The assessment day seems like it would be really daunting, but honestly – I enjoyed it. If you want to be a journalist, you should like talking about the industry and debating with people, and that’s pretty much what this day is about. If I knew the day was going to be as good as it was, I wouldn’t have been nearly as nervous the night before.
Task 1: Debates
The day kicks off with a couple of debates, involving all of you – you’re sat round a big table, and the staff will give you a question to discuss amongst yourselves. The first of the two is moderated a little bit by the staff, and they may steer the conversation back to the question if you veer off, or pick people to speak if they haven’t said anything. The second is totally unmoderated and it’s up to you lot to speak freely.
The two topics that we got were fairly general, thought-provoking questions – one was ‘is social media degrading our personal relationships?’. They will be fairly open-ended questions, but you’ll have no idea what they are before you go. So don’t worry about preparing anything specific for them in advance – just make sure you’ve got your debating hat on.
Based on my feedback, this is a fairly important bit. I was told that I wasn’t quite forceful enough – I spoke up and contributed to the debate quite a lot, but they’re really looking for a lot of urgency. Don’t be afraid to fight your corner and disagree with people. Try to look engaged as well. This should come naturally to a lot of people, but in my feedback they mentioned that I was leaning back in my chair a lot and looking a bit too casual. That’s just the way I am, so if you are too then make sure you’re sitting forward and really looking like you’re getting stuck into it.
Obviously, don’t be a dick. Fortunately, there wasn’t anyone there who tried to shout down everyone, but there might be when you do it. If you’re being a dick, they probably won’t hire you – they have to work with you after all. But really do your best to speak up, be aggressive in your involvement and disagree with people. There’s a fine line between the two, and arguing like this may take you out of your comfort zone – but if you really throw yourself into it, show confidence in your opinion and generally guide the debate, you’ll do well.
Task 2: Presentations
Even if you’re totally comfortable with public speaking, this should be the most nerve-wracking part of the day. You’ll be speaking in front of all the other applicants, and around 7 Telegraph senior staff – so the pressure is on.
You’ll be asked to speak for five minutes on a topic given to you a week or so before the assessment day. Everyone has the same topic – mine was ‘what will The Telegraph be like in 2025′? They’re fairly open-ended, so you’ve got some room to be creative. Some people gave their presentation as if it was 2025, looking back on the last ten years. I chose to be fairly informal and just gave my thoughts on the sorts of things the paper will have to do to stay relevant in the next ten years. Everyone did well, and as long as you present with a good amount of confidence and have some interesting stuff to say, you’ll be fine. There’s plenty of advice on public speaking around the internet so I won’t bore you with it here.
Obviously there’s no guarantee that the question will be related to The Telegraph, but if it is, don’t be afraid to flatter the paper a little bit. I made a few criticisms of their digital operation during my presentation, but I get the feeling I’d do a bit better if I’d buttered them up a bit more.
Hopefully you’ll be one of the first – the presentations are only five minutes each, but when there’s 15 people there, you can be waiting a while for your turn, with the nerves getting worse every second. Try to relax, this is the easiest bit of the day, and you’ll speak better if you’re calm too.
Task 3: The written section
The first few parts of the written part of the assessment are fairly run of the mill.
First up, there’s a spelling test, of around 20 tricky words. There’s not much you can do to prepare for this, really. If you’re not too confident, cast your eye over some lists of commonly mispelled words and you should be fine.
The second part is the news quiz – this is important. Obviously, if you want to be a journalist, you need to know about what’s going on in the world. I did pretty badly on this, and if really ruined my chances – so if you think they’re not going to reject you just because you got a few news questions wrong, think again.
Make sure you’ve got your finger on the pulse of pop culture, and try to read the paper every day for a couple of weeks before. There were a couple on small, ‘also in the news’ stories, so keep an eye on them. Names are also important – I was asked to name the male and female leads of 50 Shades of Grey, as well as the Ukrainian PM. Get revising before, because it’s important.
The third part is a newswriting test – you’re given a short AP story, and you need to condense it into a 25-word news story intro, and a 14-character headline. The short headline was pretty tricky, but if you’ve got any formal training in journalism, you should be OK on this one. If you don’t, get practicing your story introductions by rewriting raw AP stories – try to tell the whole story in a sentence, you’ll get better with practice.
The fourth part is a simple subbing test – you’re given a short passage of copy filled with formatting, spelling and grammar errors, and you have to identify and correct the problems. If you’ve made it this far in the process then you’ve probably got a good eye for that stuff anyway – but read it very closely, because there’s a few tiny errors that you won’t spot.
The fifth part is the trickiest. You’re given a sheet that looks a bit like an itinerary – it details two days’ development of a fictional breaking news story (mine was a UK ebola outbreak). You play the role of a news editor deciding how to cover it, and how to manage your team of reporters.
It might start off by saying: ‘9:00AM – reports of a ebola case at a London hospital’, and goes on to include updates on the story, including odd ones like ’12:00AM – someone phones the newsdesk offering to sell an exclusive photo of the patient – do you buy it?’
It’s quite tricky, but it’s a good chance to show off your creativity – try to mention multimedia coverage, and interesting ways to use the reporters at your disposal, beyond the usual ‘send someone to stand outside the hospital’.
It’s a big task and you only have around 50 minutes to do it. The time got away from me, but there’s four pages’ worth of coverage planning to fill – morning, afternoon, evening and the next day. So make sure you manage your time well and really make the most of your limited space. This is another task that’s hard to prepare for, as it’s basically a creativity and organisational exercise – just make sure you know a lot about the industry and innovative developments in journalism beforehand, and you should have plenty of good stuff to write.
Finally, the day is over. There’s a pub called The Victoria right over the road from the office, so I would suggest you go there and talk it over.
Hopefully you’ve done well, if not, you’ve gained some really valuable experience for future assessments. It’s a good way to get your foot in the door at the paper, as well. And even if you fail, the feedback you’ll get afterwards is really insightful.
If you’re successful, you’ll be starting a 2-year training course in the following September.
Just don’t mention it to me, I’m still pretty bitter.