Next Stop: Journalism School

I’m working on my application to the graduate diploma in journalism from Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand. Only 20 students will be admitted for next year’s session starting in February 2013. I really, REALLY want to get in. The thought of becoming a journalist has been germinating in my head for over a year now and this program is my way in. I’m so terrified to mess it up that I have a hard time writing my application essay. In a hope to get out of my rut and find inspiration, I decided to share my first draft here. It’ll also answer all of my family and friend’s question: “Why do you want to become a journalist?” Please let me know what you think in the comments- that’d be of great help!

Should I mention the influence of Lois Lane on my professional choices?

What are the perfect ingredients to make a good journalist? Start with a love of words as a foundation. Add a solid understanding of the state of the world for credibility. Mix with an adaptable personality and a talent to make people talk to facilitate the job. Sprinkle with a high dose of curiosity and an appetite to learn. Let the preparation simmer in an itching desire to tell stories. I will demonstrate that all these ingredients are ready to be used in my kitchen in six arguments outlining my career to date, the reasons why I want to become a journalist, and the steps I have already taken towards the profession.

1. I have a passion for reading, writing and the English language

As soon as I learned how to read, I started devouring every written word I stumbled upon: I gobbled the ingredients on the cereal box before finishing my bowl and read aloud every road sign and advertisement I saw in the streets. At the library, I disdained books full of pictures- words opened entire new worlds in my imagination.

I’ve carried a notebook with me from as far as I can remember. The only way to make space in a head saturated with thoughts is to write them down. My over-thinking became a cacophony when English words were added to the French ones. I started reading books in English and watching American movies and TV shows as a teenager. When my university offered an exchange program in New York, I had to apply. Being one of the top students from my class, I was selected and also obtained a scholarship that would pay for most of my expenses there. Today, I live in Switzerland but speak English every day- I’m engaged to a New Zealander and surrounded by English-speaking friends. I even dream in English!

That’s why I started blogging in English. Of course, my prose was cluttered with mistakes when I started. But I was lucky enough to find an English teacher friend willing to help me out and correct my grammar. With every new post, I improved my English and my writing.

2. I have a solid background in International Business Law

Despite my passion for reading and writing, studying literature in high school discouraged me from pursuing a career as a writer. I’d rather spend ten hours strapped to the top of Mitt Romney’s car than decipher every word from a poem or find the hidden meaning behind a Molière play again. I chose to study law instead. The philosophical roots, the influence lawyers can have on public policy and a general attraction to justice kept me working hard as a student. My teachers were brilliant orators who taught me to present my ideas with a sharp analytical twist. Studying French and European business law for four years in France, and American and international law for a year in New York allowed me to assess the news with an inquisitive spirit and a deeper understanding of the underlying economic issues and public policies.

3. I’m highly adaptable and know how to talk to people

When I came back to France after my year in New York, I had completed my master’s degree. As much as I had enjoyed studying law, the prospect of working as a lawyer didn’t attract me at all. I needed something more creative, with more contact with people, more flexibility. I moved to Zurich, where my father lived, and started teaching French to earn a living. This job taught me how to make people talk. My day consists of spending an hour to an hour and a half conversing with adults who want to improve their French. I have to find the right questions to make them speak as much as possible. It has taught me to be an attentive listener (not only to correct mistakes, but also to move the conversation forward). It has taught me not to judge people too fast- a boring-looking banker turns out to have exciting adventures at weekends; a sad-looking housewife turns out to have a dark sense of humour…

4. I’m already writing for three different websites and I know how to use social media to promote my work

After a year of blogging with a self-imposed deadline of one post a week, I became confident enough to look for other writing outlets. I still enjoyed teaching but I was writing stories in my head all day long. I became Café Correspondent for an influential local website: my mission was to go to a local café with an interesting person, take photos, and then write a review of the café including a written portrait of the person. Then another website for expats asked my permission to reprint articles from my blog on their French and Swiss page. I learned how to use Facebook, Twitter and WordPress to promote my writing. My blog started to grow and to attract more viewers and comments from all over the world.

5. Journalism is the combination of everything I love to do and the graduate diploma in journalism from UC matches all my expectations

My Swiss journalist friend Beat has been telling me about his job, the articles he writes, the research he’s working on for more than two years now. His weekly accounts over coffee started me thinking about journalism as a potential career.

To find out more about the job, I met other journalists. I asked them how a typical day at work was, what they didn’t like about their job, what was the most difficult for them. They all enjoyed talking about their job, their passion. The more I heard about it, the more it struck me: journalism was the combination of everything I loved to do. Writing, of course, but also learning about different topics every day, the reporting and the research, talking to people, and telling stories. I have all the qualities which seem necessary to be a journalist: I’m passionate about language, reading and writing, deeply curious about people and the world, a learner, and a story teller. Reading books on the topic such as Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide comforted me in my new inclination.

My first thought when my New Zealander boyfriend and I decided to move to New Zealand was to find a journalism school. The graduate diploma from Canterbury University is exactly what I was looking for: a one-year programme providing intense practical training along with challenging theoretical courses. With its new senior lecturer in journalism and her will to re-engage journalism with its community and to train the students in new media as well as traditional techniques, the programme matches all my expectation of a modern curriculum.

6. I am committed to telling stories

I read The New York Times, Le Monde and other international news daily to keep up with what’s going on in the world but I’m not passionate about the news the way I’m passionate about stories. As a student and a beginner in the profession, I will happily report and write hard news as long as necessary to learn the tools of the trade. However, what I really aspire to is narrative journalism: long articles, magazine and feature pieces, reports of every day events that wouldn’t be on the front page by themselves but are nonetheless revealing. I’m interested in turning seemingly ordinary events into a story. I would like to bring a thought-provoking perspective on topics people forget to think about- social and environmental issues, how the world works, how people live, how they find meaning, how they fail, how they succeed.

Did I convince you? Any suggestions on how to introduce myself better to the journalism school?

26 thoughts on “Next Stop: Journalism School

  1. Pingback: Switch On To The News « Trying to be Conscious

  2. Pingback: Countdown to Success « Trying to be Conscious

  3. Hi Cécile! I think it’s so great that you’re sharing your essay here and asking for feedback–that alone shows that you’re willing to work hard, put yourself out there and take constructive criticism. I think your personality really shines through and your background is quite impressive and seems well suited for Journalism school.

    A few suggestions:

    You may want to revisit this portion–“As much as I had enjoyed studying law, the prospect of working as a lawyer didn’t attract me at all. I needed something more creative, with more contact with people, more flexibility.”

    While it’s great that you’re being honest about what you’re looking for in a career, your list may come across as a tad picky–journalism may not be as flexible as you imagine, or as creative. Laying it out in those terms, and declaring that you law didn’t attract you at all may not come across quite the way you intended.

    Also, the wording here: ” My day consists of spending an hour to an hour and a half conversing with adults who want to improve their French.” Do you spend an hour each day teaching French or do you spend an hour with each client? It’s a little unclear.

    “It has taught me not to judge people too fast”–quickly?

    This part is great: “The philosophical roots, the influence lawyers can have on public policy and a general attraction to justice kept me working hard as a student. My teachers were brilliant orators who taught me to present my ideas with a sharp analytical twist. Studying French and European business law for four years in France, and American and international law for a year in New York allowed me to assess the news with an inquisitive spirit and a deeper understanding of the underlying economic issues and public policies.”

    I think you’re attempting to tread a fine line between cheekiness and professionalism and for the most part, it works quite nicely. I love that we can get a sense of who you are, where you’ve come from and where you hope to end up. My only other suggestion would be to edit the expectation portions a tiny bit. They may feel that your expectations (not wanting to write hard news, heading straight for the magazine pieces) won’t match up with what they can offer/what they expect of you. I would also include a little bit more about what attracts you to their program, as Claire suggested. I hope this is constructive and not too picky. Feel free to ignore me! I think you’ve done a fabulous job and are so brave to share it here!

    BEST of luck in your application. I will be crossing my fingers and toes for you. Editor Rian, signing off!

    xx, Rian

    • Thank you so much Rian, I really appreciate your detailed feedback. While I love positive comments and praise, constructive criticism was exactly what I was looking for when I decided to share my essay here.

      I certainly don’t want to come across as picky. I’ll try and explain why I didn’t want to become a lawyer in a more positive light. I’ll also rephrase my expectations on journalism and the kind of articles I’d like to write.

      I got tons of good feedback, here, through private messages, and conversation with my friends and students. Now I have to go back to writing this damn letter until it kicks ass!

      Thanks again for your encouraging words and well wishes mon amie :-)

  4. Salut Cécile! I actually worked as a news producer in the States (in my previous lifetime) and have some info you might find useful. Send me an email ( and I can share my personal insights with you as well as pass on some advice I received from veteran journalists that was surprising but very good.

    • I sent you an email, hopefully it won’t get lost in your spam- I had a few problems with my gmail lately. Looking forward to getting your insights, thanks!

  5. A couple of my thoughts, based upon my experience writing admissions essays for grad school (albeit in science).
    * What specific area of journalism do you wish to go into? Why Canterbury and not any other university in NZ? Media is very competitive and there are probably a lot of people applying to this course. The people who can demonstrate in their admissions essay that they’ve got a clear direction will probably be favoured over those who generically “like writing”. Does Canterbury have an expert in your area? Have they got theoretical courses no other university offers/equals?
    * I’m guessing that most people in journalism start at the bottom and work their way up to the exciting stuff. Can you demonstrate you have an idea of what is necessary to qualify yourself for features writing?
    * What can YOU bring to the university? What unique things do you have that will make them proud to have you as an alumnus?
    * You speak French, English, German & Swiss-German, right? I don’t think it would hurt to emphasise the multilingualism.
    * I’m not sure you should mention the fact you hated Literature. I think deciphering words and finding meanings are fairly important tools of the creative writer, plus there’s probably going to be a lot of menial & repetitive tasks to complete before you get to the glamorous feature-writing position…
    * Also, I might cut out the part where you said that you enjoyed your law degree…but then decided you didn’t want to become a lawyer after all. Phrased in that manner it suggests flakiness.

    Sorry, that’s a whole list of things which you are welcome to take or leave as appropriate – journalism is pretty much the opposite of my field after all!
    Good luck with it. :)

    • Thank you Claire, I really appreciate your constructive criticism- that’s really what I was looking for in sharing my letter here.

      I’ll review the program in more details to give a clearer sense of direction to my essay. I’ll also boast a bit more about all the languages I speak and how awesome I generally am ;-)

      A friend of mine made the exact same point about literature. I was trying to explain why I ended up studying law instead of something closer to my passion for words but you’re right, it could come across as quite negative. Same about law- Rian just echoed your concerns.

      Phew! I’d better print out my essay and work on it now. Thanks again, Claire!

  6. Je rejoins l’avis de Mythreyi sur les listes. Cette structure apporte une grande clarté et grâce aux paragraphes explicatifs, les différents points font plutôt office de sous-titres. Dans l’ensemble, ta candidature me plait beaucoup. Si j’étais eux, je te prendrais les yeux fermés! :)

  7. I enjoyed the essay. You did convince me that you not only desire to be a journalist, but that you have looked at both the positive and negative sides before jumping in. The only grammatical mistakes I found are questionable. You should find out if you are too use a comma before the word “and” in a series. There were three examples in your essay. I was taught to use the comma; perhaps, that is not the case anymore.
    Also, in the last sentence “how they fail, how they succeed” as it is the last in the series, perhaps the word “and” after the comma.
    Hope that helps. Either way – good luck.

    • Hi Cécile! You’ve probably already sent this but I loved it!

      As you know, I am biased as I love a good list! They break up a lot of info into bite size chunks, keep my attention (not easy) and provide variety so as a reader I can skip to the parts that interest me. I read all of your letter though because it was all interesting :)

      Lists may be seen as lazy writing by journalist pros, they may not … But I think one of the best qualities in a writer is to be themselves, push the boundaries and break a few rules! That way your writing will always get better. If I were the school I’d accept you! You seem a big more reserved here than normal, I can see why that might be a good idea but I think you are even more witty and it’s a great asset! So if you feel comfortable, you could inject more humour or even mention the list debate!

      You’ll be an amazing journalist and I think you’ll get in without a doubt!

      Good luck :)

      • I haven’t sent my application yet; I have until the end of the month to do so. That way I can benefit from all the good feedback and polish it until it’s ready. Thanks Rebecca for confirming that the list comes out well. It’s true that I tried harder than usual to write something serious… I forgot about fun! I’ll think about adding a bit more humour.

        And thank you so much for your kind, encouraging words :-)

    • I have to re-read Strunk and White’s section comas and lists! Thanks for reminding me to check it out, Scott. And glad I convinced you too :-)

  8. What an interesting life you have had to-date — and just think of the adventures ahead! You definitely have conveyed your thirst for knowledge and learning new things, as well as dedication to sharing that knowledge and those interests with other people. ~ Kat

  9. I love it! Its to the point and easy to devour, yet filled with that quirkiness that really feels like ‘you’ – from what I know of your blog :)
    good luck, I hope you get in!!

  10. Cécile, your essay is impressive; I don’t read it as a list in itself and find that your arguments are well chosen and explained; you have a wonderful background, a great use of the english language and you surely sound convincing.
    only mistake I saw (and it’s just mispelling!) is on third line above 6. (“With its new senior lecturer in journalism and her will to re-engage journalism…”), I don’t think it should be “her” but “its” because you’re talking about the programme.

    Otherwise, really, truly impressive. Go on like that and you’ll have a great application essay!

    • Thank you for your input, Juls. I wrote “her” because I read an interview of the new lecturer and she talked about her will to re-engage journalism with its community. Maybe I should just rewrite the sentence to avoid confusion :-)

  11. Very Impressive! I think lists are a great way of making a point, and I love the way you explain yourself in the paragraphs that follow your point. :)
    Really hope you get in.. (I think you will!) All the best! :)

    • The list appeared after I had finished writing the letter actually. I wasn’t sure it was the best approach- my fiancé says lists are lazy writing. Thanks for your support :-)

  12. You surely convinced me!!!! This is a beautifully-written essay with a lot of wit and personality. You have a marvelous background as well. I don’t see how they can NOT accept you into their program! You’re golden.

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