Saving threatened habitats worldwide

How not to apply for a conservation job: Mistakes that won't get you an interview

7 July, 2009 - 12:26 -- John Burton

Last week I went through some of the applications for the post of Conservation and Communications Manager that we recently advertised for. It is truly depressing to see the incredibly low standard of the overwhelming majority of the applications. It would be a good idea if universities spent a bit more time training their graduates in how to write a CV and how to apply for a job.

The most common complaint I have is that the majority of applicants were simply sending off a standard CV, with no thought to the job they were applying for. Under "interests" there were lots of "reading", "walking", "music", and hardly any showing the slightest interest in wildlife. Consequently, since wildlife conservation is what the WLT is all about, those who did express an interest immediately shone through. Illiteracy in the form of spelling mistakes, the grocer's apostrophe, bad layout of letters, inappropriate addressing were all common -- which for a job of Communications Manager means certain rejection.

But, the most important factor to me was that very few applicants had taken the trouble to tailor their CV to the job they were applying for. It is not enough to write a long covering letter explaining why you are ideal for the job. The first thing the employer is likely to do is to scan down the CV and check that all the right boxes are ticked -- qualifications, experience, previous jobs -- in fact everything asked for in the advert. Only then does the covering letter get read. I may be an oddity, but I believe that a person's interests tell me almost as much about them as a potential employee, as the rest of the CV. Yet it is often the section which is give little or no attention. But think of it from an employers point of view -- there are dozens of CVs to examine, and once it is whittled down to 10 or 20, a decision has to be made, often between a group of applicants all of which have the required qualifications, and most of which have good experience etc. Anything you can add that makes you stand out, such as relevant interests, will help.

To assist future applicants, we have put together some hints and tips that we hope you will find helpful: Careers in conservation: How to apply for a conservation job. These tips are useful not just for applicants for positions with the WLT of course, but for anyone applying for a job within the conservation sector.

What do you think? Have we missed something out? Add your own tips as comments below.


Submitted by Helena Akerlund on

I just thought I'd add that we have had nearly 100 applications for the Conservation and Communications Manager post, which gives an idea of the competition applicants are facing!

Submitted by Kelly (WLT) on

As Education Officer at WLT I deal with queries and applications for the Internship Programme. I add my comments to this blog, based on my experience of receiving applications at WLT, in the hope that potential future applicants will learn from some common mistakes.

I cannot count the times I have had applications addressed to Dear Sirs, or Dear Sir or Madam, or even To whom it may concern – this is common in applications for both internships and jobs. (I have to admit this is one of my personal bug-bears. In my opinion if you can't even be bothered to find out who you should address the application to, you can't want the job very much! – WLT always gives a name in vacancy ads and incredibly most of these applications were sent to my WLT email account, so the applicants clearly couldn't be bothered to find out what 'kjacobs' stood for!)

I know that there are career advice centres in every university, and most large towns. The internet is overflowing with helpful advice for job seekers on tailoring CVs and Covering Letters. There is no excuse for submitting a poor application these days.

I take my role, training future conservationists, quite seriously, and I know that one of the reasons I get so frustrated with sub-standard applications is that I care so much -honest! I want to write back to each applicant and explain that if they spent longer than 10 minutes on their application they would notice some serious flaws.

There have been some classic comedy moments (at the expense of applicants I'm afraid!); I once had a covering letter from someone who explained that he genuinely wanted to change his career and focus on the conservation sector. The trouble was instead of writing career he wrote carer, every time! I received a covering letter that was over 2,000 words long, and had been written in size 9 font – it wasn't easy to read! I once had an application from someone that hadn't remembered to change the title of the email from the last job he had applied for. I have had covering letters with no address, dates, and one even forgot to finish the letter – I was left hanging, wondering what he had meant to say next!

I really hope the hints and tips that we have put together will help you. If you are wondering why you are not getting interviews, yet you are sure you have all the relevant experience, one of the reasons could be that your applications aren't representing you to the best of your ability or to a competitive standard. It is extremely competitive out there right now: why don't you raise the bar?

Submitted by Helena Akerlund on

Re. 'carer' vs. 'career' – those sorts of mistakes really emphasise why proof reading is so important. Both are perfectly valid words, so wouldn't be picked up by a spell checker. (I once wrote 'busty' when I meant 'busy'. That was rather embarrassing…)

Dear John Burton, Helena Akerlund, and Kelly Jacobs,

Thank you for your posts and helpful advice.

John - The points that you made about "interests" was very helpful. I was unsure as to whether or not I should even include that section in my CV, but now I realize it is very important and will take the time to include my conservation interests as well as my other interests. I normally spend at least one full day on each application and countless hours researching how to obtain conservation positions. Overlooked spelling mistakes are one of my terrors, but sometimes they still slip through. I don't blame you for rejecting people who make them though as it seems that businesses are overwhelmed with qualified applicants these days.

Kelly - You made some very good points. After all the hard work that I put in to my applications, I really wish that potential employers would send me a response letting me know why I was rejected. I am sure with the volume of applicants that you receive this would be impossible. On the flip side, every person you do enlighten is one person that will hopefully annoy you less for the next position.

Helena - Thank you for your feedback on applicant volume, a subject of constant concern to me. It is a shame that job boards do not post the number and/or qualifications of applicants that have applied. It would help me gauge where it is worth my time (and yours) to apply for a given position.

Providing a sample of a CV that you think is very well put together would be very helpful. Career centers can only help so much, even if they are top notch.

I am a passionate conservationist who has been seeking employment and volunteering for over a year on the island of Bermuda. Recently, I have broadened my search to include the US, as I am citizen there. I seek the opportunity to contribute to a conservation organization that focuses on the big picture of helping society and the environment while supporting economic stability.

I have two questions:

How can the HR department know if you are qualified for a position with high the field of conservation if they are not also conservation experts?

How do you feel about "T style" covering letters?

Thank you,


Submitted by John Burton on

I cannot speak for other organisations, but as far as we are concerned, it is not the job of the HR department (in our case only one part of a job) to make decisions on conservation. The applications are simply screened to see if they have the basic qualifications as specified in the advert. Applicants are then screened by the senior member of staff in the department concerned. But it is also important to remember that in most conservation organisations, only a minority of staff will be full-time, professional conservationists. Editors, web designers, fundraisers, marketers, accountants, receptionists etc. etc. etc, make up the bulk of the staff of most organisations. These qualifications/skills PLUS an interest, enthusiasm and knowledge of conservation will often make a person much more employable, than a PhD in conservation ecology, as a glance at the 'Jobs' section on our website will demonstrate.

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