How to get a job with an English degree.
It was the summer of 1984 and I had just graduated with an English degree from the University of Virginia. Shakespeare, newspaper and magazine writing, modern American literature: I lived and breathed it all. “But what will you do now?” my parents and others asked.
My friends from the McIntire School of Commerce were off to big accounting firms or Wall Street. My roommates with math majors had joined training programs with banks and actuarial firms. My political science pals flitted off to impressive jobs on Capitol Hill or at the White House. Some were going to law school or medical school or getting teaching certificates. Gulp.
Between boring temp jobs with government contractors throughout Northern Virginia, I dutifully went through the Washington Post classifieds, looking for something, anything related to my ability to write a five-page paper in one night flat and get an A.
Then I spied it: “Proofreader for International Publishing Company.” I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a proofreader. Besides, everyone knew the real publishing houses were in New York City. Maybe this tedious-sounding position could be a stopgap on my way to, well, getting my parents off my back.
I pulled out my trusty IBM Selectric II typewriter, the one that had seen me through countless term papers, articles and literary analyses, and tapped out a resume. I filled it with rich, relevant work experience like “Waitress, Family Fish House,” “Typed other people’s papers for $1 a page” and “Sorority Rush Chairman, made quota thanks to delicious hot cinnamon tea.”
But how else could I get their attention? With a fabulous cover letter, of course. Just naïve enough not to be intimidated, I wrote:
To Whom It May Concern:
I love to read. I love to write. I hate mistakes.
I respectfully submit my resume for the position of proofreader.
I popped it in the mail and went back to watching re-runs of Leave It To Beaver.
Two weeks later, an envelope arrived inviting me to interview for the proofreader position. The international publishing house? None other than the National Geographic Society. They had purposely run a blind ad, to avoid being inundated by unqualified people swept up by the prestige of the magazine. The bow-tied human resources guy told me that he hadn’t received a letter like mine in twenty years, which got me the interview, which got me the job.
I felt lucky every single day for two years to work for that legendary institution, ushering magazines and books through various stages of production, passing famous writers in the halls who were just home from sitting in a tree for six months, and standing in the cafeteria line next to sun-weathered photographers sporting safari jackets with million of pockets to hold their film and lenses and tripods. In 1985, we were the first to see the famous cover of the young Afghan girl with mesmerizing green eyes. In 1986, we stood before the huge theater screen at headquarters and watched the Challenger explode.
Slowly but surely and then forever, my seemingly unmarketable English degree took on a sparkly halo effect. I went from National Geographic to a small PR agency to my first advertising copywriter job. I got to write and write and write — and strategize, pitch, produce, win awards, lose accounts, work for great people but always work for myself and what I loved. My English major connected my passion for language to a career that became a new passion. And maybe, just maybe, it helped me write a cover letter that put me on the “yes” pile.