ost of you are familiar with About.com, the website that covers just about every conceivable topic by expert guides who are passionate about their subjects. Some of you may wonder just what it takes to become an About.com guide, especially if you’ve applied for their Prep program in the past and been rejected. As a Prep survivor, I’ll detail what the Prep process is like and why, although I didn’t get the guide job, I’d go through the unpaid 17-day trial again.
About.com has an excellent reputation as an online resource. They maintain this reputation by only hiring guides who represent the high standards the company is known for. This is part of the reason Prep is such an intense, sometimes strenuous process. The people in charge of hiring are looking for the best of the best. They want guides who know their topics inside and out and who can discuss the topic at length without ever tiring of it.
Many guides have parlayed their About.com status into book deals and interviews, so don’t underestimate the power of this online site. People in the publishing industry know that if they contact an About.com guide, this person knows the subject intimately enough to be considered an authoritative expert.
“Only apply if you love a subject so much that your family and friends are sick and tired of hearing you talk about it.”
Before applying for a guide position, one thing you have to have in abundance for your area of interest is passion. Not like, not like very much, but a real, abiding passion.
For instance, I like Star Trek; I would even say I love Star Trek, the original series that ran for three seasons in the late 1960s. I love the show enough to know what the “T” in James T. Kirk stands for (Tiberius). However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have a real passion for it. A true, passionate fan of Star Trek would know all about all of the Star Trek franchises, from the original series to The Next Generation to Deep Space Nine. This fan would also be intimately familiar with all of the Star Trek motion pictures, have an in-depth knowledge of major and minor characters, attend Star Trek conventions (preferably in costume), have memorabilia from the show and movies, read Star Trek fan fiction, and perhaps know how to speak conversational Klingon. Since my love for the show doesn’t extend past Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, I don’t have the necessary passion to cover this topic with any real authority and I wouldn’t be a good guide for this topic for that reason.
Only apply if you love a subject so much that your family and friends are sick and tired of hearing you talk about it.
If you’ve passed stage one of the process and are accepted into Prep, give yourself a pat on the back. Congratulations! You’ve already proven quite a bit about yourself because About.com undoubtedly receives a large number of applicants and you’ve beaten out countless others to gain a spot in the program. Most likely, you’ll compete against several other candidates, which they outline in their “Prep Process.”
One thing that shouldn’t worry you is your competition; there are GIs (guides-in-training) who drop out for various reasons or who don’t meet the minimum requirements at review time. All you need to concern yourself with is creating the best content you can and not worry about your unseen competition.
Soon after receiving your congratulatory message for entering Prep, you’ll receive a lot more information about what to expect during the program. A lot. When they advise you to take a couple of days to read through the documentation thoroughly, this is good advice. At the same time, begin taking notes and gathering ideas. It’s also helpful to begin outlining articles or begin writing. Be aware that you’ll have to fit your writing into About.com’s templates, so don’t worry about formatting because you’ll have to fit your work into their tools; this will involve switching your words around in some instances.
The documentation details every aspect of the program. Start at the beginning and work your way through it, jotting down notes for the more important tips. GIs who are in Prep for health related topics will have additional expectations that non-health field GIs won’t. Likewise, some topics are more image heavy, such as those concerning fashion, while others rarely use images. If using images doesn’t really apply to you, then don’t bog yourself down in that information. Still, skim the basics of it so that you know whether or not you need to know it.
“You start with a blank slate; you’re expected to fill it with as much quality content as you can possibly fit in during those 17 days.”
Prep begins on a Friday. You’ll receive log-in information to the pages you’ll create as well as a contact e-mail address for your mentor. If you have any questions that you can’t easily find in your documents, don’t hesitate to ask your mentor. That’s what they’re there for. Don’t expect someone to hold your hand through the entire process, however. About.com makes it clear that Prep is a self-directed program; they want to know that you can understand how to use their tools effectively. Otherwise, if you seem to have a harder than average time grasping the concepts, Prep may be ended for you.
What you accomplish in Prep is creating an entire site based on your topic of expertise. You start with a blank slate; you’re expected to fill it with as much quality content as you can possibly fit in during those 17 days. While your introductory e-mail will provide you with a site description as well as things About.com wants to see in Prep, you’re responsible for the entire creation.
One of your first tasks will be to come up with a list of 10-15 categories. The categories need to follow a logical format, mainly because About.com tries to educate beginners who are looking for information on a subject. For example, if you’re the Knitting Guide, it’s smart practice to start with simple, basic information like how to knit, easy knitting stitches, beginning projects, etc., before progressing in the categories to more complex techniques. Your mentor wants to see that you understand how to competently guide a person who doesn’t know much about your topic to being able to comprehend it from a simple to a more advanced level.
Part of category creation is supplying each category and subcategory with keywords. If you’re not familiar with web-based writing, you need to know that search engines like Google and Yahoo find articles and pages based on keywords. Because About.com is interested in such concepts as ranking and how popular their pages are (because the more views they get, the more guides get paid), you’ll need to understand how to use effective keywords and keyword phrases. If this is new to you, there’s information about this in the Prep documents.
Once you create a list of categories, you submit this to your mentor for approval. He or she may or may not make changes. Once this passes muster, you create your first piece of content and blog post. Again, these have to be approved before you actually begin posting to your site. Once that happens, you have total control over how your site develops.
“Following the instructions in your feedback is crucial; this is part of a “works well with others” attitude that’s important to About.com.”
First review may seem to come before you know it, but as long as you have the minimum requirements in place, you should be fine to continue the process. If you don’t meet the minimum requirements without a very good reason and contact your mentor beforehand, it will be assumed you’ve dropped out of Prep. Minimum requirements include: Having META information on your home page, at least five top level categories, at least one piece of original content and one blog post linking to your content. Keep in mind, these are the bare minimum requirements. If you can do more than this, consider that a positive and something that will work in your favor.
Minimum requirements for second review include: a complete category structure, with content or links to content in each category; three essentials that link to your content; a completed bio page and three blog posts. Again, these are minimum requirements. Your mentor will also look to see if you have a grasp of the tools or if you’re continuing to have problems.
While having some HTML knowledge is helpful, About.com outlines exactly how to format your content so that even a newbie to computer language shouldn’t have an undue amount of trouble understanding this.
After your first and second reviews, your mentor will e-mail feedback. Following the instructions in your feedback is crucial; this is part of a “works well with others” attitude that’s important to About.com. If you’re perceived as difficult because you don’t want to make the suggested changes, this can affect your success in Prep. Make sure you attend to every point that’s highlighted for you and follow up accordingly.
About.com has a variety of content tools and they encourage you to use as many of them as you possibly can. While you might be used to simply writing an article and sending it as a page or pages of content, in Prep, you’ll be expected to put your content in formats such as how-to’s, lists, step-by-step instructions, photo galleries, tutorials, reviews, profiles, etc. Become familiar with the different formats, but also remember that you need not use every single one. A how-to piece is more important for a guide who’s covering a topic like personal organization (how to arrange a junk drawer, how to create more storage space), but may not be as useful to the guide who covers car trends.
Whenever you create content and upload it to a document tool, you’ll have to input the appropriate keywords and keyword phrases, as well as META titles and descriptions. This can feel tedious, but once you get the hang of it, you can often use the same keyword information for several documents, as long as they’re closely related.
With the increasing importance of blogs, each guide will write a number of blog posts per week. This is where your personality should really shine through. Show why you’re the most passionate and knowledgeable person for the job with your blog posts. Because blogs are an interactive medium, encouraging dialogue between the author and the reader, you can display a more familiar and personable voice here. Readers like to feel they know their guides a little, so this is the area to show them you’re human and approachable.
“Don’t lose out on the job over something as simple as spelling.”
About.com is a publish-first site; this means that guides don’t have editors poring over their content before it goes live. This is why About.com expects typo-free content from you. If they have to choose between two stellar GIs, with everything else being equal, they’ll choose the GI with no typos over someone who doesn’t proofread her work to perfection. Don’t lose out on the job over something as simple as spelling. This means check and double-check every single piece of content before you post it and afterward as well.
As you near final review, you’ll have one last weekend to tweak your site to perfection because Prep ends on a Monday. What do you need to make sure you’ve accomplished before your final review?
- Site description – You will receive a site description with specific points your mentor wants to see covered. Make sure you’ve addressed each of these, as well as all points under “things we want to see in Prep.” Even if you’ve covered all these bases, this is still a minimum of what you should create.
- More content – About.com will not tell you exactly how many pieces of content you should have, but the more you have, the better your chances are of landing the job. Your mentor will check to see that you’ve added more content between each review period.
- Minimum requirements – You need to be sure you’ve met all the minimum requirements and then some. You’ll need original content or links to content (preferably links to About.com sites) in each category, blog posts and the aforementioned essentials, but the site needs to look as if it’s ready to go live. It should be complete.
Once Prep ends, you can finally take a breather. You’ve survived the 17-day course and now all you have to do is wait. While some guides receive the good news that they got the job within a day, others have to wait longer. Typically, they advise that you’ll know one way or the other in about a week, but if it’s longer, feel free to contact your mentor. Holidays tend to knock timing off schedule, so if you’re in Prep around a busy time of year, don’t fret if you’re waiting a week or longer to find out.
If you don’t pass, or graduate Prep, don’t get too down about it. Several guides confess that they went through Prep more than once and each successive experience was easier. There’s no compensation for going through it, so understand that going in. However, there is a bonus for the person who does graduate. There have been instances where no one graduates a Prep class and the topic stays open for more candidates.
So why would anyone want to go through Prep without the guarantee of a job and more importantly, no compensation? For the simple fact that if you do graduate, you’ve earned a spot with a prestigious company where you can set your own hours writing about a topic you love.
As of January 2007, all guides in the first two years at About.com will make no less than $725.00 per month. While some guides treat this as a full-time position, you can still earn a decent salary on what’s considered part-time hours. About.com even stresses that some guides earn a six-figure salary. Of course, all of that depends on your topic and how popular it is because more page views translate into bigger paychecks for you.
Prep can be as good or as bad of an experience as you make it, but hopefully, you now have a wealth of information to help you make it through the process. With some hard work and a little luck, you may be able to land a great job with a reputable company, injecting your passion and personality into every word you write.
TIP: Think you’re ready to take the Prep Steps? Visit about.com’s “Be a Guide” Page (http://beaguide.about.com/) and find out what topics are available.
DEL SANDEEN is a freelance writer based in Northeast Florida. She writes on a variety of topics, including parenting, health, beauty, fitness, fashion, and knitting. Her work has appeared in the parenting anthology The Kid Turned Out Fine (Adams Media 2006). She also writes fiction and her short story "unlocking mother" was featured in Her Circle (Winter 2007). The first chapter of her debut novel is currently being considered by a literary agent. When she's not writing or reading, she's spending time with her husband, three children, and assorted pets.
Del’s article, How To Get a Literary Agent, was featured in WOW! Women On Writing’s November issue.
You can read more about her at her website: http://www.delsandeen.com