Camille Schenkkan is a theatre management professional and educator, passionate about career development for artists & arts managers.

Posts tagged ‘application’

Four Common Arts Management Application Errors (And How to Avoid Them)

Every year, I look at arcami5ound 350 applications to the CTG Internship Program. I’m also currently hiring for a full-time arts education position; the last time I hired for a similar position, I received about 300 applications.

I wish people knew how many of these applications immediately land in the “no” pile. I’ve blogged about job applications before, but wanted to re-visit the topic during this particular search as I’m seeing so many applications with the same issues.

Before I start listing these errors, note that like most hiring managers or supervisors, I want to like you. I’m looking for a great associate who will stay with me for a long period of time, fit in well with the rest of our department and organization, and who will genuinely enjoy this job.

Your goal as an applicant should be to use your materials to give me enough information to decide whether you’re a good fit for this job.

Here are four common job and internship application errors that I see all the time:

You didn’t follow the application instructions. I specifically ask for resumes and cover letters to be submitted as PDF documents, and applicants need to submit via HR instead of sending directly to me.

Why this is an issue: There are practical reasons why I want the documents in this format, but it’s also a test of applicants’ reading comprehension and ability to follow instructions. This job (like most jobs) requires someone who can work on multiple projects simultaneously, take great notes in meetings and follow up on them, and is adept at written and verbal communication. If you can’t follow a specific instruction in a job posting, will you be able to read and respond quickly to an email from a teenager who “isn’t sure what time the workshop is lol and also can my mom get parking, okay cool see you later today also miss can I bring my little brother thank you?” This is also why I don’t consider applications with obvious typos, or poorly-formatted materials. I need to trust my Associate to communicate with a broad range of constituents without needing an editor. We’re also a large nonprofit with a lot of systems and protocols, so submitting through HR instead of finding my email and sending materials to me directly shows a willingness to read and follow directions that’s necessary for this position.

You only have music or visual arts education experience, and you don’t tell me why you’re interested in theatre—OR you have as much experience as I do and the same level of education.

Why this is an issue: Hiring blows. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and there’s a lot of pressure to make a great hire. I’m looking for someone who tells me why this job and why this organization so I can try to figure out if you’d be happy here. If you’re coming from a different sector or I get the sense that you might be bored in an entry-level job, I worry you’re only going to stay with me for six months or a year and then I’ll be back at square one. When you’re making a career shift or applying to something that’s a little outside of your comfort zone, you need to tell the hiring manager why you’re making that decision. I’d absolutely consider someone whose experience isn’t totally in line with the focus of the job OR who seems overqualified on paper, but that person would need to tell me why s/he is genuinely interested and what would be gained from this position.

I can’t tell that you researched what we actually do. The job description mentions a suite of programs that the Associate would be working on. You can easily find information about these programs on our website. Many cover letters don’t make any mention of the programs, and barely acknowledge the specifics of the position.

Why this is an issue: All theatre education jobs are not alike. We’re hiring for another position in our department, and the two jobs are very different—one is focused on operations and assisting senior staff, and one on program management, outreach and logistics. Several applicants used nearly identical materials to apply for both (also: don’t think we won’t realize this). When you’re applying for any position, recognize that you need to draw a clear line between your interests and experiences and the requirements of the job. Specificity is key because it shows me that 1. You cared enough to look up what you’d actually be working on, and 2. You can connect your skills/interest/experience to this job. Each of the programs mentioned in this job description has a webpage, articles written about it, and YouTube videos available. It’s not like the information is buried somewhere. The job involves working with teens on a leadership program—why does that appeal to you? How about the college and university internship program—how does your experience lend itself to helping out with that? How about the free workshop series? I don’t need a paragraph about why every program appeals to you, but you need to give me some idea that you know what you’re getting yourself into.

There’s an elephant in the room. There’s an aspect of the job description—outreach, administration, event logistics, etc.—that you clearly have no experience in, and there’s nothing in your materials to address this.

Why this is an issue: I have a rubric where I rate applicants on all of the major aspects of the job. Someone else is going to have experience that hits all of those points. It would be simplest for me to interview only the people who can check all of those boxes. If you don’t have 100% of the skills required in the job description, convince me why I should bring you in anyway. Before you apply for a job, spend time going through the job description and underlining the major points. Look for words/concepts that recur or seem to be particularly important—logistics, data management, collaboration, etc. Brainstorm how your experience aligns with those areas, and address that in your cover letter. Adapt your resume to highlight specific elements of past work experience so I can tell that you’re qualified. For areas in which you have no experience, don’t BS it or ignore it. You can say you’re looking forward to learning about ______ and believe you can use your combination of X past experience and Y past experience to do a great job.

All four of these issues can be avoided by slowing down and being particularly thoughtful about each application you submit. It should take you a long time to apply for a job, and your chances of being called in for an interview go way up if you submit materials that show careful research and attention to detail. Do your research, tell your story, draw that clear line between your background and the specifics of the position, and you’ll help the hiring manager understand why you’re the best one for the job.

LeanIn.org Unpaid Interns Controversy: Interns are not Volunteers

Several people have asked for my thoughts on the LeanIn.org unpaid internship controversy.  I love Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a compelling look at ambitious women in the workforce and the factors that have traditionally kept us out of the highest-paid and most senior-level positions.

I also run the internship program at the nonprofit Center Theatre Group, where all of our internships must be taken for credit or are compensated with a stipend.

Here’s what Rachel Thomas, LeanIn.org’s President, had to say via Facebook after a job posting for an ‘unpaid internship’ at the organization started making the rounds:

Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. They worked flexibly when they could, and often remotely.

These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. The posting that prompted this discussion was for a position that doesn’t fall within LeanIn.Org’s definition of a “volunteer.”

This non-apology is so strangely written that it’s hard for me to know where to start.

Here’s the main thing I take from it, and it’s actually pretty disturbing:

LeanIn.org is using ‘intern’ and ‘volunteer’ interchangeably.  Thomas, speaking on behalf of her organization, is confusing two distinct categories.

This comes immediately after this patronizing intro:

“We recognize there is an ongoing public debate on the appropriate use of unpaid interns. So we want to share the facts with you and our community.” 

This word, “fact?”  And “intern?”  And “volunteer?”

You keep using these words.

I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

Ms. Thomas, nonprofit volunteers do not need to “gain valuable experience,” and they can and often do “displace or delay hiring of employees.”

That language refers to the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA’s) criteria for internships. 

Here are some basic differences between the two categories:

  • Internships are training programs, and the “training must be for the benefit of the trainee,” to quote the FLSA. In fact, “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.”  Read: they are not cheap or free labor.
  • Internship learning experiences must include close observation (mentorship), so working remotely is not a good indication that you have provided a rewarding internship experience.
  • Volunteers, conversely, usually do work that directly benefits the nonprofit.  They do not need to be mentored, do not need to be trained, and can be utilized in lieu of paid, regular employees.

There are many blog posts and web resources that go into the differences between volunteers and interns at length.  For example, this excellent Blue Avocado article spells out additional best practices and quotes relevant parts of the FLSA.

In a nonprofit setting, it can be difficult to ensure internships are crafted to not only fulfill legal requirements, but also to serve the best interests of each intern.

Much of my job running CTG’s internship program involves saying no.  I say no to supervisors who want their interns to work “as much as possible,” and to interns who are so happy to be involved that they try to expand their 10 hour/week stipend position into 20 or 30 hours.

Here’s what I say to them:

The internship is for the benefit of the intern.  It is a learning experience, not free labor.  If your department needs help with basic tasks such as stuffing envelopes, filing, or data entry, I empathize and suggest you think about getting a regular volunteer to help.

Because volunteers are different. Outside of CTG, I am on the staff of an all-volunteer small theatre company, Circle X Theatre Co.  As a volunteer, I can do whatever I want, and whatever is needed, for as many hours a week as I care to give.  I clean bathrooms.  I stuff envelopes.  I do hours of data entry.  It’s my choice as a volunteer, and I’m doing it to help the nonprofit organization, not for a learning or career benefit.  Right now, Circle X has a (paid) summer intern, and she will not be cleaning toilets.  The internship.  Is for the benefit.  Of the intern.

And to the interns: this is bigger than you, so no, I will not make an exception and let you work full-time.  Up until a few years ago, CTG almost exclusively took interns from a large, local private university with very high tuition.  As the program has opened up, we’re starting to see more people from public schools, including the two-year community colleges near our organization.  The reason our positions are designed to be super part-time (10 to 16 hours a week for undergraduates, with the schedule built around the intern’s) is the stipend amounts we have available are quite low ($500 – $700 for ten weeks).  They’re designed to allow a student to also hold a part-time job that pays the bills.

I do not want lack of economic privilege to be a barrier to participation in this workforce development program.  When we raise the stipends for these time-bound educational opportunities to a living wage, we can increase weekly hours.  Programs such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s FAIR pay interns $1,000/month and provide housing.  When CTG is able to do that, we will absolutely create additional opportunities, likely full-time, 10-week summer internships.

I don’t foresee a time when we would extend those opportunities beyond 13 or 14 weeks, though; the point of an internship is to train & release, allowing the intern to ‘lean in’ to the next career opportunity.

The more I think about LeanIn.org’s posting and strange response, the more it seems indicative of the widespread misunderstanding of the role of interns in the nonprofit sector.  We have a pressing need for workforce development, especially career training opportunities accessible to young people of color (research suggests that executive nonprofit leaders AND current students in nonprofit management Masters programs are 80-90% white) and people without economic privilege.

Unpaid internships and the increasing number of low-paying nonprofit management jobs that require Masters degrees can price people out of nonprofit management careers.  Humane, student-focused, and compensated internships introduce emerging professionals to the field and can provide a leg up in the competitive nonprofit landscape.

Lean In talks about the importance of equity– and of recognizing when systems are inherently inequitable.  The best thing for Thomas, Sandberg and the LeanIn.org organization to do would be to use this opportunity to clarify the roles of interns vs. volunteers, apologize, and vow to do better.

Unfortunately, it looks like they’re trying to justify their bias by manipulating language, defending their actions, and refusing to admit fault.

Which sounds a lot like the tactics that keep women out of top-level, high-paying positions.

I’ll end with some quotations from Lean In:

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

“The promise of equality is not the same as true equality.”

“Larry implored us to exert more control over our careers. He said McKinsey would never stop making demands on our time, so it was up to us to decide what we were willing to do. It was our responsibility to draw the line.”

“I feel really grateful to the people who encouraged me and helped me develop. Nobody can succeed on their own.”

Here’s hoping Sandberg will take her advice, and provide equal and accessible opportunities for training and mentorship within her own organization.

What Happens to a Job Application

This is another blog written for arts management job seekers.  It was originally published on ArtJob.

I believe the best way to become a better job applicant is to be in charge of a hiring process. The more applications you read, the better you understand what gets a cover letter noticed and what puts an application straight into the No pile.

This is my seventh consecutive year reading applications for a summer internship through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission’s Arts Internship Program. Last year, my organization, Circle X Theatre Co., received eighty applications for one paid, ten-week internship. This year, we’re on track to exceed last year’s number of applicants.

That’s nothing compared to many full-time, paid jobs. I know of one mid-level management position in a Los Angeles arts service organization that garnered over 300 applications.

I empathize deeply with job-seekers, and was moved to write this blog after seeing a handful of easily fixable issues pop up over and over again in applications.

Below is a step-by-step breakdown of how I review applications and what makes one stand out from the pack. Although I’m using examples from the search for an entry-level employee, I’ve been involved with hiring for managers, professors and consultants, and have approached each process similarly. I hope this is a valuable window into how applications turn into interviews, and I encourage those on both sides of the process to respond in the Comments section.

I spend roughly two minutes looking at each application.
I’m a volunteer staff member with Circle X, so I have to look through this flood of applications in the evenings and weekends. Sometimes I need less than two minutes (usually a bad sign), and sometimes I’ll get intrigued and linger over a cover letter. After I’ve seen enough, I send an email to the applicant acknowledging receipt, and use the Gmail Labels feature to categorize the application as Group 1, Group 2 or No.

I will probably never look at the applications in the No category again, and may never click on Group 2 either. Group 2 is where I put job seekers who don’t stand out as amazing candidates, but who aren’t clearly unqualified or wrong for the position. When I’m ready to schedule interviews, I may go back through Group 2 and pull a couple of applicants from there if my Group 1 doesn’t feel particularly strong.  When there are dozens of applicants, the chances of that happening are slim.

Sometimes, I’ll email a candidate and request additional information. Usually this happens when I can tell someone is highly qualified but I don’t get a good sense of who they are from their cover letter; more on that later.

The process is pretty harsh, and trust me, as someone whose family has dealt with long-term unemployment, it does not feel good to put someone into the No folder after a two-minute glance at their materials.  However, I estimate I’ve seen over 800 applications in all of the hiring processes I’ve been a part of, and keep in mind I’m only 27 years old.  You have to learn to identify competitive, qualified applicants quickly so you don’t waste your or your organization’s time.

As a note, I strongly prefer online applications. Hard-copy materials are more difficult to share with other staff members, and emailed applications are easier to track.
Here’s where my eyes go when I open an emailed job application for the first time.
I prefer a brief, polite note in the body of the email, with the resume and cover letter included as attachments. I don’t mind the cover letter in the body of the email as long as it’s also attached. If it’s not, I’ll have to copy/paste it from the email into a Word document, save it with your name, and tweak the formatting before I give it to other staff members to review or print it before an interview.  It adds an extra step, so you’d better be a pretty darn strong applicant if you do that.

Are there six attachments, even though the job description specifically asked for just a cover letter and a resume? My least favorite extra attachment: A headshot. If you’re not auditioning for a role, do not send a headshot. It makes me think you don’t actually want the job I’m hiring for—you want to act.  In my mind, you should do what you want to do, so I’m obligingly not going to hire you.

Are the attachments named appropriately? When I see something that says “Formal Resume” it makes me suspicious; what does your “Informal Resume” look like?

Also, beware mislabeling, which is more common than you would think. When I see “Resume for [Company other than mine]” as a document label, it makes me mildly annoyed and suggests the applicant isn’t very thorough. My favorite formatting is just Your_Name-Resume and Your_Name-CoverLetter, as either .doc (not .docx) or .pdf attachments. I open them in Google Docs, and other document formats are more likely to give me problems.
Cover Letter
I always open the cover letter first and give it a quick visual scan.

Is it a form cover letter? If yes, the whole application goes directly into the No folder.  If you don’t care, I don’t care.

Did the applicant take the time to format the letter? Is the writing professional in tone, word choice and punctuation choice (no gratuitious exclamation points), without seeming dry or distant?

I skip long paragraphs about the applicant’s theory of The Stage or overly glowing compliments about my organization. Referencing theory is a very risky move in a job application. You don’t know if the person doing the hiring majored in theatre, or music, or film– even if they did, they may not remember the difference between ‘poor theatre’ and ‘theatre of the oppressed.’  I think these applicants are trying to sound mature and knowledgeable, but unfortunately this type of academic name-dropping has the opposite effect. So does overt flattery, especially if you’re only basing compliments on a quick read of the organizational website.

I’ve had applicants say things like, “To quote Avatar, I see you,” and “The stage is the glorious backdrop to the pageant of my life in Art.” Don’t risk making the hiring manager giggle.

I zone in on anything that tells me who the applicant is. Do I want to meet this person and find out more about him/her? Do I feel like this position would utilize his/her experience but would provide new challenges?

Career goals are especially important information. If I’m hiring for an arts management job, someone with stellar academics who wants to be an accountant isn’t as strong a candidate as someone who hasn’t done very well academically but wants to be an artistic director.

But don’t lie. If you tell me in your cover letter that you want to be an artistic director, but when I get to the resume I see a lot of accounting experience and no theatre experience, I feel like you’re trying to pull a fast one on me. Be honest about your career goals.

I want to know why you’re drawn to the organization, why you’re qualified, and enough personal information to help me remember your application. Even a well-written cover letter from a highly qualified applicant goes in Group 2 if I don’t see your humor, your passion, your creativity—the things that make you an asset to an arts organization.
Examples of cover letter information that helps get the applicant an interview:

  • I saw your last production and enjoyed the writing and evocative scenic design. I ended up writing a paper on the playwright, and am happy to see another of her plays on your 2012 season schedule.
  • Your organization’s commitment to arts education and social justice corresponds with my own interests, especially as I see you hosted Bob Jenner, one of my favorite professors, as a visiting artist last year. Bob’s work in Venezuela inspired me to travel to South America last year to participate in a similar workshop with rural youth.

Evidence that you have any connection to the organization is a plus, especially in an arts field. I’m especially drawn to people who can connect their own work history and interests to the organization’s.

  • After spending six months teaching drama in Guam…
  • I took a semester off between junior and senior year to take care of my father…
  • I’m equally committed to my two passions, animal rights and theatre, and have spent time working for nonprofits in both fields…
  • After college, I spent a year doing community service with my church…

This information serves two purposes: It’s fascinating and makes me remember you, and it explains something that otherwise would be confusing on your resume, like a year with no work experience or work history in a different field.

  • I’ve been able to hone my skills in development as a Grants Associate at Education Organization Z, and am looking for the opportunity to grow and apply those skills within an arts setting.

Double whammy: specific job-related experience + why this job builds on and utilizes that experience.

Make sure you address the specific requirements of the job. You can talk all you want about why you’re drawn to the organization, but if you’re applying for a Marketing position, you’d better tell me what draws you to marketing. This is especially important if you don’t have relevant experience in a particular field.

Do not parrot the job description in the cover letter. This year’s internship job description calls for computer-savvy independent workers with a strong interest in development and theatre operations. I estimate that half of all cover letters say something like, “I’m an independent worker, well-versed in computers, and I’m looking forward to learning about development and theatre operations.” How do I distinguish one from the other?

The best cover letters address the specifics of the job description through showing, not telling. Instead of “I’m an independent worker,” which only tells me you’ve read the job description, I respond to sentences like, “In my current position, I manage three to five youth art projects with limited supervision, and enjoy being ultimately responsible for the success of each program in my portfolio.”

The exception would be if the job description calls for a specific skill, such as teaching artist certification or working knowledge of DonorPerfect. A simple sentence acknowledging your competency is appropriate in this case.

Now on to the resume.
I notice immediately if certain information is missing. I need to know what applicants are majoring/majored in, graduation year (that speaks to experience and maturity level), work experience, and any affiliations, special skills or certifications. If any of that information is missing or buried, I’m less likely to spend a lot of time examining the resume.

Things I barely look at: GPA and references. I only notice GPA if it’s very low, and probably would never notice if it were omitted. I can get a sense of aptitude from the writing style, work experience and any honors/awards listed. I like “References Available Upon Request,” so if we get to the interview process I can ask for them but they’re not cluttering the resume.

If you have little or no work experience—even if you’re still in school—there had better be a good reason for it, either in the cover letter or expressed in the resume. That’s just the nature of a competitive job field.

For the Circle X internship, college student applicants that go into Group 1 nearly always have a solid work history. If I don’t see summer employment (or an internship, or a volunteer project), I picture the applicant playing Xbox in Mom’s basement for three months while other applicants were gaining job skills and learning what working 9-to-5 really means.

If you don’t have work history, tell me why. Maybe you took some time to find your path.  That’s fine. Maybe you were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, working on a novel, or caring for your child. Maybe you were struggling with unemployment—that’s all too common. None of these things are marks against you if you acknowledge them and make it clear you’re now at a place in your life when you’re ready for employment. Just don’t cross your fingers and hope a hiring manager won’t notice gaps on your resume… we will.

Use the work experience section to convey specific skills and experiences. Some resumes look like this:
Organization Z, 2009-2010
Marketing Manager

… I have so many questions.

Did you work there from December 2009 to January 2010 or January 2009 to December 2010? Those are VERY different stories about how substantive the experience was, and how committed you appear to be to one organization/business. What did you do? What did you accomplish, in a quantitative sense? I have specific tips on resume blurbs in my previous article on resume & cover letter writing.

A note on job titles: unfortunately, they matter. If you’re contemplating a career change and have told your boss about it, it’s worth asking for a title change if you think it might be beneficial to your job search. Aside from the salary element (Directors make more than Managers, Associates make more than Assistants, etc.), the difference between Publicity Manager (specific) and Marketing Manager (broad, inclusive) could be major if you’re looking at a Development & Marketing position.

Luck is a big part of hiring, so please don’t get discouraged.

This sunk in when I was part of a casting process for a theatre company. Many incredible actors gave fabulous auditions, had excellent resumes, and weren’t cast. Sometimes it was as simple as a height issue: the male lead is usually cast to be taller than the female lead. Just as actors can’t control things like height, sometimes there are factors at work in a hiring process that have nothing to do with your strength as an applicant.

For example, I know I respond to people who grew up in rural areas like I did, and those who attended my alma mater. That’s never a conscious choice, but seeing my college on a resume or reading about another country kid’s experiences can make me spend more time on an application, which might result in a Group 1 categorization instead of Group 2, an interview, and a hire. That’s not fair. It’s not logical. I try to be aware of it, but it happens.

This is just one hiring manager’s process and certainly doesn’t reflect that of the field as a whole. However, I hope the article will help you avoid common mistakes and present yourself in an optimum light as you look for employment.

If you have any questions about what I’ve mentioned in this article, please leave them in the Comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them promptly.

Best of luck, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t nail the perfect job right out of the gate.  It takes time, persistance, and attention to detail.  You never know which application will be the one that gets you hired!