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.
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
… 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!