Getting your application to the top of the pile

by Erin Joy Swank

Cartoon caption - Person A: Says here that you're a professional Booger? Person B: Blogger.
Spellcheck may not catch every typo…..

Jeffrey Salzberg originally asked me to contribute this article for his Stage Lighting for Students website (in the Resumes & Interviews section, along with advice from others) last year, after I made some comments about the applications I was receiving to be part of my summer staff. Having just completed another round of reviewing young stage manager submissions, I think it’s time to revisit the subject and include it here.

It’s application time for summer theatre jobs. You’re submitting blindly against dozens of other applicants, so how can you get your resume to stay as the pile gets smaller and smaller? As a freelancer, I’m often right there with you, sending out enough cover letters to make my head spin. This time around, though, I’m on the receiving end, and I’ve got some tips that might bring you closer to the top of a yes pile….certainly mine.

First, you have to get your foot in the door, and if you’re sending in your “stuff,” then that’s via your cover letter.[1] This is how I get to know you, much more than whatever is on your resume. Start it off by helping me out – what job are you applying for, and how you heard about it.

What else goes into the cover letter is a completely personal decision, but that’s it – personal. I want to find out what kind of person you are, what your experience is, and how your past experience has prepared you for this job. Certainly mention if you have done nearly the same thing as the current job for which you’re applying. What if you’re a student or young professional with a wide background, and just starting to focus on one area? If you have scenic painting experience, no matter how great it is, if you can’t find a way to make it relate to the current job (which isn’t scenic painting), I don’t particularly care. But if you can say how you used that experience to be a good team member and get the job done under a short timeframe, and the theatre has a similar short timeframe…now that can help me draw a parallel, even if it’s not in exactly the same field. Find ways to connect your past experience, so that I will want to hire you for the job posted.

Here’s another hint – do some research. Check out the company’s website and/or the person accepting the applications. Find out something about them that isn’t in the job posting, and then mention it – examples include congratulating them on the company’s anniversary season (if it is one), or your mutual experience working in a proscenium house (if it is one). Taking the time to go one step further shows me you have initiative and care. Showing that you and I (or the theatre) have a common connection, whether a co-worker or an aspect of the theatre, will also go a long way. Correct spelling and punctuation is important, too.[2]

If your cover letter has intrigued me enough, I’ll check out your resume.[3] The first judgement I’ll make happens before I even open it. In my opinion, there are two crucial items that let me know if you’ve set it up for your own convenience or mine – the filename and document type. A file named “Resume new” means nothing to me. Put your last name in there somewhere (preferably first), so if I download it, I can find yours again quickly. I’m a fan of a filename something like LastName_JobPosition.pdf, but that’s a personal preference.

Ah, PDF. There’s the next thing I check. You should certainly be editing your resume in a Word document or similar file type, but once it’s ready to send out, save it as a PDF. Word documents change between Mac and PC, let alone computer to computer. It may look perfectly aligned on your screen, but transfers completely different on mine, especially if I’m opening it quickly on my phone. Fonts change, too. These days, “save as PDF” is an option on most word processing applications. If it isn’t, there are several free programs (CutePDF comes to mind) to download that essentially add a printer driver to your computer, which “prints” as a PDF.

As for your resume itself, there are many ways to arrange your information. The important thing is to make it clear and legible. Check that all your columns and tabs are lined up equally. If you use initials (say, for the name of your university), there’s a chance I need an explanation fairly nearby. Spellcheck, and then have someone else proof you. Also, here’s a novel idea to many young theatre students – you can actually tailor your resume to different jobs. Yes, you only have so many credits you can pull from at a young age. I’m likely going to look at the top third the most, so put the ones most directly related to the job at hand there. I have one very long “Full Resume” document on my computer, that I then edit and rearrange depending on the job for which I’m applying. Granted, I have one credit that I’m rather proud to have on my resume – not to mention was my best paying – so it’s almost always at the very top of my resume. After that, I edit the rest every time…and save it as a new PDF.

There will be so many extenuating circumstances that affect your hiring that you can’t control[4], but following these tips might just help you get that much closer to an interview, or me contacting someone that is a mutual friend of yours to find out more about you. Hint, that person may not be who you’ve listed as an official reference, if I have a connection to someone else at a theatre you’ve listed.

Edits/Comments for 2018:

[1] Even if the posting only says “submit resume,” do add a cover letter. I thought this was a given, but adjusted this year’s job posting part way through.

[2] I have to say typos are a big one for me…and yes, I, too, am guilty of messing this up on my own submissions. Makes me cringe when I realize it after hitting send!

[3] There are others who look at resume first, then cover letter. We all hire differently and look at different things. These are merely my opinions.

[4] The biggest factor in many hiring decisions is whether an applicant already has a connection to the person hiring or other artists involved. Theatre people like to hire those they already know work well together, or have a good reputation from mutual friends. More than once, I’ve been one of the top two applicants for a position, but it went to “someone the director already knew.” I’ve also won jobs for the same reason. Work those connections for your entire career…and remember it’s an incredibly small world.

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