In Hollywood, the term “entry-level job” generally refers to an assistant position. Hollywood assistants do mostly secretarial work – answering phones, managing calendars, and booking travel – with the added excitement of trying to magically predict every need their (often very demanding) bosses can dream up. It’s not a glamorous position, but it’s the first stepping stone to a career in Hollywood.
The entertainment industry has a strong “pay your dues” type of culture, where you’re expected to complete menial tasks for minimal pay in order to prove you’re tough enough to move up the ladder. But once you’ve put in your time, a promotion is no guarantee. Assistants are required to become experts in administrative duties, but in order to graduate to the elusive “coordinator” title, they have to showcase a different skill set. To make things worse, there are far more available assistant positions than there are openings for more senior roles. Aside from the lucky few who get promoted within their companies, assistants generally have to revamp their resumes entirely to convince a new employer they’ve got what it takes. These three tips will help take that resume to the next level.
1. Ditch the admin stuff
One of the biggest problems assistants face when trying to break out of administrative roles is that often, their primary responsibilities are simple, menial tasks -- the kind of tasks that every assistant can’t wait to let go of after a promotion. These responsibilities are likely to shift dramatically at the coordinator level and beyond, and therefore become less important on a resume. If the job title on your resume says “assistant,” we can safely assume you answered phones and scheduled meetings, but what else can you do? If you want more responsibilities, you need to show you can handle them, so forget about the years you’ve spent faxing and filing. It’s time to move on.
2. Prove yourself by showcasing relevant skills
So you’ve deleted every bullet point that makes you sound like a secretary — now what? Are you worried your resume is going to feel empty? This is where you’ve got to acknowledge what you’re really capable of. You may have spent most of your days filling out expense reports, but hopefully you made an effort to go beyond the call of duty, at least some of the time, and this is what you’ll pull from to fill in those blank spaces. [Some advice: As an assistant, look at what the higher-ups are doing and try to mimic them. Even if it’s on a smaller scale and few people listen to your opinions, you’ll be developing valuable skills that will come in handy later.] When trying to craft your resume, use the job posting as a guide. What exactly are they asking for? Someone with a deep understanding of story structure? Good thing you spent time reading all those scripts you printed and copied! You may even be able to translate some administrative duties into the more advanced skills employers are looking for. For example, if the listing asks for an excellent communicator who can collaborate with multiple departments to guide projects along, reword your “phone answering” bullet point to demonstrate your experience liaising with a variety of individuals and teams. In short, you can prove you’ve got the skills by making sure the resume matches the posting.
3. Own your responsibilities
Even though you know deep down that you have the skills to grow in the industry, you may have lost some of your confidence during the humbling assistant experience. While that’s understandable, don’t let your resume reflect it. In order to snag that more advanced position, you have to own the responsibilities you list. If every bullet point begins with the word “assisted,” you’ve got a problem. While it’s great to show that you can collaborate with a team (and ideally at least one of your bullet points will highlight this skill), you don’t want to make it sound like you need help with every task. Hiring managers want employees who can work independently and manage projects without hand-holding, and if it appears like you’ve never taken ownership of a project in your current position, they may feel you haven’t fully developed the qualities they’re looking for. To make yourself a more compelling candidate, list your responsibilities in a way that shows you’re capable of doing them alone. If you were a member of an event planning team, you can write “planned and executed events” on your resume. Just because other people were doing the job with you doesn’t mean that you didn’t contribute in a big way (but make sure you never take credit for something you didn’t work on at all). If you’re confident that you can lead a project, it’s okay to list it that way on your resume. You’re not lying by leaving out the others who were involved — remember, this job application is about YOU.
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
"Industry Spotlight" is our monthly series where we interview professionals from across the entertainment industry about their current jobs and career trajectories. Our hope is that you will learn more about the positions you're already interested in, discover new roles you may not have considered, and utilize the wisdom of those who've paved the way before you to forge your own path for success.
This month, we sat down with an agent in the unscripted talent department of a major talent agency.
HOLLYWOOD RESUMES: In one sentence, how would you define your job?
AGENT: The job of an unscripted talent agent is to source and negotiate career opportunities for clients behind and in front of cameras.
HR: What is your day-to-day like?
AGENT: Managing hundreds of emails and calls between meetings and meals around town.
HR: What do you like most about your job?
AGENT: The ability to add value to a person or project.
HR: How did you get your current job?
AGENT: I worked my way up in the company assisting the head of the department directly and then everyone as department coordinator, where I shared outside information leading to deals that eventually brought in enough money to pay for my position.
HR: What was your first job in Hollywood?
AGENT: Assistant to a younger agent at a boutique talent agency.
HR: What are the skills someone would need to succeed in your position?
AGENT: Elegant aggression and attention to detail.
HR: If you don't like ____________, you won't like my job.
HR: What’s something you do in your job that an outsider wouldn’t expect (and maybe you didn’t expect before you took the job!)?
AGENT: Even though work often follows you home and on vacations, generally you can be your own boss to choose your business and control your schedule.
HR: What’s a mistake you made early on in your career?
AGENT: Working in a previous industry right after college, I burned personal bridges when I felt I was wronged in business. But I later learned to take the high road, as careers can be long and you may need that person later.
HR: If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break in/move up in the industry, what would it be?
AGENT: Find the right balance between keeping your head down and doing the work to pay your dues with self-promotion and knowing when your value is more than your current position.
Your resume is supposed to tell the story of your professional life, showing hiring managers how what you've done in the past will help their company in the future. But many job applicants -- even in Hollywood, where crafting stories is the job -- forget one of the basic rules of storytelling: setting the scene. In a resume, that means giving the reader context for each of your positions to show the scope and nature of your role.
First, you'll need to show where you've worked and when you worked there in a clean and simple way. Like a script slug line, section titles will orient the reader. Make sure the company names in your resume are in bold and that you have a clear timeline to go along with them. And in most cases, your title will go below the company name (sometimes there are exceptions for freelancers). Why? Well, "Assistant to CEO" can mean a few different things -- maybe you supported the head of a studio, or maybe you assisted the head of a health insurance company, and one makes you a lot more qualified for a coordinator role in the entertainment industry than the other. A company name and job title can tell the reader a lot with just a quick glance, so this context is essential if you want a hiring manager to read the rest of the resume. And if your companies and titles don't give enough context, you can always add a professional summary or core skills section to the top of your resume to help tie your resume together.
This formatting seems obvious, but that's just the first step to providing context -- most job applicants stop setting the scene after that initial framing. But that's where the story falls apart! If you want your resume to be great, you need to make sure the hiring manager has enough information to understand how your skills actually played out within your work environment.
We like to use the first bullet point under each company listing in the experience section to give context to the hiring manager. This bullet should be the broadest and reflect your main job function -- sort of an overview of your job. And it will often require some sort of description of the company. For example, if you worked at a small company that no one has ever heard of, you'll want to explain. You might say you worked at a “boutique literary management firm.” With just those four words, the hiring manager can imagine you in a small office with a few co-workers, which means you’ve likely had a job where you wore a ton of hats, had close access to high-level executives, and maybe even had responsibilities beyond the scope of your job title. Additionally, you could also give more information about the type of work the company does, i.e. you worked at an “independent film production company specializing in low-budget horror movies.” Now the reader knows you have expertise in a specific area. This can come in especially handy if you’re applying for jobs in the same space. But even if you’re transitioning into another type of role, you’re still helping the hiring manager picture your work history.
If you worked at a larger company, you’ll want to find other ways to give context. A development executive at HBO doesn’t need to say that they develop content for a premium cable network. Everyone knows what HBO is, so you don’t want to waste valuable space explaining. Instead, give more information about the scope of your job, i.e. “Managed a development slate of 30+ scripted dramas.” Volume can be helpful in your explanation (number of projects, budget ranges, size of events, etc). So can illustrating the type of work you did, whether it's the kind of content (scripted dramas), the type of clients (A-list talent; brands across verticals), or the style of a show (top-rated docuseries). If you work at a well-known company in a lesser-known department you may want to give a little more information about the function of the department before, or in addition to, describing your job.
After your first bullet point, you can break down some of the more important responsibilities and achievements. Even then, you should differentiate between what you were assigned to do and what you actually accomplished -- "managed editors" is fine to say, but "managed a team of 5 editors to deliver episode cuts" is lot better! You could even go one step further, "managed a team of 5 editors to deliver episode cuts for 13-episode season of top-rated reality competition series." The last version explains both responsibilities and results, which will be the most effective way to help an outsider understand your role.
As you can see, there are many ways to give context to hiring managers, and the best resumes don't skip over any of them. Hiring managers have a ton of resumes to review and they don't have time to do guesswork. Connect the dots for them and remove the guesswork, and you'll have a much stronger resume!
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
Today’s Hollywood job market is tricky. Many people are struggling to find work – even extremely experienced and qualified candidates can stay on job hunt for months. It’s easy to get discouraged when this happens and start questioning your capabilities and worth. Maybe you’ve started applying for jobs that are below your current title. Or you’re starting to consider a job that would require a pay cut. If this sounds like you, it’s probably time to take an assessment of your job application process and then spend a bit of time doing some personal reflection.
If you’re having trouble finding a job, take a closer look at your job application materials and make sure you're presenting yourself in the best possible light. Are you afraid that putting down the full scope of your responsibilities or highlighting the scale of your achievements will sound like bragging? Trust us, it won’t. Plus, there are plenty of people who don’t think twice about bragging -- you don't want to undersell yourself comparatively. Give yourself credit for all the great work you’ve done and make sure it’s not getting buried with a bunch of irrelevant stuff -- you don't need to include every single thing you've ever done, but rather the most transferable skills for the jobs you're pursuing.
Even more importantly, don’t dumb your resume down for lower-level jobs! If you’re taking off achievements to make yourself look more appealing for jobs below your pay grade, you’re applying for the wrong jobs. You wouldn’t be happy in those jobs even if you got them. Instead, aim high. Apply for jobs at your level and above your level – you never know when someone will take a chance on you. But you’ll never have that chance if you don’t reach for the stars.
And if you’re considering a pay cut, think really hard about what effect this will have on your lifestyle. We believe there are very few instances when a pay cut makes sense. Are you considering it because you’re frustrated, or is this actually a job you’re extremely passionate about? Chances are, if it’s the right fit, the employer will try to match your current salary. Ask for what you believe you’re worth. And don’t let that number in your head drop because you’ve been looking for a job for a long time.
Even if you’re doing everything right, it might not be that easy to find a job. But that’s a reflection of today’s job market – it has nothing to do with the value you bring to the table. Remember this. Think back on all you’ve accomplished in your career, and remind yourself regularly of the things you’re proud of. Write them down if you need to. Self-affirmation is important during a difficult job search, especially because it will convince you to keep trying for the jobs you really want. And you deserve that job – don’t forget it!
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan