Getting an assistant job is tough -- but proving yourself as an assistant is even tougher. And you’ll definitely need to show your boss and network that you're a great assistant, because that’s the only way you’ll get promoted, recommended for future jobs, and move up the Hollywood career ladder. Being an assistant in Hollywood isn’t just about doing your year on an agency desk and then magically getting your script greenlit. If that were the case, everyone would succeed! Rather, the assistant phase of your Hollywood career is designed to separate those who really get it from those who aren’t fit for the industry. So how do you ensure you fall into the former camp? These three qualities are what it’ll take for you to stand out as an assistant.
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
This months's "Industry Spotlight," features Andrew Roxby, an assistant to an agent at one of Hollywood's top talent agencies. An agency assistant job is one of the best places to start your career in Hollywood -- so if you're curious what one actually does, read on!
HOLLYWOOD RESUMES: What is your job and how would describe it one sentence?
ANDREW: I’m an assistant to a television lit agent at a major Hollywood agency.
HR: What is your day-to-day like?
ANDREW: In general, it consists of answering calls, sending emails, setting meetings for clients, and setting phone calls for my boss. I also do quite a bit of sending out materials to educate various buyers on our clients.
HR: What do you like most about your job?
ANDREW: Getting to read our clients' work and getting to learn about the television industry as a whole -- who its various players are, how the process works, and how the deals are structured.
HR: How did you get your current job?
ANDREW: I interviewed for my current desk after working on a difficult desk in the motion picture lit department. My first job at the agency was in the mailroom, a job I got by meeting as many people as I could through anyone I happened to know who might have a connection to someone who worked at an agency.
HR: What was your first job in Hollywood?
ANDREW: Production Assistant on The Talking Dead.
HR: What are the skills someone would need to succeed in your position?
ANDREW: Ability to "read the room" is key and perhaps paramount. Work ethic, resilience, and the infamous "thick skin" -- meaning the will and ambition to work through anything, even when it means dealing with difficult personalities. Adaptability and the drive to learn and adjust on a daily basis are also key.
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!)?
ANDREW: Quite a bit of drinking alcohol after work in professional meetings with other up-and-coming assistants around town.
HR: What’s a mistake you made early on in your career?
ANDREW: Taking a desk I didn’t want because I was under time pressure. Always insist on time to consider decisions.
HR: Where do you see yourself in X years, and what are you learning in your current position to get you there?
ANDREW: Running a company. I’m learning exactly how and what deals get made in this industry!
HR: If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break in/move up in the industry, what would it be?
ANDREW: Keep going, be polite, genuine, and hardworking. Authenticity open doors.
HR: Thanks, Andrew!
It’s your first day as an assistant, and you walk in ready to show off the amazing skill sets you’ve developed during college and previous internships. But your superior analytical skills, business knowledge, or producing experience isn’t what your boss is looking for at this point. Although you’ll need these skills later on in your career, your current job is to support your boss. And if you can’t do that well, you’ll never get to move up the Hollywood ladder. So let’s take a step back for a moment and discuss the qualities you'll need as an assistant to help you succeed. In Hollywood, the best assistants are...
Resourceful. Are you constantly asking your boss and other team members questions? Is it taking you a long time to get projects done? Do you frequently find yourself telling your boss that “it can’t be done?” If so, you may want to reevaluate your approach. From a boss’s perspective, great assistants are the types of people who can make “magic” happen. These assistants come across as ultra-confident and can always complete a task or find an answer without ever letting their bosses know what steps they took to get there. So before you start asking others how to complete a process or find information, make sure you’ve exhausted all your resources. Take a moment to think things through. Did you check Google first? Do your best to keep your boss blissfully unaware of the majority of the tasks that you complete. Save all this info for your performance review – you’ll surely surprise and impress him.
Available. One of the things that sucks the most about assistant life is being tied to the desk. Especially when you’re in the office, you’re always on call (and in many cases, you’ll be on call 24/7). But this is something you’re just going to have to deal with if you want to move forward in your career. You should make it your goal never to miss a call or be away from the desk when your boss calls your name. And if that means skipping lunch, do it. Remember: It’s only temporary. Everything gets better once you finally get that well-deserved promotion to coordinator, and this will happen a lot faster if you show your boss how dedicated you are by always being there when you’re needed.
Thick-skinned. You’ll see the term “thick-skinned” as a requirement on many job postings, and there’s a reason for this: As an assistant, you’ve got to be able to handle working in a high-pressure environment without having a mental breakdown. Yes, you are going to make mistakes in your career, and yes, your boss will probably yell at you. Even the “nice” ones have their own ways of expressing disappointment. But there’s no reason to cry. Just pick up and learn from each mistake – it will make you better at your job in the long run.
Organized. You’ll never survive an assistant position without impeccable organizational skills. At least 80% of your job will involve some combination of scheduling, booking travel, maintaining a phone sheet, compiling reports and lists, filing documents, and tracking projects. So figure out some type of organizational system that works for you, and do it fast. Everyone has a different strategy — some people love post-its; others swear by Outlook reminders — there’s no wrong way to go about it . . . as long as it works. Never let anything slip through the cracks.
Aware. As an assistant, you are pretty much the go-to person for the whole department. All internal and external questions will be directed to you, and it’s best if you’re able to answer them without asking your boss or other team members (this also goes along with the idea of being resourceful). Scheduling meetings and listening in on your boss’s calls gives you a huge advantage here – make sure you read all the scheduling emails to know what each meeting is about and take detailed notes on every call. You should also familiarize yourself with your team’s projects – read scripts, watch cuts, whatever it takes. You’ll make yourself invaluable if you can become your department’s primary knowledge base. And don’t be afraid to share your knowledge! If you hear something on a call that you think your other team members might find useful, you should let them know. It will only encourage them to keep coming back to you for information.
If you can remember to put your boss’s needs before your own, a lot of this will come naturally. Or you may develop these qualities the hard way – by making mistakes and learning from them. But don’t worry, all of us have been through it. Once these traits have become ingrained into your overall work persona, you’ll find it easier to take on the more difficult tasks that will eventually earn you a promotion.
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan