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The Best Résumés

Mark DeGoti | February 2015


    In today’s competitive job market, finding a job in music performance, education, or academia can be a great challenge. Many job seekers struggle to represent themselves and their accomplishments in the best possible light. Here are ways for job seekers to create an effective job portfolio, beginning with the development of an effective résumé and cover letter.

Résumé or Curriculum Vitae?
    Résumés come in a wide variety of styles, formats, and lengths. When applying for a job, it is important to know which one to use. The two main options are a curriculum vitae and a regular résumé. A résumé usually is a brief one-page summary of experiences and educational background, whereas a curriculum vitae (Latin for “course of my life”) typically is more comprehensive. A curriculum vitae is generally the standard for résumés used in applying for higher education or academic positions. A one-page résumé is more often used in seeking other kinds of employment.
    Within the music industry, there are two basic résumé categories: standard and performance. A performance résumé is self-explanatory, whereas a standard music résumé could be used in applying for jobs in music education, music industry, arts administration, or other similar fields. As an emerging music professional, it is important to have templates ready for both performance and standard résumés.

Résumé Headings
    Résumés usually feature many of the same basic headings and sections, including name, contact information, objective/summary, experience, education, related skills, and references. When writing a résumé or CV, it may be easiest to begin with a template or outline provided by different software companies (Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Pages). However, be sure to use this template only as inspiration, so that you maintain 100% control over the document and have the ability to customize it. Keeping your résumé or CV customized will give it more individuality.

    For the name category, be sure to distinguish between a salutation and credential. “John Smith, D.M.” looks and sounds different than “Dr. John Smith.” One is not better than the other, but keep in mind that a résumé is a listing of credentials.

Objective or Summary
    Résumé drafters often are confused about whether to use an objective or summary section; this is an important decision. For most music performance jobs, the objective or summary should be self evident from the application itself, so this section can easily be omitted. For other music jobs, however, applicants generally will use the objective description later in their career. This would be appropriate, for example, when the applicant has extensive experience professionally and is now concerned with finding a good fit in another position. A good example of an applicant’s objective for a position in music education administration could be “School of music dean with 20 years of administrative experience seeks flagship state university school of music position.”
    A section titled summary is more often used earlier in one’s career. This section should be a short statement that will convince the search committee that the applicant has much to offer. A good example of a summary for a music education student could be “Classically trained pianist and educator seeks employment with an established college music department.” Overall, the objective or summary section should be a brief statement that describes your general goals for employment, and those goals should be appropriately based on your experience.

    Experience is a category that can include a wide range of entries to show the applicant’s worth to the employer. In addition to listing your professional experiences, you can also include here any leadership roles or achievements. For young emerging professionals who lack professional experiences, this is an area where transferable skills can be identified.

    In the education section nearly all academic experience should be listed, starting with the highest degree earned. For students who have yet to graduate from a program on the list, the best choices are to put the graduation date in parentheses or to list the date as an expected graduation date. Either choice is appropriate; this is simply a matter of personal preference. For a doctorate or Ph.D. degree, a statement such as “All But Dissertation” (ABD) is appropriate and may help you advance to the next round of the application process.
    One question that often arises is whether to identify a high school within the education section. Unless the high school is likely to give the applicant an edge or connection to the job, there is no need to list it. But if the high school is potentially useful to note – for example, if the job requires building a program through local recruitment – then listing a local high school on the résumé would give that applicant an edge. The only other reason for listing high school would be if the school were well known in the music industry (e.g., Interlochen Arts Academy, Juilliard Pre College). Also, school GPA is generally unnecessary to note unless it would add significant meaning to the application.

Related Skills
    In the related skills section you should identify any additional abilities and knowledge that may be relevant. In music, the most common item to note is knowledge of music software knowledge, which can include Finale, Sibelius, SmartMusic, Pro Tools, and Pyware.

Music-Specific Résumé Headings
    Music-specific headings can vary depending on one’s area of expertise. Possible options include applied teachers, audition experience, prizes and awards, recordings, publications, clinics/master classes, summer festivals, performing experience (including solo, chamber, orchestral, and collaborative).
    It is common practice for musicians to list their applied teachers on a résumé, particularly if they are well known teachers. Such references should only be included if the teachers are informed and approve of their inclusion. It may also be temping to list a renowned teacher on a résumé, even if there was only one interaction with that person. A general rule is to determine if the teacher would qualify to be a reference. If the teacher would not qualify as a reference, then the name should not be mentioned on the résumé.
    Indeed, in all of these categories, be sure to include only entries that have significance and worth. Always keep in mind that the principal goal of a résumé is to emphasize and highlight key experiences of the applicant, which is far more important than just adding length to the document. Also, keep in mind that the transition from student to professional may appear awkward or abrupt on paper. To help with this transition, be sure to front load any professional activities on the résumé whenever possible.
    A section on audition experience should include auditions taken for professional or notable pre-professional experiences. On a performance résumé, this section should be appear further down the résumé than the performance experience heading.    Although audition experience is seen as important, hands-on professional performing experience is regarded as more valuable. Also, when listing auditions, it is best to include only successful audition experiences where you advanced or won the audition.
    The category of prizes and awards can include both scholarships and competitions. Be sure to create an extra subheading if necessary to distinguish between the two.
    Lastly, within the performance experience section, you can use numerous subcategories to organize your experiences. Try to tailor the listing in a way that will connect your experiences to the job or employer.

Academic CV Format
    The format for curricula vitae can vary and may be dependent on the particular institution’s tenure/promotion formats and guidelines. Most institutions provide preferred portfolio formats on their websites. It is recommended that applicants follow those formats if provided. For emerging young professionals, it is suggested to use a template from their graduating school or the institution in which they send their application. Template examples can be found online on websites for the University of Texas, Eastman School of Music, and New England Conservatory. While not all inclusive, these examples provide some commonly adopted formats. The basic CV format for higher education positions should include personal information, a list of honors and awards, and a list of scholarly contributions, which can be in teaching, research/creative word, outreach, or service.
    When writing a CV, keep in mind that it is not targeted like a résumé. A CV is more of a narrative and should be as comprehensive as possible. Be detailed and thorough.

Résumé and CV Principles
    Musicians must promote themselves on paper as well as they do on stage. When applying for a job, it is prudent to research the institution thoroughly, exploring the information about the school mission, faculty, location, size and type of program, areas of focus, budgets, university strategic plans, and more. Once the research is complete, the résumé should be customized for the particular position and institution where the job is sought. Instead of just listing your achievements, craft a résumé or CV that addresses expressed specific requirements of the position and the institution.

Transferable Skills
    Many young and less-experienced musicians struggle to present a depth of experience in a résumé or CV. If there is concern about showing too little depth, try to focus more on transferable skills. Hiring committees are looking not only for prior experience, but also for potential for future success. If you are lacking in hands-on job experience, be sure to focus on these skills and make connections that will prove your worth for the position. Some examples of pre-job experiences that transfer well in music could include section leader, marching band drum major, student teaching, internships, graduate assistantships, private lesson instruction, volunteering, teaching band camps, military service, and experience in fraternities and sororities.

    Tone in a résumé or cover letter can dramatically influence the hiring process. There is a fine line between self-advocacy and projecting a tone that may be interpreted as egotistical. When writing a cover letter or résumé/CV, be aware of this balance and choose the wording appropriately. It may help to have numerous people offer suggestions on editing.
    Applicants will often preface an accounting of their qualifications with “I am…” For example, an applicant might state in the letter, “I am completely qualified and experienced for the assistant professor position at your institution.” A statement such as this conveys confidence, but it can also be interpreted as presumptuous. A search committee might perceive an egotistical tone in such a statement. To avoid the risk of seeming overly confident, it may be better to use the phrase “I feel” instead of “I am” for the music and academic work fields.

    The visual aspect of a résumé and CV is easily just as important as the content. Reverse chronological order is preferred for all dates. At times, this may mean that significant experiences will not be listed first. It is also important to keep all entries consistently formatted.
    Be sure to list dates on the right of the page instead of the left. For example, list your experience as

    Colorado Symphony    2014

rather than

    2014    Colorado Symphony

The significant item here is Colorado Symphony, not the date. The date is meant to give a timeline and context to the entry. The experience of the applicant is more important than when it happened.
    Also, choose a font that is different from the more popular ones. Try to avoid Times New Roman, Cambria, Calibri, Ariel, Courier New, and possibly Helvetica. These fonts are overused and will blend in with the rest of the applicants’ submissions. Find a font that is clean, clear, and individual. Some examples may include Palatino or Optima. Font choice is the first visual representation of a job portfolio, and it will either encourage or discourage the committee to read over the materials. Font size is also important to ensure readability and clarity. Be thoughtful in these decisions.

Objective Data
    Numbers and objective data are hard to dispute. Use both in a résumé/CV and cover letter whenever possible. In a cover letter, a statement such as “I have taught numerous private students in Chicago, with my top ones making All-State Band” is less powerful in comparison to “I have taught 26 private students in three suburbs of Chicago. Of this group, four made All-State Band with one being first chair.” In addition to presenting a stronger statement, the objective data will gives the committee more context and understanding with regard to these experiences.

    Once the résumé is written, find an editor. Then find another editor. A résumé should be an evolving document, and it needs numerous pairs of eyes for improvement. Talk to people who have recently succeeded in finding a new job. Compare résumés and discuss potential changes to be made to yours.

Cover Letter versus Résumé
    The cover letter is an applicant’s chance to highlight strengths and positive characteristics, and this is especially so in the early stages of one’s career. The letter is the committee’s chance to get to know the applicant, and from the letter they can see how you think, how you write, and what kind of colleague you would be. This is where applicants can state their case for why they should be interviewed. A cover letter also provides the essential context for all of the experiences listed in the résumé or CV. The cover letter should not duplicate the details in the résumé or CV but rather explain the significance of those details. When writing a cover letter, make sure that the tone is confident and professional. An appropriate start for a letter of application might be: “My experience and background… are excellent preparation for….”

    The cover letter should have three main sections, all totaling no more than one page if possible. The introductory paragraph usually consists of three to five sentences and covers the basics. This is where applicants reference the employer and opportunity, and how they learned about the position. While this information might seem obvious or mundane, the application may be immediately strengthened if the committee is informed as to how the applicant learned about the position. Networking is extremely important in the music industry, and having a strong name connected to the applicant in the first sentence of the cover letter can be quite valuable. For example: “I would like to be considered for the position of assistant professor of trumpet at New York University. I became aware of this opening through a personal referral from Philip Smith, principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic.” This statement immediately elevates the applicant’s status just by the connection to Philip Smith. After the opening statement, the next part will explain why the applicant is applying for the position. Here the letter should discuss the applicant’s interest in and motivation for the opportunity. Be concise and confident by using action verbs here.
    In the middle paragraph, which should also be three to five sentences, the committee will get to know the applicant as a person and how they think. Include a statement that connects your skills and experiences back to the position or employer. Review the job posting and employer website, and highlight the skills and past experiences that are the most applicable. For younger professionals, remember that relevant experiences can cover a wide range and may include paid, unpaid/volunteer, internships, academic coursework and programs, study abroad, leadership roles, student organizations, community programs, and military training.
    This is where transferable skills will come into play. When discussing background, be sure to provide specific and detailed examples of experiences and accomplishments. (Remember the value of objective data.) Often applicants will use subjective, arguable statements in the cover letter, which can be difficult to confirm. Here is an example: “Recently, I concluded a rather successful term as a sabbatical replacement at Chicago University.” Successful according to whom? In general, avoid phrases that are vague and hard to prove. Lastly, focus on qualifications and any transferable skills if there is limited direct experience. If you have only limited previous experience for the position, discuss an experience where new skills were learned.
    The concluding paragraph should be three to four sentences, and it should restate your interest in the position. The letter should conclude with an expression of appreciation for consideration of the applicant’s materials.

Related Principles
    One of the key challenges when putting together a job portfolio is the transition between student and young professional. In today’s job market, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to get a job without hands-on experience. In a résumé/CV and cover letter, work to cast yourself as a professional, not only a student. Student status will be immediately obvious to the search committee, so omit any information that is less significant or applicable. There is no shame in being a student transitioning into the professional marketplace. Use transferable skills confidently as a substitute for professional experience. The application portfolio depends on past accomplishments and related skills as evidence of the applicant’s likelihood of future success.
In addition, take advantage of any networking opportunities to elevate your application through the search process. Networking is a valuable part of becoming a professional in the workplace – especially in music. In the performance world, most freelance work comes through personal referrals, and it is important to make a good first impression. When going through college or working, strive to make and keep many positive relationships with co-workers, students, colleagues, faculty, and administration. Part of the job application process includes listing references or recommendation letters. Often search committees will call people who are not included on the reference list. In addition, knowing someone who can be of help through the application process can be extremely valuable. Be professional, kind, and considerate at all times to avoid any problems in getting hired.

    Be clear and confident when writing a cover letter and résumé/CV. Consider aesthetics and tone when writing, and strive to balance confidence while avoiding arrogance. For those who are lacking professional experience, focus on transferable skills and networking to enhance the job application. When applying for a job, be sure to have more than one résumé template and know which one to use. Lastly, include as much objective and indisputable data when describing experiences. There are jobs available for music majors who are right out of school.