Decoding the job description: what you need to know before you continue your job search
When you’re job hunting, the job description may feel like a mere blip on your way to applying for the job: you read it, decide whether or not you want to apply, and then move on either way. But how closely are you really reading it? A job description isn’t necessarily a Rosetta Stone for your next job opportunity, but honestly, you don’t need it to be. A little close reading can help you get the most out of your application, and even help you make your job search more efficient.
What’s in a job description?
Employers know that they have limited space and time to attract good candidates to their job openings, so most job descriptions are essentially a collection of highlights in some standard categories. Job descriptions typically include:
- Job title and seniority: The job title itself lets you know what the job is, and usually also the level. (Marketing Director, Senior Sales Associate, Office Assistant, etc.)
- Company name and description: Unless it’s confidential (which happens sometimes for industries that are sensitive to competition or proprietary information), a job description will let you know who’s hiring, and a bit about them. The bio isn’t generally too complicated, but it does give you a jumping-off point to see if you want to do more research into the company.
- Employment status: Job descriptions generally tell you whether a role is full-time, part-time, permanent, contract, or temporary. This can help you zero in on whether this is really a job that meets your needs, or if you want to move on. For example, if you’re looking for a part-time job but something that sounds otherwise perfect is full-time, that’s what you’d want to know at this early stage instead of after you apply.
- Job location: This typically covers geographic location, but in a post-pandemic world, more and more employers are indicating whether a job is remote or in-person. They may also say whether relocation is covered for out-of-state applicants.
- Job description: Here’s the real reason you’re reading the posting at all: the scope, tasks, and responsibilities of the position itself. It likely won’t be super-comprehensive, but gives you enough of a broad outline to decide whether it’s a job you can (or want to) do.
Paying close attention to the description can also give you a sense of whether there are any gaps you’d need to bridge during the application process. For example, if a job seems otherwise perfect but you don’t quite meet some of the criteria, you don’t have to reject it out of hand–you can think of whether skills or other experience you have works, and then maximize that equivalence in your application, resume, or cover letter.
- Desired qualifications: If you need a particular level of education, certification, or skill set, it’s typically listed here. If you gloss over this section, you might just be setting yourself up for heartache–or the annoyance of an unanswered application. And as with the job description, if you know you’re close on what they’re seeking but don’t have the explicit qualification, you can follow it up with the company. Sometimes companies can be flexible on certain qualifications, so you can either tailor your application to calling out why you’re qualified, or reach out to the company to ask whether, say, that Master’s degree is a hard requirement.
- Salary and/or benefits: Many employers don’t want to pin down a specific salary in a preliminary job description, but it’s not uncommon to see a range of potential salaries included in the job description. Benefits are more common in a job posting, listing things like whether the company has retirement benefits, various insurance types, educational reimbursement, family policies, and the like.
- Vaccination status: This is a relatively new phenomenon for job postings, but now employers often show whether they expect employes to be vaccinated or not, or other similar public health precautions (like screenings, social distancing, and masking).
- Instructions: Perhaps the most essential part of the job description outside of the actual job outline, the instructions for how to apply can really make or break your application. If you breeze past this and are missing something crucial that they ask for, like a cover letter or salary requirements, then you might not get any consideration.
- Legal language: This is not required, but some companies may choose to put legal disclosures about non-discrimination, disability accommodations, immigration status, or other legal categories.
How should you approach a job description?
When you’re on the hunt, you don’t necessarily have the time to read every job description word for word, all the way down. The first pass should always be a skim for high points, to see if it meets your basic requirements. If it sounds like something that could be promising for you, go back to the top, and read more closely from start to finish. At that point, view it as a checklist:
- Does this tell me enough about the company?
- Do I meet the basic qualifications here? And if not, could I flex anything in my experience to get close to the qualifications?
- Does the job itself sound like something I would want to do for the next phase of my work life?
- Are there any red flags that jump out at me?
If those are all clear to your satisfaction, make a quick plan for how to apply. Make sure you’re following any/all instructions they provide and use the information in the job description to tailor your resume or cover letter to emphasize what you can offer to meet what they’re seeking.
Keywords are essential here. Look for words or phrases specific to the most important skills, responsibilities, or requirements, so that you can mirror those in your resume or cover letter. You don’t want to repeat everything in a job description in your resume, but making sure keywords are included can help your application get past preliminary reads.
After you’ve applied, what should you take away from a job description?
The job description can help you get your application in, but it can also help you later in the process if you end up getting an interview or other follow-up from the company. Once you’ve decided to apply, bookmark it–or even better, copy and paste the text into your own doc, or print it for later in case it’s no longer online when you go to look for it later. Add any notes or questions you have, for future reference. It’ll be a reminder for you when you do any interview prep later, or have the chance to ask questions to the recruiter or hiring manager.
The job description may not be sacred literature, but the more time you spend understanding what’s being said and requested upfront will make for a stronger, more targeted application. It’ll also help you spend less time on job descriptions that just aren’t what you’re looking for, as you develop a more intuitive way of reading them through practice.
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