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Learn How to Read Job Descriptions Strategically

Apply now on key in keyboard. Accelerate your job search when you learn how to read job descriptionsIf you’re seeking your next opportunity, learning how to read job descriptions can help you spend your time wisely and even accelerate your search. When used to the fullest extent possible, the information in job descriptions can help you decide whether you should apply for a role or not and can also serve as a guide for tailoring your application materials if you proceed with applying. Below are three steps you can follow to leverage job descriptions to your advantage.

Step 1: Read the Job Description Completely

Recently, I read a job description that stated toward the end, “Make sure you submit a cover letter so we know you read all the way to here.” This example illustrates that many people don’t read job advertisements thoroughly! To avoid missing important information, read every word of the job description, paying close attention. You can learn about the company’s culture and mission along with information about the role’s responsibilities and qualifications.


Recently, I read a job description that stated toward the end, “Make sure you submit a cover letter so we know you read all the way to here.” This illustrates that many people don’t read job advertisements thoroughly! To avoid missing important information, read every word of the job description, paying close attention. You can learn about the company’s culture and mission along with information about the role’s responsibilities and qualifications.


Step 2: Assess Required and Preferred Qualifications

Many job descriptions categorize qualifications by “required” and “preferred.” While some applicants don’t distinguish between these categories when deciding whether they should apply, I recommend that they do.

If the job description neatly categorizes required and preferred qualifications and you lack the top required qualification, carefully consider if applying to the role is a good investment of your time. For instance, if you have two years of experience as an individual contributor but the job description states, “10 years of experience required, with at least five years of team management experience,” then the role is not a good match with your background. Just because you theoretically could do a job doesn’t mean you are a strong fit.

If you do have the top one or two required qualifications, you should evaluate whether you have enough of the other qualifications listed in the job advertisement. Back in my grad school days at Duke University, I was taught to apply if I had 60-70% of the qualifications. I still find this to be good advice.

When working with clients, I tell them the following: Do not make the mistake of missing opportunities because you don’t have 100% of what the employer is looking for. However, don’t waste your time applying for a role if you are missing the most basic qualification the employer is seeking. I often remind women clients that women often underestimate their qualifications and lose opportunities for lack of applying.

Step 3: Use the Job Description to Tailor Your Application Materials

Tailoring your resume and cover letter to the job description is the name of the game when it comes to applying for jobs. Once you learn how to read job descriptions effectively, you can then tailor your materials by taking the following two actions.

Mine the Job Description for Key Terms and Other Information

Print the job description or save it in an editable file, and have highlighters or colored pens on hand if working from a printout.

Next, analyze the job description and mine it for information. Consider the following: What is the key skill or set of skills the employer is seeking? Which skills are preferences and which are requirements?

Next, determine what the employer needs you to do and know for the role. In one color, highlight or underline actions (verbs) and nominalizations, which are verbs in noun form, such as implementation and development. These are the key actions the employer wants the new hire to take and do.

In a second color, highlight or underline all core competency areas. These are typically nouns, such as MS Office Suite, microbiology, Python, digital marketing, or other key things the new hire is expected to know.

After the key terms have been highlighted, review and categorize them to determine if they can be grouped into key “bucket” areas. These bucket areas can get to the heart of what the employer wants the person in the role to do and know, if it hasn’t been stated succinctly in the job advertisement.

For instance, you might create a bucket category called “marketing” by grouping together the following terms: brand development, copy writing, engagement, monitor trends, Google Analytics, WordPress, SEO, and social media.

Cross-Reference and Incorporate Key Terms into Your Cover Letter and Resume

Once you have divided all the highlighted terms into buckets, cross-reference your resume and cover letter and ensure both documents contain all—or at least most—of those terms. Depending on the length of the job description and how many terms you identified, you might use your cover letter to address the key bucket categories. In the letter, you could emphasize three to five categories of information, for instance, rather than incorporating 25 individual key terms.

Takeaway

Reading a job description carefully is the first step you should take to decide if applying for a particular job is a good use of your time. Once you determine you are a strong fit for a role, the job description also provides direction for tailoring your resume and cover letter for the job opening. Far too many job seekers do not take the three steps I’ve outlined above, but knowing how to read job descriptions effectively can help you accelerate the pace of finding an employment opportunity that is a good fit.

Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses succeed when the stakes are high. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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