When you’re on the job hunt, it’s almost like you need to become fluent in a new language. You need to look at a job description and figure out if it fits your experience and then whether applying for the job is even worth your time. You need to know what common phrases like “competitive salary,” “flexible,” and “growth opportunity” are really telling you about this company and this job, and how to adapt your resume to fit what it requires.
But while you'll certainly face a lot of jargon when searching for a new position, once you understand how to decipher any job posting you come across you'll save a lot of time and energy.
Anatomy of a job posting
Job postings are often written like news articles: the most important information is presented right up front, with the extra supporting information down toward the bottom. First, let's look at the straightforward parts of a standard job ad.
The job title: This is basically the headline. It’s what you see in an email subject line or on the search results screen. It’s what grabs your attention first and sets the expectations for the rest of the post. Some job title lines will offer the company name or other (succinct) details like the experience level, but many will just be the job itself.
- Executive Assistant at Fortune 500 Company
- Data Management Clerk
- Level II Auror at the Ministry of Magic
Responsibilities/description: This is where the narrative kicks in. This is usually a brief paragraph or series of bullet points outlining the highlights of the job. It’s not typically comprehensive, but provides a high-level summary of what the job is.
- Meet aggressive sales goals
- Produce 5–10 newsletters per year
- Generate monthly sales reports
Qualifications: This is where you kick in. The company has outlined what job they’re filling and what that role does, but now it shifts the focus to you: do you have what they’re seeking? This is typically a section of bullet points outlining what the company’s ideal candidate for this position would already have.
- Associate’s Degree in Business or related field
- 5-7 years experience
- English and Spanish language fluency
Benefits and pay: This is usually a short section outlining any specific salary and benefits associated with the job. This section may or may not be included in a job description. Benefits are listed far more often in job descriptions than a specific salary, because the benefits can be used as a lure, while a salary number may be either a dealbreaker for potential candidates or might limit the company’s ability to negotiate after a job offer has been made.
- 401(k) matching
- Salary commensurate with experience
- Dental and vision insurance
About the company: Company information is especially common when a job is posted in a database or another public forum like a website because the readers may not be familiar with what the company is or does. This is usually a brief statement about the company itself, or its general mission.
- Giving Hands is a nonprofit company that sends balloon animals to people in need.
- Cutting Edge Media, LLC is a digital media powerhouse that publishes immersive social media content.
- Since its founding in 1846, Big Books has shaped public debate by publishing award-winning content about dolphin life and philosophy.
How to read between the lines
First of all, know that a job description isn’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. It’s an ad sent out based on the best estimate of what a job will be and what kind of candidate the company wants to see applying for it. So while it’s absolutely a guideline, nothing is 100% etched in stone. Positions evolve over time, and a stellar candidate with slightly different skills might lead a company to tweak the initial description into something a little different.
Job title: While it seems pretty straightforward, this can sometimes have clues about the company and the qualifications you’ll need. For example, in the earlier example of “Executive Assistant at Fortune 500 Company," the job title is used to establish the importance of the position (working with executives, so probably not entry-level) and that the company is large and/or prominent.
Responsibilities: Again, this is a high-level summary of what the company anticipates for this open job. There may be significantly more (and more specific) duties awaiting the future holder of this job. If you see six rather vague responsibilities and want to know more about what the day-to-day life is like for this role, you can do a little digging online to see if there’s more information available about this particular job at this particular company.
If you see a phrase like “other duties as assigned” or a similar phrase that leaves the job responsibilities open-ended, then that should tell you that the company values flexibility and likely has an all-hands-on-deck mentality. That’s a cue for your resume and cover letter package—definitely emphasize your flexibility as an employee and your commitment to getting the job done whatever it takes.
Qualifications: If you don’t hit every single bullet point, don’t automatically give up and move on. (Though if you meet, say, 1 qualification bullet point out of 10, this job might be a bit of a stretch.) If you meet most of the job’s requirements, you should still consider applying. You can provide context in your cover letter and resume and emphasize the requirements that you do meet. It may be that the qualifications you’re missing are “nice to have” instead of “must have” from the company’s perspective or that your other qualities make up for that one deficit. So don’t let one or two misses discourage you from applying if you’re a good fit otherwise.
Benefits and pay: There’s lots of reading between the lines here because job descriptions rarely pin down an exact salary or benefits. With phrases like “commensurate with experience” or “competitive salary,” the company is basically saying, “we’ll deal with this later, and be ready to negotiate if we offer you a job.”
If you see a request to send your “salary requirements” along with your resume, that means you’ll have to do some finessing in your application. You can include a salary range in your cover letter. It’s probably wise not to ignore the request altogether—if it was included in the job posting, it’s possible that leaving out the salary requirement would screen your application right out of the running. But you also don’t want to get too specific, because that number could eliminate you as well if it’s too high or too low.
About the company: There’s not usually a lot of mystery in this part of a job description. But just remember that the company is describing themselves in a very official, public-facing way. If you’re expecting a candid description of what it’s really like to work for this place, or their flaws, well…your expectations will not be met.
You might also come up against a case where the company isn’t named at all. That can either mean that A) the company is shady; or B) the company is trying to be discreet. If it’s option A and you’re finding a vague, unnamed company advertising jobs on, say, Craigslist, all I can say is…think twice. If it’s option B and there’s other information given about the company (it’s a major media company or a top-tier financial company), then it’s possible they just want to avoid either getting a million applications for a single position or don’t want it made public that they’re advertising for someone's job because he hasn’t been, uh, relieved of his duties yet. Look for context clues about the company if there isn’t a straightforward presentation of X job at Y company.
Decoding the buzzwords
Every field is subject to jargon or clichéd phrases, and the art of the job description is no different. Let’s look at some common words and phrases, and what they really tell you.
Self-starter/independent worker: This means they’re looking for a person who is ready for a leadership role who doesn’t need a lot of hand-holding. In your application, emphasize your leadership skills or instances where you’ve taken the lead on something.
Fast-paced: This job is going to be chaotic and likely subject to deadlines. In your application, demonstrate what you’ve achieved under pressure, or your unwavering commitment to deadlines.
Flexible: The company may be looking for someone who’s not afraid to do a bit of scut work as part of their job, or who will be willing to go outside the normal 9-to-5 routine to get the work done. It could signal work-life balance boundary issues, so if you have concerns about this, a little extra research about the job or the company is in order. In your application, emphasize your ability to perform under pressure, or your ability to multitask.
Detail-oriented: This company has received one too many applications with blatant typos, and/or the person currently holding this job has made a lot of messy mistakes. In your application, emphasize your organizational skills and your commitment to getting something done efficiently but accurately. And do not skimp on proofreading your resume and cover letter.
Communication skills: This shows that the company wants someone publicly presentable, either with customers, clients, or other parts of the company. This is a delicate way of making sure that you can write and speak well and confidently.
Growth opportunity: This is likely a low-level or entry-level job and the company might not expect you to commit long-term. That could be a good thing (the last assistant was promoted after six months in the job) or a bad thing (the last assistant got fed up and quit after three months on the job). Definitely mark this as a follow-up item if you get an interview—ask who had previously held the role (generally), and what they’re doing now.
Team player: This is not a job for a lone wolf type, who would rather hole up and do the job himself rather than deal with others. In your application, emphasize how you’ve worked with others to achieve goals and, ideally, how you’ve led or inspired others to meet goals as well.
So as you can see, there’s no great Rosetta Stone needed to work with the job descriptions that you’ll come across in your job search. And in fact, these postings are more similar than not, so once you learn the basics about what companies are trying to achieve with their limited space in a job ad, you’re ready to go forth and start tailoring your resume to be the best possible candidate.
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