How to Interpret a Job Description

Job search advice often suggests that you apply for a role even when you’re not 100% qualified. It’s good advice, but let’s be honest: no amount of positive thinking is going to get an employer to consider you for an accounting role if you don’t have accounting experience. So, how can you tell if you’re qualified enough?

What is the employer really seeking?

Learning how to interpret a job description is important. Most job descriptions are fairly formulaic. They typically include core requirements, desired attributes, and some pie-in-the-sky nice-to-haves. There will be a title, a short description of the company, culture, or team, the preferred or “required” qualifications, job duties, and potentially some compliance elements about lifting or working conditions. Hopefully, the salary range is included.

Some of this is important, but you need to read between the lines. If you can identify the key items that a hiring manager is screening for, you can highlight and showcase those elements in your resume or cover letter. Repeated or key skills (which are usually those fabled keywords you keep hearing you need to include to beat the applicant tracking system) directly relate to the core job functions. For example, here is a recent job description we posted for an Executive Assistant:

What Matters Most

+ 5+ years of Executive Assistant experience
+ Proficiency in MS Office, including advanced proficiency in MS Outlook

You’ll know this is the role for you because you have excellent written communication skills, prior experience in the non-profit field, and an autonomous manner that works well in a fast-paced environment. A day in the life of an Executive Assistant here looks a little something like this: preparing formal minutes, meeting notes, and presentations; coordinating the daily operations, initiatives, and activities of the President’s office; managing various tasks while consulting the appropriate sources; and determining project statuses and troubleshooting to make adjustments as necessary. You should be able to manage a big workload, keep an eye out for looming deadlines, and interact professionally with colleagues and contacts at all levels. Up for the task? We thought so.

As the hiring manager, I would screen resumes for:

  • A job history demonstrating the candidate had previously worked as an Executive Assistant for five years, or equivalent experience of scheduling and supporting an executive
  • Keywords I might search for: manage* schedule*, support* executive, Outlook, prepare* minutes

My sights would also be on locations, industry experience, titles, or other limiting factors if the original search pulled too many candidates.

I would also be looking for other administrative experience and to see that the candidate had non-profit exposure. Applicants with vaguely administrative backgrounds that included unproven “soft” skills like “detail-oriented” or “organized” wouldn’t be considered. Resumes that were easy-to-read, highlighted the needed key skills in bold or with bullets or left white space around them would stand out for us. It would show me the candidate knew the most important parts of the job.

If you’re looking at the job description and you’re so close — maybe you’ve worked as an Executive Assistant before, and have taken minutes in a volunteer board position, but you only have three years of experience — I’d encourage you to apply. One year of experience might be a little more of a stretch. Twenty years of experience might also be a hard sell, unless you can explain why you’re taking what looks to a hiring manager like a major step back. However, skills are skills, and if you can tell a story that makes your fit for the job clear, it’s worth your time to apply.

Determine if your skills are transferrable.

If you don’t possess the key skills, no amount of enthusiasm or “ability to learn quickly” can make up for the lack of them. And, the simple WordPress blog you created doesn’t necessarily qualify you to be a Marketing Manager for a large company.

However, just because you’ve never had a certain set of experiences — maybe you’ve never managed a team at work — shouldn’t dissuade you from applying if you’ve gained those skills elsewhere. For instance, maybe you’ve managed a large group of volunteers for an organization you’re involved in. Determine if your skills are transferable and then show (don’t tell!) the hiring manager with concrete examples how and why your skills are a match. The burden is on you to prove why you’re the best candidate.

If you have enough required skills, and the fit seems right, submit away! And good luck!


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