There are good (thankfully) and bad job descriptions. A bad one might consist of an employer’s ultimate wish list of skills from which it’s difficult to discern which are essential and which are desired. This only makes it difficult for prospective candidates to determine what the employer really wants or is offering, and considering companies globally are struggling to locate the best individuals, it’s in an employer’s best interests to write a clear, concise and appealing job description.
Nevertheless, ‘if you’re looking for any hidden secrets to reading a job description, you are out of luck,’ says Matt Weston, a director at recruitment agency Robert Half.
‘Some job descriptions may seem lengthy but they do provide an in-depth idea of what the job entails, so ideal candidates can ascertain the key elements of the role.’
Whether a job description is good or bad, if you want the job, especially with that company, you need to dig out what the employer is looking for and start asking yourself questions about suitability.
Be honest with yourself
‘We advise graduates to aim high but also be realistic,’ says Dan Hawes, co-founder and marketing director at Graduate Recruitment Bureau.
‘You also don’t want to waste your time, so you need to be honest with yourself. If you were offered the job can you do it and will you be motivated?’
‘It’s not enough to be able to convince yourself that you meet the relevant attributes required,’ says David Carter, senior careers consultant for The Careers Group, University of London. ‘It’s what you can "evidence" to the employer.’
It’s vital to have a clear idea of what you want from a job, as well as whether you genuinely have the attributes and qualities being described. You need to ‘pay particular attention to what is being asked in the job description, as this is the most common mistake people make when applying for jobs,’ says Weston.
A good job description details a role’s key requirements and this core information is also what the employer and recruitment agencies will use to design the job adverts, which can be found on the sides of buses, in local papers, on websites or via Twitter and Facebook. So it’s key to be able to recognise which elements of the description you should be looking to answer and evidence in your application.
‘An important aspect of analysing job adverts is understanding whether the role is something you want to apply for and, importantly, are likely to be viewed as a "credible" candidate for,’ says Carter.
‘Applying for jobs is a time-consuming business, so it’s important to focus your energy on opportunities that are realistic given the role requirements and your suitability.’
Tailoring CVs and cover letters to different jobs is essential, but it is time-consuming and requires a high level of attention to detail, so the last thing you want to do is waste your time or hurry applications – employers are quick to identify rushed or generic CVs that don’t respond specifically to their adverts, so make the effort and time you put into applying count.
‘Keep in mind the job description will be useful when it comes to writing your CV and cover letter,’ says Weston. ‘Your CV needs to contain relevant skills and experience, whereas a cover letter is your opportunity to highlight how your skills and experience are the ideal match for the job requirements.’
Essential and desired skills
Assessing your credibility is key, so before you start writing your CV or filling out an application ‘note down all the individual requirements on one side of a piece of paper and on the opposite, write a short summary of what examples you would be able to utilise as evidence,’ says Carter.
‘A general rule of thumb is that if you feel that you will struggle to evidence three or more of the required criteria, you might want to re-evaluate whether you intend to apply.’
‘While an employer is looking to see if you have the right skills to perform the tasks the job requires, remember they want to see how you may add value to their teams and the company,’ says Weston.
‘Often, employers will be open to considering transferrable skills and experience. If you don’t have the exact skills that are outlined in the job description, try and highlight your strengths and willingness to learn, as well as any relevant experience.’
Talking to people who work at the company or someone who does a similar job elsewhere is a good way of gaining real insight into a role and will help you differentiate between core requirements and ‘desired’ skills.
‘Talking to someone at the organisation directly will give you more of an idea of whether what you have to offer is likely to be of interest to a recruiter,’ says Carter. ‘Smaller organisations especially view attitude and a cultural fit as vitally important, so this is a good opportunity to get inside the recruiter’s mind and form a strong impression.’
‘In general,’ adds Carter, ‘the more prestigious the employer and job role and the more widely circulated the publicity for the opportunity, the more likely it is that "desirable" criteria are likely to be viewed as essential given the level of likely competition.’