Job Search

How to Read Between the Lines of a Job Posting

What "help wanted" really means

At first glance, most job postings may seem simple—there’s a description, a list of required skills, necessary qualifications and not much more. Well maybe, maybe not.

Often between those lines are clues that reveal if the opportunity is truly right for you, or if it’s a mismatch in the making. You may also discover valuable insight that could give you an advantage when you apply.

So how do you start using your job description X-ray vision? Let these workplace experts answer your questions about what “help wanted” really means.

Can I apply if I lack experience?

If you’ve had two years of experience and the job calls for three to five, don’t let it stop you from applying. In such a case, says Rita Friedman, a certified career coach at PhillyCareerCoach.com, “The employer is probably just not looking to train someone from scratch. With the right confidence and solid understanding of the position, a more junior candidate could easily win them over.”

If you have much more experience than the job calls for, however, it could be a sign to move on. “The employer will probably assume a senior person would grow bored quickly, and the employer isn’t looking to meet the salary requirements an experienced worker ought to have,” she says.

Also take note if the “years of experience” refers to specific roles. “Some jobs require seven to 10 years of industry experience, while others will require seven to 10 years’ experience in a specific job function or role,” career advice expert and spokesperson Amanda Augustine of TopResume. “Identifying which type of experience is required will help you determine if the role is right for you.”

How much does the job title matter?

Most experts say it’s not a good idea to infer anything—good or bad—from a job’s official title. “A job title can be indicative of the level of responsibility—or not,” said Friedman.

“Small upstart companies often grant bigger titles than other employees have in equivalent roles at larger, established companies.” For this reason, “it’s often more effective to look for keywords in the descriptions instead of job titles,” says Friedman.

Augustine advises to take job titles “with a grain of salt… A director title at one company may translate to a vice president position in another.” To accurately measure a job’s seniority, pay close attention to the responsibilities and requirements.

“Are you managing teams or departments? What size are the budgets or accounts you’ll be expected to manage? This, along with the number of years of required experience, paints a more vivid picture of the role,” she says.

What does “other duties as assigned” mean?

“Ending job posts with the line ‘other duties as assigned’ often means that the hiring manager doesn’t know exactly what he wants,” says Vance Crowe, founder of Articulate Ventures, a St. Louis–based communications firm. “But these should be signals to job seekers that management will value your willingness to do the less desirable work.”

So, if you interview for a company that leaves ‘job responsibilities’ open-ended, stress your flexibility and openness to do almost anything. If other parts of a job posting seem similarly vague (“good communication skills required”), it’s your opportunity to use your cover letter and interview to define them in a way that leverages your key strengths. (“I am an excellent public speaker and have experience presenting in corporate settings.”)

The language in this posting is really informal. Could that mean anything?

The tone of a job description can be as telling as what it actually says. For example, if you like to have fun at work, look positively on postings that are written cleverly, sound personal or come right out and say “sense of humor preferred.”

“A job posting that’s overly playful may indicate a company that’s seeking younger, more casual workers,” explains Friedman, “whereas a very formal job posting may suggest a workplace that’s never even heard of casual Fridays.”

But be wary of job listings that seem to care deeply about your personality, versus your skills and experience.

“Be cautious about postings that focus disproportionately on personality traits,” says Allison Hemming, CEO of the digital talent agency, The Hired Guns. “Chances are they just canned the last guy, and the traits they listed are ones they wanted him to have, but he didn’t.”

“Alternately, it could mean they’re looking for friends more than workmates,” Hemming adds. “This is especially common for small companies and start-ups.”

What if I don’t have all the required skills?

Phrases like “required” and “must have” usually mean what they say, says Augustine. “While a job description can often include a laundry list of nice-to-have skills, those that are specifically labeled ‘must have’ are just that. If you don’t meet these core requirements for the role, you are wasting your time,” she says.

Timothy J. Tolan, ceo and managing partner at Next Level Interim Search, agrees. “Not having the required ‘must haves’ are typically cause to have a recruiter disqualify the candidate from consideration,” he said. “If a candidate doesn’t have most or all of these requirements it’s usually not a good fit.”

When it comes to “desired” and “preferred” skills (versus “required” and “must have”), not having them may not be showstoppers, but having them can “give you an edge over the competition,” according to Augustine.

Here’s another tip for telling what’s really important: Requirements listed at the top are likely considered most important by the employer. “Things at the bottom may be afterthoughts, or something HR made them include,” says Hemming.

However you assess the various requirements, “ignore anything in a job description at your peril,” says Hemming. “If it’s there, it’s there for a reason. These things are often written by committee, so somewhere along the way, a stakeholder decided that bullet was crucial.”

Perfection is not the point

Although employers would like their candidates to have all the ‘must-haves,’ it’s rare to perfectly match every point on a job listing, so don’t set that as your standard. “These are all aspects they want in the perfect candidate; however, most employers realize this is a dream list and are willing to talk to candidates who do not meet every single qualification,” says career coach and strategist Lisa K. McDonald.

“If a candidate has many, but not all the required skills, and a solid track record, many times the intangibles they possess may be enough to give them a good chance to get an interview,” says Tolan.

Plus, job listings themselves are not perfect, so keep your detective hat on until you make your final decision—or they do. “As you begin to get great at reading job descriptions, you’ll start to see that most companies want to know about you, but don’t tell you nearly enough about them,” says Hemming.

She counsels applicants to “review each job description, ask yourself what’s not there, then write down your questions” because those will be the key questions to ask if and when you get called for an interview.

Now that you’ve got the skills to read between the lines, jump back into your job search, because tops companies are looking for top talent right now. 

Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get our best career advice and job search tips.

Topics:

Get Hired, Job Search