Decoding Job Descriptions

I’m really excited — this is the first time a reader has asked me a question! Julia Lindsey asked about decoding job descriptions — reading between the lines to understand what the employer is really looking for. Here’s the question:

“Candidate must be…. self-starter and team player with a ‘can-do’ attitude in a fast-paced environment” That whole description lacks substance and doesn’t tell me what they’re REALLY looking for! All I get from that is that I should be perky and productive. Is there another way to de-code that sentence?

First, here’s an article that takes a humorous approach to job descriptions.

Now for the real answer.

Job descriptions should help you do two things:

  1. Decide if you have the qualities and skills necessary for the job
  2. Craft a targeted cover letter and resume to convince the employer that you possess those skills and abilities

Vague descriptions are problematic because they make doing both of those things harder. What does a “self-starting team player” do at work all day? How do you know if you’ll enjoy that? Perhaps more importantly, what does the employer think the “self-starting team player” should be doing at work, and how can you convey that in your cover letter and resume? In other words, what actions are associated with these nebulous phrases?

If the employer won’t provide the answer, generate it yourself. Make a list of actions associated with the “nebulous words,” and see if your past experiences have included any of them. Then make sure you highlight those experiences in your cover letter, resume and interview.

For instance, a self-starter is someone who doesn’t need to be coddled and takes matters into his or her own hands. But you wouldn’t just say, “I’m a self-starter. I don’t require much supervision or hand holding, and I can handle problems as they arise.”

Instead, give an example of self-starting behavior. Say something like, “When it comes to class projects — or projects in general — I’m a self-starter. I don’t wait for someone to hand me an assignment or whine when a problem comes up. For example, I took the lead on a semester-long public relations presentation by guiding the group to a topic and initiating the distribution of responsibilities. When our research component almost failed because of a low response rate, I took it upon myself to Facebook message over 100 people, which resulted in a 60% response rate and an A on the project.”

(Side tip: The methodology behind that paragraph is the same thing you’ll find in behavioral interviewing. That’s when the interviewer asks questions like, “Tell me about a time when you faced a challenge, took on a leadership role, etc.”)

It’s that basic advice of “show, don’t tell.” The trick is figuring out what to show. Here are two sites with more good decoding advice:

How do you decode job descriptions? Have you ever misinterpreted a job description?

About the Asker: Julia Lindsey is a senior English and visual arts double major at Bowdoin College in Maine looking for advice about and/or a job in the arts/communications world. She’s on LinkedIn and has an online art portfolio.


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