The importance of examining job descriptions

In the first of this series, we will be looking at job descriptions and things you need to look out for when reading them. Because as you will already know preparation is key! Taking the time to read and review the job description before applying for a job will allow you to build a tailored and effective application. It can also help you decide whether you actually want to apply for the job or not…and thus save you some time!

It is always better to focus your attention and efforts on a smaller number of roles that you are invested in, ensuring every single application is tailored to the position rather than applying to a larger number of roles with a more generic approach. This will significantly increase your chance to get the employer’s attention and get to the next stage of the application process.

An important source of information and tool when applying for a job is the job description itself. It contains very valuable information that can sometimes be overlooked by job seekers and not utilised enough to tailor the application to the organisation and specific role. The good news is that there are a few practical and easy steps you can take when scanning a job description to ensure your application is spot on!

Spending a bit more time doing so will not only help you build your application and tailor your CV but also save you some time. Why? Because you will be clear on what is important for the employer and which examples can best illustrate that you are a good fit.

What does this mean in practice?

This means looking at the content and structure of the job descriptions but also trying to read between the lines. The information you get in a job description can be explicit or implicit.

  • Explicit: everything that is included in the job description (the overview of the role, the key responsibilities, the list of requirements, the benefits, or maybe the information about the company)
  • Implicit: what is not mentioned but we know employers are looking for or what is missing on the job description and may give you an indication of the company’s culture or working environment.

We would like to focus on the second point as this is where applicants may sometimes miss out.  When we think about STEM roles, we immediately think about the technical skills required to fulfil the role. And often employers tend to focus on these skills in the job description or the experience they would want the successful candidate to have. However, what the job description does not tell you is that most employers are also looking for wider employability skills including people, professional, and communications skills when hiring new talents. This is more in demand than ever before. In fact, we are seeing more and more importance given to the working environment, culture, and impact industries – and therefore people – can make to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.

The issue is that because these skills are not always clearly stated in the job description applicants can forget to mention them in their application or CV, negatively affecting the strength of their application. Think for instance about two applications that look quite similar in terms of education, experience level or technical skills. One thing that may help one candidate to stand out will be their ability to not only show that they can do the job but also demonstrate how they would be doing the job. And this goes back very much to the applicant’s ‘soft’ skills and transferable skills such as communication, time management, problem-solving, etc. However, it also refers to their personality, mindset and how they approach specific situations.

Being able to identify the hidden skills in job descriptions that can help the candidate best perform the job is therefore critical to stand out and position yourself in the best way.

How to effectively read a job description as a job seeker?

To make it easier for you, we have compiled a checklist for reading and understanding job descriptions. Using this methodical approach will hopefully save you some time and energy and ensure you can select the most relevant experiences you have.

Because the main rule in a job application or CV building exercise is RELEVANCE.

  1. Try to differentiate the role description from the list of requirements. This will be helpful when trying to match the requirements with your personal experiences and skills. Sometimes, it is very clear just looking at the structure of the document and titles but in some instances in can be more subtle and that is why reading over the document several times can be beneficial.
  2. Highlight the main keywords throughout the job description – they will often give you a sense of what is important or seen as a priority by the employer. You can even use a colour code to highlight the main action verbs, list of tasks, or skills. This will give you an idea or recurrent themes and priorities or areas of focus. In addition, companies that use an applicant tracking system (ATS) would most likely use similar keywords to the one mentioned in the job description so you may want to reuse some of them later in your application or CV.
  3. Make a list of the required skills and try to match them with yours. This is a very important step that will save you some time and ensure you have very specific examples to give during the application process. It is helpful to do this for both technical and people skills.
  4. Differentiate essential vs. desirable criteria. It can be explicit or implicit depending on the job description format and structure. Sometimes employers would highlight what is beneficial vs. essential but this is not always the case. We know it is not easy but try not to be put off by a job description if you do not meet all the requirements. Try instead to focus on your strengths and think about transferable skills that you could demonstrate (even if they are not clearly mentioned in the job description). Being able to write down areas where you may have less experience is also a good way to identify learning and development opportunities in the job. Remember that you do not have to meet every requirement set out in the job description if you can show that you can develop those skills or have transferable skills.
  5. Look for common phrases or words used. There might be recurrent themes or ideas throughout the job description. They can help you better understand what is important for the employer or what will be an area of focus for the successful candidate. You may be able to cross reference this with the list of requirements if you are not sure what is essential vs. desirable criteria. Reusing their language can be a subtle way of aligning your CV/application to the description but avoid copying whole sentences or sections.
  6. Don’t be put off or influenced too much by job title. They are not always representative of the remit of the role or the seniority level. This is because companies may use different wording or jargon. There might be some internal reasons for the organisation to use a specific wording or it can also be more common in some industries or sectors.
  7. Look at how the company describes themselves and if they have included links or information about their culture, values or working environment. If you do not have much information on the job description itself, consider reviewing their website too. Do they align with your own values?
  8. Write down questions or things that do not seem 100% clear to you. You will be able to reuse this list when doing some online research about the company or to build your list of questions for the interview stage. What would you like to know about this position that may be missing from the job description?

Preparation is key for any job application. The more time spent on understanding and reviewing the job description, the easier it is to build an effective and tailored job application.


About ‘The STEM job seeker checklist’ Series

Looking for your next career move and applying to jobs can be a daunting task and take a lot of your time! To avoid feeling overwhelmed or discouraged by the job-hunting process, we have created a series of articles that aim to provide you with some practical tips to stand out to recruiters, maximise your chances of getting to the next stage of the recruitment process, and save you some valuable time.