Between the lines: how to decipher a job description

Between the lines: how to decipher a job description

A job description is often the first contact applicants have with a company. It gives job seekers an idea of whether they are a good match and if they should apply for the position. For a job description to act as a filter, and for you to be able to respond to it effectively, you must know how to decipher it and to adapt your application accordingly. Here are a few tips that will help you read between the lines.

What is a job description?

A job description is written by someone who works in a human resources department or in a recruitment agency when a company needs a new employee. It is designed to give job seekers an overview of the position to be filled.

Information that must be included in a job description

  • The basics: job title, department, position within the corporate structure, duties and tasks to be performed, responsibilities to carry out.
  • Description of the resources available to accomplish the job: co-workers, assistants and/or your team, technical equipment, financial or logistical resources and so on.
  • Ideal applicant profile: education, training and diplomas required, level of expected experience, previous roles in relevant sectors, quintessential character traits desired.
  • Practical information: location and hours, specific conditions—frequent travel, night shifts and so forth—salary range, even if this may seem vague, such as “according to experience” or “to be negotiated”.

How to decipher a job description

Although job descriptions generally contain similar content, their format can vary considerably. The way they are worded can give you an abundance of information about the company that is hiring and the jobs available. Being able to analyse a description is essential for understanding how you can effectively apply for the job.

Read the words carefully

Whoever wrote the job description chose their words carefully, so the way they are expressed is a message in itself.

It is immediately apparent that you are suited to a job if you are able to understand every part of the description. For example, if it uses highly technical terms or professional jargon, the company is targeting very specific applicants. If you don’t understand the lingo, you obviously don’t have the necessary qualifications for the job.

The tone of the description was chosen deliberately as well. Is it formal or informal? Does it seem casual or conventional? These are essential elements that almost certainly reflect the work environment found within the company. Consider whether you will be in sync with the company culture being projected before you apply for the job. Once you find yourself in an actual interview, keep this tone in mind and adapt your responses accordingly.

The structure of the description indicates the structure of the job

The way in which a job description is structured often reflects the essence of the company looking for applicants. If the description contains very precise information—about the tasks to be carried out, expected educational background, start date for the job or type of contract provided—the company knows precisely who they want. You will have less leeway in the way you work, but you will understand exactly what is expected of you.

However, if the description is a bit jumbled, poorly structured or contains contradictory information, you might get the impression that the company doesn’t really know who they are looking for. That could mean a few different things. Is the company simply badly organised? Is it a small business looking for a multitasker or that one in a million employee? Is it a startup that wants to create a job with a vague description which will become more defined once you join the team?

Of course, none of these possibilities is necessarily a deal-breaker. Many applicants would love to mould a position to fit who they are, reorganise a department more efficiently or wear several hats within a small company so they can learn the business inside out. These are good points to be aware of in advance. This way, you can apply for the job with full knowledge of the facts.

Accurately interpret what the company wants

Make sure you really understand what they are looking for among the list of qualities they expect from applicants. For instance, “having a good sense of team spirit” is not the same as “heading up a team”. Equally, a “serious” person does not necessarily mean someone who is rigid or austere. It might simply indicate that the company is looking for an individual who understands responsibility, arrives on time and performs their duties with great care, but who is still able to smile, be kind or relax.

Inversely, a “creative” individual does not mean someone who is impulsive or exuberant. It means someone who will bring original solutions or innovative ideas to the job while remaining professional. Take a close look at the adjectives used and you’ll know how to highlight your experience appropriately.

Can you apply if you don’t have all of the experience required?

You will rarely match every element listed in a job description. Often, you will either lack a skill or training, or be short of experience, but if you wait until you match a job description perfectly, you will (almost) never apply for anything.

Must-have skills vs optional skills

Depending on the wording of the description, you can get an idea of the importance given by the company to the various skills they have listed. Some will be “required”, “necessary” or “must-have”, whereas others will just be “desired” or “considered a plus”.

If you don’t have a “must-have” skill, you’re wasting everyone’s time applying for the job. Indeed, it would be problematic if you need to be proficient in a specific computer programming language that you’ve never learnt. In the same vein, don’t apply for a job if you need to be fluent in Spanish but you only know a few words.

However, if you lack a few optional skills, highlight others that you do have and let the decision-makers know that you are more than willing to acquire those skills once you have the job, thereby demonstrating your motivation to learn and progress.

Deciphering a job description requires understanding the stakes and expectations of the company so that you can cater to these elements and submit a strong application. Put yourself in the recruiter’s shoes and show them that you have what it takes to meet their needs.

Photo: WTTJ

Translated by Mary Moritz

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Cécile Nadaï

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