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How to Analyze a Job Description Before Submitting Your Application

A magnifying glass resting on its side in the center of a keyboard.

Applying for a job seems simple these days. Just hit the “Apply” button or send an email, and you are on your way to a new job. Yes? If you have been job-hunting for a while, you know it isn’t that simple. Job applications and resumes seem to fall down black holes, disappearing forever, which is very discouraging.

Is there a better way?

Employers are usually inundated with responses to every job posting, an average of 250 per job. Before you hit that Apply button, take the time to make sure that your response stands out in that crowd by asking the following questions.

1. How many of the requirements/qualifications do you meet?

In a competitive job market, employers typically have their choice of job candidates, so unless you meet at least half of the requirements described, don’t waste your time by applying for the job.

Pay particular attention to the education requirement. While the education requirement listed may seem unrealistically high, education is very easy to check – and to verify – so it is often used as a key criteria. The other requirements are usually (but not always) listed in descending order of importance. So if you meet the bottom three requirements, but not the top two, you might better spend your time applying for a different job.

2. Beyond the job title, does this look like a job that you would be happy doing?

Maybe the job title is “administrative assistant” (a job you want), but the job requires someone who to do some accounts payables tasks and financial reporting, which you can do (but hate).

Carefully read the description of what the person in the job will be expected to do, often called “Duties” or “Responsibilities.” Often, like the job’s requirements, the duties/responsibilities are listed in descending order of relevance and importance to the job. Note the things in the list that you don’t enjoy doing or don’t do well – how high are they on the list?

3. Does the description contain any questions for you to answer?

Asking a question in the job description that requires an answer in your response is an employer’s favorite way to tell if you have carefully read the description. It is also a quick test of how good an employee you might be. Typically, fewer than ten percent of job seekers answer the question, which immediately eliminates ninety percent of them from consideration.

For example, a young tech company, Back Up My Info (BUMI), asks applicants to submit a joke in addition to their resume and cover letter. It helps them separate the people who pay attention from the people who don’t, and it gives them very good insight into the job applicant, depending on the joke the applicant submits. Dirty joke tellers are and those who don’t include any joke at all are both eliminated, so consider carefully when you respond to the request an employer embeds in the job description.

Answering the question indicates that you can read and understand what is in the description and also that you can follow directions. An ability to follow directions is an important “skill” to demonstrate because it is what nearly every job requires.

4. How do they want you to respond to the job posting?

Some organizations ask you submit through an applicant tracking system by simply uploading your application materials and hitting “submit.” But, the description may also contain other specifications like a specific email address for responses and/or follow up. There might also be directions in terms of what kind of materials to submit and what format they should be in.

Though it seems obvious, it’s important to follow directions. In fact, according to the Idealist survey of hiring managers, this is one their biggest pet peeves. Not following directions not only indicates that you didn’t read the job description, but it might also make it more difficult for a hiring manager to read and organize your materials.

5. Is this a real job for a real employer?

This is more about protecting your time as a job seeker than impressing an employer, but it’s equally important. Unfortunately, many job scams exist, created by people who want to collect information from you to sell or use in less legitimate ways, or who simply want to sell you their services.

If an unfamiliar employer’s name is given in the posting, do a quick check to ensure that the employer is real. Search the Internet for the employer’s name, like American Society for [whatever] Research. If the only search results you find are links to other job postings or pleas for donations, that is usually an indication that the employer is not legitimate.

On the other hand, if the employer name is legitimate, be sure that the posting is actually from that employer. For example, if the job posting appears to be for the American Cancer Society, but the email address for responding is, chances are slim that the posting is really from the American Cancer Society. When in doubt, use a search engine to find the employer’s website, and ask them to confirm that the posting is legitimately from them.

Your actions during the whole job application process are examples of your work. So, don’t waste your time with quick, slapdash responses to jobs you don’t really want. Focus your efforts on doing high-quality responses to jobs you qualify for and would enjoy doing, for employers where you would be happy to work.

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About the Author | Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and former Visiting Scholar at MIT's Sloan School of Management, Susan is editor and publisher of and Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Google+.

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