How to Read a Job Description the Right Way—So You Can Stop Sending Resumes Into the Void was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
When’s the last time you read a job description? If you’re currently job hunting, your immediate answer might be something like “last night” or “a few minutes ago.” But ask yourself: When’s the last time you really read a job posting, taking the time to absorb every word and truly reflect on the content? Your answer might be different.
“A lot of job seekers will do a cursory glance [at] a job description and then apply, without ever thinking about or referring to the job description again,” says Muse career coach Jennifer Fink, CEO and founder of Fink Development. It’s easy to fall into this kind of rhythm, especially when you’re trying to apply to as many openings as you can. But “this is a mistake,” Fink says—one that can prolong your job search or cause you to miss out on a job you might have loved.
Thoroughly reading every job description, noting certain information, and using it the right way can not only lower the number of applications you need to submit to land a job, but also increase your chances of getting interviews, help you prepare for those interviews, and ensure you can make an informed decision about whether a job is right for you.
(Still looking for jobs to apply to? You can find hundreds of thousands of postings on The Muse!)
A job description (also called a job posting or job listing) is the information an employer shares about an open position—on LinkedIn, their own website, or any job board. It includes details about the job and company, everything the employer is looking for in a hire, and specifics about the application process.
“Reading every word of a job description can feel like a chore when you’re already sold on applying for the position based on the title or company,” says Muse career coach Heather Yurovsky, Job Offer Catalyst and Resume Coach, Shatter & Shine. “But the key to your application is understanding that job description inside and out.”
No matter what role you’re applying for, you need to demonstrate what value you’ll add to the team or company, says Muse career coach Lynn Berger. And a job description is your guide to figuring out exactly what an employer needs. Think of it as your cheat sheet for finding the right job—and getting hired.
Job postings won’t all include the same info, or list it in the same order, but here’s what you’re likely to come across as you read. For each section, take note of ways you specifically qualify for the position and how it matches what you’re looking for:
- Position title: Note how the job title matches up with your career level and interests.
- Company name: You can do some quick pre-application research on a company to see if this is somewhere you’d like to work.
- Company description: Pay attention to how an organization talks about itself, its values, its growth, and its employees to see what’s most important to them and learn how you might add to their culture and work environment.
- Employment type: The posting should indicate whether the hire will be a full-time employee, part-time employee, contractor, or freelancer as well as if a position will be exempt or non-exempt.
- Job location: Postings should also note if a role will be fully in-office, completely remote, or hybrid.
- Job overview or summary: Make sure you read through this high-level explanation of the position and its responsibilities.
- Job responsibilities or duties: Companies often include this information as a bulleted list of what the person in this role will do on a daily, weekly, or otherwise regular basis.
- Required qualifications: This might include your years of experience as well as education, skills, experience, certificates, certifications, physical abilities, security clearance levels, or willingness to submit to a background check. Companies may split this information into multiple sections.
- Preferred, additional, or bonus qualifications: Postings might also list “nice-to-have” qualifications that aren’t mandatory.
- Benefits: Companies will often list some of the benefits and perks that will be part of a job or its compensation package.
- Salary: Unfortunately, having pay listed on a job description isn’t a given, but when a company chooses to disclose it, take note of how it aligns with your expectations.
- Legal disclosures: Many job descriptions will include anti-discrimination language or indicate that that an organization will provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), for example. The lack of this language doesn’t mean the employer isn’t subject to these laws, however.
- Immigration status information: Some job listings will also state up front if they can offer visa sponsorship.
- Vaccination status: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers will opt to or be required to mandate vaccines. Some may add it to a job description. Yes, this is legal.
- Application instructions: Follow any instructions on how a company would like you to apply—plus what materials or info to include with your application—as closely as you can.
“You don’t need to read every job description like you’re going to be quizzed on each and every detail,” Yurovsky says, but you do need to read with your full focus—and more than once.
The first time you read a job description, “Treat it like a reading comprehension exercise,” Yurovsky says. Read it “all the way through, top to bottom.” Then, do a quick gut check. Is this the type of job you could do and would want to do? If the answer is yes, read the job description again.
As you read, it’s important to remember that some of the information you’re looking for “will be explicit and some will be implicit, so it’s imperative that you read between the lines,” Fink says. Take the time to really understand the message a company is putting forth.
Here are a few things to mark or note as you read:
What Qualifications the Employer Wants in an Applicant
As you read, highlight, underline, or write down details that give you more insight into what an employer is looking for. Fink suggest looking for four types of information as you read:
- Experiences that would help a person land or perform this job
- Skills that would help a person land or perform this job
- Education or training that would help a person land or perform this job
- Company values
What’s Most Important to the Role
You’ll also want to get an idea of what experience, skills, education, and values are most important for a job. There are two main clues that a particular point is especially vital for landing and thriving in a certain position:
- Repetition: Typically, a job description will include three to five themes or ideas that are mentioned more than once and across different sections, Yurovsky says. These will be a mix of core abilities crucial to thriving in the job and personal qualities that will add to the team and workplace. The more a skill or quality comes up, the more important it is.
- Order of information: For lists of job duties, you can safely assume that the first few bullet points are a bigger part of the job than anything that comes at the end of the list. Similarly, for qualifications, whatever a company chooses to list first is likely very important to landing the job.
Which Keywords You Can Use Later
Muse career coach Andrea Gerson recommends keeping an eye out for phrases in a job description that describe important job duties, requirements, and skills as well as company attributes. These keywords can tell you more about the job and the employer and they’ll come in handy later as you apply for the position, so note them as you read.
For example, if a job posting had one of the responsibilities listed as, “Continuously improve production planning, logistics, and order fulfillment processes to maximize process efficiency and productivity,” you might pull out “production planning” or “order fulfillment” as keywords, Gerson says.
Whether the Posting Relies on Buzzwords and Vague Phrasing
As opposed to keywords, buzzwords are often vague and don’t necessarily tell you anything specific about a job or company. They might indicate that the folks hiring don’t know what they need or are trying to disguise a non-ideal work environment.
For example, think of those words and phrases you associate with “hustle culture,” Fink says. When a job description talks about looking for someone who’s willing to “go the extra mile,” “readily change hats,” and “put in long hours,” that could be a sign “of an environment that doesn’t have its stuff together or is going to place a lot of demands on the worker, without saying that explicitly,” Fink says.
You should also note language like “ninja” or “rock star,” especially when it’s used in the place of a more specific term—does “communications rock star” mean “communications coordinator” or “communications director”? Or will you actually be expected to perform songs that send a message to large crowds of people?
If There Are Any Other Red Flags
While most of the elements of a job description can be positive or negative based on the job seeker, there are certain phrases and tip-offs that should give you pause regardless of your preferences.
Beware of “unicorn postings,” Finch says, which are descriptions “that list the strengths, skills, and experience of five people rolled into one.” Yurovsky adds that job descriptions with laundry lists of requirements “can signal a hiring manager who has unrealistic expectations or a company that actually isn’t truly ready to hire yet because it hasn’t taken the time to craft a clear job description.”
Another common red flag is the infamous entry-level job that requires three to five years (or more!) of experience, which can signal an unwillingness to train employees, a desire to pay experienced professionals less than what they’re worth, or a number of other qualities you don’t want in an employer.
Even more insidious are the red flags for job scams, illegal businesses, and just less-than-savory activities. For example, beware of any sales jobs where you only make commission or need to purchase supplies or inventory. A job that promises you can make large amounts of money for little work or asks you to send a resume without any specifics about the role itself is also more likely to be a scam.
Whatever’s Most Important to You
Before you even start your job search, you should take the time to figure out exactly what you’re looking for in your next role and what matters most to you. “I often suggest job seekers develop a list of non-negotiables,” says Muse career coach Cassandra Spencer. This list can include anything that’s a must for your next role such as salary requirements, certain remote work policies, specific perks and benefits, and tasks and duties you do or don’t want. Think back to your list as you read each and every job description.
Once you’ve thoroughly read any given job posting, here’s how you can implement what you’ve learned.
1. Decide If You’re Going to Apply
In addition to doing your initial gut check when you read a job description for the first time, you need to make sure a position still makes sense for you once you’ve dug deeper. “Applying to jobs can be mentally, emotionally, and physically draining so we don’t want to be dedicating that energy unless it’s a job we truly want and are a good fit for,” Fink says.
Take a look at all the elements you highlighted in the job description: the qualifications, the job duties, the company values, the potential drawbacks, and your personal “non-negotiables.” Ask yourself if you match up with the company’s expectations and, just as importantly, if the job matches up to your expectations.
But don’t think you need to check every single box when it comes to qualifications. “Often, job postings are written by a combination of an HR department and a hiring manager, and might include a ton of ‘nice-to-haves’ that aren’t realistic to find in one single human being,” Fink says, so take them with a grain of salt.
If you think you can do the job based on your skills and past experiences, you should apply. Applicants who don’t meet 100% of qualifications will be considered for almost any job, yet research has shown that most people, especially women, skip applications because they don’t exactly tick all the boxes.
2. Tailor Your Application Materials
Reflect on which of the themes, skills, experiences, qualities, and keywords in a job description pertain to you. Work these into your resume, cover letter, and any other application materials to make it clear to anyone reading why you’re a great fit for the job. Applicants “need to take the lead and connect the dots for the hiring manager,” says Muse career coach Anne M. Kelly.
You should tailor your resume for every job, and do the same for your cover letter by expanding on the skills, experiences, and themes that you’ve realized matter most. So for instance, for a job description that emphasizes teamwork and collaboration, you might choose to highlight projects you’ve worked on as part of a group by mentioning them in your resume bullets and telling a relevant story in your cover letter.
And use the same phrasing as the job description whenever possible! “Speak the employer’s language” by using those keywords that you spotted while reading the job description, Kelly says. So if a job description mentions “QuickBooks,” don’t just say you’ve used “accounting software.” In addition to helping a human reader understand why you’re qualified for a job, working in keywords will help computers to parse and sort your application. Most companies use applicant tracking systems (ATSs) to search for resumes that contain relevant keywords, particularly if a given opening has gotten a lot of applications.
3. Prepare for Your Interview
Even after you’ve been called for an interview, the job description still matters. So save every posting you apply to in a format you can return to easily—even if the company takes it down. You can screenshot it, save it as a pdf, or copy and paste the text into another document, for example.
When you’re preparing for your interview, look back at the job posting to get a sense of what’s most important to the job and company—i.e., what interviewers are most likely to ask about or look for in your answers. Prepare to highlight your most relevant qualities and qualifications in your answers to common interview questions. This might be skills and experiences, but it could also be why you want to work for a company or how you’re a good representative of their values.
For example, if the company is looking for a “self-starter,” you might want to be ready to talk about a time you took initiative at a past job. Or if the job description keeps mentioning “data-driven decision-making,” “using data,” and “data analysis,” come prepared to speak about how you’ve analyzed data in the past and what results you were able to achieve. You can even jot down some specific numbers so you’re ready to give the interviewer a really full picture of something you’re likely to be asked about.
No matter what position you’re applying for, go into your interview prepared with several stories that really highlight not only why you’d be great for the job, but also how you’d add to the company and team if you were to join them.