What Should You Pay Attention to as You Read a Job Description?
“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
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
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 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.