Breaking the Cipher: The Application Code

When looking for a career opportunity, it sometimes can feel like there is a cipher that must be broken before you can decode the language of applications and job postings. The process can be exhausting when considering all of the steps that must be completed for each application – especially since many large companies now use cookie cutter job templates complete with language meant to be inclusive of all the roles under that job series rather than outlining specific tasks of a particular position.

  • How do you know when to apply for a job when you don’t meet all of the company’s list of minimum qualifications?
  • What is related experience?
  • How much experience is needed to be equivalent to a degree?
  • How do I know if I am overqualified?
  • How do I demonstrate leadership experience if I have just graduated from college?

In my experience supporting talent programs and hiring initiatives at large companies and federal agencies, I have seen many people abandon opportunities due to confusion over job postings and application processes. Yet, this method of applying for jobs is here to stay, with the ability to send a general resume to a company’s hiring manager or HR team trending towards becoming a thing of the past. So, how do you navigate these waters and what can you do to make your application stand out?

Step 1: Do the Research

As you review the hundreds, maybe thousands, of job search results coming in from your favorite job board, take time to do the research for those that seem like more realistic contenders. While this will take more time at the front end, as your job search progresses, you will find that you will have the ability to create better search criteria and apply for jobs that make you more excited. Here are some tips for this process.

Don’t just look at the job posting; review the company’s website. Understand what products and services the company offers, as well as who they list as customers. This can help you to understand where the job role falls in the organization and fill in some of the blanks in cookie cutter job descriptions. Another area to look at is who do they partner with in the community and what their company value statements are. This can tell you about their company culture and whether or not that matches with your personal philosophy.

Read the job description thoroughly. Many people skim job descriptions, rather than reading them over completely. While this is a fine first step, it is important to read every part of the posting for a role that seems like a serious contender. Sometimes companies put information about the job role within their corporate profile, or they further define a requirement listed in one area elsewhere in the posting. There may even be a section where they outline what they are looking for in the application. Skimming over those parts could lead you to applying to jobs that aren’t a good fit or applying with an incomplete application for jobs that you are really excited about.

Define the job role on a larger scale. When encountering a job that you are unfamiliar with, do a search on this type of position to identify what skills you gain in this role and what the career path is for this job. As you conduct your assessment, ask yourself: Will this job lead me to the role I ultimately want?

Consider the current hiring environment. Just as it is important to understand what is happening with the stock market when investing money, or the real estate market when considering buying a home, it is important to understand what the job market is like when applying for jobs. How flexible an employer will be regarding their needs for a job can be impacted by the current demand for skilled employees in that marketplace. In addition to researching the overall job market, ensure you are looking at specific markets related to your career path as well. For example, if you are looking for a job in a STEM field, knowing a company who has a rich history of hiring for STEM job roles has just expanded to a location where you are willing to work has the potential of meaning more jobs available than with a company who experienced layoffs three months prior.

Step 2: Assess your qualifications.

Identify the Keywords. Most job descriptions use common keywords that help in assessing your qualifications compared to the job posting. Some areas to pay close attention to use of the words ‘demonstrated,’ ‘preferred,’ ‘required,’ ‘similar,’ ‘related,’ and ‘equivalent’ when relating to education and experience.

Meeting educational equivalency. A general rule of thumb to use when substituting education for experience is that one year of related experience is equal to one year of education. Therefore, if you are looking to demonstrate equivalent experience to a bachelor’s degree, the employer is most likely looking for 4-5 years of related experience. Understanding related experience vs. unrelated experience is also key to demonstrating education equivalency. If you have 7 years of experience, but none of it relates to the job you are applying for, it may not be considered equivalent. However, if you have three years of experience in a very similar job role, you may be considered.

Apply Transferable Skills. Do not discount transferrable skills when looking for related, demonstrated, or similar experiences. A person who works in the retail or restaurant industry for example may not seem to have supply chain experience, however if in your role you had to track inventory, identify stock trends to ensure product was available to meet the needs of your store or restaurant, or create reports related to supply usage and need then you may have transferrable skills that increase your qualifications. If in your job role you had to work with customers to schedule and reconfirm appointments and follow up post-appointment then while you may not know specific industry terms, those skills may apply in a variety of industries including healthcare, banking, communications, and service industries. If you tracked budgetary expenses for your sorority or fraternity those skills may nudge you ahead of other early career candidates seeking to find a job in finance or accounting. If you didn’t perform that particular job role, but you did work in that industry and you have adjacent understanding of the role from collaboration with people who perform that particular function, ensure you consider how that may make you more marketable than someone who does not have experience in that industry.

Consider the Difference Between Preferred and Required. There is a clear distinction between expectations around preferred and required skills, experiences, and education. While a company wants to check off as many qualifications as they can from both the preferred and required columns, don’t treat preferred job skills with the same weight as required job skills.

Apply the 80/20 Rule. In a best-case scenario, you will meet all required skills and at least some of the preferred skills. More often than not, though, you will meet some of the required skills and some of the preferred skills. When evaluating the posting, pay attention to the percentage of skills you meet that are preferred and the percentage of skills that are required. Don’t forget to factor in your transferable skills.  Once you finish the assessment, if you meet 80% of the qualifications, generally speaking it is a job you may get a call back from if you apply. If you find yourself applying for the same or similar job role over and over without a call back – reevaluate. Odds are that either your reassessment will show a specific area that would rule you out or you are not giving enough information in your application to demonstrate your qualifications. If it is the first, go back to doing research. Where do you fall short? Is there an action you can take to bridge the gap, such as completing a certification or taking a class?

Play the odds. Sometimes when people aren’t getting enough hits on their resume, it is because they are only applying for their first choice, dream job. Remember, earlier, when we talked about researching to determine if a job could lead you to the position you ultimately want? If you are repeatedly getting rejections for being not the most qualified candidate, go back and reexamine what jobs might help you become the most qualified. If you are applying only for jobs where a bachelor’s degree is required and two years of experience is preferred, look for jobs where a bachelor’s degree is preferred or there is no experience requirement. Move your qualifications up to the top of the pile, rather than just meeting the minimum qualifications.

Step 3: Avoid the 1 Page Resume Trap.

I can’t tell you how many candidates ask why we create resumes that are longer than one page, because somewhere at some time in their career they were told to limit their resume. As a person with extensive experience connecting employers with talent, a one-page resume will rarely get you an interview. So, unless you are a high school student, you have only held one job, or you are sending a high-level inquiry to a personal contact ensure your resume is long enough to sell the person on why you are a fit.

They don’t know what you don’t tell them. Any time you look at a job posting and say, “I can do that,” ensure the proof is in your resume. Don’t leave it to someone else to infer your qualifications from your resume. Ensure competencies are demonstrated and not just stated. For example, saying “I am a team player,” is not the same as demonstrating your ability to work in a team dynamic by providing tangible examples of how you have been successful in doing that.

Don’t skip application fields. Just like the one-page resume, people get burnt out filling out application fields. However, fields where you are given an opportunity to explain your qualifications or provide insight into your fit for the job role are key to being at the top of the candidate pool. Telling someone to review your resume won’t get the job done.

Don’t go to the other extreme. It is still important that your resume is succinct and easy to read. While one or two sentences about what you have accomplished at a position is not enough, five or six pages is too much. While resumes that are too short might not give you the space you need to market your skills, resumes that are too long might not be read because it is too hard to find the information you are looking for as an employer. A good rule of thumb in determining what to include and what not to include is to ask yourself, “Did I explain the main thing I did in this job role” and “Did I include what I did in this job role that helped me build competencies applicable to the job I want?”

Regardless of where you are in your career, understanding how to navigate the job search process can help to make the difference in being selected to interview or being a runner up. Following these steps can position you to make the best decisions when reviewing job boards for that next great opportunity.

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Looking for more insight from a recruiter? Read Stand Out as a Candidate with Two Little Words.