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Lots of students focus on perfecting a cover letter and résumé, and acing an interview. But did you know there’s an art to the job search itself? There are hundreds of listings online, and as Jamie B., a sophomore at the University of California, Irvine, says, “They all end up looking the same.”
If you know what to look for, job listings can provide insight into what employers want, helping you tailor your application to their needs and stand out in a pool of hundreds of other applicants. Understanding how to interpret job postings will also help you decide if particular jobs are the right fit for you.
Liana D., a senior at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, says, “I always scroll straight to the bottom of a job listing to see if I have the qualifications to apply.”
She’s got the right idea. Reading from the bottom to the top is beneficial because usually the most important information is located at the end of the listing.
Most job ads are divided into four sections:
- Job description
- Qualifications & skills necessary
- Explanation of usual tasks and responsibilities
- Application process and contact information
Full list of job post components
Job Title: Sometimes this is the actual name of the position, or it may be a brief description of the job-reflecting its content, purpose, and scope. Unfortunately, these are sometimes very vague, such as, “Program Associate,” or “Assistant Coordinator.”
Position Summary: This defines the purpose of the job and summarizes its duties and responsibilities. Tasks and projects may be listed here.
Job Duties/Responsibilities:This section outlines the job expectations, role, and scope by describing the essential tasks, duties, and responsibilities of the job. This is also where mandatory licenses or certifications-as well as skills, abilities, and knowledge-are listed. If your experience and training match the key qualifications in the ad, then this job may be the right fit for you.
Job Type: This is where it’ll say if the job is full-time or part-time along with whether it’s permanent, temporary, or grant-funded. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to tell if a job is temporary by reading the ad alone. You may need to contact the company or agency directly to verify if the job is permanent, or you’ll have to wait until after you go through the application process to find out.
Supervisory Responsibilities: If there is supervision exercised in the position, it may be explained. The number, type, and titles of employees that are supervised by the person in the role, as well as the type of guidance offered, may be detailed.
Fiscal or Budget Management: The level and type of budgetary or financial responsibilities of the position will be explained.
Physical Demands: The type, intensity, frequency, and duration of physical tasks will be outlined. This may be something like “strenuous labor and ability to withstand hot conditions” or as simple as “ability to move small boxes.”
Working Conditions/Environment: Irregular or unusual work schedules and any unique conditions in the physical environment will be listed here. You may also find things like “access to a car and valid driver’s license” noted.
Pay special attention to the job requirements and qualifications. They designate the minimum level and type of education and experience needed to be successful at the job.
You’ll also notice that employers place different “weights” on the skills they want in a candidate, based on how critical those skills are for getting the job done effectively. Look for words like “required” and “desired.”
Am I Qualified?
- Required skills: These are mandatory. If you don’t have them, you may not want to bother applying.
- Preferred skills: These are important, so employers would really like it if you have them.
- Desired skills: These would be a bonus, and usually include very specific knowledge, such as computer programs or past work in a particular setting.
Also scan ads to learn where jobs are located and to assess whether other aspects will appeal to you. For example, do you need your job to be accessible by public transportation? Will the position require you to work during times when you need to attend classes?
Sometimes job listings aren’t clear and easy to understand. In fact, a lot of job-seekers don’t realize when a post is through an agency or consultant hired by an employer to manage the search for candidates.
Learn more about agency postings
Agencies & “Head Hunters”Many employers, especially large companies and universities, hire employment agencies or “head hunters” (people who search for applicants with necessary skills through their networks and referrals) to help fill positions. Here are some things to look for:
Does the company or organization name appear?
If not, a hiring agency is probably involved.
Is a career consultant mentioned by name?
If someone from an agency wrote the ad it should be noted, and you’ll want to direct your materials to that person. If you’re surprised that you’re interviewing with an agency, it shows the recruiter that you didn’t read the full ad, which in turn doesn’t make you the most appealing candidate.
Does the ad direct you to the company Web site?
Many postings direct applicants to the “Careers” section of the organization’s own site. You’ll be able to learn more about the application process there. This usually means you’ll be interacting directly with the company’s human resources or hiring department.
Unfortunately, there are also scam postings. “You have to be careful because a lot of scam jobs do look legit,” says Christine Colosimo, a career advisor at Humber College in Toronto, Canada.
Tips for avoiding job scams
Beware of Job ScamsAmidst the sea of opportunities on job boards, there are sharks looking for their next prey. Candidates who fall victim to these scammers usually end up in a pyramid scheme or have their identities stolen. Here are three signs that a job is probably a scam:
- It promises a lot of money for not very much work.
- You’re asked for personal information right away, such as bank accounts or your social security number.
- You’re required to pay money up front.
Once you fully understand a job posting, make sure you adapt your cover letter and résumé to discuss the qualifications and requirements listed. A more narrowly defined search will ultimately lead you to a job that best matches your skills and interests.
Get help or find out more
Arizona State University Alumni, Back to Basics 101: How to Decode Job Listings
University of Southern California School of Social Work, How to Start Your Job Search Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Top tips for your job search
Graham, B. and Reidy, M. (2009). Working World 101: The New Grad’s Guide to Getting a Job. Adams Media, Massachusetts.