As a hiring manager, I’ve written a lot of job descriptions. And let me be honest: They’ve all been wish lists–a combination of what I need and what I want from a candidate.
A job description includes both the real and the ideal: the qualifications that candidates must have in order to succeed in a given role, and the qualifications we believe will have the greatest, often quickest impact in a role, given what we know about the company and team they’ll be joining. In other words, a “real” requirement in a job description might look like this: “experience working in consumer tech.” But an “ideal” requirement might look more like this: “experience working at a fast-paced consumer tech startup.”
As a job seeker, what does that mean for you? If you find yourself discouraged by a job description that you aren’t 100% “qualified” for, you’ve still got a fighting chance. Here’s how to know when to pass and when to apply.
Distinguish The Must-Haves From The Nice-To-Haves
Your first step is to figure out what the core requirements are for the job, and what the “extras” are. If you’re already pretty familiar with the role based on your current work experience, you’ll probably have a strong sense of what’s actually required to get the job done–no matter what the actual job posting says.
For instance, I’ve been in user research for over six years. When I see a job listing that requires a degree in HCI or psychology, I know that’s a nice-to-have but not a must-have. How? Because over the course of my career in UX, I’ve only worked with a handful of researchers with those exact degrees. Most of us–myself included–have all sorts of credentials (degrees in anthropology, literature, art history, archaeology, and so on), so I’ve learned from experience that a specific degree isn’t a make-or-break qualification.
If you’re new to the field, however, it may be harder to distinguish must-haves from nice-to-haves. In that case, look at other job postings for the same role to see what comes up again and again. It’s likely that the core requirements will be repeated across job postings and that they won’t change much from company to company–only the “stretch” or ideal “requirements” will.
Your network can also come in handy for telling these apart. Reach out to those who have experience in the role you’re seeking for more context. Between the information you have at your fingertips online, and what you can gain from your network, you’ll be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in no time.
If You Meet The Core Requirements, Just Apply
Now that you know what the extras are, it’s easier to benchmark yourself against the core requirements. So if you’ve done your research and clearly hit the main criteria for a role, go ahead and apply. Be realistic about your abilities and how they map to those core requirements, but don’t let yourself get hung up over hitting every single bullet point.
This is particularly true if you’re a woman. As one researcher found in a survey she piloted in 2014, men typically apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the requirements, whereas women wait until they meet 100% of those same requirements. So ladies, if you hit the key qualifications but not the rest, I’m telling you on behalf of all other hiring managers: We want to hear from you!
Get Ready To Answer Questions About Those Stretch Requirements
As you move further in the interview process, expect questions from the hiring manager about those stretch qualifications. For instance, if you’ve nailed all the main criteria but are missing a stretch requirement like “experience working at large tech companies,” be prepared to explain how your experience in small tech companies still equips you for working in a traditional corporate environment. Now that you’re in the door, you want to make sure you can close the deal.
Fill In Any Gaps That Might Be Liabilities
Finally, be honest with yourself about any weak spots. If you’re not hitting those core qualifications, resist the temptation to apply–you’ll only be wasting your time and the hiring manager’s time.
Instead, focus your efforts for now on plugging the gaps. If every job posting you’ve looked at requires experience developing marketing strategies and plans, get to work! Take a class to learn that skill, volunteer to build up experience in this area, or take on a stretch assignment at your current job so you can brush up. As you make headway, reassess your capabilities against those core requirements. Once you’ve acquired enough of those essential qualifications, you’ll be ready to throw your hat in the ring–and be a stronger candidate to boot.