A job description is the preview of the job opportunity.

A professional in active job-search mode might scan anywhere from a handful to a dozen of job descriptions every day, which can get time-consuming. The goal is to use time efficiently to pick out the opportunities that are worth pursuing, and avoid investing energy into ones that aren't likely to turn into attractive offers and satisfying careers.

This efficiency is particularly important if you are job searching while employed. Chasing dead-end job openings can do terrible things to your motivation and resilience even if you have the luxury of time and a dedicated job-search focus.

So, what is a job candidate to do in order to scan opportunities effectively, maximize the use of time, and improve the odds of finding a perfect-fit job? Here are three steps to use.

Step 1: Look beyond the job title

You must play detective and exercise discipline to see past a catchy job title. The goal is not to fall for the HR equivalent of Internet click-bait. A position that promises a manager-level title but does not come with the appropriate range of responsibilities is misleading. Same goes for an entry-level position in title that has an excessive accountability range. Be sure that the actual duties are interesting and consistent with the position level and title.

The flip side of this advice is to not automatically reject job openings that don't come with a shiny name tag. This is where personal clarity on your career goals is critical. With a little experience and careful reading, you will learn to pick out the positions that are likely to be a good fit regardless of the attached titles.

Step 2: Determine how close of a match you are

Optimal alignment between position requirements and your qualifications is a recipe for being selected for interviews and considered as a serious candidate. The easiest and most visual way to accomplish this is by taking a highlighter to the job description or placing checkmarks next to each requirement point that you meet or exceed.

Be sure that you have concrete examples, illustrations and numbers to support your proficiency when it comes to critical skills and qualifications required. Those stories will set you apart from other candidates by allowing you to weave your unique professional and personal strengths into the interview.

If your initial check identifies some gaps, it is not necessarily a reason to abandon the opportunity. Be sure that the gap is not critical (for example, you might have four years of manager-level experience instead of the required five), and brainstorm ways you could bridge it in an interview. If you don't have one of the certifications that are listed as requirements, perhaps a combination of independent study and experience will buffer the apparent shortfall.

Keep in mind that writing a job description is often approached in a manner similar to a Christmas list. Often, HR and the hiring manager create a wishlist of every possible qualification that would define a perfect candidate. Not every point weighs the same, so approach the list with a critical eye and don't give up too soon.

Step 3: Look out for hidden questions and red flags

As you review dozens of job descriptions, the ones with red flags will likely begin to reveal themselves automatically. Until you get to the point where this level of analysis is second-nature, use our checklist to stress-test the job position descriptions and save yourself time and effort.

  • Insufficient detail level and lack of clarity in the position description are worth noting first. A well-thought-out job description does not leave you wondering what your day to day responsibilities will be, how your performance will be judged, and what skills and qualifications it will take to succeed. If you find that the description is lacking detail and yet the opening is intriguing, consider reaching out to the HR specialist or the hiring manager with some clarifying questions.

  • Unreasonable or unclear expectations are the second possible hurdle. If the position calls for “an entry-level expert forensic specialist,” the contradiction is obvious – someone cannot be entry-level and expert at the same time. The company is either hoping to get a less experienced professional to perform at an expert level (for an entry-level salary), or they don't have an understanding of what they need. Either way, approach with caution.

  • A long list of “required” credentials that don't make sense given the job is a red flag that I see often. It could be an indication that the company created a wishlist that is not grounded in reality, or that the hiring manager does not know what qualifications actually matter and define success in the role.  

  • Beware of upfront commitments, especially financial ones. Same goes for extended unpaid training periods. While a probationary period of a few months is standard practice, long periods of unpaid training spell unpaid work with little security.

  • If the job posting touts “high earning potential” above and beyond base salary and benefits, tread cautiously.

  • If the job keeps popping up in your search every few months, it could be an indication of high turnover in the position – which could indicate poor management.

Your guide to playing detective and uncovering the secrets hidden inside a position's job description involves careful reading, critical thinking and lots of practice. After reviewing dozens of sample job descriptions, you will begin to pick up on words and concepts that are important to the hiring manager. You will also notice hints and insights into the working environment and company culture, and find some material for questions to ask during the interview. Add in your increased awareness about red flags and points of concern, and you will soon find yourself scanning the opportunities more efficiently and picking out the ones that are likely to offer the best fit.

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