Are you ready for one of the best-kept secrets of the job search process? Unless the person doing the hiring has previously worked in the exact role he’s trying to fill, a fair amount of the job description is guesswork.
Think about it: Hiring managers have to write a description that will simultaneously entice people to apply and ward off those who wouldn’t qualify for an interview. Also, haven’t you heard stories of a person who “met all of the qualifications” being passed over in the final stages for someone who “seemed like a better fit?” Probably so—because a company would much rather hire the candidate with two years of experience who seems like she could hit the ground running than someone with the requisite five years who failed to demonstrate strong communication skills.
So what’s a job seeker who doesn’t quite meet all the requirements in a position description to do? How can you tell the non-negotiable requirements from the ones you could compensate for with your other awesome skills? And—more importantly—how do you broach the subject in your cover letter?
Read on for your three-step plan.
Step 1: Ask Yourself if You Could Do the Job
Notice that I didn’t suggest asking, “Do you want the job?” or even, “How much do you want the job?” Honestly, those questions are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about working in a foreign language—if the job requires translating documents, and you’re only conversational, you’re not qualified. Similarly, it doesn’t matter how fascinating you find a company: You shouldn’t apply for a job running its website if you don’t have any of the technical skills required.
Instead, read through the job description and try to get a sense of what someone in the role would do each day. In your mind, break out “public relations experience” into writing press releases, pitching media, and representing a brand. Think of “writing experience” as the ability to write concisely, persuasively, and with proper grammar.
After you’ve worked through the job description in this way, you’ll have a more accurate sense of what you have to offer versus what skills you may be lacking.
Step 2: Ignore “Bonus” Requirements
Some requirements are listed because they “sound good.” For example, I once edited a job description to remove the words “from a prestigious university” from after “bachelors degree.” (Yes, sadly, this a true story—someone on the team had thought those words would make the job seem impressive. Moreover, what was the person in charge of hiring going to do—purchase the latest copy of U.S. News & World Report?) Occasionally, ridiculous phrasing happens to good descriptions because someone on the team thinks it “sounds good,” but that’s no reason not to apply.
Another way companies flub the job description (read: scare off qualified candidates) is listing requirements for a “dream applicant”—e.g., a laundry list of advanced computer skills for a job that primarily requires hands-on interaction with kids. But truthfully, companies aren’t going to stall the hiring process until the dream applicant saunters in—solid, qualified applicants (like you!) get interviews, too. So, if there is a dumping ground of desired skills at the end of the description, see them as bonus skills, and focus your application on all of the core skills you do have.
Still feeling nervous about ignoring the dream requirements? Think of the job description like a dating profile. Yes, I do have one friend whose husband speaks French, runs his own company, flies planes, and volunteers with orphans oversees through a religious charity. But the rest of the group is more than happy with good partners who treat them right.
Step 3: Use the Magic Words
Sometimes the required skills you are missing don’t fit into either of the above categories: While not a deal-breaker, they will factor into the job, and they’re more than icing on the cake. First things first, remember this sage advice from Lily Zhang, and do not write the “I know I don’t have the right experience, but…” cover letter.
Zhang uses one of my favorite terms in her article: transferrable skills. Yes, I think the term “transferrable skills” has magical job-search powers that shouldn’t be underestimated. Why? Because a critical piece of the application process is connecting the dots between the experience you already posses and that which the position calls for.
Just make sure you don’t over-reach for relevant experience. For example, do not try to explain how babysitting prepared you to be an executive assistant because you’ve previously been in charge of scheduling someone else’s afternoon. Do focus on how lessons learned from prior experience would apply to a future role. (Think: Sales experience would prepare you for fundraising, because in each role you’re asking someone to write a check, or your obsessive desire to organize and schedule would be relevant to a job in operations.)
Then, try this cover letter template, which focuses more on the skills you do have than the specific experiences you don’t.
If you’re interested in a role and could see yourself doing a great job, don’t let a few missing qualifications stop you from applying. Follow the steps above, and then, wait and see. You may not be selected for an interview; but you could also be the best person for the job, and applying is the only way you’ll know.