Reading the Job Description, Fast and Slow

Before easy-to-use digital tools were created for content creation and distribution, job applicants used pen and paper and eventually a typewriter to craft their cover letters and resumes. They also used envelopes, stamps and a plain old telephone. The process was slow and naturally limited the number of jobs each person could apply for.

Similar to the dynamic we see today with the multi-fold increase in college application submissions, these digital tools allow job seekers to act fast. Job seekers can now apply for many more jobs in the same amount of time, often leading to a “spray and pray” mentality.

You know how it works when you’re looking for new work opportunities. You see an interesting position posted on LinkedIn, you quickly review the details and you submit your resume or CV, often selecting  “easy apply.” You can move fast. Maybe you add a brief cover letter if you’re very motivated and have the time. Then, you wait for a response. Crickets. “What’s going on?” you ask yourself. “My profile is perfect for that position!” Amidst the silence, your instincts tell you to try for more “easy apply” positions because with greater numbers, you theorize, you’ll increase your probability for positive responses.

But wait—do you know what’s really happening to your resume? In many cases, it’s transiting through the employer’s best defense against this sometimes burdensome acceleration in applicant volume: an application tracking system (ATS). Indeed, artificial intelligence and automation have made their way to the talent acquisition function in many companies and recruiting firms. In companies who have not yet embraced this technology, most likely a relatively junior human resources staffer will sift through the resumes and search for keywords that align with the hiring manager’s job specification.

More often than not, however, the assigned human resource staffer’s knowledge of the position is superficial. How could it be otherwise? How many people can be knowledgeable about the range of roles organizations need today to operate effectively?  Often, hiring managers express frustration when the assigned staffer interprets the job specification liberally and sends “off target” candidates. When this occurs, the staffer will learn an important lesson and in the future, he or she will take even fewer risks when compiling the list of top resumes.

But here’s the point: the staffer will stick very closely to the requirements specified by the hiring manager and avoid any creative interpretation of a candidate’s credentials. Perhaps ten resumes will be shared with the hiring manager. The next step is usually a screening from which a short list will be selected for “in-person,” more in-depth interviews (pre-Covid of course).

The ease of creating content and applying for jobs has made many of us think and act fast. If we send out 50 resumes, some employers have got to reply, right? No, not really.

Here are four tips to adapt to today’s job application paradigm and some guidelines on when to move fast, and slow:

  1. Think slower. Read the job specification extremely carefully and ask yourself “do I have the skills and experience to compete for this position?” If you’re not even close, don’t bother applying through this channel and explore alternative ways of getting to the hiring manager if you think you can meet the challenges of the job.
  2. Reflect slower. Make sure you really want to work for the organization or at least don’t see anything that suggests otherwise. For example, how aligned does it appear with your values and will it allow you to bring your skills and other talents to the job? How would the travel requirements or the location work with your lifestyle? It’s worth doing some due diligence before you apply.
  3. Act slower. Does your resume clearly demonstrate that you have the skills and experience required? Does it use terms similar to those you found in the job description? Does your cover letter? Don’t send a generic resume and cover letter. Create modifiable resumes and cover letters that will help you get to the next round and modify them to align with the job description. The point is not to mislead—rather, it’s to accentuate what matters to the hiring manager and make sure that you’re not overlooked for the wrong reasons.
  4. Research faster. Once you submit a tailored resume and cover letter that aligns with the job description, find connections to the company on LinkedIn or your alumni directory. If you get to the next round, you’ll want to be as informed as possible about the company and the industry. By doing so, you’ll probably leave the competition in the dust.

It is a little ironic that with more tools that automate content creation and distribution today, our effectiveness in seeking new work is sometimes hindered. While thinking fast is a valuable skill, successful job searches also require slow, deliberate thinking and action. Follow these four suggestions and you just might hear fewer crickets and see more positive responses.


David Ehrenthal is the co-founder of Mach10 Career Coaching. He’s a Gestalt trained Career Coach based in Concord, MA. He can be reached at dehrenthal@mach10career.com. Or just visit the web site at www.mach10career.com and make an appointment to talk.

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