June 6, 2017

Author: Jerry Brennan  

Cross Section of a Nautilus Shell. Anatomy of a Security Job Description.

Job descriptions are historically ugly things. How should you be reading one to decide if you want to apply?

One of the most common criticisms of the job search process SMR hears from candidates is "I apply to everything and I know I have skills and qualifications. Why aren't companies considering me?"

Applying for security jobs has always been a challenging exercise, and it's become even more frustrating with the proliferation of job boards and social media sites. Candidates often have no idea exactly how - or if - their information is being sent to companies in response to job listings. There is a temptation to apply to everything to increase the odds of success.

While a numbers game occasionally works, mass mailing your resume to every job you see does not generally yield good results. Closely analyzing the job description and targeting the ones that match your skill set will.

How should you read a job description to ascertain if you should apply? The obvious answer is you should read it all the way through. However, the longer and more exhaustive the job description, the less likely you are to either read or retain all of it. Additionally, most job advertisements are seen and responded to online, so you often also need to scroll or page down to read a complete listing. Because of this, the first screen of information is often the only page of information seen.

The reality is that reading line by line is not how people scan through something on the internet. We tend to scan in a Z-pattern or an F-pattern, and that means large sections of job descriptions get missed. The farther down the page or screen, the less gets seen. It is impossible to know if you are a match for a description since you likely won't read it all.

Let's face it: job descriptions are historically ugly things. Sometime there is too little detail, but it is more likely there is too much. Lists of tasks often substitute for key responsibilities and year-specific ranges of experience replace competencies likely found in a candidate who would be a perfect fit.

While some companies are good at producing job descriptions, SMR still sees job outlines that look much more like someone's annual performance appraisal rather than a portrait of a successful candidate. Often the compensation structure for a position is tied to the quantity of things it is responsible for, so more-is-more comes into play. Listings like this fail to yield good search results, though, because they are rarely read all the way through by prospective candidates.

A great - and effective - job description is one that defines the position together with the key experience and qualities of the ideal candidate to fill it. Rather than a laundry list of duties, it should be presented in a manner that engages both hiring company and the candidate.

When SMR takes on a new assignment, we work closely with our client partners to understand the essence of the job to avoid that exhaustive list of duties. We isolate the functions that are most imperative and identify competencies that grow from relevant background and experience. The goal is a job description that paints a picture of the role for candidates, one they can access easily, read quickly and make an informed determination if they meet key criteria.

An argument for more-is-more remains in some cases, however, which is why those long job descriptions are likely to be around for the foreseeable future. Positions on job boards and social media sites are searched by automated systems with algorithms that are often looking for keywords. Job descriptions with fewer keywords may not rank as well, so the exhaustive lists still have a place for machines and software programs.

The advice we offer candidates who are frustrated that they have applied for everything but gotten nothing is to try to read everything about the job before applying. It can be tedious work. Extracting an understanding of what a company is looking for amongst all those words will offer you the opportunity to write a relevant cover letter and customize a resume specifically for that job. Doing that will place you at the top of the list of candidates.


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