We all read job descriptions the same way: we hurry over the parts that we are qualified for, and we over-react to elements we think we are not qualified for. Many of us (especially women) take ourselves out of the running for most jobs without even applying, and end up feeling more defeated than excited at the end of a job-search session:
Men and women also gave the same most common reason for not applying, and it was by far the most popular, twice as common as any of the others, with 41% of women and 46% of men indicating it was their top reason: “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy.”
In other words, people who weren’t applying believed they needed the qualifications not to do the job well, but to be hired in the first place. They thought that the required qualifications were…well, required qualifications. They didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications. What held them back from applying was not a mistaken perception about themselves, but a mistaken perception about the hiring process.
You can end this negative cycle in a counterintuitive way: by giving more room and thought to the ‘no’ elements you find in job descriptions.
To get started, find a job description that’s intriguing but feels like a reach. Don’t worry, you don’t have to apply for the job (unless you really want to), so it doesn’t matter if it makes you nervous.
Copy-and-paste your way to confidence
You’ll need a spreadsheet with eight columns.
The first three are easy, but don’t skip them!
1. Company name
2. Job title & link
3. Yes, I qualify. Copy and paste every requirement that you already qualify for. Do not skip the “Yes” column. There are many skills we tend to undervalue because they come naturally to us. We wrack our brains to try to come up with more esoteric and specialized abilities. No wonder we get paralyzed. After you do this for several job descriptions, your Yes column is going to get big, and that’s great. There are lots of things you bring to the table, just the way you are. “Close enough” counts: if the description asks for five years’ experience, and you only have four, paste into the Yes column, perhaps with a highlight or note.
When four No’s are better than one: columns four, five, six and seven.
Columns 4, 5, 6 and 7 are all dedicated to the “no” elements of the job description (things we think we don’t qualify for). We treat all the things in our mental No category the same, but they are not, and your reactions to them shouldn’t be either. There’s a big difference between “No” and “Not yet.”
4. Not yet but within easy reach: Copy and paste things that you could get reasonably good at with two weeks & two books. These will be current-skillset-adjacent, or align with interests you haven’t fully explored.
5. Not yet but exciting and possible in 4-6 months: Copy and paste requirements that you could nail 4-6 months after getting the job. Maybe you only manage two people now, and the job asks for experience managing 10. Goosebumps! Maybe you haven’t created a strategy before, but you know that if you had some time to think, research, and work on it, you could nail it. Goosebumps! This column reminds you you don’t have to be great at everything right this minute. It reminds you that, as exhausted and beaten-down as you may feel now, you won’t always feel this way, and that exciting challenges will spark you into action.
6. Not yet but in a year or two: Copy and paste requirements that would take more than six months to meet, but that you think you can master in a year or two if you work hard. This column will help you separate easy-reach jobs from major-reach jobs, and create your very own development plan and goals.
7. Absolutely Not. Copy and paste elements of the job description that you don’t qualify for, and don’t want to qualify for! You’ll see that qualifications you don’t meet in job descriptions are often ones you don’t meet on purpose. For example, some job descriptions for designers in the digital world ‘require’ that the applicant be a proficient coder. Most designers I know are never going to be coders. They don’t want to, they wouldn’t be particularly good at it, and they made a choice to focus on design. Many would also argue that hiring one person to do both jobs is a mistake. Instead of feeling badly about themselves, designers could feel like the company posting the description has a lot to learn, and that applying for the job could be an opportunity to re-craft the company’s approach.
Column eight: what if?
8. What if… The final column is the place to collect notes on things you could say (or do) about the things in each column if you did decide to apply. You should also include your thoughts about what the job description is missing as it’s written. Should the company be thinking about sustainability? Are there skills and experiences that they should be looking for but don’t mention?
If you do decide to apply for a job on your spreadsheet, you can use your columns to prepare:
- Yes: What are some great stories or highlights you could feature? What might you say about ‘close enough’ notes?
- Not yet but within easy reach: Maybe you want to start that two week clock right now!
- Not yet but exciting and possible in 4-6 months: Don’t get intimidated. Really focus on what you would do with those glorious 4-6 months in your brand new job. Prepare a plan you can share with the hiring manager.
- Not yet but in a year or two: Don’t take yourself out of the running! It’s not your job to decide you’re not qualified. You may bring many other things the hiring manager wants and needs. Again, create a self-development plan to share with the hiring manager. This will demonstrate your self-awareness, ability to create action plans, and readiness to be loyal to a company that will help you grow. But don’t take it personally if you don’t get an interview.
- Absolutely Not: If you are intrigued by a job but there are some critical “absolutely not” disconnects between what they are looking for and what you offer, you have several options. You can suggest an alternative approach to the company, backed up with strong thinking and materials supporting your alternative. You can also position yourself as an exception: “I think the designer-coder model is very interesting and offers a lot of benefits. My expertise in UX is so deep and wide that I choose to throw all my energy into that and be a true expert specialist. That benefits you because…”
Start thinking of job descriptions as big, dumb bullies.
There’s a reason people say “I’ll throw together a job description.” They are often cribbed from other job descriptions. Usually, job descriptions aren’t reflections of great insight into what it takes to get a job done. They are written by people who have a problem they want to solve; many authors have no idea how to do the job the right way.
Instead of letting job descriptions break down your confidence, turn the tables on your own reactions. Don’t stop with ‘no’; instead, break every no into: not yet, exciting and possible, in a year or two, and absolutely not. Put two job descriptions into your spreadsheet every day, and you’ll have a brand new outlook on your job search in a week.
The title of this article is in honor of Larry Tesler, my boss when I was at Amazon, and the inventor of copy-and-paste.