Ever stumbled across a job title, gotten really excited, and then felt the enthusiasm and energy drain out as you read through the requirements? A job listing’s qualifications can turn a prospective candidate off before he or she has even had a chance to read through the entire list—some of them are just that long and complicated. But, do you really need to fulfill every single thing on the list?
And, if the answer is no, is there a percentage, or a certain number of descriptors you must meet? I reached out to our career coaches for their thoughts on this tricky topic. Although I’ve long suspected that hiring managers put every possible requirement they can dream up on there, with little hope that the right person for the job will have all the qualifications, I never thought of it as a wish list more than anything else. And yet, that’s what one coach is comfortable calling it.
The thing is this: If you believe you can do the job and are a good match, save for this thing or that, you should absolutely put yourself out there. Just make sure you’re being realistic when it comes to knowing the difference between almost qualified and not even close. And know that you’re going to have to take a few extra steps than just clicking submit, such as finding an “in” at the company, completing a pre-interview project, and using your cover letter to make your case.
Read on for advice on being an awesome candidate when your job requirement checklist needs some work.
1. Focus on Your Transferable Skills
The requirements listed in job descriptions are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. You don’t have to satisfy every requirement or meet every qualification listed. If your skills are transferable and you are in the ballpark with the number of years of experience the company’s looking for, apply. Applying gives you the opportunity to be considered.
2. Complete a Pre-Interview Project
Are you confident you could do the job, and are you legitimately excited about the opportunity? If the answers to those two questions are yes, then do everything in your power to get in front of someone at the company who can refer you for the role. Startups tend to be flexible on some of the ‘requirements’ listed—as long as you can show passion for what the organization is doing and prove to them through a project (or other means) that you’re the real deal. I’ve seen this technique work over and over again. You just have to be willing to do the legwork that your competition isn’t!
3. Find a Direct Connection at the Company
Interestingly, gender seems to play a role in how clients approach this question. In my experience, men will apply to jobs regardless of their alignment with required qualifications. If they want the job, they’ll go for it. Women are much more hesitant, and look for nearly perfect alignment before going for a job. This divide is echoed by research in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I tell clients that if they are at least 60% qualified, they should go for it—but only if they’re able to network and find a direct point of contact at a company, rather than applying through an online tracking system.
4. Figure Out the Non-Negotiables
What I see hold smart, ambitious job seekers back is not a lack of confidence, but a mistaken perception about the hiring process. A dirty little secret of hiring managers is that job descriptions are more like wish lists than set-in-stone requirements. Err on the side of boldness: If you meet at least 75% of the qualifications, apply—but be smart about sussing out the non-negotiables. Applying online? Keywords are king. Put the job posting into a word cloud application. See what stands out, then make sure your resume showcases your experience using keywords that align with what they care about the most. You’ll beat the ATS and show the hiring manager why you’re perfect for the job. You can also do research on Glassdoor, through networking, or using LinkedIn to get insider knowledge about the company.
5. Read Between the Lines
Honestly, many job descriptions are hacked together, based on what that company saw was listed for similar positions at other places. And in many cases, job descriptions are meant to weed people out who won’t even take the time to apply because they think they’re unqualified. Some qualifications are even contradictory (I remember applying for jobs in college and seeing listings ask for five to seven years of social media marketing experience, when at that point, social media had only been around for four years). Rarely does a person meet every single bullet, so if you feel like you meet the core competencies, you should apply.
6. Use Your Cover Letter to Make Your Value Add Clear
The job description’s basically the employer’s wish list for what the company’s hoping to find in a candidate; it’s not a checklist. An applicant may meet all the stated criteria but still lack some crucial quality that makes him the right fit for the job. If you meet at least some qualifications and are really excited about the position and confident that you would be a good choice, convey that enthusiasm in your cover letter. Draw the reader’s attention to your qualifications and highlight other strengths that make you worthy of consideration. How would you contribute in a unique and positive way? How have you made a difference in other settings? Taking the time to personalize the cover letter can really pay off.
7. Show Your Enthusiasm
I spent 10 years as the director of a nonprofit, and I fielded hundreds of job applications. The people I ultimately chose to hire were not always the ‘most qualified’ or the ‘most experienced.’ They were the people who demonstrated genuine enthusiasm for the organization and our mission. Skills can be acquired. But enthusiasm is either there—or it’s not. I’d say, if you feel genuinely excited about a particular role or company, go for it! Apply! You’ve got nothing to lose—and who knows? The hiring manager might see that ‘spark’ in your eyes and decide, ‘She’s the one.’
8. Check the Match
The thing to remember is that the hiring manager is not always exactly sure (consciously or not) of what he’s looking for, so he’s putting out a description that he thinks will work, casting the widest net, and attracting the most ‘qualified’ candidates. There may be a few hard and fast requirements, but the rest of the description’s a best guess at who’ll be an ideal fit for the opening. If after thoroughly considering and researching the type of company and role that matches with your experience and passion you can make a strong argument as to why you would be a good candidate, you should absolutely apply. Make sure to explain in a cover letter the connection, and try to find a direct link to the hiring manager so you can argue your case for applying.
Photo of man applying to job courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.