A couple of years ago, I applied for a role with an advertising agency. Naturally, I went through the job description with a fine-tooth comb—once before sending in my resume, another time before the phone interview, and once more before heading in for an in-person interview.
I wanted to make sure I had the lowdown on all of the key duties and responsibilities associated with the job. But, there was one big problem I kept running into: Every single time I looked at the description on the company’s website, it was different. It was as if they couldn’t exactly decide what they needed—so they continued to adjust it depending on what suited them best that day.
Of course, this made preparing pretty challenging on my end. By the time I made it to the first in-person interview, I felt totally unclear on what I was even interviewing for. And, even worse, I felt trapped. How was I supposed to gain more clarity on the specific position, without sounding like I was asking, “Wait, what the heck is this job we’re talking about?” I knew it was way too late in the game for me to sound that ignorant.
Perhaps you haven’t run into a situation in which the company keeps making tweaks mid-hiring process. But, I’m willing to bet you’ve still had those times when you’ve wanted more detail about the specifics of a position—but didn’t know how to ask without sounding uninformed.
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to get the information you want, without coming off as completely unprepared. I chatted with two career experts to find out how you can get those nitty gritty details you need—and still make it clear that you’ve done your research.
1. The Earlier You Ask, The Better
When it comes to asking questions about a particular role, successful timing is one of the most important things for you to consider. After all, you don’t want to end up so far in the interview process (uh, like I did) that your questions seem way too delayed, and thus inappropriate.
“The first or second interview is typically the best time to ask more high-level questions about the job as, by the time you get to the final round, it’s expected that you’ll have a pretty clear understanding of what you’ll be interviewing for,” explains Jaclyn Westlake, a recruiter and a Muse columnist.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t ask any questions later in the process. But, as Westlake says, make it your goal to have a solid grasp on the actual job by the time you reach the later interviews.
2. Look at Similar Roles
Perhaps you’re dealing with a job description that’s written with incredibly ambiguous language, tons of complicated jargon, or is just generally lacking information. What now? How can you get a handle on what’s expected from that role, when the description is so empty?
“If the job description is vague, look up other job descriptions with similar titles and build questions from those details,” shares Muse Career Coach, Lauren Latin.
Let’s say you’re applying for a role as a marketing manager. Latin suggests using the information you find from other descriptions to ask a question like, “The title here is marketing manager. In my research, I noticed that in many places this position includes social media, but the job description didn’t specify here. I’d love to hear more about what the position here covers.”
Yes, the company’s career page might be void of the details you need. But, do your best to get a feel for the general responsibilities associated with a role, so that you can pose informed questions—rather than flat out asking, “So, what would I actually do here?”
3. Lead With What You Know
Doing the research above allows you to implement an effective tactic: Prefacing your questions with something that you already know. “Asking broad, open-ended questions about the role or leading with something that you do know first are great ways to find out more about the job without seeming unprepared,” Westlake says.
So, how do you do this? Westlake offers an example that shows just how simple and effective this can be. “Try saying something like, ‘I know that this role will involve managing payroll, accounts payable, and accounts receivable, but will I be responsible for budgeting as well?’”
In regards to those broad, open-ended questions Westlake mentioned, there are quite a few that can be helpful in getting you additional details about a specific role. Asking questions like, “What can you tell me about this job that goes beyond the scope of the description?” or “What is the most crucial thing you’d like me to accomplish in my first month at the company?” are great ways to get a better feel for the position.
But, if you can’t find a subtler way to get the information you need, never hesitate to just be straightforward. “It there continue to be aspects that are unclear, simply asking those questions in a direct manner shows interest and confidence,” shares Latin. It’s always better to know than to be left wondering.
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4. Don’t Point Out Discrepancies
When you’re left feeling puzzled about a role’s responsibilities, it can be tempting to point out the discrepancies in the description. You’re desperate to find a way to justify your confusion and illustrate that you aren’t asking these things simply because you’re unprepared.
However, highlighting the company’s errors isn’t a recommended tactic. “I would avoid pointing out inconsistencies, as you never know who wrote it—it could have been your interviewer!” warns Westlake.
Instead, implement the above tip to use what you were able to learn from the posting, and then segue into a more specific question such as, “Based on the job description, it sounds like this role will support the product development team. Can you tell me more about what that will entail?”
5. Take a Deep Breath
There’s no denying that having to ask any sort of question during an interview can be awkward and nerve-wracking. But, this is especially true when your questions relate so closely to the core responsibilities of the position.
However, take a deep breath and give yourself a friendly reminder that it’s all just part of the process. “Keep in mind that the whole purpose of an interview is for you and your prospective employer to learn about each other, so questions about the role you’re interviewing for are expected, and even encouraged!” Westlake says.
There’s no way for you to make an informed decision about whether or not to accept another interview—or even sign the offer letter—without having a totally solid handle on what your daily responsibilities and long-term expectations would be.
Remember, you’re entitled to get the information you need. In fact, it’s exactly why the interview process exists.
No matter how anxiety-inducing asking these conversations can be, it’s even riskier to take a job without knowing exactly what you’re signing up for.
So, go ahead and ask the questions that you really need the answers to. Not only will they get you the information you need, but they can also present you as a courageous and confident applicant who’s willing to take initiative in a tough situation.
“When you really want a job—or really need a job—people are often hesitant to say anything that could rock the boat,” concludes Latin, “But, questions that could rock the boat are also questions that can make a ship sail.”
Photo of interview courtesy of vgajic/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. In addition to writing for The Muse, she's also the Career Editor for The Everygirl, a columnist for Inc., and a contributor all over the web. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her rescued terrier mutt or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author