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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

What You Really Need to Apply for a Job—and What You Don't

“An ideal candidate should have a strong marketing background, five years of experience in the consumer goods industry, a track record of designing and running complex marketing campaigns for new consumer products, proficiency with Adobe Creative Suite, and a graduate-level degree with a focus on marketing or public relations."

How many times have you found your perfect job—and then taken a look at that list of requirements and decided there was just no way you could apply because you didn’t meet every one of the criteria they'd set out?   

Well, here’s a secret: You don’t really have to. Think of job descriptions as a hiring manager’s wish list for the ideal candidate, not as a list of non-negotiable requirements. This guide will help you understand what you can (and can’t) get away with when it comes to that intimidating list of qualifications.

Years of Experience

For example: 6-7 years of communications experience

Are years of experience an absolute requirement? Not exactly. Companies tend to specify quantity, but what they’re really looking for is quality. Someone else may have six years as a cog in the machine at a major corporation, but your three years at a smaller company or a startup have probably supplied you with more hands-on experience—and companies will often bear that in mind. Another thing to remember: While a smaller company may want someone with six years of experience, it may only be able to afford someone with three years of experience. This happens all the time, and it can work seriously in your favor if you impress them with the experience and achievements you’ve gathered in a shorter amount of time.

Of course, if they’re looking for a candidate with 10-15 years of experience and you’re a recent grad, that’s probably not going to fly. But, if you’re off by just a couple of years, don’t be afraid to send in that application. You don’t necessarily need to call it out in your cover letter, either—instead, focus your application on the specific experiences and achievements you do have that will offset your lower number of years.

Hard Skills

For example: Extensive knowledge of Adobe Creative Suite

When it comes to hard skills, don’t write a job off too fast just because you don’t have exactly the skills listed—you may have similar ones that will suffice. For example, a company might say they’re looking for a Salesforce whiz, but know that what really matters is that they want someone who can manage a complicated CRM. So, if you have skills similar to what the company is asking for, list them—even if they’re not an exact match.

And if you don't know a program, but you’re confident you'd be able to learn it easily on the job, say so—and give an example of when you've done that in the past in your cover letter.

That being said, you should never blatantly lie about what you know (or don’t know), especially in this digital age. A friend of mine once applied for an architecture internship that she was perfectly qualified for—except that she didn’t know CAD II. She bluffed on her resume, snagged an interview, and got along fantastically with the hiring manager. But then, her would-be boss walked her down the hall to a computer lab, handed her an assignment, and told her she’d be back in half an hour. Of course, she had no idea how to even start, so as soon as the hiring manager was safely down the hall, she snuck out of the building and never looked back. Needless to say, she wished she hadn’t lied. She didn't get the job—and hasn't dared apply to the same firm again, even now that she has her Master's.

Specific Accomplishments

For example: Strong track record of managing multi-department projects

Similar rules apply when it comes to industry experience. Often, it’s not an exact match they’re looking for—it’s the right skill set. They want an event planner with a couple of hospital foundation benefits under their belt? Your experience running non-profit fundraisers in the arts world will actually probably fit the bill quite well.

The trick is proving that the experiences you’ve had have given you what it takes to do the job you’re applying to. Do this by using specific examples throughout your resume and cover letter. Focus on the transferable skills—in this case, managing vendors, building relationships with donors, and raising money—and how they translate to the responsibilities in the job description.

Or, if you do have the experience they’re looking for, just not quite enough, you can point to a positive track record that proves you’re ready to take on more. If you've never managed a team of six, but you have directed multiple three-person projects and received great feedback, make sure you’ve included that in your application.

Bottom line: if the job looks right, the tasks are (at least mostly) in reach, and you think you have what it takes to do the job—then apply. Prove yourself in your resume and cover letter. That’s your opportunity to sell yourself and explain, in detail, what you're capable of, whether or not you’re a line-by-line match for the job description. Once you get your foot in the door and land that interview, you can show them in person that you really are their ideal candidate—easily!

Photo courtesy of Alex Valli.