Decoding Job Postings

Monday Sep. 30th, 2013

I like to imagine myself as a job-landing Indiana Jones when I review job postings. Each posting is filled to the brim with clues that, when followed, almost always end in an interview. The tricky part is understanding the codes, and rearranging the artifacts into a clear picture in order to know exactly what you need to communicate in your resume and cover letter.

The first step is identifying keywords. Keywords and key phrases are words or terms used to categorize important requirements for a job and match a candidate to that job. By identifying keywords and including them in your resume, you do two things.
First, you ensure you meet the required and preferred qualifications. If the identified keywords don’t match your personal skill set and experience, do not waste your time applying for the job. You won’t get it. The job market remains competitive and someone else has experience that matches the keywords for the job.

Second, identifying keywords and using them in your resume makes it easy for the hiring manager to see you are qualified and deserve an interview. Think of it this way: if a job description asks for meat, potatoes, and gravy but all you talk about is Brussels sprouts, green beans, and turnips, you won’t get a call regardless of how much meat and potato experience you have (that you didn’t mention with the sprouts).

How do you pick out the relevant keywords and key phrases? They refer to a job-related competency. Keywords describe skills that are critical to successfully working in a job, an industry, or even a specific company. Skills, both hard (example: bulldozer operation) and soft (example: negotiation) are powerful keywords.

In addition to skills, keywords and phrases are also job titles, degrees, licenses, certifications, and even names of hardware and software. Associations, companies, and products can also be keywords. They can be hidden in abbreviations and acronyms.
Just as important, you must know what is not a keyword. An adjective, or a word that describes a noun, is not a keyword (example: exceptional, dynamic). Adverbs, which modify verbs, do not qualify either (example: quickly, succinctly).
Let me take a moment to clarify an important point. I am not saying you should never use these words in your resume or cover letter. I am telling you that true keywords are more important to incorporate into your resume in order to maximize the impact of your application.
Let’s practice, shall we? I found the following listing in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle Classifieds. It is for a receptionist position in a healthcare facility. I highlighted the keywords and key phrases.

· Previous experience with computer software/windows proficient
· Previous experience in customer service

· High School Diploma/GED
· Minimum of two years medical/clinical office experience
· Experience in HIPAA
· Previous experience in health insurance

Job Summary:
A receptionist is the initial contact the patient has within the clinic requiring: updating and confirming demographics and insurance information, collecting payments for service, scheduling follow up appointments and assembly of charts. Facilitates the direction of care and flow for all patients in the clinic.

Essential Job Functions:
· Greeting and processing patients to include but not limited to obtaining current insurance and demographic information, consents, required signatures, required forms, and answering patient questions, follow up appointments which includes a variety of types. Collecting co-pays and payment for service, providing receipt for patients/closing batch.
· Other duties as assigned.

As you can see, this job description is loaded with keywords. The hiring manager wants to find someone who can do these things. Make sure to include these keywords and phrases when you assemble your resume and cover letter.

Let’s look at some more examples:
· Soft Skills: Conflict Management, Team Development, Customer Support, Multi-Tasking
· Hard Skills: Graphic Design, Engineering, Inventory Control, Policy Writing,
· Software: Adobe, Microsoft Office (MS Office), WordPress (WP)
· Hardware: Keyboards, HD Monitors, Printers
· Certifications and Licenses:  Certified General Accountant (CGA), Commercial Pilot, Certified Elections/Registration Administrator
· Product: Goat Cheese, Apple iPad, Energy-Efficient Windows
· Job Titles: Nurse Practitioner, Operations Manager, Cashier, Executive Assistant, Leadership Consultant
· Company Names: Google, Ford Motor Company, Keller Williams
· Associations: American Institute of Architects, Associate in Commercial Underwriting (AU), American Society of Transportation & Logistics (AST&L)
· Schools: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Montana State University (MSU), Ross School of Business

Keyword identifying is an important part of decoding a job posting, but there’s a little more to it. To start, you must match the required qualifications. Required means required. Before you take out your magnifying glass and search for keywords, take a moment to scan through the required qualifications.

Preferred qualifications, on the other hand, might allow some wiggle room if you are a strong applicant in other areas. In our example above, “minimum of two years medical/clinical office experience” is listed as preferred. If you have only one year in a medical office but four years experience in similar setting (such as a spa or alternative healthcare office that required customer service, checking-in customers, setting up appointments, and the like), then you may still be able to created a strong application. The rule of thumb is to always meet the required qualifications and compensate for missing preferred qualifications.
Submission requirements are another area you must strictly follow. If the job posting says “no phone calls,” do not call. Calling will not demonstrate your fiercely-competitive spirit; but it will show the hiring manager you cannot follow directions. Resume in the trashcan.

If the job posting says “apply in person” then show up with your resume and cover letter polished and dressed prepared for an on-the-spot interview. On that note, expect to be asked to fill out an application. Remember, most applications ask for details such as addresses and phone numbers for previous jobs, plus start and end dates. These forms typically ask for the last ten years of work history. Have the information on hand so you can complete the form entirely. An incomplete form is indicative of incomplete work…something no hiring manager wants.

From keywords to key points, we now move from clear to fuzzy in job postings. What exactly does “Competitive Salary” mean? “Fast-paced environment”? What qualifies as “proficiency”? Pull out your decoders from the last time you visited the Temple of the Forbidden Eye Indy Theme Park. Here we go:
“Competitive Salary” usually means the employer knows exactly what they are willing to pay you and what other employers pay for the same job. You’ll land in the middle, not too low, not too high. It does not mean you’ll be bathing in a tub of 100s.
“Salary TBD” means you need to polish your negotiation skills before you talk to anyone. It also means that if you have a lot of experience, you better do a good job of proving it in your resume and interview if you want to hit the high end of the pay scale.
“Proficiency” means you know what you are doing. “I think I did it once…” does not qualify you. “Proficiency” is more than familiarity or working knowledge of something. It indicates a level of comfort just under expert. The employer is not expecting to train you on this skill.
“Perform other tasks as required” can indicate a couple of things. The employer may have just created the position and isn’t entirely sure what it entails so they are leaving the door open to add responsibilities to your desk. Or, it could mean it’s a small company and when Suzy is on vacation, you go from business office manager to receptionist for two weeks.

“Fast-paced environment” generally means the walls are caving in most days. You should thrive under pressure, be capable of managing shifting priorities, enjoy a hectic environment with deadlines crashing around you, and love a little crazy.
“Some overtime required” is code for “don’t plan on eating dinner with the family anymore.” The bright side? Time and a half.

“Detail-oriented” is a fun one. It means that whoever worked there before forgot simple things like adding the filter before the coffee. They are tired of fixing incorrect or incomplete work. It can also mean that the job is sensitive to accuracy. Jobs in healthcare and finance need detail-oriented individuals.

“Team-player” is similar to “performs other tasks as required.” Be prepared to pick up slack when needed. It also means the employer is uninterested in office drama. They are trying to cultivate a positive, productive, cross-functional team. If you prefer to work alone, jobs that emphasize “team-player” probably won’t fit you well.

Once you become skilled at deciphering job postings, you’ll be able to strategically apply for jobs that fit your experience and skills, plus meet your needs. Hopefully, your next application will be your Last Crusade of job search and you’ll end up at the Holy Grail instead of the Temple of Doom.     w

Liz Williams is taking the struggle out of job search and the pain out of promotion with professionally-written resumes. If you have questions about resumes, cover letters, or maximizing your LinkedIn profile, learn more at and follow Liz at to get more tips on resume writing, LinkedIn, and job search.