The job description-reality gap

Job Search
Jun 07, 2016
The job description-reality gap

We left our heroes, Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak, trying to get a good price for their sheep at careers fair. This week’s analogy is another market, the oriental bazaar stall that is the job description. You can browse without any commitment and see if something takes your fancy, though you may be hassled by hawkers of sponsored links along the way. Some stalls are stuffed with boxes and illuminous yellow star-shaped hand-scrawled price tags. Other shop windows are going for the minimalist, lifestyle-selling image with two faceless mannequins in passive-aggressive poses. There are lessons in the bazaar for the recruiters who write the job descriptions and the job-seekers who read them.

The problem(s) with job descriptions

The ideal for a recruiter is to have one perfect applicant, and the job-seeker’s ideal scenario is to apply for and get one perfect job. It usually takes a bit more trawling by both sides but it’s better for everyone to be approaching one, as in f(n) g 1. Head-hunting, at one extreme, is about finding The One. It’s when jobs come looking for people and usually arises for ‎people who already have jobs. Sickening as it might be to imagine someone who already has a job being ‎offered another one when you’re still on the hunt for your first, the flattery of being head-hunted is ‎something to look forward to when you’re the best around.‎

For most normal jobs, the purpose of a job description is twofold: to deter unsuitable candidates and to tell suitable candidates exactly what they need to show in their application and interview. Job sites (like this one!) have search filters for things like keywords and location to help you get started. Job descriptions usually consist of a list divided into required and desired sets of skills, experience, and qualifications. The length of those sections tells you what kind of stall it is. There’s the corner shop job description, serving everything down to the ability to tie own shoelaces. The main problem there is that they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for. If it’s a long list of things the poor HR intern was told to put in, for example, that a role as a principal data scientist requires candidates to be “highly numerate” there’s something amiss. There’s the boutique job description, the kind that makes it look like they’re doing you a favour just by letting you look in the door. Cut-price job descriptions, on the other hand, try to over-sell with videos that show you what a fun place MindNumb Inc. is to work.

Less serious but equally unhelpful is the excruciatingly long and repetitive wish-list job description. You can almost hear the brain-storming meeting, the endless cries of “And they should be able to…” If a CV is about 1,000 words and a cover letter is about 500 words long, it’s actually impossible for an applicant to cover every single item in some job descriptions. A bit of content analysis would also identify that there are three common themes in the long list of bullets, suggesting that a three line version would do. “Salary in line with experience” or “negotiable” again probably means that they don’t really know. Sometimes salary is a matter of scarcity: Most people can write a shopping list – not rare, not valuable; not many people can programme in Hadoop. Sometimes salary is about how long you’re prepared to hold your nerve.

What is an applicant to do?!

It’s a recruiter’s job to hire someone, so even if you don’t meet all of the criteria it’s a matter of being the best person available on a given day. When faced with the long, indecisive, wish-list job description what you can put forward is whatever it is that makes you unique: You might not be the best programmer in the world but if you have an unusual combination of a lot of project management and enough programming to understand what’s going on, then you have something to talk about. For any job, you can try to match your cover letter to certain points in job description and replace terms in your CV with synonyms for the skills listed in the job description.

If the jobs market is truly a market then job descriptions are like stalls and window displays. There are risks of putting people off with too much clutter or by leaving out something important; either comes from spending insufficient time figuring out exactly who The One is. Anyway, the job description is just one step in the giz-a-job process, and definitely not the most important one, so just pick out something that looks nice and try to avoid the knocked-off designer watches and camel-hide slippers.

Featured Jobs

IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research)

London WC2N 6DF

November 18, 2018

Economic Insight

London, UK

January 13, 2019

Competition & Markets Authority


December 09, 2018

The Office for Students (OfS)

Bristol, UK

November 20, 2018

Cabinet Office


November 25, 2018


Barcelona, Spain

December 07, 2018

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

November 16, 2018

The Civil Service Fast Stream


November 15, 2018

The Competition and Markets Authority


November 26, 2018

The Institute for Public Policy Research

London WC2N 6DF

November 18, 2018


London, Canary Wharf

November 26, 2018

Frontier Economics

London WC1V 6DA

December 01, 2018

Economic Insight


December 17, 2018

Oxford Economics

Oxford, OX1 1HB

November 19, 2018

University of Oxford


November 21, 2018

Public Health Wales NHS Trust

Cardiff CF10

November 14, 2018

Warwickshire County Council

Warwick, CV34 4TH

November 25, 2018

Competition and Markets Authority (CMA)


November 26, 2018

Our Partners

Logo for Bank Of England
Logo for Cma
Logo for Fca
Logo for Frontier
Logo for Heathrow
Logo for Home Office
Logo for Ofcom
Logo for Oxweb
Logo for Pwc
Logo for Three

Like what you see?

Post a job