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Lots of students focus on perfecting a cover letter and résumé, and acing an interview. But did you know there’s an art to the job search itself? There are hundreds of listings online, and as Kelly M.*, a fourth-year student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, says, “They all look quite similar.”

If you know what to look for, job listings can provide insight into what employers want, helping you to tailor your application to their needs and to stand out in a pool of hundreds of other applicants. Understanding how to interpret job postings will also help you decide if a particular job is the right fit for you.

Read Thoroughly

Shweta T., a third-year student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says, “I check the qualifications section at the bottom [of the listing] first to narrow down the jobs that are most applicable to me.”

She’s got the right idea. Reading from the bottom to the top is beneficial because usually the most important information is located at the end of the listing.

Most job ads are divided into four sections:

  • Job description
  • Responsibilities & tasks
  • Qualifications, skills, and experience
  • Application process and contact information

Full list of job post components

Not all job ads go into great detail. But those that do tend to be organized like this:

Job Title: Sometimes this is the actual name of the position, or it may be a brief description of the job-reflecting its content, purpose, and scope. Unfortunately, these are sometimes very vague, such as, “Program Associate,” or “Assistant Coordinator.”

Position Summary: This defines the purpose of the job and summarizes its duties and responsibilities. Tasks and projects may be listed here.

Job Duties/Responsibilities: This section outlines the job expectations, role, and scope by describing the essential tasks, duties, and responsibilities of the job.

Qualifications and Skills: This is where mandatory licenses or certifications-as well as skills, abilities, and knowledge-are listed. If your experience and training match the key qualifications in the ad, then this job may be the right fit for you.

Job Type: This is where it’ll say if the job is full-time or part-time along with whether it’s permanent, temporary, or grant-funded. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to tell if a job is temporary by reading the ad alone. You may need to contact the company or agency directly to verify if the job is permanent, or you’ll have to wait until after you go through the application process to find out.

Supervisory Responsibilities: If there is supervision exercised in the position, it may be explained. The number, type, and titles of employees that are supervised by the person in the role, as well as the type of guidance offered, may be detailed.

Fiscal or Budget Management: The level and type of budgetary or financial responsibilities of the position will be explained.

Physical Demands: The type, intensity, frequency, and duration of physical tasks will be outlined. This may be something like “strenuous labour and ability to withstand hot conditions” or as simple as “ability to move small boxes.”

Working Conditions/Environment: Irregular or unusual work schedules and any unique conditions in the physical environment will be listed here. You may also find things like “access to a car and valid driver’s license” noted.

Pay special attention to the job requirements and qualifications. They designate the minimum level and type of education and experience needed to be successful at the job.

You’ll also notice that employers place different “weights” on the skills they want in a candidate, based on how critical those skills are for getting the job done effectively. Look for words like “required” and “desired.”

Am I Qualified?

Job listings usually identify the skills, experience, and level of education sought. Here’s a guide to the lingo:

  • Required skills: These are mandatory. If you don’t have them, you may not want to  bother applying.
  • Preferred skills: These are important, so employers would really like it if you have them.
  • Desired skills: These would be a bonus, and usually include very specific knowledge, such as computer programs or past work in a particular setting.

If you don’t have all of the required or preferred skills, but are still really interested in a job, go ahead and apply. You’ll need to demonstrate enthusiasm, determination, and a strong desire to learn in your cover letter, and emphasize the experience you do have that can translate.

Also scan ads to learn where jobs are located and to assess whether other aspects will appeal to you. For example, do you need your job to be accessible by public transportation? Will the position require you to work during times when you need to attend classes?

Hidden Components

Sometimes job listings aren’t clear and easy to understand. In fact, a lot of job-seekers don’t realize when a post is through an agency or consultant hired by an employer to manage the search for candidates.

Learn more about agency postings

Agencies & “Head Hunters”

Many employers, especially large companies and universities, hire employment agencies or “head hunters” (people who search for applicants with necessary skills through their networks and referrals) to help fill positions. Here are some things to look for:

Does the company or organization name appear?
If not, a hiring agency is probably involved.

Is a career consultant mentioned by name?
If someone from an agency wrote the ad it should be noted, and you’ll want to direct your materials to that person. If you’re surprised that you’re interviewing with an agency, it shows the recruiter that you didn’t read the full ad, which in turn doesn’t make you the most appealing candidate.

Does the ad direct you to the company Web site?
Many postings direct applicants to the “Careers” section of the organization’s own site. You’ll be able to learn more about the application process there. This usually means you’ll be interacting directly with the company’s human resources or hiring department.

Unfortunately, there are also scam postings. “You have to be careful because a lot of scam jobs do look legitimate,” says Christine Colosimo, a career advisor at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario.

Tips for avoiding job scams

Beware of Job Scams

Amidst the sea of opportunities on job boards, there are sharks looking for their next prey. Candidates who fall victim to these scammers usually end up in a pyramid scheme or have their identities stolen. Here are three signs that a job is probably a scam:

  1. It promises a lot of money for not very much work.
  2. You’re asked for personal information right away, such as bank accounts or your social security number.
  3. You’re required to pay money up front.

If a job listing seems suspicious to you, do some research on the company. Your best bet is typing “[name of company] scam” into a search engine and seeing what comes up. If you decide that the company can’t be trusted, be sure to report it to the Better Business Bureau, or the equivalent in your area, right away.

Once you fully understand a job posting, make sure you adapt your cover letter and résumé to match the qualifications and requirements listed. A more narrowly defined search will ultimately lead you to a job that best fits your skills and interests.

* Name changed for privacy.

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Naomi Leanage is a recent graduate from the University of Guelph-Humber with a degree in Media Studies and diploma in Journalism.