Photo Credit: Toastwife via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Toastwife via Compfight cc

Job descriptions contain all sorts of information about a job, beyond describing the position’s responsibilities.  Knowing how to find the “hidden” aspects of a job can mean the difference between a successful application and no response.  Here are some things to look for:

1.  The impact of the position.

While most job descriptions contain a list of responsibilities – generally without measurable impact attached – there usually is a statement of the desired impact of the position.  This is contained in an introductory line in the job description that spells out the general purpose of the position – often is in a paragraph BEFORE the list of responsibilities, so read carefully.  This statement may be the only place you will get some idea of what you’re supposed to produce.

Here’s an example:



The Urban Conservation Program Director leads TNC’s emerging and cutting edge urban conservation program in Los Angeles.  TNC seeks to advance a program that demonstrates what conservation can do for cities, and what cities can do for conservation.  Specifically, this new position will design and deliver place-based projects that actively engage urban Californians and enhance the conservation values of Greater Los Angeles and other cities. 

The impact of the position is to create projects that show how to engage citizens in urban conservation projects, and thereby expand conservation efforts in cities.

I summarize because that’s what should go into your cover letter for the job.  You’re using enough of their language to seem familiar to them, yet giving it enough of a spin to show you’ve given it some thought.

2.  The top responsibilities for the job.

Responsibilities are often but not always listed in bullets.  Many times there is a paragraph containing the responsibilities.  And often there are both a paragraph and a list.  Make sure you find ALL of them!

Usually the first 3 to 4 responsibilities listed are the most important ones, and the ones that require relevant “hard” skills and abilities – and related experience.  Those are the ones you should address in your cover letter.

Ask “so what?” Contained within responsibilities is the implied outcome.  I ask “so what will happen if I do these things?”  That’s a key question to answer in your cover letter.

Sometimes there is one listed further down that addresses something like “work in team” or “manage across functions” or “collaborate with several departments.”  This also is something you need to address, because it is talking about “soft” skills that are essential.

Here’s an example from a job description for a Structural Engineer/Bridges:

Primary Responsibilities 
• Design and detailing of pre-stressed concrete, reinforced concrete, and structural steel bridges 
• Plan preparation and checking 
• Manage projects, including budgets and schedules 
• Manage/mentor other staff 
• Preparation of contract documents 
• Construction cost estimates 
• Conduct peer plan reviews 
• Other duties as assigned 

Clearly the first three responsibilities are essential and whoever applies must be able to fulfill these responsibilities.  More than that, the implied impact is that the bridges will be strong, secure, safe – designed and executed with the highest quality.  Talk about how you’ve done that in your cover letter.

The fourth bullet talks about management and mentorship.  They are two different things.  Mentorship means developing less experienced staff, building their skills.  Managing staff means getting them to do what’s needed.  Bullets 5 and 6 are important yet can be mentioned in your resume, or as a single line in a cover letter about delivering projects on time and on budget.

The 7th bullet is the interesting one:  “Conduct peer plan reviews.”  To me, this means they have a friendly, collaborative environment where people ask for and receive feedback, as well as give it.  You’ll have to be OK with this.  If you’re not, you may not want to apply.  If you are, you would be smart to give an example of how you did something similar and how rewarding it was.

3.  Key requirements for the position.

This section may be called Requirements or Qualifications or, as the following example says “Who We’re Looking For” and “Core Competencies.”  Whenever the listing says “required” or “must have,” you must have that qualification or your application won’t make it past the computerized Applicant Tracking System (ATS) or human reviewer.  The only time you can get past that requirement is if you have a contact in the company who will hand walk your resume over to the hiring manager and say “you gotta talk to this person.”
Who We’re Looking For
In general, you should be hungry, humble, and smart.  You will be working with a gritty team of professionals who are dedicated to the Democracy Prep mission of college success and authentic civic engagement for our scholars.  Ideally, you are:
  •  An exceedingly skilled and enterprising attorney who has experience balancing risk with pragmatic considerations.
  •  A strong team player who has the willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
  •  A skilled communicator with excellent interpersonal skills and unquestionable integrity.
  •  Someone who gets out of bed everyday excited to develop solutions to complex legal questions.
 Required Core Competencies
  •   7+ years of relevant practice experience
  •  Currently admitted to Bar in New York State

In this example, there are minimal requirements, and lots of “soft skill” and personality-based desires.  There is amazing language in here that you can mimic.  Examples of when you’ve been hungry and humble will be helpful.  Tell a short (1-2 lines) story about when you successfully balanced “risk with pragmatic considerations.”  Say you’re known as someone people trust to have integrity and solve problems.

4.  Key personality characteristics the employer wants.

Sometimes the employer will come right out and tell you, as they do above:  “team player” and hard worker means you will work a lot of hours and so will everyone else. “Enterprising” means you need to be very proactive and have a bunch of ideas on your own; no one will tell you what to do. “Skilled communicator” and “excellent interpersonal skills” means you need to be able to speak and listen to people, calm down dramas, resolve conflict, and generally be the peacemaker.

In this next list, we see that you need to be “inspirational” and have “leadership and visionary qualities.”  You also need to be able to lead, manage and motivate people who aren’t physically in the same location – which means you need to be flexible and adaptable.  When they say “proven interpersonal, communication and negotiation skills,” you need to be someone who is calm, reasonable and patient.

    • A proven track record as an inspirational manager who has motivated staff to achieve and sustain excellence
    • Communicating clearly via written, spoken, and graphical means
    • Demonstrated leadership and visionary qualities and able to work effectively with and through others in a decentralized and geographically dispersed organization
    • Proven interpersonal, communication and negotiation skills

5.  The “hidden pain” contained in the posting.

There always is some kind of “hidden pain” in a job posting.  Usually it’s included in the qualifications section because the hiring manager has decided that s/he can’t take another person who performed and/or behaved like the person who used to hold the job.  Take this line as an example.

  • Demonstrate strong organizational skills, ability to prioritize workload, multi-task, and work efficiently with minimal supervision.

The “hidden pain” is that there isn’t really anyone else to supervise you or tell you what to do, so you would need to be a completely take-charge person who can figure out what has to be done and then do it.

Here’s another example:  

o Ability to work in a stressful environment, taking initiative & prioritizing multiple tasks with minimal supervision.

When I read this, I think that probably the previous person complained, couldn’t prioritize and waited to be told what to do.  I am forewarned that it’s a place that’s really busy, perhaps not very appreciative, and definitely not open to complaints about how hard the job is.

One job description used the word “conflict” a couple of times:  Works through conflicts to keep projects on track…Evaluate critical information gathered from multiple sources, reconcile conflicts,… and implied conflict another few times (distinguish user requests from the underlying true needs. and Requires well-developed communication skills and the ability to maintain positive and cooperative working relationships with IT teams.)  Clearly, this must be addressed in the cover letter, preferably by saying that you have resolved many conflicts regarding technology, such as in this instance…

6.  How much the employer wants you to value the company.

Job descriptions that contain a large description of the company or organization are saying “we really value our company and we want to know that you do, too.”  Postings with very little about the company simply mean you can be less effusive about your praise for the company.  A little sincere flattery is nice to read.

7.  What the approximate compensation level is.

Very few job descriptions tell you salary any more.  But you can find out by taking the title of the position and going to or to find out comparable salaries in the industry for those titles.  To get the best talent, companies will usually benchmark their compensation against that offered by similar companies.

For most non-profits, you can go to and get access to the organization’s 990 tax return.  A few pages in, there will be a table containing the names, titles and compensation for the top 5 or 6 employees.  You can extrapolate the potential compensation for the job by assessing how close the position is to the top of the hierarchy.

Now I’d love to hear from you:  How do YOU decode a job description?