5 steps to making strong job applications – how to deconstruct the job description

A major cause of not getting to interview when applying for jobs is sending generic, non-tailored applications. From an employer’s viewpoint, a generic application will quickly get eliminated. So how do you know what to include? By deconstructing the job description you can start from what the employer is looking for, and greatly increase your chances of getting to interview. Save yourself time and heartache by following our step-by-step advice.

A student writing on post its on a window
Deconstructing the job advertisement
Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

Step 1: Understand the ‘elimination game’.

Employers are busy people who want to fill their vacancy, so they have written an advert, job description and person specification. They may also have a careers page including company information and values.

Each job will receive many more applications than an employer can reasonably interview.

Therefore, their first step needs to be eliminate unsuitable candidates. So when they come to read the (large pile) of applications, predominant on their mind is reducing the number. They will do this by removing any applications that don’t obviously match their requirements.

Understanding that employers might be sifting your application out because they couldn’t see its relevance is a key first step. Firstly, it can help to realise that it’s not necessarily personal; they are skim reading for the exact things they asked for. Secondly, you now realise that one way to avoid elimination is to make explicitly clear how you meet their requirements.

Step 2: Understand the requirements of the role.

Here you need to play detective and look at both the obvious and the less obvious. Usually, job descriptions or person specifications clearly set out a defined list of ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ skills or characteristics. Sometimes there will be a loosely descriptive set of information, titled something like, ‘We are looking for…’ or ‘You will be.’

Make a list of these requirements, or highlight them, and put to one side.

So far so good; you now know the basic content of what they are looking for. But can you go further? To make a really standout application, make sure you haven’t missed any other clues.
– Did the job description have a paragraph about the company and the role before the list of skills they want?
– Are there any clues in here, for example about the company ethos or plans, the kinds of people they like to work with?

Next, look at the end of the person specification. Sometimes you will see an employer has added an additional paragraph: ‘You will also be an excellent communicator, meticulously well organised and a friendly and relaxed teammate.’

Add these ideas to your list.

Step 3.  How can you match the skills they are looking for?

Now you have identified what they are looking for, but do you understand it? Do you need to research the skill more, in case the terminology is unfamiliar? You might find you have indeed got experience in this very thing. The next step is to think about when and where you have used these skills.

Draw up examples of when and where you have demonstrated the skills or experiences (don’t worry if you haven’t got all of them: see Top Tips, below). You can make a spreadsheet, a table, a mindmap, post-it notes, whatever works for you. Since many skills reappear across job descriptions, this will be a generally useful job hunting resource so keep it safe.

You now have a clear idea of what this employer are looking for, whether that is specific skills or qualifications, or personal characteristics or soft skills, and you have started finding examples of how you meet them.

Step 4: Show them how you meet these requirements

Now you start to incorporate into your application documents (CV, Cover Letter, or application form) evidence and examples of these requirements.

Imagine that the employer is looking for ONLY those things, using the same terminology they did in their advert. Will they find their requirements – for example, ‘confident communication,’ ‘attention to detail,’ ‘flexible,’ ‘organised,’ ‘advanced Excel skills,’ ‘competence in handling large data sets,’ – in your application?

Most importantly, will they see that you have backed up these skills or qualities with specific examples, rather than just saying, ‘I am an excellent communicator’?

Tailoring your applications like this takes time and effort, but we promise it’s worth it. In the CV, you will need to include active, powerful words, often in condensed bullet points, that reference the requirements of the job. You should also use the profile section to make sure the application feels relevant.

In a cover letter, you will need to pick the top two or three requirements of the role and go into more detail about how and when you have demonstrated this skill. You will also need to articulate why you are specifically interested in the role and the company.

We will run regular presentations on these and other topics. Find them here.

Step 5: Checking your application

Go back and check you have hit as many of their points as possible. You could do your own check with CTRL+F; you could ask a friend to skim read it looking for the points in the person specification. Proof read it; reading it out aloud is a good way to check for errors.

You can also book a careers appointment via Surrey Pathfinder to discuss your application with a careers adviser.

Top Tips

Tip 1: Don’t meet every single one of the requirements? It’s usually worth applying anyway, if the job really suits you, and you are motivated to take the time to write a strong application.

Obviously, there are exceptions, such as very specific qualifications, but remember that employers receive many poorly written applications from qualified people. They will certainly receive applications from other people who don’t meet every requirement.

Writing a clear and motivated articulation of why you want to work for them, showing how you meet many or most of the requirements, you still stand a chance of getting to interview.

Tip 2: Make the most of all our resources, including regular employer presentations, which will give you real insight into recruitment processes, as well as inspiring you with jobs and sectors you might not have considered.

Tip 3: Allow yourself time to make strong applications. You will get faster at deciphering adverts and applying for jobs. Making quality application is worth the effort.


Written by Surrey Careers Consultant, Janie Angell