Matching Your Skills with the Job's Requirements is a Must

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
It is harder than it seems to communicate the right information to a would-be employer. A failure to translate one's qualifications into terms that are meaningful to hiring committees can eliminate one from contention for a prized position. Sometimes vacancy announcements are glorified job descriptions written in arcane language that does not describe the type of professional required to meet the position's needs. Job descriptions are written in terms of the duties, tasks, and responsibilities necessary to do some prescribed function. However, resumes are communicated in terms of one's knowledge, skills, abilities, education, and experiences. Bridging the gap between what an employer says the job requires and how this is manifest in a professional that can perform such duties is the main work of the job seeker.

Here are three suggestions for bridging this divide. The first is knowing that it is the applicant's responsibility to make the pitch. Presenting one's application materials as a generic collection of experiences is incomplete. It is necessary to tailor them to the position in question. Don't assume that the reader will see it, know it, or recognize it. Make it plain; just say it. As an example, if the requirement is for a director of fraternity and sorority life, it is assumed that applicants have experience with student organizations, managing events, and Greek Life. Nevertheless, if the job requires experience with leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity training, and supporting retention and graduation initiatives, one must indicate they are bona fide in these areas to be a competitive candidate. Information that is buried in one's resume, that describes these experiences fleetingly, or that uses generalized language might be missed. Communicate the match between the job and one's background in the accomplishments section of the curriculum vitae or resume, or highlight it in the cover letter.

Second, words matter. While some might eschew using buzz words and archetypal phrases, the use of some common terms might be necessary to ensure that one appears capable in the reader's eyes. Which catch-phrases might resonate, or which might sound hokey, contrived, or overused is hard to know. Everyone knows it when they see it, even if they cannot describe it. One's knowledge of their own profession is the best barometer. Experienced professionals know when to use popular sayings and when to avoid them. Likewise, readers can usually distinguish the veterans from those pretending to be seasoned. A sure-fire way of using the right words is to mirror some, though not all, of the language included in the advertisement. Remembering that one's resume is most often being reviewed in a stack of others reminds us to announce to the reviewer that we are qualified. We don't want them to have to dig for the facts or make too many interpretations -- just saying it is insurance against oversight or misunderstandings.

A third way of proving that one is a great candidate is speaking to each position requirement in the cover letter. A popular approach is putting a table in the cover letter and listing the published requirements for a position in one column and how one's skills and background meets these requirements in a parallel column. This straightforward approach leaves no room for doubt. Others take a no less thorough, but narrative approach and spread their responses throughout their cover letter. Though all the requirements might be addressed in the text of the resume, some are sure to be worthy of highlighting in the cover letter. It is also not a bad idea to update the resume and tailor its content, messaging, and phrasing to an opening. One standard is to use the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the resume is the same for every job that one applies to, but 20% of the content reflects the position in question. This 20 percent can make the difference in showing who is most qualified for a position. The basics are likely to be present in the materials of all applicants, but which ones are best qualified? Tell them that you are by matching your experiences with what they need in the cover letter and resume.

Similarly, the best qualified candidates are more than the sum of their experiences, they are also a collection of professional characteristics. When vacancy announcements are done well, they describe the specific environment and type of person that is likely to be successful in it. Everybody knows that a professorship involves teaching, research, and scholarship and that a director of student services will work with students in developmental, extra-curricular, and co-curricular areas. A more meaningful advertisement would describe how this position works 'here' and what that means to the institution. Professors might be expected to provide one-on-one personalized attention to students at a liberal arts college, to be engaged in service learning at a regional university, or to garner grants at a research-intensive institution. The challenge of inspiring first-generation students to raise their aspirations or to nurture student-athletes along to graduation might contextualize a student services position. Sadly, some institutions do not adequately paint a picture of the type of person they are seeking. In such cases the applicant must balance the risk of filling in the gap without knowing specifics or risk going unnoticed in a pile of other good candidates.

In addition to making it plain -- telling the reviewer in no uncertain terms that one has the background, skills, and experiences necessary to be successful at a job -- applicants must also mention that they have the soft skills necessary for success. This involves a big translation exercise. Here again, it is incumbent upon the applicant to speak to the employer in a language that is meaningful for the reviewer. Good advertisements signal what the institution is seeking as they describe the euphemistically 'Ideal Candidate.' It is often phrased in a manner such as, "The ideal candidate will have a deep appreciation for interdisciplinary studies in addition to expertise in their chosen discipline and a willingness to engage students in their research." After an exhaustive list of concrete qualifications such as degrees, years of experience, certifications, and work of a specific type, the often soft-skill expectation of the ideal candidate might seem esoteric and unimportant to the casual observer. However, these skills are likely more determinant than the tangible and objective qualifications. The reason is, if a job requires a degree and experience, the vast majority of candidates will have these qualifications. However, not every candidate will share the perspective, preferences, or the philosophy of how the institution does business. These intangibles might well determine who gets an interview. Savvy applicants will ensure that they speak to these seemingly esoteric requirements in their cover letter to ensure that they are reviewed positively.

Appreciating that it is your responsibility to communicate your abilities -- without doubt -- to potential employers is the first step on the path to being invited to interview. Choosing the right words to convey one's capabilities unequivocally is the next communication essential. The third and final technique is delineating one's capabilities measure for measure to make sure one is rightfully viewed as qualified for a position. The singular goal in all of these techniques is clarity of communication as to leave no doubt in the reviewer's mind. Sometimes institutions make it easy for applicants because they describe what they need in both the professional and the position. Other times vacancy announcements are opaque and are harder to decipher. Either way, savvy applicants can use the suggested three-step protocol to bridge the communication and understanding divide between what a position requires and what they have to offer, leaving no doubt that they are a viable candidate for a given position.