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Job Requirements Are Mostly Fiction and You Should Ignore Them

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In job searches, people frequently look at the listed requirements, see a gap, and move on, fearing rejection and not wanting to waste the employer’s time and their own. They’re making a big mistake, and potentially holding their careers back. A job posting doesn’t describe a real person. It describes a fictional (and often unrealistic) ideal that companies don’t really expect to find.

“A lot of times when companies write job descriptions, they include everything that they dream of having,” Scott Purcell, a Silicon Valley-based technology recruiter at Jobspring Partners, tells Quartz. “It’s a list of things that they need, then things that they want to use in the future or are thinking about using. They put in everything that’s in their environment, every sort of technology.”

Hiring managers get overexcited and list too many things, even though only a few parts of the description are truly core. But the term “requirement” gets read very literally, and scares people off from jobs they could well get. Purcell actually doesn’t like to send specific job descriptions to clients for exactly that reason. The hiring process still is a very human one. Things like relationships, confidence, less definite skills, and proper presentation of experience make a difference and often can help candidates overcome a perceived shortage in qualifications.

“If you were to ask most hiring managers if they care about somebody that has every skill listed, versus somebody that has four or five [relevant skills] with a good attitude and a good work history, they’re all going to say they care about the type of person, not some brand new technology skill,” Purcell says.

When professionals were asked why they didn’t apply for jobs they felt unqualified for, in a survey written up this week at the Harvard Business Review, few said they felt they couldn’t do the job well. The reasons had more to do with our propensity to take intimidating job postings at face value. In other words, the problem isn’t a lack of confidence, but a lack of information about how the hiring process really works.

A commonly cited statistic is that women only apply for jobs when they feel 100% qualified, while men are willing to apply when meeting just 60% of the qualifications—evidence of a confidence gap between the genders. But both men and women fall into the trap of taking job requirements too seriously.

Purcell says separating out what’s truly required from what’s optional takes time and market knowledge. He’s a tech recruiter, so his examples focus on that, but he says a good rule of thumb is that the further you get from the core of the job’s actual function, the further down a list of skills something is, and the newer the technology or the skills term is, the more likely it’s what he calls a “nice to have” rather than a true requirement.

For example, if you look at just about any Facebook job posting for an engineer, you’ll see a B.A. or M.A. in computer science listed as a “requirement.” It isn’t, according to Serkan Piantino, who leads Facebook’s New York office.

“Part of our recruiting strategy is to be pretty agnostic to the things that don’t matter,” Piantino told Quartz in an interview earlier this summer. “Things like somebody’s prior background, whether they went to a top [computer science] program or never graduated high school, if they’re a good fit for Facebook we just try to focus on that.”

Applying always takes some judgment. Some skills genuinely could be required. And companies generally want to check off as many boxes as possible when seeing how different candidates match up to the posted requirements. But much more of a job listing than many realize falls into the category of nonessential.

A recruiter like Purcell might be able to see that at a glance, but it’s worth asking a friend who is in a similar position or who works at the company, or reaching out to a broader network if necessary to get at least some additional information. It’s tough to be rejected, or to get no response at all. But never taking chances is a great way to see a career stall.

(Image via baranq/Shutterstock.com)

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