Q: A friend told me I should never apply for a role unless I meet the listed requirements exactly—years of experience, familiarity with software, specific degree—otherwise it would just waste my and the employer’s time. I think there are roles I’m qualified for, even if I have a year or two less experience or a slightly different degree. I’m not going way out of my lane here, but I think a stretch application is okay. Am I wrong? How closely do I have to listen to posted job requirements?
A: Your friend should not be a career consultant! In this market, organizations are looking for a specific level of experience, and what they have listed is the ideal candidate. This changes based on the market, though. When it’s an employees’ market, meeting 75% of the listed criteria might be enough; in an employers’ market, they can ask for 110% of what they want. But in today’s marketplace, if you think you’re qualified for the job and have the right skills and background, or close enough—and even better, a referral in—then you should absolutely apply.
If you don’t match up to the job description exactly, you can still leverage the skills and experience you do have. Applying via a network will always be your best bet, rather than applying online. A highly effective online tool you can use to gauge the level of your match, JobScan.co, will give your resume a rating and suggestions for improvement based on a comparison to the job posting. You can also create your own comparison, making a “T” chart with “What They Want” on one side and “What I Have” on the other. This will help you visualize and select your best opportunities—if you only have 20% of what they want, it’s probably not worth it. But if you have 50% or more, you can certainly give it a shot.
Don’t worry about appearing like you’re willfully ignoring the employer’s request—remember, they’re posting the ideal candidate qualities. To avoid the appearance of not having read the job description, use your cover letter to address potential gaps in experience and provide examples of your work that are close to their requests. Point to alternative experience that demonstrates your capacity to learn a new skill or highlight how your time in graduate school or as a volunteer prepared you for a certain aspect of the position. If they require a Bachelor of Science, but you have an associate degree plus 10 years’ experience, explain how you see your background fulfilling their needs. Overcome potential objections by acknowledging and minimizing some of the the gaps, not ignoring them.
If you can get a networking contact to do all that explaining for you—and to vouch for you in the process—it’s even more valuable. In fact, your situation is a terrific example of the value of networking. If all you do is submit an application online, you can’t expect much of a return. If you’re networking and leveraging LinkedIn, that’s much better—but you still need to balance your expectations. Make sure you’re spending the time and, more importantly, the “chit” of your contacts wisely. Don’t take advantage of your contacts unless you’re at least in the right ballpark to ask for their help. People don’t want to use their clout in their own network on someone who truly doesn’t fit the bill. Don’t be afraid to shoot high in a job search, but be careful not to exploit the good will of your network.
Ultimately, don’t waste your time on online applications for jobs that you’re totally unqualified for—this is why many companies no longer respond to online applications; it’s too time-consuming and costly to respond to people who have no clue what the job is and are just sending out mass applications. When applying for that stretch position, leverage your network and LinkedIn—wisely.