Unclear Job Description? Here’s What You Should Do.

A guide for navigating a poorly written job description.
Kerry Halladay
Staff Reporter
March 8, 2022
Updated: March 9, 2022
Kerry Halladay
Staff Reporter
March 8, 2022
Updated: March 9, 2022

In 2020, Sebastián Ramírez tweeted about a job posting that requested over four years of experience with FastAPI. Since the framework had only been built a year and a half before, the requested experience was impossible for anyone. 

Including Ramírez, FastAPI’s creator.

In a perfect world, such an absurd requirement would never make it into a live job posting. The process is supposed to start with a hiring manager approaching HR about a new hire they need. Together, the recruiter and hiring manager sit down to sort out the basic requirements of a role. The recruiter then works up the language of the job posting with HR, gets the job posting cleared with the hiring manager for accuracy, then posts it on the company’s site and on job boards.

5 Tips for Dealing With Unclear Job Postings

  • Identify what is most important. Most job postings will include the most important skills and abilities at the top of their experience lists. 
  • Apply even if you don’t meet all the requirements. Many job postings are written for the perfect candidate in mind that might not exist.
  • Focus on the responsibilities. What the job does is far more important than the title or the stated seniority level.
  • Identify shared interests. Even an unclear job description can — especially when combined with research — give insight into what a company values. Identify where those overlap and highlight them.
  • Reach out for more information. Ask directly for more information. Try to contact the hiring manager if possible and, when in doubt, call.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. And unrealistic, vague or unclear job postings are pretty common.

Hiring managers or team leads are not always involved in the writing of a job posting. Issues with automated job posting processes or job board defaults can introduce errors into a posting. Busy recruiters can copy-paste the language of previous, similar postings and not be as careful in tailoring it to the current posting needs.

The opportunity for unclear job postings is even bigger in the tech world since it is often highly technical and constantly evolving. And while you might have the impulse to just pass on an unclear job posting — why bother applying if the company can’t put in the effort to write a good job posting, right? — there are steps you can take to make yourself a strong candidate even in the face of uncertainty.

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Identify What Is Most Important

Ideally, a job posting will list skills and experience requests in must-haves and nice-to-haves buckets. This is especially important for tech roles since the technical requirements are often integral to the role. But that doesn’t always happen. 

When you face a long requirements list, try to identify which ones are the most important to the job posting. These are usually at the top of the list, according to Margaret Buj, tech talent acquisition manager at Typeform, a SaaS form and survey company, and an interview coach. Even if a nonsensical request like the one Ramírez encountered shows up early in the list, that still tells you that skill with that language is important to the job, Buj said. 

Researching about the company and the position is another way to get a sense of what requests are the most important on a posting’s laundry list. This can help give you an idea of what the company does and, by extension, what is most valuable to the position.

Some experience requests are also likely to be highly important wherever they show up in a job posting, Buj said. Languages — think Spanish or Mandarin rather than Python or C++ — generally fall into this category. Specific certification requests would be another example of an important requirement.

But job seekers should not just focus on technical requirements and ignore soft skills, like communication and other interpersonal skills. In Buj’s experience, a candidate with top-notch interpersonal skills can often get a job despite gaps or mismatches in their technical skills compared to what a posting asked for.

She gave the example of a relatively inexperienced software engineer who had pivoted from her previous work in marketing and was applying for a mid-level position. Normally, such a position would need 4 to 5 years of experience, but the software engineer only had one.

“But when I spoke to her, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, she’s amazing!’” Buj said. “She was literally outstanding at communicating coming from her marketing background.”

Despite the gaps in her technical skills, the software engineer so impressed the hiring team and even performed far better than more senior applicants. She didn’t perform as well on the technical portion of the interview, but because of the strength of her soft skills and her demonstrated ability to learn, they did wind up hiring her.

 

Apply Even If You Don’t Tick Every Box 

If candidates like the company and think they might be a fit for the position, even if a posting is unclear or includes unrealistic expectations, they should apply, Buj said. She especially stressed that women should take this to heart. 

“Many women, in particular, wait until their experience matches 100 percent of the requirements,” she said.

Even well-written job postings are often looking for “a unicorn candidate who probably doesn’t exist,” Buj said, so only applying if you meet all the requirements is not a good strategy. Not everything listed as a requirement actually is required in most good job postings. This is even more the case with poorly or unclearly written job postings where the listed requirements might not correspond well to the job to begin with. 

It’s not that companies don’t care when it comes to writing up their job postings, Buj said, but there are opportunities throughout the process of writing up and posting a job position for unclear or less-than-specific elements to creep in.

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Focus on Responsibilities, Not Title or Seniority Level

Even unclear or unrealistic job postings will usually include a description of the position’s responsibilities. This is where your focus should be, according to Buj, not on seniority levels or titles.

Common recruiting practices, like posting positions to job boards, can result in confusing disconnects between a job’s seniority statement and what the job actually asks for, Buj said. All those “entry level” positions that ask for several years of experience might be because a company wants to hire someone with experience for far less than they are worth, but they might also be because the recruiter forgot to change the default setting when batch uploading a lot of job postings.

She also cautioned against paying too much attention to a job posting’s title.

“‘Specialist’ could be a super senior role or it could be a super junior role,” she pointed out. The difference between titles depends heavily on the company making the posting. In some instances, such as very large companies, the same title can be used for vastly different jobs in different departments.

“‘Specialist’ could be a super senior role or it could be a super junior role.”

Titles can be misleading normally, but this is especially the case in the tech world. New titles are often created as technologies and roles evolve.

There are other reasons. “In the tech industry, everybody tries to stand out by changing the title of something instead of selling the experience,” said Danny Gutknecht, co-founder and CEO of Pathways, an executive search services company, and author of Meaning at Work.

Gutknecht advised job seekers dealing with unclear job postings to focus on the experience of a position — what does the work look like? What is the day-to-day experience of working with the company? Though this sort of perspective is not often included even in most job postings, let alone unclear ones, figuring it out will likely require researching the company. 

Some companies have blogs where they highlight different roles or employees and what their experience is like working at the company. But to get a better sense of what the role is like, reach out to someone. This could be someone who currently holds the title at the company or who has held the position in the past. They’ll be able to give better insight into what the role actually entails. 

 

Identify and Highlight Shared Interests

What really matters to a lot of people is what they are going to be doing every day, Gutknecht said. But since even good job postings often lack any indication of that, let alone unclear job postings, candidates should research the company. This is basic job-seeking advice, but Gutknecht specifically stressed the importance of researching a company looking for shared interests, goals and motivations.

“I think the best thing you can do is sit down and — just like you look at your experience and your qualifications on a resume —look at what’s really mattered to you throughout the course of your career,” he said.

What projects have you worked on that you cared most about or felt the most important or impactful. Identify what it was about those projects and efforts that made them fulfilling to you and try to determine if the company behind an unclear job posting has similar goals or motivations.

“I think the best thing you can do is sit down and — just like you look at your experience and your qualifications on a resume — look at what’s really mattered to you throughout the course of your career.”

Gutknecht suggested writing up a few paragraphs synthesizing how your interests and values align with those of the company from your research, or making a scorecard of the overlaps. 

“Basically, ‘Your company seems to care about this; I care about this type of thing,’” he said.

Such expressions of shared interests and values can be useful to get a conversation started if you wind up reaching out directly for more information.

 

Directly Ask for More Information

The best approach to dealing with an unclear job posting is to ask for more information. Not only is asking directly likely to help get you clarity quickly, it can demonstrate your initiative and interest to a potential employer. But here are good and bad ways to go about asking. You need to be specific with your questions, according to Claudia Ivanova, head of HR at FISPAN, an enterprise resource planning platform provider.

“When you give specific examples and relate it back to the actual wording in the job description, it will show that [you have] taken the time to look through the posting already and just want clarification,” she said.

While the question “Can you tell me more about the position?” might seem like an obvious one in the case of an unclear posting, Claudia warned against it. 

“It usually deters hiring managers from answering,” she said. “We are looking for specific questions a candidate wants answered, which then might evolve into more of a conversation with the candidate.”

Asking might be the most valuable strategy, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Many job seekers might be reluctant to ask for more information out of concern about annoying a potential employer on whom they want to make a good impression. 

Those concerns are understandable. Ed Samuel, executive career and life coach at SamNova, a career coaching service, said more than half of the people he works with are very hesitant to reach out to employers because they don’t feel empowered to do so. But he urged job seekers not to let these concerns hold them back.

Not only does reaching out show your interest in the position and the company, it can be a service to the employer, Samuel said. You reaching out might be the first time the hiring manager is alerted to the fact it isn’t clear or that there’s a mistake in the posting.

“Instead of you having a negative mark against you, it actually could be a positive mark, that you took the time to actually call up and ask about the position,” he said. “It may even result in the employer taking a harder look at the applicant’s candidacy and inviting them to an interview.”

Still, even if you feel empowered to reach out for more information on an unclear job posting, it’s not always immediately obvious who the right person to contact might be or how to get a hold of them.

 

Identify the Right Person to Contact 

Ideally, a job posting will include contact information. But it isn’t always provided, which means you’ll need to figure out who to contact.

Questions about an unclear job posting are best asked of the hiring manager. Not only are they the person who will ultimately be making the decision on who to hire, but they will possibly end up being the direct manager of the position they are hiring for. This might not be the case for especially large companies like Amazon, Buj pointed out, but for most small to mid-sized companies it is.

If you can’t find out who the hiring manager is, Buj suggested identifying who the job posting might logically report to within the company. For example, if the unclear job posting is for a QA engineer, a candidate will likely be reporting to the head of QA or the QA director, she said. 

Researching the company’s website and LinkedIn accounts can help in both identifying the hiring manager or the likely team lead and possibly locating their contact information. If you find a name but no contact information, you can look on a company’s site for patterns in the email naming conventions if leadership emails are listed and extrapolate what the hiring manager’s email is. Tools like LinkedIn’s advanced search function or InMail messages for those with a LinkedIn Premium account can also be helpful in getting in contact with people whose names you know.

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When in Doubt, Pick Up the Phone 

The value of picking up the phone is often overlooked. Most companies list a general contact information number even if they don’t list contact information for individuals, making this an easy-to-find means of information.

“I strongly encourage people to pick up that phone and make the phone call,” said Samuel. “The worst that happens is they don’t answer the phone.”

Samuel recommended candidates call a company, reference the job posting, directly explain that they are looking for clarification on it and ask to speak to either the internal recruiter or hiring manager. 

In the ideal situation, your call will result in a conversation with the hiring manager. This could be your opportunity to make your first impression, so come prepared. Have your specific clarification questions about the job posting and your summary or scorecard of how your motivations and interests line up with those of the company on hand. Since a phone conversation with a hiring manager might drift into phone interview territory, be prepared to talk about the topics that might crop up in a phone interview, like your academic background, past work experiences and career goals.

Gutknecht stressed that tackling that common fear of calling and talking to a complete stranger shows more than just initiative. Reaching out directly about an unclear position is taking the agency of your job hunting, career moves and future into your own hands. This applies to other outreach efforts like email or LinkedIn messages, but calling is often a more direct and faster way to get a hold of someone — and is harder to ignore.

“If you go out and don’t leave it up to recruiters or up to software to figure that out for you,” he said. “You’re going to open so many more doors and you’ll have a lot more opportunity on your plate.”

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