I Don’t Check Every Box on the Job Description. Should I Apply Anyway?

You may recall reading the statistic that men, on average, apply for jobs when they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, whereas women tend to only apply if they meet 100 percent. 

While this stat is often attributed to a lack of confidence, a follow-on study found that many women perceive the rules of job searching differently than men do. The women in that study assumed the list of qualifications represented the minimum requirements to apply whereas the men were more likely to perceive the job description as a manager’s “wish list” and not to be taken literally. 

It’s pretty clear to me, having worked with thousands of people trying to restart their professional careers, that both lack of confidence and a misunderstanding of the rules applies to why some people choose to apply for some jobs and not others. So let’s look at both of these factors.

Confidence Plays a Role

There’s no doubt that many people, regardless of gender identity, who have been out of the workforce for a long time will struggle with confidence in their job search. How much you struggle will depend on a lot of factors such as how confident you were before you left the workforce, how long you’ve been out, and how connected you are to other professionals you can tap for information and advice. Some things I’ve noticed:

  • Too little confidence will cause you to overlook jobs that would be a great fit for you. 
  • Applying for jobs you aren’t qualified for is likely to erode your confidence further. 
  • Too much confidence rarely but sometimes a challenge can lead you to apply for the wrong jobs, which wastes your time and energy. 

Playing By “The Rules”

Many job seekers believe in an unspoken rule that they need to check every box on a list of qualifications to be considered for a job. 

This is a belief, however, that’s not spread evenly across demographics. Job seekers from working class backgrounds, for example, tend to assume every qualification is required as compared to job seekers who had parents who navigated the corporate world and know how the game is played. Women who are often conditioned to follow rules, both stated and unstated also tend to share this mistaken view.  

In reality, job listings are often a wish list everything the last person did, plus all the things we wish they did. And the job description will often change over time as hiring managers meet candidates, they refine their criteria. 

Only applying for jobs that seem to be a “perfect” match is exhausting and can lead you to apply for jobs that actually aren’t a good fit while overlooking those that might be much better matches.

How to Approach a Job Description

When evaluating a job description, take a high level view of the qualifications. You don’t have to check every box, but you should check some. And you should be sure you check the key boxes. 

Most (though not all) job descriptions are written in priority order the higher up the list a skill or qualification is, the more important it is to the success of the job. Some skills are self-evidently important a job in software development is going to require specific technical skills. If you have the technical skills listed, but don’t have all the ancillary requirements, that’s a good match. If you have the ancillary skills but not the technical skills, you are likely to be passed over by most companies. 

If you are trying to make a career pivot, you can absolutely apply for jobs for which you have transferable skills (including skills gained through caregiving), but you need to be realistic. If you don’t have any of the technical skills for a role, you are unlikely to be successful based only on transferable skills. If, on the other hand, you are focused on a different job in an industry where you have experience (or a similar job but in a new industry), you’ll make a better case for having skills that can be leveraged immediately as well as the ability to close the gap quickly on any skills you need to gain.

Also consider the size of the companies you are targeting. While not universally true, bigger companies (e.g., Fortune 1,000 and larger) are more likely to have training resources and are more willing to consider a variety of backgrounds. Very small organizations may be more focused on finding someone who doesn’t need that kind of support to be successful. This doesn’t mean you need to fill every requirement when applying to smaller companies, but it is something to keep in mind as you evaluate each opportunity.

Focus In and Then Network Out

Blindly applying for jobs on a job board is not a winning strategy, regardless of how confident you are or how willing you are to “break the rules.” 

My advice is to focus on a small number of companies you are most interested in working for. Research each one to better understand their business and network to find contacts there that you can get connected to. One way to do this is to start with your network who do you know, who do they work for, and do they hire for jobs you might be qualified for?

A low-key way to network is to ask people for specific feedback on how well your skills match a given job listing. This strategy can be particularly effective if the person you are talking with knows what kinds of jobs you are seeking, but you are not asking about a job at their company. This reduces the tension since they are less likely to be worried you are hoping they will advocate for you.

They can focus instead on giving you specific feedback and advice on whether you might be qualified and how to demonstrate that. You can then use that advice to tailor your application that you then pass to them when the right opportunity comes along. 

Tami Forman is the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.