How to Write a Job Description That Will Get the Best Candidates Through the Door

Meredith Wood

Meredith Wood

Editor-in-Chief at Fundera
Meredith is Editor-in-Chief at Fundera. Specializing in financial advice for small business owners, Meredith is a current and past contributor to Yahoo!, Amex OPEN Forum, Fox Business, SCORE, AllBusiness and more.
Meredith Wood

The demand for high-quality talent in industries like technology, healthcare, finance, and more is more competitive than ever—and as the employee recruitment process becomes fully digitized and even goes mobile, recruiters increasingly need all the same skill sets as content marketers to catch the attention of the right potential hires.

If your job descriptions aren’t bringing in the quality candidates you’re looking for, follow these guidelines to better communicate your company’s job openings to the perfect future colleagues that your business needs.

Start Strong

With candidates sifting through dozens or even hundreds of job postings at any given time, the headline or title of your job description is just as important as the title of a piece of marketing content. You can’t attract top talent if they never read your job description, so follow these tips to start strong with your listing and catch your reader’s eye.

Headlines Matter

Take the time to create a click-worthy headline that conveys something interesting about the position. Instead of “Administrative Assistant,” try “Executive Assistant to Award Winning Marketing Team.” Any nugget of information that will make your description stand out from the pack is useful here.

Remember the Keywords

Although catching attention in a candidate’s job search results does matter, it will be useless if your listing never comes up in the first place. Just as with any piece of digital marketing, remember that both your headline and your full job description should be peppered with keywords that match your prospective hire’s search. “Happiness Hero” makes for a fun job title, but if the perfect candidate searches for positions as a “customer service representative,” they will probably never see your listing.

Find the happy medium between an interesting title and searchable keywords to get the eyes you want onto your job description. Not sure where to start with this? Talk to your company’s marketing department or an outside content marketing consultant for help with search engine optimization of your job listings.

Catch Their Attention

Once they’ve found and clicked on your job listing, most candidates are going to decide within about 10-15 seconds whether they’re interested in a given position. That means you have to catch their attention right at the top!

Think about your ideal candidate, then consider what kind of lead might catch their eye. Specific questions or unique company traits work well here. For a software development position, for example, you might ask, “Want to help us the develop the social network of the next decade?” Within the first few paragraphs, each subsequent sentence should give a new and interesting nugget of information that makes your ideal candidate want to know more. Once you’ve crossed that 1-minute mark of reading time and really have their attention, you can then get into the details of the job—while still conveying the information in a compelling way.

Set the Tone

Writing a compelling job description has as much to do with how you describe the position as what the actual words you say. When hiring for a creative position, use a creative and compelling description. Are you hiring for a highly technical role? Be technical and precise in your language. Follow these best practices to set the tone for the candidate you seek.

Talk Like a Person

We mentioned earlier that use of keywords is important in your job listings—but that shouldn’t be at the expense of showing some personality. Sterile, robotic job descriptions convey a sterile and boring work environment, which won’t excite the candidates you want to hire!

As you write the first draft of the job description, think about how you would describe the position to a good friend. After reading your listing, the right candidate should feel personally connected to your company and like they’ve grasped the feeling of working with your team. Good grammar and a casual, friendly tone can go hand in hand!

Be Specific and Transparent

Remember that your goal with a job application is not to receive a huge volume of only somewhat qualified candidates, but rather a small pool of top-notch options. The more specific and transparent you can be in your job description, the more likely you will be to find the right candidates without wading through a sea of bad fits!

Be specific in the type of person you are seeking—both in terms of skill set and culture fit. While you don’t want to eliminate qualified candidates through supposed requirements that don’t actually matter, be clear about what kind of candidate will be the right fit for the job.

Avoid Unclear Language

In keeping with the goal of clarity and specificity, do your best to avoid vague adjectives like “sometimes” or “occasionally” that we tend to use in colloquial conversation. Even if timelines for certain responsibilities aren’t totally clear, terms like “monthly” or “quarterly” are more clear and will make the role seem more concrete. You can also achieve this goal by allocating an approximate percentage of time spent on different parts of a given job.

The same is true when conveying the skills needed for a position. Terms like “technically savvy” or “strong communicator” mean different things to different people, so you’re better off explaining the particular digital tools or communications requirements that you need. If you read something back and aren’t sure what it means, look for a more accurate descriptor.

Cut the Jumbled Jargon

Even within a very specific field, terminology can vary widely from company to company. If you use too much jargon, candidates might assume they’re unqualified for a role simply because you use a different term for a skill that they already have. Do your best to avoid abbreviations, slang terms, or any wording that might be off-putting to someone outside your organization who has yet to adapt to your company vocabulary. Every business has its own language to some degree, and your new hire will have plenty of time to learn your vernacular once the hiring process is complete!

Use Your Brand’s Style Guidelines

Just like any piece of marketing content, job descriptions are a form of external communication on behalf of your company. That means your listing should adhere to any and all brand style guidelines that your business maintains. You could follow the same language standards you use for marketing purposes and tailor your job description along those lines.

Give Some Background

In an ideal world, candidates would do their own research into a hiring company before completing an application. But in the fast-paced real world of recruiting top talent, the more company background you can concisely provide in your job description, the better your chances of receiving the high-quality submissions you’re looking for.

To set the scene for the available position, make sure you either directly relay or at least link to the following company background information within the body of your job description.

Your Mission

High-quality candidates want to know not only what their job will be but also how it fits into the bigger picture of your business. Clarify your organization’s mission within your job description, and do your best to show a clear connection between that mission and the responsibilities of the particular position.

Your Values

Top performers don’t want to work for just any company—they’re looking for businesses whose values and goals align with their own. The best potential hires want to know what your company stands for, why you do what you do, and what core beliefs you will never compromise. Ideally, the values you share are more than just a list of 10 buzzwords on a motivational poster in the breakroom; they should be clearly integrated into your company’s culture and relevant to the position you’re advertising.

Your Company Culture

On a day-to-day basis, what’s it like to work for your company? Your answer to this question can really define an applicant’s interest in a particular position, yet it’s a difficult one to get completely right. On the one hand, over-hyping trendy startup perks like ping pong tables or an open cereal bar can turn off older or more straight-laced applicants, but you also don’t want to portray your company as a soulless cubicle farm.

In our experience, your company’s culture is conveyed by the overall tone of your posting than through a bragging list of perks. Besides, you’re not looking for applicants whose greatest motivation is all-you-can-play ping pong! Focus on portraying the business as a warm and welcoming environment, then let applicants discover extra perks for themselves over the course of the interview process.

The Immediate Team

No one wants to get lost in the shuffle, which could happen if your business is in the midst of fast growth. So be sure to include some background on the team the position is for and how it fits within it. How many colleagues would the applicant be working with directly on a daily basis? How are projects assigned, and what is the opportunity for growth within the team?

You, of course, don’t need to answer every one of these questions within the initial job description—but providing context could put a friendlier face on the role and its place in the overall business.

Consult the Experts

Take a few minutes browsing through job listings on LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, SimplyHired, or any of the many job site out there, and play a little game. As you scan the listings, see if you can guess whether the job description you see was written by an outside recruiter or HR person, or by someone who is actually familiar with the role.

It’s painfully obvious, isn’t it?

There’s nothing worse than reading through a job description written by someone who seems to be guessing at the actual role! The listings all sound exactly the same, are full of buzzwords, and tell you very little about the job. And worst of all? They convey to savvy applicants that the position being advertised isn’t very important—that the person who gets this job will be just another cog in the wheel.

If you’re writing a job description for a role that you don’t know much about, it is absolutely critical that you do more than top-level research. Seek feedback from the following stakeholders—both before you write the job description and during the editing process—to make sure you’re sending the right message.

Outgoing Personnel

In an ideal world, the best place to learn what it takes to complete the job in question is directly from the source—the person being replaced in the role. This option is most often available when that person is either retiring or being promoted into a different role within the company. Of course, if the person vacating the position at hand has been let go or is leaving under difficult circumstances, they won’t necessarily be cooperative for an interview. But when circumstances allow, there is no one better suited to explain what the job entails—or even write the first draft of the job description.

Direct Supervisor

No person is better equipped to define success for any role than the direct supervisor for the position. After all, that’s the person who will be responsible for evaluating the chosen job seeker’s performance! Ask the direct supervisor what key performance indicators will be used to measure success in the position, as well as any quirks or soft skills that might factor into finding the right fit for the position.

That said, do watch for signs of unconscious bias with this conversation in particular. The direct supervisor will be particularly susceptible to letting their experience with previous employees color their description of the position. If they loved the last person who held the position, they might be narrowly focused on finding similar qualities in a new applicant that don’t actually tie into job performance. Or conversely, if the role was vacated by an employee who was let go, the direct supervisor’s list of what they don’t want could send your job description down the wrong path.

Interviewers

If a panel of colleagues, decision makers, or other outside influencers will be involved in the interview process, send a quick email to ask each interviewer what they’ll be looking for. Gauging the standards by which prospective candidates will be judged can help you write the best possible job description and get the right people in to interview from the beginning. This quick step can save you a lot of back and forth with candidates who aren’t likely to succeed.

Recent Hires

Even if they’re not directly involved with the role in question, checking in with your company’s recent hires after a few months on the job is a great way to find out what they wish they’d known before starting the interview process. Is there something obvious about the company’s culture or about their current position that would have been helpful from the outset?

Because these individuals have recently been through the experience of being onboarded at the company, they offer a unique perspective into how outside communication about their position met with the realities of the job.

Determine Role Requirements

Of course, every job descriptions needs to include the required skills and abilities of the position. That said, many recruiters make the mistake of failing to differentiate between true requirements of a role and “nice to have” preferences that aren’t necessarily critical to the position.

As you review the various categories of job expectations to include in your listing, be sure to differentiate between needs and wants to avoid deterring potentially great candidates.

Technical Skills

This section should focus on minimum qualifications that are clear and demonstrable—the types of skills that the candidates either have or they don’t, with very little room for disagreement. This typically applies to things like programming languages, use of a highly technical piece of software. Or experience writing communications in a particular format.

Remember, this area must delineate between needs and preferences! A laundry list of “necessary” skills that gives no insight into priority is a great way to weed out candidates through a requirement that is barely used in the day to day of the job.

Behavioral Competencies

Of course, not all the requirements of a given job are so clearly black and white. Things like an ability to work with people, show leadership, or collaborate with a team or soft skills that can’t necessarily be tested in a technical interview, but will be important for success in the role. Whenever possible, describe these behavioral competencies by giving examples of common scenarios within the role. This will help to ensure that you and your potential new hire have the same expectations for what these competency-based requirements really mean.

Teachable Tasks

Are there certain skills or software that could be easily trained once you have the right person in the role? If so, list these as “nice to haves” or even preferred skills, but don’t let them stand in the way of finding a candidate who checks every other box you could want. Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect candidate that assimilates into your team with zero training. Plan in advance for responsibilities that you are willing and able to train!

Skills vs. Experience

Far too many job descriptions cite the need for an arbitrary number of years of experience, when what really matters on a daily basis is an employee’s skill set for the job at hand. While experience is important, you don’t want an expectation for “5 years of experience” to weed out the perfect candidate who has only had four years in a similar position!

Instead of overly relying on the quantity of experience, focus on the quality of experience or past accomplishments. For example, you might request a portfolio of demonstrated experience completing a certain set of tasks—regardless of how many years the candidate spent honing that skill set.

Format for Success

We can’t say this enough. As hard as you work to write the perfect job description, remember that most job seekers are only giving a quick initial scan to your listings! They might be doing so from their mobile phone from the grocery store checkout line or from their tablet while catching up on a favorite TV show. That means short paragraphs, bullet points, and very organized formatting are essential to convey your message. Remember these formatting tips to make the most of your reader’s limited attention span.

Bullet Points

Make your job description quick and easy to skim by using bullet points within the responsibilities and qualifications sections—and anywhere else that makes sense.

Brevity

Conveying personality and being specific has to do with the quality of words you use—not the quantity. Depending on the complexity of the role, your job description should come in around 400-800 words, with 1,000 words being the high limit. Figure out what is essential, and trust that the rest will be revealed during the interview process. Remember that your job description is the first—not the only—point of contact.

Mobile Formatting

Have you ever been to a website from your mobile device that has hard-to-read print or looks like a total mess? Imagine your perfect candidate doing the same with your job description. They will move on within seconds and never come back! That’s why it’s essential to make sure your website and job descriptions are easily readable not only from your desktop computer but also on any size mobile device. Don’t overlook this simple but critical step!

Double Check the Details

Along with high-quality language and accurate descriptors, don’t leave out the basics from your job description! Before publishing the listing, double check that you’ve included the following important pieces of information.

Location

Yes, it sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many job descriptions skip this step. And what use is it to find a perfect candidate who happens to live three states away! Make it clear where your business is located, which location the position applies to (if your company has multiple locations), and whether the role is open to telecommuters or must be someone who comes into the office every day.

Salary Range

While not always appropriate, providing a salary range can help you to set the stage for negotiations and avoid wasted time. Particularly as job titles and hierarchies become less and less clear-cut, you can’t always assume that you and your ideal candidate will value a particular role at the same dollar amount. There is nothing more frustrating than following the process of finding the ideal candidate, only to learn at the end of the interview journey that you and your prospect are on a completely different page about salary expectations!

Submission Deadline

When will you be reviewing applications and making a selection? Make this clear in your job description to make sure that the candidates you want complete their submissions promptly. If you plan to accept applications on a rolling basis, set a deadline 2-3 weeks from when you post the position. You can always update the listing with an extended deadline later on!

Clear Application Instructions

The body of your job posting should include clear, concise instructions on how to apply that contain a specific call to action. This is particularly important when using job sites that have their own proprietary application channels. If you don’t plan to check submissions from outside aggregators, make that clear in the body of your job description. Along with making sure you see the submissions from your ideal hires, these instructions will help you to weed out applicants who show a lack of attention to detail.

Remember to Proofread

Would you be interested in a candidate who overlooks a glaring typo in their cover letter? Of course you wouldn’t—and neither will the best candidates for your available position. Take the time to review your job description carefully before submitting, even getting a second set of eyes on the document or using a service like Grammar.ly to check for spelling or syntax errors.

Has re-reading the same description hundreds of times already made your eyes glaze over? Try proofreading the text backwards—one sentence or even one phrase at a time from bottom to top—to save your brain from skimming over potential mistakes.

Share, Share, Share!

Your perfectly written job description is useless if no one ever sees it! Remember to use these avenues to get your listing in front of the right audience:

Job Recruitment Sites

Recruitment aggregators are the Google of the job search process. If your job description doesn’t appear in the job search engine your candidate is using, it doesn’t matter how well written it is! In addition to posting the job listing on your company’s website and social networks, use a listing aggregator like ZipRecruiter to make sure your job description shows up across major job sites like Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Indeed, SimplyHired, and more.

Employee Social Channels

In many cases, your best potential new hires may already be a part of your existing staff’s social or business networks. To maximize sharing potential, make sure to include social sharing buttons in the body of your job listing, and send an internal email to staff encouraging them to post the opening. Along with increased visibility, this gives you the added opportunity to screen applicants through the perspective of someone who already knows them well.

***

Does the process of writing the perfect job description sound more involved than you initially thought? Even if that is the case, remember that the work you do now will save you a lot of headache down the road. After all, the better written your initial job description is now, the more likely you will be to quickly find the quality candidates your business needs.

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
Meredith Wood

Meredith Wood

Editor-in-Chief at Fundera
Meredith is Editor-in-Chief at Fundera. Specializing in financial advice for small business owners, Meredith is a current and past contributor to Yahoo!, Amex OPEN Forum, Fox Business, SCORE, AllBusiness and more.
Meredith Wood

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