How to Read Job Descriptions to Prepare Winning CVs & Cover Letters for Professional Positions in Academia

Oliver Drake

Oliver is recruitment specialist who specialise in recruiting to academic, research and university administration roles. Oliver has gained, over 20 year resourcing for the higher education in the UK and worldwide.

Reading Job Descriptions to figure out what a particular position requires is a skill which you will have to develop (or improve) if you are currently applying for professional positions in academia. It is important to know how to do it properly for two reasons. Firstly, unless you analyse a Job Description the right way you will never be sure whether you should apply for a particular position. Secondly, if you misread the Job Description you will fail to properly tailor your CV and Cover Letter to the position applied for, which will decrease your chances of getting invited for an interview. If you want to find out how to read and analyse Job Descriptions properly, check out this Example Job Description of the Random University for the position of Senior Admissions Administrator forwhich John Smith applied. This article will help you understand John’s thinking processes when he was analysing the Job Description as well as how he used the Job Description to prepare a winning CV and Cover Letter for the position.

What Job Descriptions are for

Reading through a Job Description for the first time can be quite scary. It can make you think that you don’t have enough skills for the position advertised or that you don’t meet some of the basic requirements of the job. But you shouldn’t get discouraged. Job Descriptions are there to describe an ideal candidate for the position who is perfect in all ways and who, well… probably doesn’t exist. Each candidate applying for the role will excel in some of the responsibilities specified in the Job Description, and they will not be sufficiently experienced in others. A Job Description is not a pass or fail type of a checklist. It is more of an invitation to negotiate, to see how many of the requirements you meet as a candidate compared to other candidates for the position. At the end of the day, the vast majority (if not all) candidates for the position will typically only meet around 70% of the requirements listed in the Job Description. The prospective employer will then invite for an interview the candidates whose combination of skills interests them the most. The bottom line is that you should not think twice about applying for a specific position if you meet around 70% of the core requirements of the role specified in the Job Description.

For example, when applying for the Senior Admissions Administrator role John analysed the Job Description carefully and understood that there were certain requirements which he did not meet. Point 9 of the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description specified that an ideal candidate should be able to use Blackboard and Livechat:

9. Dealing with a wide range of complex correspondence through a variety of means, such as Blackboard, Livechat and telephone.  

Although John has never used Blackboard (his previous university used a different student management system), he did not get discouraged because he understood that he can learn how the new system operates in no time. John also did not have much experience with using Livechat to respond to student enquiries. But since he is good with technology he was confident that he could easily develop the necessary skills to use the platform.

Similarly, because of his personal circumstances John wasn’t sure if he could meet the “Additional demands of the role”, particularly in relation to working long term in a different RU office from the one he applied to work in, since the other offices were much further away from his home:

  Additional demands of the role: You may be required (after consultation) to undertake similar and/or related duties in other RU offices elsewhere in London, on an on-going i.e. long term, interim or strictly temporary basis, in accordance with the prevailing operational requirements as determined by the relevant Director of Student Services or their acknowledged nominee.

But John still applied for the position and instead successfully negotiated during the interview that if he was indeed required to work at a different RU office, it would be for a period no longer than 2 months. Thanks to this approach John is now happily working as a Senior Admissions Administrator at the Random University – which would not have been possible if he had thought that he must fulfil 100% of the requirements listed in the “Additional demands of the role” section of the Job Description before applying.

Analysing the “Responsibilities” section

The “Responsibilities” section of a Job Description could probably be considered as the heart of it because it tells you exactly what the job is about and allows you to judge whether you want to do it in the first place. This section typically consists of clear, factual statements about the day-to-day duties that the candidate would have to perform in a particular position. Unless you are applying for an entry-level position, you should have experience in performing approximately 70% of those duties, and feel that you are able to quickly learn how to deal with the remaining 30% of tasks. Once you have decided that this is the case, you need to make sure that your CV and Cover Letter reflect the “Responsibilities” listed in the Job Description. Here’s how you can do that.

How to tailor your CV to the “Responsibilities” section

Tailoring your CV to the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description is quite easy. If you have the right experience for the role, all you need to do is make sure that the duties which you list in bullet points under various positions in your CV are worded in the same words as the responsibilities listed in the Job Description. This will help your prospective employer to perceive your CV as matching the Job Description, because they will not have to analyse whether what they called “Answering phone calls” in their Job Description matches the duty of “Serving as the main point of contact” in your CV. Let’s take the example of John again.

In the Job Description provided by the Random University John spotted point 4 which mentioned “Preparing papers relating to more complex applications for referral”:

  Preparing papers relating to more complex applications for referral to the Head of the Student Admissions Department or the relevant Programme Director for consideration.  

John used to perform this task regularly in his previous position, but in his CV he usually phrased it in a slightly different way:

Admissions Administrator, University of Leeds | September 2017 – August 2020   Supporting more senior colleagues in dealing with complex admissions casesAssessing UCAS applications in a timely manner using a range of provided criteriaVerifying the authenticity of results for incoming applicationsActing as first point of contact for prospective studentsSupporting senior colleagues in liaising with various university departmentsConducting basic checks to ensure that university procedures are followed  

There is nothing wrong with how John described this duty in his CV. But when scanning through his CV the recruiter from the Random University would not be able to easily tell what John’s exact involvement was in dealing with those “complex admissions cases”. For example, they wouldn’t be able to tell whether John was preparing the whole documentation by himself (which is what they require), or if he was merely conducting some minor checks for other colleagues who were preparing the documentation. This is why it is crucial that the wording of the “Responsibilities” section in the Job Description and the duties described under individual positions in your CV match.

How to tailor your Cover Letter to the “Responsibilities” section

The same rule in terms of the matching wording applies to Cover Letters. But there are also other things which you need to consider when tailoring your Cover Letter to a specific Job Description. First, let’s set some things straight. There are many examples of Cover Letters which contain just a few sentences and are treated more as a brief message accompanying the submitted CV. If you treat your Cover Letter as a mere formality, you are missing out on a very good opportunity to sell your skills to your prospective employer and show them that you really want the job. A winning Cover Letter should be one or one and a half pages long, and it should describe why and how you meet the requirements of the job. One of the paragraphs in your Cover Letter should be devoted specifically to the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description. It is your opportunity to show that you are experienced in dealing with the specific tasks required of the candidate. You will not have enough space to discuss all the responsibilities listed in the Job Description, because your Cover Letter would end up being around three to four pages long. Instead, you should choose around four key responsibilities and focus on discussing them in your Cover Letter. For example, here are the responsibilities which John decided to include in his Cover Letter:

Assessing the eligibility of applicants for admission to a range of undergraduate/postgraduate degrees/diplomas based on the specific entrance requirements of the qualifications.Ensuring that all applicants who are given an offer of registration to the undergraduate/postgraduate programmes satisfy the University’s entrance requirements.Ensuring that any advice given to the applicant is complete, relevant to their needs and in accordance with programme regulations.Preparing papers relating to more complex applications for referral to the Head of the Student Admissions Department or the relevant Programme Director for consideration.Preparing letters to applicants to advise of the outcome of applications.Requesting and verifying the statutory, academic and other documentation submitted in support of applications, such as the applicant’s CV, references and grade transcripts.Processing discretionary accreditation of prior learning (APL) requests.Following up on outstanding documentation for prospective and registered students.Dealing with a wide range of complex correspondence through a variety of means, such as Blackboard, Livechat and telephone.Attending the APPR meetings as and when required and ensuring relevant statistics are provided at the meetings.Actively following and promoting the Random University’s policies, including the University’s Dignity at Work and Equal Opportunities Policy.Maintaining an awareness and observation of fire and health and safety regulations.

John has in the past performed the responsibilities listed in points 1, 5 and 6 above, so he had very good examples to provide in relation to each point. For instance, here is how he discussed in his Cover Letter the duty of “Preparing letters to applicants to advise of the outcome of applications” listed in point 5 of the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description:

According to the Job Description you are looking for a person who will be able to prepare letters to applicants to advise of the outcome of applications. During my time with my previous employer I have independently handled over 5-10 response letters to students per week, including answering any follow up enquiries from students. As a result, I am familiar with the need to follow the appropriate procedures when advising students on the outcome of their applications as well as adopting a supportive yet formal tone when drafting the letters.

In case there are certain duties listed in the “Responsibilities” section which you did not perform in the past, your Cover Letter is an opportunity to explain why you believe you could easily take on those duties. For example, as we have established earlier John has never worked with Blackboard – the student management system used by the Random University listed in point 9 of the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description. Here is how he addressed this shortcoming in his Cover Letter:

The Job Description specified that an ideal candidate would have to be working regularly with Blackboard. Although I do not have experience with Blackboard specifically, I have worked with several other student management systems, e.g. Moodle. Moreover, as a tech-savvy person, I am confident that I would be able to quickly learn my way around Blackboard to use it effectively and efficiently.

By addressing his lack of experience with Blackboard in his Cover Letter John showed to his prospective employer that he is fully capable of performing well in the position of Senior Admissions Administrator, despite any shortcomings in terms of his exposure to the specific technologies used by the Random University.

Analysing the “Person Specification” criteria

Just like with the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description, the “Person Specification” describes the attitude and characteristics of an ideal candidate for the position. The difference between them is that the “Person Specification” section is usually much more generic and related to your soft skills, that is skills which you could have developed in various aspects of your professional and personal life rather than purely through your previous work experience. As with the responsibilities of the position, you should not get discouraged from applying if there are certain skills mentioned in the “Person Specification” section which you believe you haven’t developed yet that much. Remember that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Your prospective employer is not looking to find a candidate who matches all the criteria of the “Person Specification”. They are merely looking for someone whose combination of strengths and weaknesses will match their working environment well. So, your job when reading and analysing the “Person Specification” criteria is to try to select around four characteristics which you believe are your strengths. Once you do that, you should use them to your advantage in your Cover Letter.

How to tailor your Cover Letter to the “Person Specification” section

As with the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description, once you have selected the four key characteristics mentioned in the “Person Specification” section, you should explain to your prospective employer in your Cover Letter why you believe you have those characteristics. You should especially do that by using specific examples from your professional life – even if they are not strictly related to the duties which you performed in your previous positions. For example, John selected as one of his strong sides the following quality listed as “Essential” in the “Person Specification”:

Person Specification
EXPERIENCE & PERSONAL QUALITIES Essential: elf-motivated with a demonstrable sense of responsibility and personal commitment to the maintenance of the required high standards of service.

He then decided to mention the professional trainings which he undertook out of his own initiative to illustrate that he is indeed self-motivated and committed to maintaining high standards of service:

I understand that you are looking for a person who is self-motivated, responsible and committed to maintaining high standards of service. I have repeatedly demonstrated those skills by actively seeking to undertake various professional trainings, such as the training on Effective Administration in Higher Education or the training on Data Protection in Higher Education – both of which I attended this year. I strongly believe in constantly developing my skills so that I can continue to perform my work duties while exceeding the expectations of my employer.

By including specific examples of actions – just like the example above – John managed to convince his prospective employer that he does indeed have the characteristics and skills listed in the “Person Specification” section of the Job Description.

Further resources:

Michael Harrison, How to Get Hired: An Insider’s Guide to Applications, Interviews and Getting the Job of Your Dreams (Independently Published, 2018)

John Lees, How to Get a Job You Love 2019 (McGraw-Hill Education, 2018)

Rogier Creemers, A Machiavellian guide to getting ahead in academia (Times Higher Education, 21 December 2017):

Hannah Alpert-Abrams, How to apply for academic jobs in 2020 (Medium, 21 May 2020):

Jack Kelly, How To Really Read A Job Description Advertisement (Forbes, 18 March 2018):

Heather Huhman, Tricky, Tricky: How to Read Between the Lines of A Job Description (Glassdoor, 16 December 2016):

Emily Moore, How to Customize Your Resume for Each Job You Apply to (Glassdoor, 26 February 2018):

Jon Simmons, How to decipher a job description to improve your chances of getting hired (Monster, 2020):

Darlene Jeanty, How to Interpret a Job Description (Jopwell, 1 July 2019):

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