Ever see a dream job, but get completely overwhelmed by the billion dot points you have to address in your application?

You know, those ‘desired skills’ that read like seemingly generic word-salads?

Let’s take this Seek posting for a Work Health & Safety and Training Advisor as our base example. I picked something I knew would be brimming with inane jargon: look at that title alone!

We Asked A Career Expert How To Nail Those Long-Ass Criteria Selections(Image credit: Seek.com)

What do “excellent interpersonal and communication skills to work with all people at all levels” and being “committed work ethic with a desire to develop and grow your own knowledge and skills” even mean? How do you even answer that while sounding like a human?

For help, we’ve turned to Sydney-based corporate career and executive coach Eva McArdle for some hot tips. With over 20+ years of experience navigating the corporate world, Eva knows the mistakes you’re making before you even make them.

Before we start, it depends whether the job ad specifies: if it explicitly states you should submit a criteria selection, then you’ll need to hand in a cover letter, a resumé and a document where you break down your skills to each bullet point. Eva says that’s most common in government jobs. Otherwise you’ll need to address it all in your custom tailored cover letter. Oh, and while keeping it concise as possible. Whoa.

Let’s begin.

READING IS FUNDAMENTAL

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Eva says the number one mistake job seekers make is “not addressing all aspects of the criteria. Look back at the words.” Which, yeah, duh.

But most of us are guilty of giving the criteria just a quick gloss-over. It’s important to remember that each dot-point on that ad is there for a reason, and that HR probably spent considerable time working out the specific wording. Looking at that ad above, would you note the different wording of “committed work ethic” and “strong organisational skills”?

They’re asking you to show examples of a) going that extra mile and then b) being prepared. It’s obvious when you think about it, but it’s pretty easy to not think about it at all. For an astute hiring manager, that lack of thought is pretty telling of how’d you be as an employee.

Highlight the words used and try to tick them off. At the same time, be sure to not just regurgitate them back by saying “My committed work ethic and strong organisational skills make me perfect for this job”. Which takes us to Eva’s second point:

BE STRONG AND SPECIFIC

ImagePictured: you, breaking free of your current job.

While writing your responses, Eva says you should be asking yourself: “have I used positive and specific language in the examples?”.

“Avoid vague language such as “I was involved with developing company strategy.” Instead be specific: “I developed company’s communication strategy for external use following the launch of new products,” says Eva.

“Involved is to vague to use on a resumé…It could sound like you were just making coffee for the projects team. What exactly did you do?”

That means you should erase any passive language (“I managed X” vs. “Managing X, I did Y”) and give real examples. Stop waffling! Eva points towards the popular STAR structure: Situation, Task, Action, Result.

The rule of when you’re writing a resume is [explaining] what you did, how you did it and what was the business outcome,” she says.

It’s the slight difference between “I managed X for 2 years, implementing successful safety procedures…” and “Managing X for two years, I created new safety procedures including Y which reduced incidents by 40%.”

Likewise, be sure to trim down any middling terms like “attempt”or “tried”. Here’s not the time to describe struggles, even when overcome: those are better left to interviews. Here, you’re focusing on success down to the very wording: if there was an issue with safety, you should re-frame it in a result-focused way. Write “Incidents reduced 40% under my Y plan” not “Incidents dropped from 100 a year to 60 while I worked there”.

It seems small, but it adds an extra vibrancy, clarity and confidence that immediately lifts your applications up on the pile.

LEAN AND CLEAN IS SUPREME

Speaking of clarity, keep it lean. If you’re addressing the criteria in your cover letter, Eva recommends using dot points when you can to break it up.

While you might think your resumé and cover letter should build off each other, Eva knows a lot of the time only one document is actually looked at. Be sure to give context when necessary (say, your job title), because you can’t assume whoever’s reading will flip back-and-forth for reference. At the same time, be ruthless with your edits. The more concise, the better.

For clarity’s sake, try and wipe clean any company-specific jargon from your application. Refer to things by their publicly-known names and avoid acronyms just in case the reader isn’t across your hip use of corporate slang.

IT’S BUSINESS, BABY

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This point really ties it all together. Eva reminds you to “think of your resumé as a business case. It’s a business document first”. 

And while yes, it’s a business document about you, it’s also not your memoir. Eva’s wary of narrativising your career or life: while you want to create context, you probably should ease up on the emphasis on “I did this, I did that”.

Of course you have to talk about yourself, but it’s essential to keep tying it back to results. You wouldn’t submit a work brief without statistics or proof of what you’re saying, right?

Granted, this changes from job-to-job. If I was applying for a job as a writer at PEDESTRIAN.TV, for example, I probably wouldn’t break out the corporate talk. But I’m pretty sure you know the language your industry/potential employers speak. Now go fill in that cringe-inducing job application with confidence!

Image credit: Seinfeld/NBC

We Asked A Career Expert How To Nail Those Long-Ass Criteria Selections