Are you trying to hire students fresh out of college?
If so, that’s wonderful! We really appreciate it. I’ve applied to a lot of jobs over the past few months, and most companies I spoke to made me feel welcome and appreciated.
However, there are a few strange flaws I see in a lot of job postings. These aren’t just my pet peeves: I’ve also heard a complaints from many other students. And when a student has hundreds of jobs they could be applying for, a good job posting often makes the difference between keeping them on the hook and losing them in the wide sea of capitalism.
To help companies improve their hiring, I’ve written this quick guide to writing job postings for students. Some of this might be relevant to other job postings. Take what you like, leave what you don’t.
Context: As I write this, I’m a senior at Yale, studying cognitive science and effective writing. I’m looking for jobs in fields like marketing, consulting, and project management. I spent some time working in a recruiting agency, and for some reason, I really enjoy reading job listings.
This advice is written partly from my perspective and partly from the imagined perspective of the “average busy college student”, who is taking six classes and working in a lab and applying for jobs late at night. This person does not have time to mess around.
I’ll start with some examples of bad job listings, then explain some common mistakes and how to fix them. If you find any of this useful (or terrible), let me know!
Of course, I’m not the first person to write about this stuff, and others have done it better. If you’d like to read the best articles I’ve seen on writing job postings, jump to the references.
Quotes From Two Pages of Yale’s Career Site
Before writing this, I looked at 30 jobs posted on Yale’s career site. Here are a few of the passages that were especially interesting:
The ability to communicate with others and work in small groups is a must; independent problem solving skills and a self-sufficient work style are equally important.
Darn! I don’t know how to communicate with others or solve problems. Guess I won’t apply! It’s a good thing this job carefully filters out people like me.
The right candidate will have a “get it done” mentality.
You know, I’ve never really thought about what kind of mentality I have. I wonder which companies prefer people with a “do nothing” mentality?
– Excellent analytical skills and the ability to apply them to diverse challenges
– Fast learner able to overcome challenges in creative ways
– Extraordinary written and verbal communication skills
Gertler’s Law of Job Postings: “Never ask for qualifications that no applicant will admit they don’t have.”
Picture someone reading this, and thinking: “I’m a slow learner. I suppose I’ll pass.” It will never happen.
The cost of living in Tokyo is often surprisingly reasonable.
My estimate for the cost of living in Tokyo is now roughly double what it would have been without this sentence. Having an actual number in front of my face would be much better than trying to figure out “surprisingly reasonable”.
Actually, I just went and looked up “cost of living Tokyo vs. NYC” and found that Tokyo is, on average, 15% cheaper. That would be a great sentence to put in this job listing!
This is far from a nine-to-five role; we go above and beyond to get the job done!
Can you please tell me how many hours I will be working for the next few years of my life? Knowing that the answer is “not forty” doesn’t help me narrow things down.
– Great GPA
What kind of GPA is “great”? Am I going to spend an hour clicking through your application site and writing a cover letter and then have my resume thrown away by a robot because I’m below the limit?
Technical Consultant: Delivering Planisware PPM Software Solutions
In this high-profile, customer-facing role, you will regularly interface with client-side stakeholders to address complex organization-specific business process needs and provide robust technical solutions using the Planisware tool.
Planisware: When you go out drinking after work and an attractive stranger asks you what you do for a living, is this what you would tell them? Or would you at least tell them what Planisware is, using verbs that actually apply to human beings?
That is to say: What does your company actually do? I spent a few minutes on your website and I’m still not sure. Please help.
Join the team of Technical Consultants and you will become:
– A Technical Ace, developing and enhancing code to address complex, client-specific technical challenges.
– A Business Consultant, leading workshops and providing expertise to guide the client to the optimal solution.
– A Well-Rounded Project Manager, working on a myriad of diverse implementations with far-reaching implications.
– A Valued Colleague, sharing fun and laughs with your new Planisware family.
I’m sorry to pick on you like this, Planisware. We’ve never met, and I truly believe that you are excellent at whatever it is that you do. But it is because I respect you that I must say:
The phrase “Valued Colleague”, with two capital letters, makes me feel as though I will be working inside of a beige cube with no windows or doors.
And finally, this gem from a Harvard-affiliated medical center:
Reporting to the Technology Solutions Director, this individual is responsible for identification and implementation of cross functional process improvements that will have a demonstrable bottom line impact and maintain or enhance customer satisfaction. This position will be critical to support corporate goals associated with administrative cost savings and operational efficiencies as defined by senior leadership. The position will be responsible for identifying and implementing cost-effective solutions to meet the business goals of the organization.
You probably noticed some common factors in the applications above. Is your company making these mistakes when it tries to hire students? (Or non-students, for that matter?)
1. Not emphasizing the most important qualifications
I’ve seen many listings that start off by saying: “We are a wonderful company and will hire almost anyone! All you need is passion, grit, and love for your fellow man!”
…and then, two pages later, in the very last bullet point: “Also, you must be fluent in German.”
Somewhere, thousands of students are sighing and clicking “exit” on your application.
Hundreds more are eagerly submitting resumes that do not mention German, because they did not read that far. Discarding those resumes will cost you time and money.
And if you discard resumes that don’t use the word “German”, you’ll also throw out some German-speakers who didn’t spot the requirement!
The solution: Place job requirements in order from “specific and narrow” to “least specific and narrow”.
Specific and narrow requirements would include things like “authorized to work in the U.S.”, “speaks Spanish”, and “knows what a ‘hash table’ is without having to Google it”.
Fuzzy requirements, like “good problem-solver”, should be placed at the end — or left out completely.
Corollary to Gertler’s Law of Job Postings: Nobody thinks of themselves as a bad problem-solver.
2. Asking for a “cover letter”, full stop.
The people who read cover letters at your company are human beings, and like any human being, they have preferences:
- Things they like knowing about candidates
- Things they don’t care about
- An amount of time they are willing to spend on each individual application
According to Marc Cenedella, cover letters should be 2-3 paragraphs long. But Yale’s career center recommends 4-5 paragraphs, and most students I know follow that advice. Two extra paragraphs times two hundred applicants is a lot of work.
The solution: By specifying a length (probably a maximum word count), and exactly what information your company wants, you save time for yourself and your applicants. Plus, it will be much easier to tell when people submit a form cover letter without reading the instructions.
3. Vague discussion of important issues
“You will receive a living stipend.” That statement gives a job-seeker almost no information. How much is a “stipend”? Will they be able to save money? Will they have to pull money from their savings to make it through the year?
Instead, why not say something like: “You’ll make enough to rent an apartment, eat well, and go out sometimes on the weekends”?
Or, better yet, say: “You’ll make $35,000 in the first year”? Obviously, you won’t always be in a position to disclose an exact amount, but every company on AngelList provides a salary range, and it doesn’t seem to hurt their chances of hiring good people.
Same goes for “work-life balance is a priority”. Every company says this, and they all mean something different. If the average employee works 45 hours a week, say that. And if you’re afraid people won’t see your company as “exciting” if you talk about working hours, mention the cool stuff your employees get up to when the work is done.
Mine is a cynical generation. Given ambiguous information, we will assume the worst. Don’t let that happen to your company.
3. Using very silly titles for serious work.
If you’d like to hire an excellent programmer, say: “We’d like to hire an excellent programmer who has distinguished themselves through traits X and Y, and accomplishment Z.” Do not say: “We’d like to hire a rockstar hacker ninja who pounds the keyboard late into the night.” Y Combinator explains this better than I can.
This doesn’t mean your company can’t be light-hearted or funny in a job posting — but don’t let it get in the way of divulging valuable information (and keep in mind that many talented people don’t think of themselves as “rockstars”).
Thanks for reading this far! In the follow-up post, I give some positive advice on how to write a job description students will love.
Advanced tactics for finding the RIGHT candidates (my favorite line: “If half the people reading the job description can imagine themselves to be qualified, your inbox will be full within hours.”)