Job ads – how to understand what an employer wants and nail your application

nail job application

Have you ever browsed job advertisements in the paper or online only to find that they make you feel discouraged? You're not alone. Many people looking for jobs find the search process scary – but it doesn't have to be so complicated.

Your ability to understand the job advertisement and description is the key to unlocking the door to get the job you want. When you understand the job you can tailor your application and how you present your skills, attributes and experiences so that it matches what employers are looking for.

The job ad vs. the job description

The aim of the job ad is to grab attention and make the position seem attractive to a lot of quality candidates.

Job ads usually follow a similar order, with the most important aspects of the job at the beginning and the least important at the end. Knowing this will help you figure out the employer's priorities so you can present your profile to match.

The job description, on the other hand, will describe the actual role – the main tasks, important skills and what you will bring to the business.

For example, where the job ad says "needs to be a strong communicator", the job description may outline the specific responsibilities that require good communication skills – like being able to deal with difficult customers.

Lee Brodie, careers advisor and founder of Career Dynamic, says, "A job description is the outcome of sound job analysis. It's a written document that clearly defines the most important aspects of the role. A concise, well-written job description forms the basis of the job ad, interview and subsequent job development processes.

"Always get your hands on the job description before applying for a job. It will help you build a clearer image of the employer's ideal candidate and help to clarify any jargon in the ad. It will also provide context around how the role fits into the organisation."

Try not to get intimidated by a wordy or technical job description. If you're struggling to understand it, remember the main parts of the job will be summarised in the ad.

Don't have all the skills or experience? Don't worry… 

The mandatory skills section of the ad often discourages candidates. Don't be put off applying for a job if you don't tick all the boxes – most other candidates won't either.

Pat Cody, careers advisor for Careers New Zealand, says, "The mandatory skills section isn't as scary as you think – you just need to understand what skills you bring to the table and apply as many of those as you can. If you aren't quite sure if you have a certain skill set there are many ways you can self-assess. The most helpful is actually talking to people.

"If you've had previous jobs, ask colleagues to remind you what your strengths and capabilities are. Another good option is to look at old performance reviews or job descriptions. If you get stuck, you can always call a careers advisor at Careers New Zealand for some guidance."

You also need to determine whether or not you're a good fit for the organisation that is advertising the role. Do some research into the business to see if it's actually somewhere you'd like to work.

Pat Cody, Careers Advisor

While it's important to know which skills you have to offer, you should also invest time into thinking about your interests. Guide your decision making by figuring out the skills that you want to use in your career. This will help you understand the kinds of jobs that best suit you.

Selling yourself and the importance of personal attributes

A good employer will recognise that most people have potential. Cody explains that they're not just looking for what you can do but also what you will do: "When it comes to applying for a job you need to show the employer what value you'll add to the business and the problem you'll solve for them. How you fit into the culture of the business is a crucial consideration. If a candidate ticks all the boxes from a qualifications and experience perspective but is difficult to work with, it can cause all kinds of problems for a business. So highlighting your personal attributes is a really important part of the application process."

Many job seekers struggle with how to work personal qualities into a job application. Cody explains, "Saying 'I'm motivated' doesn’t mean much to an employer unless you can back it up with some evidence. A far stronger statement would be, 'I'm a highly motivated person – as captain of the school soccer team I had to be focused and ensure players were on their game at all times'."

Some highly sought-after personal attributes include:

  • honesty
  • ability to learn on the job
  • manners and courtesy
  • sense of humour
  • positive attitude
  • self-confidence
  • personal presentation
  • responsibility
  • self-management
  • motivation.

The skills you don’t even know you have

Each advertised role may have a list of very specific essential skills but employers are also interested in a number of generic skills that can be gained in almost all aspects of life, such as:

  • communication skills – verbal and written
  • computing skills
  • ability to work as part of a team
  • ability to critically analyse information
  • ability to rationally solve problems
  • creativity
  • flexibility
  • leadership.

Like with personal attributes, think about ways you can demonstrate these generic skills both at work and home. For example, you may be able to demonstrate your communication skills through your understanding of social media, or your role in a community group might demonstrate flexibility and teamwork.

Pat Cody, Careers Advisor

If you think you've got what it takes, prove it!

Your CV and cover letter are the first and possibly the last impression you'll make when applying for a job. You have to sell yourself in a way that is carefully tailored to the role and covers every aspect of the job description.

Your letter needs to be to the point and directly relate to the employer's needs. Remember the important parts are usually at the beginning of the ad, so you should match this in your letter. Don't waffle: short stories about your skills and attributes should be less than 2.5 lines each, and keep your cover letter to less than one page. 

Find out more


  • Career Dynamic website, accessed June 2016, (
  • Brodie, L, careers advisor, Career Dynamic, interview May 2016.
  • Cody, P, careers advisor, Careers New Zealand, interview May 2016.